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Digital Rights and Dismal Governments - Senator Scott Ludlam

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Scott Ludlam 4 Mar 2014

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (16:37):  

The subject of transparency and accountability is one that is very close to my heart.

This is a government that is largely following, I acknowledge, in the footsteps of the previous government and the one before that in getting the balance between transparency and privacy deliberately and profoundly wrong. I will speak of transparency first and accountability later. It is this government that has perfected the asymmetry in which the state is steadily withdrawing behind a curtain of national security-which means whatever the Attorney General says it means.



I understand national security to mean protection from threats of organised violence or other forms of serious harm from state or non-state actors.

To most people, national security does not include spying on the Timorese government with the aim of strengthening the hand of Australian gas corporations. 

It does not include stoking fear of refugees fleeing war and violence in our region. National security has nothing to do with Occupy Melbourne, climate change campaigners, the trade union movement, farmers locking the gate, or the publication of material in the public interest by working journalists, whether they be at The Guardian, the ABC, or the WikiLeaks organisation. National security has nothing, in fact, to do with the all-out assault on privacy undertaken by the US NSA and its partner organisations, including those here in Australia.

Senator Brandis, as the first law officer of this country, is the most dismal exponent of hiding behind fluid and ambiguous definitions of national security in order to shroud the ordinary operations of government in secrecy. One half of this agenda, demanded with numbing repetition by the same familiar faces in the Attorney General's Department, is massive transparency for ordinary people: data retention schemes and ubiquitous warrantless surveillance-to the extent that we are now seeing more than 300,000 rubber-stamped data requests every single year.

The other half of the agenda is maximum secrecy around the operation of government. Whether it is Minister Scott Morrison hiding behind the uniforms of the Royal Australian Navy or Senator Brandis's smug refusal to inform the Australian public why he insists on calling Edward Snowden a traitor, we can see an entrenched pattern of behaviour. It is about secrecy for government but transparency for everyone else.

It was the cypherpunks who first pointed out this tension between privacy and transparency, as long ago as the early 1990s, as well as the degree to which governments and corporations were deliberately and systematically engaged in tipping the balance in the direction of authoritarianism. Ordinary people have a right to privacy; governments have an obligation of transparency.

I have a copy here of 1984. It was written by George Orwell in the year 1948 and published in 1949. It is a vividly realised dystopia in which the surveillance state has become completely ubiquitous. Here is a short passage from early in this profoundly important and disturbing novel:

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live-did live, from habit that became instinct-in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

I guess we can forgive Mr Orwell for not foreseeing the advent of cameras that see in the infra-red spectrum. So now there is not necessarily any privacy even in darkness. Ordinary people have a right to privacy and governments have an obligation of transparency. I am sending a copy of this book to Senator Brandis to help fill out his brand-new $15,000 bookshelf. 

The book was intended as a warning, not an instruction manual. Let us hope, when it finds pride of place on his $15,000 bookcase, that he eventually gets around to reading it.

I said I would get to the subject of accountability. 

This government thought they would not be accountable until the 2016 general election, so they set about doing all the revolting stuff straightaway, presumably in order to spend the next year or two talking about tax cuts. But it has all come unstuck, which perhaps accounts for the deer-in-the-headlights stares of Liberal senators these last few weeks. They are going to be held accountable now, in a matter of only a few weeks, when Western Australian voters determine the final balance of numbers in this, the Australian Senate. 

I will do what I can to ensure that, when people go to the polls in WA, the drive towards secrecy in government-and the annihilation of privacy for everyone else-is thrown sharply into reverse.


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