Help! I think I’m turning Democrat!

I’ve been regularly monitoring opposition and minor party media releases over the last fortnight or so. That’s the sort of boring person I am, sadly. But it’s brought me to a few conclusions I think are important, and I’m going to share them with you. One specific issue and a couple of more general thoughts.

Here’s what the lovely Natasha Stock Destroyer says about a current government Bill I’d never previously heard about:

During debate in the committee stage of the Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill today, Senator Ellison claimed that “If a person never knows that they have been discriminated against and this is across the board they cannot bring the action”.

“This is just one example of the profound impact on the privacy of Australians that will result from the passing of this bill,” Democrats’ Attorney-Generals and Privacy Spokesperson Senator Natasha Stott Despoja said.

“Under this legislation, innocent third parties will be able to have their phone calls intercepted and may never know about it.

“Conversations between a person and their lawyer, their doctor, their religious leader or their Member of Parliament can now be intercepted with no consideration for professional privilege.

“Commonwealth and State bodies like the ATO, ASIC and Customs will now be able to access all emails, voicemail messages and SMS messages that a person has kept, and they may never know that their messages have been read or listened to. These are unprecedented powers.

The Bill has received little or no media attention as far as I know. It occurs to me that the tunnel vision focus on AWB and Howard’s IR reforms, by both the mainstream media and federal ALP, isn’t doing the rest of us any favours. Here’s what the NSW Council of Civil Liberties has to say (according to the Parliamentary Library Bills Digest):

This is the first time ever in Australia’s history that we see the police being given the power to tap the phones of people who are not suspects, who are innocent people and just people who happen to be in contact with someone, likely to be in contact with someone who’s a criminal. And it massively expands police surveillance and it’s directly targeted against innocent people who are doing nothing wrong.

What, me worry?” (to quote the great Alfred E Newman). The Council of Civil Liberties puts the issue in context:

Recently released figures show that telephone wiretapping by government agencies in Australia (including the police) continues to grow. Not only does Australia issue 75% more telecommunications interception warrants than the US, but per capita Australia issues 26 times more warrants than the US. In Australia non-judges issue 76% of all warrants, whereas in the US only judges can issue warrants.

In the twelve months 2003/2004 there were 3028 warrants issued in Australia. In the twelve months of 2004, US courts issued 1710 warrants. Adjusting for population, Australia intercepts telephone communications 26 times more per capita than the United States.

Worryingly, the numbers are way up on figures only two years ago. In 2001 there were more than 2150 warrants issued in Australia, compared with only 1490 warrants issued in the United States of America. Australia intercepted telephone communications 20 times more per capita than the United States. …

In Australia it is illegal to intercept telecommunications without a warrant. However, these warrants can be issued by people other than judges. Members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (‘AAT’) who have been lawyers for more than five years can be nominated (by the government) to issue warrants. In the reporting year 2003/2004, the vast majority of warrants (76%) were not issued by judges, but by members of the AAT.

AAT members do not have tenure, are appointed by the government and work on contract. This means that AAT members are more likely to do the government’s bidding than a judge, which explains why most warrants are issued by non-judges.

Attorney-General Phil the Mortician argues that the comparative figures aren’t as appalling as they look, because US warrants can cover multiple interceptions and quite a few interceptions aren’t even reported at all! But even making due allowance for those factors, you’d have to be extraordinarily complacent not to wonder to what extent Australians’ basic freedoms are being eroded without our even knowing about it. I mean, I know it’s not a barbecue stopper, but it bloody well should be.

Why has this issue received almost no coverage in the MSM? Or the blogosphere? The latter point underlines the extent to which we bloggers are parasitic, or at least symbiotic, on the MSM. Almost without exception, we only focus on issues that the MSM has first brought to our attention. Australia sorely needs alternative news outlets (besides Crikey) to ensure that important issues don’t fall through the cracks in public attention span simply because it doesn’t suit the big media proprietors to highlight them.

The other thing I got from reading all those endless media releases was a warm and fuzzy feeling about the Australian Democrats. I’ve been fairly scathing about the Dems’ slow motion self-destruction over the last 2 or 3 years, and they’ve certainly lurched quite a long way to the left of where I mostly sit on the political spectrum. But what emerges strongly from the media releases is that the Dems are the only opposition party that is actually consistently performing the critical, fundamental hard slog task of carefully analysing and critiquing government legislation. The ALP is a dead loss in this regard, at least judging from its media releases, and the Greens are idiosyncratic and off with the fairies.

It would be a major tragedy for Australian democracy if the Dems cease to exist as a political force, as presently seems likely. They really are still in there “keeping the bastards honest”, as Don Chipp put it. Why have they stopped reminding people of that fact? I’m thinking I might actually vote for them next time, even hand out how to vote cards. Help! I think I’m turning Democrat!

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Cameron Riley
18 years ago

The Democrats stand alone in having policies based on good governance. They have the most reasonable platform on these issues of any party. It is a shame these get lost in the more sensationalist statist stuff. I have argued in the past that the Democrats should trim their message down.

I agree that bloggers should produce more primary material and act more as journalists or news-breakers. Since I have been going through the publications that government bodies put out, like the ABS etc, I have realised that much of the reporting in the SMH and so forth is just a couple of paragraphs on a report that the government department has released with two extreme quotes on it. Usually one from each extreme end of the aisle on the issue.

The mass media is a very efficient trolling machine. Which is probably why most blogs are dedicated to getting upset over Miranda Devine or Clive Hamilton.

18 years ago

Ken, this phone tapping issue has received smallish but fairly regular press, including a bit of a chat on it with Ruddock on Lateline some short while ago (I think, tho could have been 7.30 Report). If I get a moment I’ll try to hunt down the link. Usually mention of it is as part of a wider reference to ‘anti’ terror laws in general.

It’s important you have chosen to bring it to light on the ‘sphere.

Sadly, Australians showing or speaking little concern for these developments seems to be part of this disconcerting “she’ll be right” attitude. Or perhaps those who are concerned are put off by a touch of fear and don’t comment. Or perhaps some have swallowed the Government line and consider it a good thing, blind to the moment and true perspective, and inching along this slowly slowly catchy monkey game our PM plays so well.

Where will it all end up, this whole sad shebaninigan?

Andrew Bartlett
Andrew Bartlett
18 years ago

Not surprisingly, I agree with the points Ken has made – not just about the Democrats but the real problem in getting much media or public attention given to any issue other than the one or two that are deemed to be controversial or ‘important’ at any given time.

Not only does it mean people are unaware of planned laws that can affect them directly and significantly. It also creates a strong disincentive for politicians and advocates to put energy into issues that don’t get any attention, or putting time into examining the detail of proposed legislation rather than just acting as a propogandist for whatever simplistic position will have the best chance of getting media attention/votes.

I did a post on my blog at the start of this week about the (then) upcoming telecommunications interception bill – click here to read it.

18 years ago

And here’s another major issue that has passed through both houses of federal parliament reasonably quietly, with the only opposition coming from the Democrats and the Greens.

Nicholas Gruen
18 years ago

The way in which the Democrats were belittled within ALP circles at the time the ALP was in Government always irked me. It always struck me as a kind of philistinism. The Democrats in the Senate limited the ALP Govt’s freedom of action very often (though obviously enough not always) in useful ways. They were good at playing the political game, which involved them at times in making their points in simplistic ways and sometimes with simplistic policy measures and amendments.

But that’s politics. Its not as if the other parties are immune from these foibles. Their commitment not to block supply was born in a post 1975 climate and made political sense then. But it was one of their lasting and most valuable legacies that they stayed true to that idea.

They remained a pretty principled bunch. Even where the imperatives of politics are to big note yourself, the Dems got by by small noting themselves. In particular they assiduously stuck to the line that they were there to moderate Government, not to obstruct it, and I think they did that well. The political imperative is not to do this, but to make as big a splash and to wield as much power as possible.

Ironically it was their attempt to do this with the GST helped along a couple of years later by the personal vanity of Meg Lees and Andrew Murray that led to their disintegration.