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When an opposition votes for bad laws, democracy is broken

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Labor failed to prevent the Assistance and Access Bill from being passed, which has hurt free press and democracy (Image by Dan Jensen)

Australia's steady pace towards becoming a police state isn't being hindered by the Labor Opposition, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

THE RECENT Australian Federal Police raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the ABC have refocused attention on the controversial Assistance and Access Bill passed by the Federal Parliament in December 2018, without any of the safeguards initially proposed by the Labor Opposition.

The Bill gave law enforcement agencies unprecedented powers to secretly obtain evidence directly from a device, causing Greens digital rights spokesman Jordon Steele-John to observe:

“… any individual – whether that be a politician or journalist – who uses encrypted messaging services to ensure the privacy of their sources, or the privilege of their policy discussions, should feel threatened by this Bill’s potential unintended consequences.”

Labor withdrew its amendments in the Senate in order to enable the unhindered passage of the Bill on the final sitting day of Parliament. Then Opposition Leader Bill Shorten revealed that Labor had agreed to pass the laws on the proviso that the Coalition agreed to make changes in the new year. No such changes have been addressed or discussed as of June 2019. Labor also implied it would revisit the new legislation should it win government.

The notion of passing dangerously repressive legislation in the hope of amending it if and when your party attains government is reckless beyond belief, as is expecting that a Government that has achieved the increased surveillance and control it desired will have the slightest interest in relinquishing those powers.

As the Law Council of Australia observed at the time:

“We now have a situation where unprecedented powers to access encrypted communications are now law, even though the Parliament knows serious problems exist.”

ABC journalist Laura Tingle points out here that the AFP raids are the consequence of ‘a mindset, and a legal regime, that has snuck up on most Australians, largely under the cover of “keeping us safe” from terrorism’. Unfortunately for Australians, the Labor Opposition has colluded with the Coalition to create this legal regime, one that has caused international commentators to observe that this country is likely the most secretive of all the developed democracies.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Australia has passed or amended more than 60 laws related to secrecy, spying and terrorism — more than any other mature liberal democracy on the planet. All this has occurred under the banner of national security and “keeping Australians safe”. All new legislation and amendments to existing national security laws introduced by Coalition governments have been supported by the Labor Opposition.

The result of this bipartisan support is that law enforcement authorities now oversee a terrifying scope of potential offences, along with very few checks on the exercise of their power.

What we are facing in Australia is a situation in which both major parties support repressive, authoritarian and excessively punitive laws that imperil press freedom and threaten to silence potential whistleblowers. It appears to be the goal of both major parties to frighten individuals and the media into submission.

In the last week, we have seen a law enforcement agency conduct two raids on media outlets that published stories indisputably in the public interest, as well as being indisputably embarrassing to the Government. The concern must be that complaints are being made to the AFP by ministers and/or their departments that are primarily concerned with the latter, rather than the former.

Are we fast approaching a situation in which embarrassing the government of the day is a criminal offence under national security laws?

ABC Chair Ita Buttrose stated her belief that the raids were 'designed to intimidate'. It’s difficult to argue with Ms Buttrose’s conclusion, given the nature of the stories that prompted the raids and the fact that, in the case of the ABC, the whistleblower concerned is about to face trial with the facts of the story already in the public domain, so there would seem to be little purpose to the raid.

The ALP has not fought against the ongoing erosion of civil rights in Australia — indeed, it has been almost as enthusiastic in its diminishment of those rights as has the Coalition. It is now increasingly easy for governments to exert control over the dissemination of information — when practically anything can be classified as “secret” or “top secret”. Excessive classification will result in the criminalising of public discussion of any issues that might embarrass or otherwise interfere with the intentions, known and unknown, of the Government.

The conflation of the Government’s interest with the national interest is alarming — and neither the Government nor the Opposition has recently proven itself capable of distinguishing between the two. This does not bode well for the future of our civil society.

For example, with climate change increasingly globally framed as an issue of national security rather than primarily an environmental concern, it is only a matter of time before public discussion on this issue is restricted by governments made up of climate deniers, in whose interests debate and the dissemination of information will be curtailed.

We have this last week witnessed baby steps in the direction of this outcome by Angus Taylor, Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction. After illegally delaying the release of the latest quarterly emissions figures, he finally released them in an exclusive interview with The Australian, where they were paywalled and inaccessible to anyone who does not subscribe to that publication. This move allowed the Murdoch press to put the most favourable spin on the figures before they became widely available.

It is not difficult to imagine a future in which information to which the public is entitled is entirely controlled by governments and their favoured outlets, with the goal of furthering their interests rather than the interests of the public and the country. It will be done, of course, under the umbrellas of "national security" and “keeping Australians safe”.

Every democracy depends on a robust opposition to guard the interests of its citizens when a government encroaches on the freedom of those citizens and their right to knowledge. The Australian Labor Party has failed miserably for many years in their responsibility to exercise restraining checks on the LNP’s inroads into our freedoms and our rights.

We cannot claim to be a functioning democracy if we do not have a functioning opposition. Our democracy is broken when the opposition aligns itself with the government to pass repressive, anti-democratic, anti-press, anti-whistleblower laws. When the opposition votes with such an authoritarian government to pass such bad laws, democracy is broken.

There is a very small glimmer of hope, however as on Tuesday morning, Labor Member for Chifley Ed Husic said:

'Labor cannot afford to 'slavishly' pass bills that the Coalition unilaterally deem to be 'in the national interest.'

We shall see where this leads.

You can follow Dr Jennifer Wilson on her blog No Place for Sheep or on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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