Greens Senator Scott Ludlam believes there is still time to defeat Coalition legislation that would force telecommunications providers to store client data for two years and make it accessible to security agencies on request, but says there has not yet been a sufficient groundswell to turn Labor against the legislation.
Speaking to New Matilda, Ludlam said the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 was about “broad based surveillance” and should not be linked to previous tranches of national security legislation passed by the government last year.
The West Australian Senator has been at the fore of opposition to the bill, which opponents warn is unclear in its definition of what data will be available to security agencies, and counter-productive to effective intelligence gathering procedure.
At a joint press conference with AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin, Prime Minister Tony Abbott today ducked a question about what kind of date would be collected under the new laws, and said he didn’t want to pre-empt the ongoing inquiry of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, instead offering another addition to the growing list of definitions of metadata.
“Essentially, metadata is data about data. It's the data that the system generates,” the PM said.
In an effort to persuade MPs of the bill’s danger, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties is currently hosting screenings of Laura Poitras’ documentary film CitizenFour, an insider look at the Edward Snowden affair which exposed the global scale of the National Security Agency’s data gathering operations.
Ludlam said the debate about mass surveillance had remained relatively “immature” in Australia, despite the country’s inclusions in the 5-Eyes alliance, which enables intelligence sharing between the US, UK, New Zealand and Canada.
“The signals collection agencies of the 5-eyes countries have effectively fused into a single organism,” Ludlam said, adding they used this access “to spy on each other”.
All federal MPs have been invited to the film’s Canberra screening, to be held Monday night, which the organisation is currently fundraising for.
While Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare’s office told New Matilda he would not be attending, due to a prior commitment, Queensland Labor Senator Claire Moore said she would be encouraging MPs on all sides to attend.
“For me there was a lot of confusion at the time [of the Snowden releases]because there wasn’t a lot of mainstream media coverage,” Moore said.
“I still don’t feel I understand everything that went on and I’m really keen to learn more about what happened.”
Moore said that MPs who attended the film were not necessarily expressing an opinion on the current bill, but simply taking the opportunity to learn more about the issue.
Aside from concerns about warrantless access to the data of all Australian phone and internet users, critics have also pointed out that the legislation could play into the hands of companies intending to prosecute Australians for illegal downloading.
Internet Service Providers have also warned they would be forced to pass on the cost of storing the data to customers, and Labor has previously derided the idea as an “internet tax”.
However, with two separate parliamentary reports being prepared, and Prime Minister Abbott using his Press Club address to signal another year of tough rhetoric on terrorism, the fate of the legislation hangs in the balance.
“It's an absolutely vital part of the national security legislation that this Government has been progressively introducing over the last few months,” Abbott said today.
But according to Ludlam, the legislation is so poorly designed that it is beyond saving, even if amendments are made.
“Abbott's clumsy attempt to bully Shorten to enable ramming data retention laws through parliament should fool no one,” he said today.
“We shouldn't have to sacrifice our privacy to save a failing Prime Minister.”
The inquiry into the legislation by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security – which includes only Coalition and Labor members – is due to report on February 27.
A separate inquiry being chaired by Ludlam is due to report on February 12.