Thursday, 19 March 2009
We Australians are an easygoing people, and that is both a blessing and a curse—a blessing for the relaxed manner this engenders and a curse for the apathy which results. It is that apathy which is our greatest enemy. Forget the Taliban; forget North Korea. Our indifference has led us down a dangerous path to a point where we are sacrificing the very freedoms which made our nation so great. About 20 years ago, Australians protested en masse against the proposed Australia card, arguing it amounted to a gross invasion of privacy. Today we have already meekly surrendered far more of our privacy than proponents of that card ever envisaged, and we continue to do so with barely a murmur of discontent, naively accepting assurances from authorities that the erosion of our freedoms is in our own best interests.
Consider the rapid expansion of surveillance powers granted to our law enforcement and intelligence-gathering agencies. Australia, with just over 20 million people, is tapping the phones and intercepting the email accounts of more citizens than the entire United States, with its population of 280 million. On a per capita basis, these Australian agencies conduct more than 10 times as many such intrusions into our freedoms as those in the US. Requirements for these and related attacks on our liberty, such as accessing phone company records, have been relaxed to the extent that a simple request from a ranking police officer is sometimes sufficient. No court order is required. The proliferation of CCTV cameras across the country also intrudes and will do so to an even greater extent if the government succeeds in linking all the cameras so individuals can be tracked, as well as watched and listened to, wherever they go.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the widespread acceptance of the government’s proposed internet filtering system. More than 15 years ago internet use went mainstream in Australia with the promise of unfettered information flow around the country and around the world. The government is now trying to put the brakes on the information superhighway. The plan was initially billed as a way to combat child pornography, but the list of banned sites has now reportedly expanded to 10,000 containing ‘inappropriate content’. Faceless and largely unaccountable civil servants will determine what material is appropriate for our citizens to access. And the list of banned sites—which would reportedly include those linked to terrorism, abortion and euthanasia—is to be a secret. We will not even be told what information we are being denied. Backers of the plan—including the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy himself—have suggested their opponents are in favour of child porn. This outrageous claim is a red herring based on the hackneyed line that you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong. I am afraid we all have something to fear when it comes to attacks on our civil liberties.
While I share the Prime Minister’s respect for China’s stellar economic performance, and many other aspects of that society, I do not share his apparent admiration for Beijing’s authoritarian control over its people. The proposed internet filter mirrors the ‘great firewall of China’ and would also put Australia in a very small and not particularly respected club of nations which control internet access in this manner. Saudi Arabia should not be the model for the way in which our government treats its citizens. Furthermore, senior internet industry figures say the plan simply will not work, will dramatically slow access speeds and could hamper both the public and private sectors by denying them information freely available to most of the world.
Some here—possibly on both sides of this House—will smirk and say this speech is alarmist. But history is littered with examples of rulers who abused their authority. Once granted new powers, governments rarely relinquish them. The key is not to surrender in the first place. Do not accept the infringement of your rights, do not tolerate incursions into your privacy and do not allow our easygoing manner to manifest itself as thoughtless acceptance that authorities will always act in our interests. To do anything else is to court disaster.