The Brandis touch: the kiss of death for freedom and trust.

brandis and turnbull data retention

 “Fundamental to our rights as citizens is the right to be free. The power to detain without warrant, without charge, without access to legal advice is normally reserved for dictators and tyrants. No free society unnecessarily cedes to its government powers of detention without review,” Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) in submission Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security about the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill.

What is it about Attorney General George Brandis that makes us uneasy? What is it about him that does not inspire trust? Confidence? Quite a lot when you think about it.

First he reassures too much. Part of the Brandis problem is that he’s always offering reassurances; placating us with the lie that he’s making us safer. Don’t you worry?  We know best. We know what’s best for you. Trust us, he says.

Trust? Not a chance, not when you look at what he is doing; what he has done. Alarm bells ring.

Next comes the rest of the Brandis bedside manner: his condescension; the supercilious way he talks down to ordinary mortals. Common folk are invariably mistaken, in his eyes, whatever their point of view, and often before he’s fully considered it. Don’t ruffle my feathers, don’t demean me with your specious arguments, I am Cock of the Walk.

An ugly arrogance lurks behind the Mr Magoo spectacles fuelled by an intelligence which suffers fools constantly and painfully. Beneath his avuncular demeanour, burns a profound conviction in his own righteousness. Above all, his certain belief in his own moral and intellectual rectitude creates deep misgivings in the rest of us. And it was quick off the blocks.

Our disquiet with the current Attorney General began early when the recently appointed AG was caught rorting expenses. For any politician, let alone an AG, this was disturbing. For Brandis it was also hypocritical. In Opposition, the same George Brandis had ferociously attacked Peter Slipper for visiting a winery and charging the taxi ride to the Commonwealth.

Brandis excoriated Slipper on the former speaker’s dishonesty. Yet he had a blind spot with any similar inspection of his own misconduct. It was perfectly reasonable to attend a friend’s wedding at the Commonwealth’s expense, he claimed. Even when discovered, two years later, Brandis repaid the $1,600 and maintained he had done nothing wrong.  As Julian Burnside writes colourfully:  haughty, supercilious, self-righteous George Brandis was at the trough with the best of them.

Of course it could be argued that Brandis was simply following his leader. Tony Abbott billed the Commonwealth for every fun-run and each pollie pedalling.  His Tamworth photo opportunity cost the rest of us in Team Australia about ten grand. We’ve invested a fair bit in him over the last few years.  Abbott has claimed $3 million from the Commonwealth. Brandis, in this light, is merely one junior member of corrupt, hard right-wing Liberal government, led by self-seeking hypocrites. But it’s no excuse. The Nuremburg defence of following orders or example founders on the rock of individual adult moral autonomy. You knew it was wrong and you did it, George. The buck stops with you.

Beyond this flaw, the Brandis problem is even greater than the morally blind leading the blind. The Attorney General is working to put the skids well and truly under our freedom and security. With the National Security Monitor out of the way, the path has been cleared to introduce sweeping changes without real public scrutiny. George is eagerly beavering away to push through laws that will profoundly alter our society with only perfunctory consultation and review.

The Abbott government is intent on increasing the state’s powers of surveillance. Vastly. There is a rush on to get its data retention bill passed before Christmas. Caesar’s omniscient mad black eye may well be ever upon all of us by the New Year, thanks in no small part to you, George.  The state will have carte blanche to spy on its citizens.

Nothing to worry about if you are good, says Brandis. Everything to worry about if you value your privacy, your civil rights and if you understand that in our information age, secure data is an oxymoron. ISPs will keep massive databases. Worry about the security of this data. Worry about authorised access. As Chris Berg says, your data will be only a subpoena away with the passing of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014.

Worrying in the extreme is Brandis’ Foreign Fighters Bill. Drafted ostensibly to curb overseas travel for would-be Jihadists, disturbingly, the law reverses the burden of proof. Also disturbingly, it reveals George’s role as a keen collaborator in the Abbott government’s fear campaign; a key player in the manufacture of paranoid anxiety for political ends. The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014, due to be signed into law within days, will give law enforcers powers to query, arrest and charge people who travel to countries such as Syria, Iraq, or proscribed zones (so-called “declared areas”) therein, without a valid reason.

Yet the provisions embrace far more than foreign fighters and violent extremism. They amend 20 Acts including social security. The Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) warned in submission to the joint parliamentary committee that the new laws “threaten the independence of the judiciary, introduce retrospective warrants and more than triple the period an individual can be detained without others being notified.”

Brandis is least reassuring when he changes tack, as he has with regard to the proposed Department of Homeland Security. A month ago at the Press Club in Canberra he was opposed to any new super-Department, implying it wasn’t happening. Now it is likely to happen soon and Scott Morrison will be in charge. Perhaps Brandis himself has been surprised by this turn of events. Either way, it is an alarming indictment of an AG who asks to be trusted.

Technical matters are not Brandis’ forte. He was mocked for being unable to define metadata. Now his answer is that metadata will be defined in the legislation. All very well and good but we’d be a bit more at ease with an AG who could explain it; talk us through it as they say; a man as they say who was on top of his brief. Despite your talk and in some ways because of it, we firmly expect to end up like the US.

Data will be kept on everyone; the state will have access to everything. Your metadata waffle is a sideshow; a sop to those who like to be fobbed off with meaningless assurances dressed up with technical jargon. Yet, increasingly, Brandis, Abbott and other Team Australians slip up and reveal a glimpse of their true intentions. They are disquietingly far-reaching incursions into our freedoms, which are announced in a manner which inspires neither confidence nor trust.

In August, Tony Abbott admitted in a television interview that requiring internet service providers to retain data on their customers’ activity was not just about anti-terrorism and national security but could be used to fight “general crime”. More recently, AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin also let the cat out of the bag.

“Absolutely, I mean any interface, any connection somebody has over the internet, we need to be able to identify the parties to that connection … So illegal downloads, piracy … cyber-crimes, cyber-security, all these matters and our ability to investigate them is absolutely pinned to our ability to retrieve and use metadata. “

There has been an attempt subsequently by key Abbott ministers to back away from this but no-one is convinced, let alone reassured.

Brandis’ chutzpah and disdain for others’ views is deeply worrying. He insults his audience’s intelligence with tired rhetorical devices to fob off questions. On Q&A, in response to a question regarding the harm done by the government’s fondness for the divisive Team Australia slogan and stance, he claimed that PM Abbott addresses the cabinet as ‘team’. This is somehow expected to convince us that the PM is an egalitarian leader who happily places his faith in democratic consensus. This was expected to satisfy the question of whether the term Team Australia is exclusive. Who are you kidding, George? Of course it is. And perhaps you need to be more alert to your leader’s use of irony. Exclusive, indeed, Team Australia has proved.

When in August some Islamic leaders refused to attend meetings with Tony Abbott in Sydney and Melbourne, Abbott described their boycott as “foolish”. There was, he elaborated, a “Team Australia” spirit among those who did join in. Muslim community members have not missed the point of the team analogy. Yet Brandis has told them to their faces they have got this wrong.

What Brandis had offered was token consultation. Leaders were permitted half an hour to read over draft legislation before being expected to comment. The proposed laws were to curb young Muslims from heading off overseas to fight with ISIS and other ‘foreign conflicts.’

Brandis’ avuncular manner patronises those who attempt to challenge, those who question. The subtext is: We know what’s best for you. Even if you don’t quite understand. We will take your freedom away. You have to give up some freedoms to be safe. If you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to worry about. A strong state means safer citizens. A strong state is good for business.

A month ago, Senator Brandis solemnly told the National Press Club that the Australian people should trust the Coalition, because Liberals are historically freedom loving:

“The side of politics which has in its DNA to keep governments small and to keep freedom large, can be better trusted to handle these matters without over-reaching than the side of politics which believes that expansion of the power of the state is the solution to every problem”.

Spare us the rhetoric Mr Brandis. No-one is fooled. Your government has done more than any other to curtail the freedoms of the Australian people. Trust is something you earn. Your words have to match your deeds. Your deeds entail a vast expansion of the powers of the state, in haste and often by stealth. Trust is not something you or your government will ever inspire. You don’t keep your promises to the Australian people. You seek to limit our freedom. You pretend that it is for our own good. You and your government will go down in history as cynical, dishonest and morally bankrupt; not servants of the people working for the common good; but a self-serving elite unworthy of respect or trust; our greatest betrayers.