An Insatiable Appetite for National Security

Image credit: TVTropes.org

By Adam Fletcher

Sometimes it seems that the relationship between policy advisors and the Government is a bit like that between parents and children, with the children constantly clamouring for a larger allowance (read: slice of the budget).

As in many families, there is inevitably tension between siblings, and so it is between those advocating stronger human rights policy and those who believe national security policy must take precedence. In theory, the Government attempts to strike a balance between them and keep the peace, but in practice there is always a favourite.

For many years, but especially since the fateful events of 2001, national security policy has been the favoured prodigy – the Augustus Gloop to human rights’ Oliver Twist.

In the 1999‑00 federal Budget, security was right at the end of the priority list and the modest initiatives announced related to crime prevention and drug prohibition (Defence funding is a separate issue). By 2002-03, national security was specifically funded to the tune of $1.3 billion over five years, then a further $657 million was committed in 2003-04 and $755 million in 2004‑05. In 2008, when the ALP delivered its first post-Howard budget, it ramped up the trend by allocating an astonishing $5.3 billion to the Attorney-General’s portfolio (which includes the AFP, Customs and Border Protection, ASIO etc).

In 2011 ASIO had a budget 655% bigger than in 2001 and almost 1,900 staff – up from 584. Surprisingly, this makes it larger than the Attorney-General’s Department, which is supposed to be its ‘parent’ agency. It has become so big that it needs a new Central Office which is projected to cost more than half a billion dollars. As the Lowy Institute points out, this will be the most expensive public building in Canberra since New Parliament House.

Border security, which is obviously also an area of spending in which tensions exist with human rights, is another costly enterprise. It was widely reported that the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution cost over $1 billion to implement, which we thought was a lot at the time. Yet in 2011-12 Budget, a staggering $3.3 billion was allocated to new and reinforced measures.

On the side of the ledger devoted to the protection of human rights and civil liberties, there was of course the National Human Rights Consultation in 2008, which resulted in the Parliamentary Scrutiny regime – an undeniably modest measure (both in terms of cost and scope) compared with other countries’ Bills of Rights and dedicated regional courts.

Then there is Legal Aid funding, which gives disadvantaged people the means to gain equitable access to the courts. According to a report prepared for the Law Council of Australia in 2009, “Commonwealth funding [for Legal Aid] has fallen since 1997 and this is forecast to continue.” Just yesterday, representatives of Community Legal Centres around Australia gathered on the steps of the High Court to protest a $330 million funding shortfall in legal assistance services.

These are just a few of the many examples that could be given to illustrate the inexorable trend in Australia’s budget priorities favouring security over human rights. Given the evident magnitude of national security advocates’ victory – even to the extent of receiving a significant funding boost when everything else was being cut back due to the GFC – you might expect that they would be satisfied with their lot. But no – just like Gloop and Twist, they want more. More funding and more powers.

The ABC recently reported that ASIO cannot manage security assessments of asylum‑seekers due to staff shortages and ‘basic computers.’ Incredible as it may seem in the context of the figures above, this will probably lead to calls for more staff and more funding.

Just this month, the Attorney-General’s Department (presumably one of the three Divisions devoted to national security policy development) produced a Discussion Paper entitled Equipping Australia against Emerging and Evolving Threats. As has been reported ably by Crikey, this paper reads like a “huge wishlist of new surveillance powers.” Indeed, it begins with the confident assertion that “[a]t the forefront of the Government’s commitment to Australia is protecting our national security.”

One of the Discussion Paper’s laments is that law enforcement agencies face ‘significant challenges’ in telecommunications interception. Yet the public figures show that this kind of surveillance is already pervasive – in 2010-11, law enforcement agencies spent around $50 million on 3,488 interception warrants (out of 3,495 applications, 7 were denied) and obtained an incredible 243,631 authorisations to access people’s telecommunications data. This kind of access doesn’t require a warrant, but lets them obtain any information other than the content of a communication, including phone numbers, call durations, IP addresses and timestamps. They can even seek ‘prospective authorisation’ to access data which does not yet exist.

The Discussion Paper moots significant expansions of these powers, including requiring ISPs to keep your communications data for up to two years and making it an offence for you to refuse to decrypt it, along with numerous other troubling measures. Admittedly, the Paper also proposes boosting privacy protections in the relevant legislation, but this is likely to have a limited restraining effect without a commensurate increase in funding or powers for oversight agencies (such as Ombudsmen’s Offices). In fact, there is very little Australians can do about serious breaches of their privacy.

The Discussion Paper makes many proposals designed to “keep ahead of terrorists, agents of espionage and organised criminals.” Obviously it would be a brave Government which denied resources for such a cause, given the potential dire consequences. Anyway, as Gloop’s mother puts it, surely he wouldn’t ask for more if he didn’t need it.

Not everyone is convinced. Writing in New Matilda, Mark Newton points out that the expanded powers and resources proposed in the Discussion Paper can have unintended consequences, and lack rigorous justification. Bernard Keane expresses similar sentiments.

In justifying its calls for more security, the A-G’s Discussion Paper asserts that authorities have thwarted four planned terrorist attacks. Clearly, this is important work and must be supported by Government. However, terrorism is far from the biggest threat to Australians’ lives, and the vast amounts spent on preventing it inevitably leave less money for other life‑preserving measures such as public health care (with the honourable recent exception of the NDIS), medical research and standing up for those most at risk.

For over a decade now, the Australian Government has prioritised extraordinary national security measures which threaten our privacy; our equality; our right to be free from arbitrary interference with our home life; and our freedoms of movement, association and expression. It has also refused to incorporate most of these rights into Commonwealth law, and treated bodies charged with protecting them (such as Legal Aid and the Australian Human Rights Commission) more like Twist than Gloop; reducing their effectiveness by starving them of funding.

The Government appointed an Independent National Security Legislation Monitor in 2011 to “review and report on the operation, effectiveness and implications of Australia’s counter terrorism and national security legislation on an ongoing basis.” Terrorism expert Dr Chris Michaelson has pointed out that the Monitor’s annual budget is less than the cost of three special counterterrorism vehicles recently received by the police in SA, the NT and the ACT.

National security has become the prodigal son of Australian policy over the last decade.  The Government needs to be a fairer parent.

One comment

  • Thank you. Our main stream media including ABC are reporting next to nothing about this stasi like elephant in the room. Thanks again.

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