Editorial
Unwarranted imposition

The implications of this week’s vote on metadata retention laws will be many and long running. They will spook sources and eat away at the kind of journalism that holds governments to account. They will erode privacy and damage basic notions of individual freedom.

But the vote itself will be remembered for a single image. On what should be the opposition benches were arrayed only three dissenting votes, three nays: Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and Cathy McGowan. Two independents and a Green. Bill Shorten’s seat at the dispatch boxes was swivelled where he left it.

It could be argued that it was better late than never that some within Labor’s caucus decided to raise concerns about the government’s metadata plans, which would force telecommunication companies to retain user data and allow various agencies to call on this data without warrants. For a fortnight, they have been working to persuade colleagues of the need for certain amendments, but an 11th-hour agitation is hardly going to ensure the best outcome.

There are Labor MPs who fear that the deal done on Thursday to provide some protection for journalists is a mere “fig leaf”, covering up major problems with the legislation, due in the senate next week.

The extra regulation of access to journalists’ metadata is in some ways an improvement on current arrangements, which offer no protection.

Under the deal hammered out between the government and Labor, agencies need a warrant to access journalists’ metadata and a public interest advocate, appointed by the prime minister, can argue against it.

But the journalist would never know a warrant had been sought or issued. And these protections do not extend to journalists’ sources or to other professions that rely on relationships of confidentiality, such as lawyers. The bill does not even define the term journalist. Fig leaf might be too generous.

More than a dozen Labor MPs spoke in the caucus debate on the bill on Tuesday, with some arguing that the party should have thrashed out the concerns sooner and done so in a way that would allow branch members to be aware of the debate. They were right.

Others raised issues about the costs for telecommunication companies and the security of the storage of the information that companies will need to hold on to for two years. Some Labor MPs supported the measures, in the name of national security.

Regardless, leader Bill Shorten had already agreed to work with the government on passing national security measures, so any tinkering was really going to be around the edges. As a measure of the cynicism that undermines policy formulation, The Saturday Paper understands Labor had already agreed to vote down amendments from the Greens, even those with which they agreed.

With the government’s deadline for securing the passage of the legislation approaching, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Labor shadow Jason Clare stepped in to hammer out the special deal for journalists. As much as anything else, they were hoping to spare the government the spectacle of eight media chiefs arriving in Canberra on Friday to register their disapproval. More cynicism. More mutual self-interest.

The Greens and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm will have a crack at further amendments in the senate next week but, once the two major parties have signed off on the bill, the scope for these “ferals” to change anything is limited.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2015 as "Unwarranted imposition". Subscribe here.