This is the legislation of howevers. The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, talks about being conscious of individual rights and civil liberties – “however, public safety and security must come first”. She talks about the need to “reconsider our civil rights and compromise on those things”.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, says he accepts people will want to talk about civil liberties. “They’re going to talk about the thin end of the wedge and all this sort of stuff. Well, frankly, that talk is a luxury that may be available to them but it’s not available to political leaders in this country,” he says. “Notional considerations of civil liberties do not trump the very real threat, the very real threat of terror in our country today. We are going to have to curtail the rights and freedoms of a small number of people in order to keep the vast majority of Australians safe.”
For the premier of Western Australian, Mark McGowan, it is even more straightforward: “We are dealing with the civil liberties of terrorists and I don’t particularly care about the civil liberties of terrorists or potential terrorists.”
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says the national database for facial recognition doesn’t amount to “surveillance, or indeed mass surveillance”. He concedes that it will be made available to private companies, but only in certain circumstances.
The new database would give real-time access to passport, visa, citizenship and driver’s licence images. The $18.5 million system, named “The Capability”, was proposed in 2015 but has been expanded after a meeting of the Council of Australian Governments on Thursday.
It is part of a suite of security measures signed off at the meeting. Among those measures is legislation to allow a person to be detained for 14 days without charge. New offences were also created to more clearly criminalise terrorism hoaxes and to make it illegal to possess instructional material relating to terrorism.
“We have sought to highlight the importance of privacy and of civil liberties,” the ACT’s chief minister, Andrew Barr, said as the changes were announced. “I respect the position of many of my colleagues that the threat level has changed and it is more perhaps in sorrow than anger that we can reflect upon the change in our community and the society in which we live that necessitates these sort of action[s], but nonetheless all jurisdictions have signed up today and it reflects a need for a joined-up and collective response to critical issues.”
Turnbull dismisses concerns that the database for facial recognition could be hacked. He tells people they already use Facebook. He seems oblivious to his government’s record on data security. He calls it a priority. Experts call the system a honeypot.
Already, there are signs of creep. This is what happens when civil liberties are traded. Cory Bernardi proposes the system be linked to Medicare. “If we’re going to start gathering data on particular people, I’d like to see that actually happen more in the welfare space as well,” he says, “because I think there’s a lot of people that are ripping us off on welfare and it might be an opportunity to tie in a co-ordinated approach to identifying individuals who are accessing the welfare system.”
The legislation of howevers very quickly becomes the legislation of what next. There is nothing in this government’s record to suggest it should be trusted with that.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Trading faces". Subscribe here.