The devil is in the data

Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, foreign minister Julie Bishop was asked about the killing of a senior Australian member of the Islamic State, Mohammad Ali Baryalei.

Bishop was unable to confirm the reports, but used the death as an opportunity to make her case for greater anti-terrorism powers: the number of young men who have left Australia to fight in the Middle East this year; the number who will likely die; the number who will make it back; the number who previous experience suggests will return radicalised, capable of planning terrorist acts and aided by experience in their implementation.

If Baryalei were dead, she said, his every connection would be interrogated. The segue was deft, if opportunistic: “The retention of metadata is going to be absolutely essential for us to carry out the kind of work that is required to ensure that we can keep Australia as safe as possible.”

Earlier that day, Janet Albrechtsen had a piece on the opinion pages of The Australian, titled “Deluded Pollyannas can’t tackle jihad”. The piece promised new legislation was imminent in the parliament, to control a hypothetical “young radicalised man [who] has jihad on his mind”. The piece spoke fondly of control orders and preventive detention, despairing at laws that make it difficult for security agencies to win convictions. The raids in Sydney in September, which failed to produce significant charges despite their scale, were a case in point according to Albrechtsen. Her argument was this: legislation is needed to control the thought of terrorism, in addition to terrorism itself. What this legislation would look like, Albrechtsen does not say. The same morning, a piece ran in The West Australian detailing special laws the government would seek to allow for the targeted killing of Australian jihadists abroad.

While Bishop was talking, communications minister Malcolm Turnbull was preparing for an announcement on metadata retention – an attempt to repair Attorney-General George Brandis’s clubfooted handling of the issue earlier this year.

The Turnbull-Brandis legislation was put to the party room the following morning, and given just 30 minutes’ discussion. The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 does not define metadata. It is, in fact, deliberately short and yet enormous in its scope. It adds no increased burden for accessing the information telecommunication companies will be compelled by law to collect on their users and store for two years.

While Bishop was at the press club and Turnbull was putting the final touches on Brandis’s still troubled legislation, Bill Shorten was writing a letter to Tony Abbott. Having passed without proper interrogation the first tranche of anti-terrorism legislation, which among other things outlawed reporting on arbitrarily decided events of national security, he was having second thoughts.

“Since the passage of the legislation, a number of concerns about the potential impact of these laws on the media reporting of legitimate matters of public interest and importance have been raised with me,” he wrote.

And later: “As we have both stated, there is no higher duty for a parliament than ensuring the nation’s security and keeping the Australian people safe. It is essential that our security agencies have all the powers they need to keep Australians safe from the threat of terrorism and those engaged in protecting Australians receive bipartisan support. However, it is also important that, by legislating to address the terrorist threat, we do not ourselves destroy the very democratic freedoms that we are seeking to protect.”

This is an important moment for the Labor Party. Already, it has signed away liberties in a panic. As the government and its preferred commentators work assiduously to maintain that panic, Shorten must decide whether he will continue to rubber stamp legislation without understanding its implications. That Brandis himself does not understand them is not excuse enough.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 1, 2014 as "Devil is in the data". Subscribe here.