But what if Howard was introducing these internet surveillance laws?

In today’s Australian Financial Review, John Roskam urges Labor MPs to ask themselves the obvious question:

Labor MPs should ask themselves something … along the lines of: “How would I feel if a conservative government did some of the things the Gillard government now wants to do?” …

The press censorship the Gillard government is contemplating is bad, but from the perspective of Labor backbenchers, the motives for it might be understandable. They believe it’s their chance to get back at a media that they believe has been biased and unfair. But no such excuse is available when it comes to what the government wants to do about internet surveillance.

Read the whole thing here.

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Outrageous new security powers proposed by the Gillard government

My ABC Drum column this week discusses the obnoxious proposals of the Attorney-General’s Department to massively increase the government’s internet surveillance and security powers.

Any proposal by the government to increase its own power should be treated with scepticism. Double that scepticism when the government is vague about why it needs that extra power. Double again when those powers are in the area of law and order. And double again every time the words “national security” are used.

Read the whole thing here. Simon Breheny, Research Fellow with the IPA’s Rule of Law Project sent out this press release earlier opposing the security law proposals.

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David Kemp on Menzies and free speech

A strong, compelling piece by David Kemp in The Australian today on how Robert Menzies would have seen the proposals to boost the Australian Press Council and the recommendations of the Finkelstein Inquiry. As David writes,

The concept of industry self-regulation is in principle objectionable where that self-regulation crosses from the voluntary to the compulsory, but it is nowhere more dangerous than in relation to the right of editors, journalists and members of the public to freely say what they think, regardless of whom they offend, and whether what they say is right or wrong.

If they are offensive, they should be answered. If they are wrong, others should correct them. To force them to say something they do not believe is the technique of the medieval church and the communist or fascist state.

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Gillard government internet surveillance laws unprecedented threat to civil liberties

“The Gillard Government’s proposed internet surveillance laws will fundamentally erode civil liberties and should be rejected outright,” said Simon Breheny, director of the Rule of Law Project at the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

Last week the Commonwealth Attorney General’s department released a discussion paper Equipping Australia Against Emerging and Evolving Threats proposing an extraordinary range of government powers over telecommunications and internet.

The proposals include granting power to 16 state and federal security agencies to monitor citizens’ private communications, including Facebook and Twitter accounts. It also proposes giving the Attorney General the power to unilaterally vary warrants and imposes the “data retention” regime which would require internet service providers to record and store all their users’ activity for two years.

“There are huge concerns that the government is considering allowing the Attorney General to arbitrarily vary a warrant without requiring a court order. Making it a crime to refuse to hand over login details to security agencies is also in direct opposition to the right to silence.

“This is completely unacceptable.

“These proposals are a spectacular power grab by the Attorney General’s Department. They are incredibly excessive and completely unjustified. There is no case for this unprecedented intrusion by the government into the lives of citizens and we cannot trust the government with our private data.”

“This is a government that has undermined the authority of parliament and is hostile to freedom of speech. It now appears to have citizens’ private communications on the internet in its sights,” Mr Breheny said.

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Freedom of Association trampled by NSW consorting laws

My Drum column this week is on NSW’s revamped consorting laws and their long, disreputable history back to the razor gangs of the 1930s.

The first person was convicted under the amended laws last week. Yet he was not a bikie, but a 21-year-old man the NSW police admits has no link with motorcycle gangs.

It was the same in the 1930s. The police found consorting laws useful to clear the streets of prostitution, but not so useful in clamping down on razor crime. Consorting laws are good for smoothing the wheels of prosecution – if you think the goal of a legal system is to maximise prosecutions. But its ability to prevent or punish serious criminal activity is limited.

Freedom of association is too important to be casually thrown away. But it has been eroded by ill-conceived law and order legislation for some time. In a 2008 edition of the IPA Review, Greg Barns wrote about the problems with anti-bikie laws then being passed in South Australia. Unfortunately – as those, and similar laws have failed – the response of state governments has not been to rethink their justification, but to double down.

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Aunty silently watching the debate over media future

In the Australian Financial Review today, John Roskam faces the silent player over the future of the media: the ABC, funded by taxpayers for nearly $1 billion a year.

There is of course another big media organisation. It’s the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It’s owned by the government, it’s funded by the government, and it’s operated by people picked by the government.

The business challenge for Fairfax and News executives is to get paying customers to buy their product. The business challenge for ABC executives is to keep on getting $1 billion a year from the federal cabinet.

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Freeing the executive to spend our money

Great piece by IPA research fellow Simon Breheny in the Sydney Morning Herald today, on the federal government’s Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill, which gives the executive extraordinary new spending powers:

It is a basic tenet of parliamentary democracy that the decision to spend public money is made by the parliament.

The English Civil War and the French Revolution were sparked by this fundamental principle: when the executive wants money, it needs the consent of representatives of the governed.

But an obscure bill passed by the Federal Parliament turns this principle on its head.

The most depressing part is this: the bill was passed with support across the parliament. As Simon writes,

One after another our elected representatives got up to raise serious concerns with a bill they knew to be flawed. And one after another they voted for its passage.

But the most bizarre player in all of this is the Greens. One can at least understand the positions of the ALP and the Coalition, who both support the school chaplaincy program. But the Greens completely object to the idea of school chaplains, have never supported the program and still passed legislation purportedly designed to save it.

One can only assume they are in favour of executive overreach, no matter the issue.

Read the whole thing here.

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Leveson, democracy and free speech

The UK’s Leveson Inquiry started as a serious investigation into phone hacking and police corruption. Sure, it was always something of a show-trial. The actual investigation is being conducted by real police who have laid real charges. But Leveson has now completely descended into farce, as I wrote in the Drum earlier this week:

what was a serious inquiry has devolved into a strange sort of puritanism. Participants are being judged against ethical rules unheard of before Leveson convened. For a newspaper to back a political party is apparently a breach of these novel rules. And friendship between politician and proprietor is outrageous. The phone-hacking affair no longer has anything to do with phone-hacking. It’s trying to make scandals out of the basic practices of representative democracy.

Brendan O’Neill has an excellent piece on the same issue, also at the Drum, when he writes that the inquiry “become a purveyor of tittle-tattle, a peerer into people’s private lives, a tabloid-style gossip chamber in which journalists and lawyers gather to swap stories about the ‘country suppers’ and text-messaging habits of the rich and powerful.”

But the best statement on the Leveson Inquiry remains this, by Michael Gove, UK Education Secretary, who strongly and passionately asserted the case for freedom of speech against sceptical questioning.

Lord Justice Leveson, it turns out, does not like this critique of his inquiry, as the Daily Mail explains.

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Free press more important than “editorially independent” press

John Roskam in the Australian Financial Review today makes an important point about the debate over Gina Rinehart’s bid for seats on the board of Fairfax:

There is something more important than fair and balanced reporting – and that’s free reporting. Let’s be absolutely clear.

Swan’s “fair and balanced” reporting has never existed, doesn’t exist and never will exist. Fairness is entirely in the eye of the beholder. It’s a travesty of the historical record to claim that democracy needs a fair and balanced media.

Editorial independence doesn’t guarantee “fairness”. All that editorial independence means is that editors and journalists get to express their bias without interference from the owner of the company. The requirement that reporting be “fair and balanced” is a recipe for political manipulation and for the erosion of freedom of speech.

A free media means neither the government nor government-appointed censors can tell the media what it can do. And a free media means politicians don’t decide who gets to own newspapers. And a free media certainly means politicians don’t get to decide how newspaper owners run their company.

You can have a fair media or a free media. You can’t have both.

You can read the whole thing here.

The IPA’s Sinclair Davidson also wrote in The Conversation earlier this week that “Fairfax Is Broke And Dying Before Our Eyes“.

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