Launch of “Privacy Without Principle: The Use and Abuse of Privacy in Australian Law and Public Policy” by Senator Brett Mason, Canberra

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Launch of “Privacy Without Principle: The Use and Abuse of Privacy in Australian Law and Public Policy” by Senator Brett Mason, Canberra


Privacy Without Principle: The Use And Abuse of Privacy In Australian Law and Public Policy’




Senator Brett Mason, Your Honours, Excellencies, Members of the Armed Forces and the most important people in modern opinion, members of the press.

Last Sunday, along with my family, I attended the Closing Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games at the MCG. We were wearing photo identity badges each of us and in order to get those identity badges, each of us had had to consent to disclose our criminal records to the Games organisers including my 12 year old daughter.

We walked in through security and our bags were opened and searched and then each and every one of us went through a metal detector. I thought this was rather strange because I have probably attended the MCG on over a hundred occasions watching the Essendon Football Club win Premiership after Premiership. And never once have I been required to go through a metal detector before. At the Commonwealth Games, no one complained, no one seemed to mind that their bags were being opened. The only other occasions on which I can recall bags being opened was to look for illicit alcohol in the home and away season or to stop the drinking at the Boxing Day test.

Two weeks ago I flew from Canberra to Sydney and I took an old suit pack that I have here in Canberra. I was stopped at the Canberra airport because I had an aerosol can of shaving cream in it. And in front of the military brass and a whole lot of other people in the line at the airport I opened my suit pack, pulled out dirty socks as the security guards took out the shaving cream. It wasn’t a problem taking that on an airline three years ago but it is today.

As we look back at the closing part of the 20 th century, the advent of terrorism will not only be seen as a challenge to our values it will be seen as directly changing the way we go about our daily life. It changed our expectations and changed our tolerance of intrusion at the sporting field, on the airlines, as we enter buildings, as we deal with public officials.

Those events have not only changed our perception as to what is and what is not acceptable intrusion, they have also changed our perception as to how far our right to privacy extends. My view is that the public is much more tolerant of intrusions these days because of the perceived security threat.

This does not mean that a government should abuse that acceptance but I do believe that it has changed our perception as to what is permissable;- indeed what may be necessary in order to protect civil society and civil safety.

The Government is currently considering the introduction of a smart card, a card which would be able to hold information which would govern a person’s entitlements to health and social security services. That entitlement turns on a person’s income and so it would have to be able to link to that information. That card would govern entitlements to pharmaceuticals which are subsidised for a number of prescriptions in any given year and so the card would have to be able to link to information as to how often a person had drawn down on pharmaceutical services.

For parents the card would hold information on their dependents and because certain entitlements turn on a persons age, dates of birth.

In many respects a smart card would hold more information than the Australia Card which was proposed back in the 1980s. As I recall the debate of the 1980s, the Australia Card started with quite considerable support but as it wound its tortuous way through the Parliament public opposition grew and it was eventually defeated on a technicality in the Senate. But public reaction was such that the Government more or less abandoned it, since it made no attempt to try and rectify the technicality.

Have Australians’ attitudes changed? Will the smart card start with a head of steam and gradually be worn down? I am a supporter of a smart card. I believe that it will be an important addition both as to entitlements and protection of the public purse. But have Australians attitudes to privacy changed since the defeat of the Australia Card in 1986?

Well, Brett Mason, has the answers to all these questions. He knows more about privacy than practically anybody else in this building. But in the fine tradition of an academic Brett knows so much that he knows there are no answers to these questions. In his book he says that there is no objective right of privacy that we can invoke to answer these challenges as they come to us one by one.

Brett in fact believes that invoking the right of privacy’ is more or less a political tool, a rhetorical device, which can be argued either way to justify a pre-determined conclusion.

It occurred to me that Brett’s view on privacy is a rather post modern one. But then it occurred to me that one thing Brett Mason is not is post modern, not even modern, maybe pre-modern. He opens his conclusion chapter in Privacy Without Principle by using the following quote:

In the twenties and thirties it was the role of Government. Fifties and Sixties it was civil rights. The next twenty years it will be about privacy. The internet. Cell phones. Health records. And who is gay and who is not. Besides in a country born on the will to be free what could be more fundamental than this?

Does anyone recognise that quote? Obviously not the language of John Locke, perhaps Chief Justice Reinquist?

No, the quote is from one of the characters in the TV series the West Wing. Brett apparently gets his political quotes from tele-politics rather than politics itself. What could be more post-modern than that? Politicians getting political views from political television shows? Why live a life when you can see it on a television series?

Recently in Los Angeles, I went on the set of the West Wing where they have built an Oval Office and a Roosevelt Room. And as someone who has seen the real Roosevelt Room and the real Oval Office, I can tell you the Hollywood set is much more impressive. I would recommend to people, don’t go to the real one, the Hollywood one is much better and you can sit in the President’s chair. Why live a life when you can act it on television?

Of course this is one of the great challenges of the modern era. This is an era when you not only know a President’s views on nuclear disarmament, but you know what he might or might not have been doing in a room off the Oval Office with a young intern. This is an era when you can read transcripts of a Prince’s conversation with a lover. This is an era where people put web cams in their bedrooms and broadcast themselves to the world on the internet. This is the era where the telephoto lense can capture a member of Parliament reconciling with his wife in his own backyard.

I can’t help thinking that in this era there should be a limit on what can be broadcast to the world. A limit other than what bad taste will endure. I can’t help thinking that there should be some part of people’s lives that they have the right to quarantine. Where I would draw those lines, I don’t know. People will probably look to the Parliament for some guidance. We are now in an age where acquisition of information seems almost unstoppable. And there is also a danger for government in this age.

Because government is now capable of knowing more it is being asked to do more. Because we can now identify any person with low income and because we can manage a cash transfer we are being asked to guarantee that nobody is left in a low income situation.

As our capacity grows, expectations grow and the expectations are growing faster than our capacity. And although I believe that modern government now is able to produce outcomes which were unthinkable in previous generations paradoxically it may have less respect than it ever did;- because the expectations are growing faster even than the capacity. And so for government I think it is going to be necessary to manage those expectations.

When we come to privacy, paradoxically people are probably going to turn to government to protect their privacy from government. Paradoxically they are going to ask government discipline itself.

Now you have heard a lot of media coverage recently on regulation impact statements, on regional impact statements, on family impact statements. I am now starting to see on Cabinet submissions privacy impact statements. And a new industry of privacy advisers is beginning to grow up who will be called to assist government in relation to these matters.

Now where shall these privacy advisers find their inspiration? Well, in this book. Privacy Without Principle: The Use And Abuse of Privacy In Australian Law And Public Policy,’ by Senator Brett Mason. Only Senators know the answer to these kind of deep questions.

So why did Brett choose to have a Member of the House of Representatives here to launch his book? Well I thought about this long and hard and it occurred to me that Brett knows I am a person of huge discretion, or at least deeply wants me to be a person of deep discretion. You see Brett and I share an apartment and I know who comes in and I know who goes out. We are Felix and Oscar. One of us is tidy and one of us is not. But since I have never looked in his bedroom I wouldn’t know which was which. I am the soul of discretion. I believe in privacy.

Privacy Without Principle: The Use And Abuse of Privacy In Australian Law And Public Policy,’ go and buy it, help Brett pay the rent at our flat here in Canberra. Thank you very much.