Metadata retention laws will hurt big-business whistleblowers

Illustration: Michael Mucci.

The government is about to shove through its data retention laws, with the acquiescence of a self-described “opposition” fearful of being branded weak on national security.

This means a retinue of public agencies, police and regulators, will shortly have the powers to poke about in our personal emails, phone and internet records at will. Taxpayers have the pleasure of footing the $400 million bill for this program so bureaucrats can spy on them.

Rather than opining from the peanut gallery on someone else’s industry today, as is the purview of the business columnist, we can speak with a touch of authority on this subject.

People who don’t seek to stand out could still be excellent leaders. Photo: Tamara Voninski

Many of the stories in the press exposing government agencies and big business – stories critical to the democratic process, stories which have led to parliamentary inquiries, reform and recompense, and therefore protection for the citizenry – hail from sources which need to be protected. These sources often come to the media when the authorities have failed them. Now these sources will be more reluctant to come forward.

We may have to go back to the dark ages of clandestine meetings in the back of a dingy pub; back to document drops and calls from a clean telephone.

There has been some talk the impending metadata laws will contain protections for journalists and their sources. This is hard to take seriously.

Four years ago, we received a call from an official at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The caller told us the majority of the wire-tap warrants sought by the agency in the previous year had related to an investigation of leaks from the agency itself, leaks which apparently resulted in a story in Fairfax Media.

In the wake of the global financial crisis we had written a story about the sale of a winery to the then chairman of ASIC, Tony D’Aloisio. The vendor was the receiver of Evans & Tate, acting at a time when ANZ was being investigated by ASIC over Opes Prime.

According to the ASIC source, the commission subsequently sought wire-tap warrants from the court to find the identity of the mystery leaker. The funny thing was there was no leaker. The story had been put together from public documents; you just needed to know where to look.

The point of this anecdote – subsequently not denied by the agency – is that the metadata laws will make this spying caper so much easier. Powerful vested interests are now very much fused with the state; big banks are mollycoddled, underpinned by the taxpayer in the name of system stability, oligopolies abound and political party donations and lobbying have rendered significant reform ineffectual.

Incidentally, the source for that story was an outsider, academic Jeff Knapp. Knapp’s submission on the matter to the senate inquiry into ASIC was buried by bureaucrats. It has never seen the light of day.

Knowns and unknowns

Famously, the main proponent for the metadata initiative, Attorney-General George Brandis, was unable to explain on television last year what metadata actually was.

Undaunted, he sallied forth with an oped in The Australian newspaper in January exhorting the public to back the surveillance regime due to the “Martin Place siege and the atrocities in France”.

The irony is that the perpetrators of these atrocities were already known to security agencies in each country.

With the utmost respect to the victims of the Sydney siege and their families, it is a rare year when an Australian is killed by a terrorist in Australia. Perspective is sorely needed.

Over the years 2003 to 2012, suicide claimed the lives of 22,824 Australians; domestic violence an estimated 850; 2617 were murdered; car accidents claimed 8,525, and shingles 228. Some 417 people died by falling out of bed.

Privatised power

A few points on the debate which is raging over the privatisation of electricity utilities in NSW ahead of the state election:

Price rises in South Australia and Victoria, where the sector is privatised, have only been slightly less than in Queensland and NSW where the assets have remained in government hands. Yes, privatisation will cost jobs. Yes, prices will continue to rise but the rate of increase will be contained by the fact that prices have already run too high. Demand has fallen.

The culprit has been corporatisation: that is, the splitting of the old state electricity commissions into a profusion of distribution, transmission and generation entities – all with their own boards, their executive bonuses, their KPIs, their PRs, their HR departments, their assorted management infrastructures.

Lay that gravy train on top of an industry structure which entails each entity claiming a regulated return – the more they spend, the more they make – and the result is a system ripe for “gaming the regulator” and rorting the consumer.

If the states had stuck with their monolithic old electricity commissions we would not be in this mess where high power prices have manacled the entire economy. They would have eked out their three per cent annual price rises and somebody would have been answerable for performance.

Instead, a chunk of these 10 per cent returns are now being swept offshore to power giants in Hong Kong and so forth thanks to a regulatory formula (DORC: depreciated optimised replacement cost) which allows a utility to value a 30 year old asset – whose cost is already sunk and paid for by the taxpayer – as if it needed to be replaced at today’s prices.