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Liberty vs Security: Finding the Balance

by Dr Simon Longstaff
02 March 2015

Following the release of the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee's recommendations on the proposed metadata laws, our Executive Director, Dr Simon Longstaff AO, examines the need for us, as a society, to decide where we want our Government's priorities to lie.

Scarcely a week goes by without one government or another declaring that they have “no higher duty than to keep us safe”. Inevitably, they make this claim in the context of debates about the purported need to expand the powers of the law enforcement and security agencies for the sake of national security. Of course, our governments are only selectively and partially committed to our safety. How else could they allow the sale of extraordinarily dangerous products like cigarettes? How else could they remain so scandalously disengaged in response to the scourge of domestic violence – with hundreds of people being injured and killed every year. Indeed, there is a long list of risks from which governments choose not to keep us safe. Yet, when it comes to the issue of national security – the rhetoric soars.
One explanation for the discrepancy is that, like their citizens, governments recognise that the maintenance of national security is not their highest duty – but actually, just one amongst many of the duties that need to be balanced. Indeed, in a liberal democracy, such as Australia, there should be a presumption in favour of preserving the liberty of citizens to the greatest extent possible – not least from erosion by the state. This is the context within which we need to consider the release of the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee’s bipartisan report on the Abbott Government’s Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014 – a report that has drawn fresh attention to the vexed question of how best to set the balance between liberty and security.
The good news is that, if adopted, the Committee’s recommendations will limit the discretion of the Government. That is as it should be. The not-so-good news is that the Committee has left unresolved the question of how journalists and their sources should be treated under the legislation. In my view, the proposed new Bill should not be enacted until after this vital question has been resolved.
As it happens, many of the people working within the intelligence community are equally concerned about the preservation of civil liberties and thus, prefer their powers to be limited to the degree strictly required for them to perform their function. They, too, recognise that the growing capacity of the State to engage in mass surveillance, data retention, etc. may pose a risk to the innocent and not just to those who might cause us harm.
So, should we take comfort from the fact that the Joint Intelligence and Security Committee has sought to curb the powers of government and that even the law enforcement and intelligence agencies can be reticent in the exercise of their powers? The answer to this question will partly depend on the extent to which you are prepared to trust government. But it will also depend on where you personally think that the balance between liberty and security should lie.
The obligation to protect the community from those who would cause us harm or destroy our way of life falls not just on government. It is an obligation we all share – each to the other. Likewise, the duty to protect civil liberties is held in common and cannot be entirely outsourced to others. In the end, it is the general public, in our role as citizens, who must decide. If we choose to give greater weight to liberty, then we will need to tell our governments that they are mistaken in their belief about where their greatest duty lies – and release them from the obligation to do everything they can to keep us safe.

Join the metadata debate and hear from both sides of the argument at the next IQ2 Oz debate, 'Only The Wicked Need Fear Government Spying' at City Recital Hall, Sydney on Tuesday 31 March. Tickets and info available here.