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Op ed: Labor's handshake on data retention is bad news for unions

Lee's opinion piece on the the passage of the metadata laws was published today.

Mandatory data retention will not only bring about indiscriminate surveillance of all Australians — it will also enable the Liberal/ National government to supercharge its anti-union attacks.

All this is achieved with the backing of Labor.

The Labor “opposition” made back-room deals with the Liberal/National government to usher in mass surveillance that alters the balance between government and individuals. When we look at the implications for unions it becomes clear this is not just about individual right to privacy.

It is also about our right to collectively organise.

Where was the Labor party, our so-called “Opposition”?

It rolled over. It made back-room deals with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, helping him rush it through the parliament. The House of Representatives was given just 30 minutes to debate Shorten and Abbott’s 74 amendment hand-shake deal. The parliamentary debate about the data retention bill left many questions put to the government unanswered. The response of the Labor and Liberal parties is “just trust us”.

On an issue of historical significance Labor wants us to trust a Liberal-National government that has proven itself untrustworthy.

What is interesting about the debate on data retention is the way it has brought to light the abuse of data under current laws. The existing Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act allows law enforcement authorities in Australia to access some categories of metadata from certain internet providers and telecommunication companies. However, a laundry list of other organisations, from Centrelink to the RSPCA, has gained access for undisclosed purposes. This also includes the office of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

The ABCC was a creation of the Howard government’s attacks on Australian workers, specifically construction workers. It had extraordinary coercive powers to compel workers to provide information, produce documents or attend interrogations. Refusal to comply could land workers with huge fines or even jail terms.

The ABCC took away the right to silence, denied people their choice of lawyer and imposed severe restrictions on the rights of workers to organise and bargain collectively. It was strongly opposed by the union movement, Labor and the Greens until it was abolished on 31 May 2012.

Construction is dangerous work. Last year alone 29 construction workers lost their lives, the third highest of any industry. The simple fact is that unions keep sites safe. This is why we need unions like the CFMEU, and why the ABCC was so bad for Australian construction workers. Before it was scrapped the ABCC received a total of 77 authorisations for data through existing laws between 2007 and 2012. Whether this was the data of union officials, union members or Ark Tribe, a construction worker who successfully beat ABCC charges – we do not know.

The Fair Work Building and Construction agency, which replaced the ABCC following a successful union campaign, also received one authorisation in the 2012-13 financial year.

Now the Prime Minister is trying to reinstate the ABCC. That is one of the issues right at the top of the agenda of the Liberal/National government. In November last year it also flagged that it is considering setting up another agency with similar powers to ASIC dedicated to monitoring unions. Both of these organisations, like the ABCC before them, may be able to access the metadata of union officials and union members.

Only this time they will have much more data to access.

Labor may vote against reinstating the ABCC, but can they be confident that the mass surveillance they are so keen to waive through won’t be abused by this anti-union government? Why does Labor want us to trust George Brandis and Eric Abetz with the metadata of union officials and members?

The government has claimed that data retention is about national security, but the Attorney-General’s Department could provide no evidence from anywhere in the world that mandatory data retention improves community safety or helps reduce crime. The new law requires data to be held for two years, but evidence shows that most law enforcement metadata requests are for short-term data, meaning within three months.

With the chilling effects data retention will have on journalism and unions, we can make some conclusions about what is really motivating the Abbott government.

But what’s motivating Labor?

Surely that is a key question for Australian unions and unionists to be asking?

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