‘Would the real leader of the opposition please stand up?’

‘Would the real leader of the opposition please stand up?’

‘Would the real leader of the opposition please stand up?’

July 28, 2015

Dear Mr Shorten, I’d like a word.

Leading the Opposition, in case you haven’t noticed, is your job. So could you do it, please? I’m not the Opposition Leader, despite the fact that the media keep pretending I am.

Don’t get me wrong: I admired the way you faced down the Australian Christian Lobby on marriage equality, but in your position, once is not enough. If you don’t stand up for civil liberties, we will soon have no liberties left to defend.

At the moment I’m the only consistent defender of civil liberties in the current parliament. On 35P and journalists going to gaol, 18C and people choosing to be offended, or super-secret search warrants that cannot be mentioned – I am the only one to have raised objections each time. Of course, there are people in all parties who agree with me, but they’re either unwilling to speak up or selective about their concerns. I’ve also had minimal support from the Coalition media commentariat, who don’t seem to understand that their ‘team’ will not always be in power. I’m left to do it, and I’m sick of it.

Your desire to avoid being seen as ‘soft’ on terror has led to a situation where you’re competing with Tony Abbott to see who has the hairiest chest, and since we’ve all seen Tony in his budgie smugglers, this is a competition you are destined to lose.

It’s time to drop the bipartisanship, particularly on the data retention proposals. These have nothing to do with national security and everything to do with allowing every busy-body who works for the government to snoop on ordinary citizens.

I’d like you to tell the Australian people that until the European Court of Justice struck down the EU’s 2006 Data Retention Directive earlier this year, the equivalent legislation in the UK to Australia’s Data Retention Bill was used to chase people for things like minor welfare fraud, littering, and dog fouling. Yes, I know that standing in dog poo isn’t fun, but spying on perpetrators isn’t going to help defeat Islamists either.

Data retention will not bother the technically competent and those who hide in the recesses of the ‘DarkNet’. It will catch the journalist who finds the odd leak and the parliamentarian who wanders into a brothel with his iPhone switched on. Thanks to the wonders of GPS, the Chinese will know every Australian politician’s geographic foibles for the previous two years.

And I’m sure the ATO and the ACCC will love data retention as much as their counterparts did in the UK. In fact, I’m fairly sure it will be used to spy on petrol stations in the ongoing ‘bowser wars’.

Your bipartisanship on national security is also galling because it is stopping the Senate from functioning as Australia’s ‘House of Review’. During my first week as a senator, in early July, you may recall inviting me to meet with you and Penny Wong, where you stressed the importance of allowing the Senate to do its job and not curtailing debate.

This ‘bipartisanship’ meant that last Wednesday, a number of useful amendments to the risible, illiberal Foreign Fighters Bill were voted down without a single word of debate. This happened because on Tuesday, Labor agreed to the Government’s guillotine motion.

Only now, after passage of that bill into law, have you written to Tony Abbott asking him to ‘please reconsider’ both tranches of the national security legislation. Only in the hurly-burly of the chamber in the midst of a sitting week did you let your Shadow Attorney-General produce some decent quality amendments.

I doubt that any amount of legislator’s remorse will be of much help to the people who discover they have been criminalised.

I urge you to lead the alternative government, the government-in-waiting. Labor once had a fine tradition of defending civil liberties. What happened to that? Just because the Coalition is struggling in the polls at the moment doesn’t mean victory in the next election will drop into your lap like a ripe plum off a branch.

I know the scene at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus – where lots of people stand up and claim to be Spartacus – is one of the great cinematic moments, but that’s not how Australian politics works. You are the Leader of the Opposition. You need to stand up and be counted.