Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Quid custodit ipsos custodes? - Who will protect us from our protectors - and ourselves?

Before anybody comments, I know that the literal meaning of the Latin is a little different, but the message is similar.

A number of things happened over the last week or so.

One was the evolving mess of the Haneef case. At best, the Government has displayed a lack of sensitivity and compassion in the matter. This comment holds even if Dr Haneef were to be found guilty of some offence. At worst, we appear to be dealing with a miscarriage of justice.

The second was a sudden demand by a contracting company that a person they had been using for some time provide an Australian passport or birth certificate to prove that they were Australian. This move links to attempts by the Federal Government to tighten up on illegal immigration by placing severe legal penalties on companies found to be employing illegals. The person in question, a professional known by a number of people in the contracting company, refused point blank.

The third was a demand by a major Australian company in the finance sector that someone coming in to do a short term strategic assignment undergo a police check. Turns out that this is now a company standard for all staff (a very large number Australia wide) from insurance sales people to receptionists to drivers to short term contract staff. The reasons are a little obscure, at least to me, but appear to relate to the company's desire to avoid legal problems.

The fourth was the demand by the Commissioner of Police in NSW for compulsory DNA testing of suspects to create a DNA data base. In response to a query about civil liberties, the Commissioner responded "what about the civil liberties of victims?"

How do all these things link? They are part of a continuing trend that, should it continue, will choke the life out of Australian society.

A little while ago I was at a meeting to discuss what is called common access policy in social housing. This is a simple, apparently clear cut idea, that there should be a common data base and allocation approach across various categories of social housing.

A major social policy lobby group, previously a strong supporter of the concept, said that they now had strong reservations because of the way that the Federal Government had used data mining and matching across data bases to capture data about benefit recipients. In essence, Government could not be trusted not to misuse data.

I raised the question of the criminal checks with some younger Government colleagues. They could see nothing wrong with a public company demanding criminal checks on all prospective employees. Yet once a company has that information, it has then to decide what to do about it. The simplest response is to exclude anyone who has any form of criminal record for whatever reason.

At the last NSW State elections, the only piece of official information published about candidates was a statutory declaration that they were not paedophiles. I am sure that any candidate who was would have happily signed the declaration anyway. Then we have the obsession with the internet and child abuse, an area where available research suggests that current political and popular obsessions are not well supported by the evidence. By the way, the official data on child sex crimes shows a long term continuing decline.

Want to apply for a job in the NSW Public Service? Then be prepared to provide answers to compulsory selection criteria on Equal Employment Opportunity (EOO), Ethical Practice, Ethnic Affairs Priorities Statements and Occupational Health and Safety. These are all important issues, but applied in a blanket fashion to apparently all positions they become meaningless, just another hurdle to go through.

At present, if we have a problem, we create a law. We then need policies, procedures and protocols to guide practical application, to avoid the legal risks created by the law.

All this has to be paid for in cash and in restrictions on individual freedoms. The new security procedures at my daughters' school protect the school. But they make the school a less welcoming place, do not affect in any meaningful way the statistical chance of my daughters being hurt or damaged and add to my costs.

In 1961 the Companies Act was quite a short document. Current corporations law is more than twenty times as long. The costs of compliance have gone up, I am only guessing, perhaps 100 times. Yet there is no evidence that I am aware of to show any improvement in the incidence of either company collapse or corporate crime. If anything, the opposite would appear to be the case. So we are paying a lot more money for no result.

Tuesday I drove past Long Bay Jail here in Sydney. I was astonished at the scale of new building. It's huge. But then, according to ABS, Australian prisoner numbers are up 42 per cent in the last ten years. Of total prisoner numbers, our indigenous population contributes 24 per cent.

All this has been done with public support. But it has to be paid for. Here I know of no evidence that it has in any way affected the incidence of crime.

The established incidence of illegal detention in Australia's immigration system is, to my mind. quite astonishing. Go back even twenty years and it would have been a national scandal that would have brought the Government down. Even one citizen illegally detained would have been a scandal. Today it is a scandal, but in a much more muted way.

I may sound like a bleeding heart liberal when I say all this. In some ways I am. But the test I apply is a simple one. Can I see any gain to justify the cost, the complexity and the loss of individual freedom? In too many cases I cannot.

In musing about all this, I found myself asking a simple question.

What would happen if tomorrow we declared null and void every law passed in Australia since 1961? There are clear problems. For example, what would we do with the million or so people whose jobs depend on those laws? Then, too, there are changes that we might want to retain. Even so, I suspect that we would be better off.


Still on Latin, this quotation from Tacitus nicely summarises a core message in this post: Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges.

Or to put it in English: When the republic is at its most corrupt, the laws are most numerous.


Lexcen said...

Jim, you have barely scratched the surface on what is happening to our individual freedoms. There is no doubt that society is changing and the changes are being brought about by forces beyond our control. By this I mean the threats that lurk amongst us not only from potential terrorists but also from pedophiles - check out the Working With Children regulations to see what I mean. My personal gripe is with regulations for private swimming pool fences. I could mention the compulsory wearing of helmets for riding bicycles. There is no doubt the government has an insatiable zeal to protect its citizens regardless of how many rights are taken away in the process. I can only sigh in resignation at the enormity of this trend. I'm surprised that you entertain the thoughts of an anarchist. Really Jim, an anarchist, who would have thought?

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, Lexcen, that I have barely touched the surface. And to this degree I am and always have been an anarchist. I am deeply distrustful of the coercive use of state power.