No Wonder MPs Are Confused About Security Laws

I have a fair amount of sympathy for Anthony Albanese.

Sure, his intervention in the national security debate came nearly a fortnight late.

When Albanese told Sky News he was concerned about section 35P of the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014, it had been 11 days since he and his party voted that restriction on free speech into law.

But this is exactly why the bill was rushed through in the first place. To prevent opposition to the measures from coalescing. To prevent analysts and those affected by the provisions from delving into the detail. To prevent information about the bill’s practical consequences from spreading until it was too late.

In The Drum earlier this month Michael Bradley showed how little senior politicians on both sides understood of the national security legislation they voted for.

But let’s not be too harsh. Academics with expertise in national security legislation have told me that even for people who live and breathe this stuff, the legislation was incredibly opaque and the significance of some of the big concepts within it entirely unclear.

If this sort of law is hard for the experts, imagine how hard it is for the politicians who have to vote on it.

As of Tuesday morning there are 130 separate bills being considered in federal parliament. Just reading them all is an incredible amount of work.

Some bills are brief, just a couple of pages. Others are like a short book. The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill, which re-establishes the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner, runs to 21,000 words. It isn’t the longest.

The bills under consideration total 594,032 words. At an average reading speed (say 200 words per minute) it would take 49 hours just to read all that legislation.

Add the explanatory memoranda for the bills (the essential first step if we’re interested not just in reading but understanding) and their 1,271,218 words would constitute another 106 hours of reading.

If somebody made that their full time job (8 hours a day, 5 days a week) that’s four weeks – the better part of a month – of dedicated reading.

But reading legislation isn’t enough to understand policy. It isn’t really possible to comprehend, for instance, the latest national security proposals without having read the reports of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. The INSLM’s 2014 report, which goes into detail about the legislative framework governing foreign fighters, is another 6 hours or so of reading.

So Australia’s politicians have a mammoth amount of reading and learning if they want to become even minimally informed about what they’re voting about.

No surprise that they are not minimally informed.

In the system of direct democracy in Ancient Athens, citizens would personally vote on each public policy measure themselves.

But direct democracy is incredibly time consuming. Most people have to work for a living. We can’t all sit around all day considering legislation. So instead we elect representatives to act on our behalf. They do it so we don’t have to.

Yet nobody who has been involved in any public policy debate can avoid noticing the incredible ignorance that legislators often have of their own proposals, or of the misinformation they accidentally peddle.

Sure, some misinformation is intentionally peddled. But most of it is accidental, and most of it comes from this extraordinary information overload.

Your average backbencher spends their life dashing from one meeting to the next branch meeting to the next community fete. They don’t have the time to get across all the material. That’s no excuse of course. But that’s just how it is.

As a result, so much of our public policy debate falls back on a feeling about whether one ought to support the purpose of a bill, rather than the specifics of the proposals.

Politics isn’t really about policy, after all – it’s about signalling to voters what your values are.

Do you support greater national security powers, in general? Then vote for the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014. The detail is just detail.

But that detail included a new and dangerous restriction on free speech, as Labor slowly realised after they waved the bill through.

One proposal in the United States is the Read the Bills Act, which, among other things, would require legislators to sign an affidavit that they’ve actually read the bills they vote for. (You can read about it, and read the bill itself, here.)

The Read the Bills Act would also require amending legislation to quote the words it intends to replace. The idea is to make legislation not just available, but comprehensible.

This matters because laws are imposed on everybody but only a narrow group of dedicated lawyers and analysts are able to decode them.

Legal complexity and parliament’s heavy workload empowers the bureaucracy and the government at the expense of legislature. This isn’t good for responsible democracy.

Last week the Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm released a tongue-in-cheek quiz -How well do you know the Foreign Fighters Bill?

That quiz was addressed to journalists. It could have just as easily been addressed to his fellow politicians.