Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Intelligence and Security Committee
by leave—Today I rise to make a statement updating the House on the progress of the committee on intelligence and security's review of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018.
The committee adopted this review on the 14 December, following its referral from the Senate in December last year. At the end of 2018, the committee agreed to expedite its consideration of the assistance and access bill. This was in response to government advice that the legislation was critical to assist agencies to address heightened national security concerns over the Christmas and New Year period. At this time, the committee was conducting a detailed review of the assistance and access bill referred to it by the Attorney-General in September last year. However, in recognition of the request for expedited consideration and the need to pass the bill before the House rose in December last year, the committee tabled a brief report recommending a series of amendments to respond to the most pressing issues raised during the 2018 review. The committee's advisory report on the assistance and access bill was tabled on 5 December 2018. It contained 17 recommendations for amendments or other action by government. Amendments to the bill were introduced and passed by the parliament on 6 December 2018, the final sitting day of last year. Unfortunately, the tight reporting time frame prevented the committee from clarifying the intent and objectives of its recommendations through its longstanding practice of detailed committee comments.
It is within that context that I rise today to advise that the committee has unanimously agreed that two matters require amendment to the act now in force. In the committee's 2018 report the committee recommended that the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor review the act within 18 months of the bill commencing. The committee notes that the amendments passed by the parliament in December provide for a statutory review of the act as soon as practicable. Whilst there are merits in conducting a statutory review beyond an 18-month period, an earlier timing of this review is preferable. The committee recommended that the commencement of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor's review be within 18 months of the act's passage, to enable this expert legal advice to inform the committee's own review of the act to commence on 13 April. It is the view of the committee that an amendment is required to clarify the time frame for the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor's review. Likewise, it is the committee's consensus view that the act's industry assistance powers in part 15 of the act be extended to Commonwealth and state anticorruption bodies. The exclusion of these bodies from the access and assistance act was recommended as an interim measure while the committee continued its consideration of the act.
The committee recognises that these commissions have a central role in ensuring integrity and accountability within public administration. They investigate, expose and prevent corruption involving or affecting public authorities and public officials. They also educate public authorities, public officials and members of the public about corruption and its detrimental effects on public administration and on the community. Notwithstanding the importance of these bodies, the exercise of such intrusive powers must always be oversighted. The committee is therefore of the view that the Commonwealth Ombudsman should oversight the use of these powers by state bodies. Such an extension is parallel with the Ombudsman's oversight of the exercise of the act's powers by state and territory police forces. It is the committee's understanding that government amendments to effect these changes will be introduced to the Senate tomorrow.
All members of the committee have worked through these matters with a commitment to bipartisanship on issues of national security and the work of the committee. This is very important legislation. It is necessary to keep Australians safe. I can inform the House these new laws have already assisted our law enforcement and national security agencies in their task of keeping Australians safe. The Australian Federal Police have informed the committee that the legislation has been significant in allowing them to address a number of emerging and urgent operational issues. One example provided by the AFP concerns an investigation, which has been able to be brought to resolution, into the suspected procurement and importation of illicit drugs with cryptocurrency via a dark web marketplace. Another example cited by the AFP concerns an investigation into the distribution and possession of electronic child exploitation material. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, is also using these new laws to good effect, but for national security reasons I am unable to go into specific detail.
I note with the House the concerns raised by some stakeholders in the tech sector about these laws, including in today's press. I welcome the ongoing contribution from these stakeholders as the committee continues its review. I note, however, that the legislation as passed prohibits the creation of so-called back doors. Companies cannot be required to create systemic weaknesses in their encrypted products or be required to build a decryption capability. Agencies also cannot use the provisions in this legislation to access personal information. Access to personal information must be authorised by existing warrants and authorisations, which are subject to their own safeguards. It is because of these inherent safeguards that the committee unanimously recommended that the assistance and access bill be passed in December. And it is because of these inherent safeguards that that Australian public and the telecommunications sector should have confidence that the legislation will not undermine their privacy and interests.
I thank members of the committee for their commitment and their constructive participation in this ongoing review. It is our shared objective to deliver a final report by 3 April, as required by the Senate's referral. I note that the committee will continue to accept submissions until 22 February. I invite any interested stakeholders to share their views. I thank the House.