Monday, 3 December 2018
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Attorney-General. Will the Attorney-General update the House on the steps the government is taking to strengthen national security and protect Australian families? Is the Attorney aware of any alternative proposals?
I thank the member for his question. In July 2017 a terrorist plot to blow out of the sky an Etihad airliner whilst en route from Sydney to Abu Dhabi went undetected for four months because of the use of encrypted applications. In fact, in this case it was the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Australia's outstanding intelligence and police agencies are simply fighting a numbers game—and we can't be any more honest with the Australian people than to say that it is a numbers game—in their efforts to keep Australians safe. Those numbers are sobering and they speak for themselves: 15 terror plots have now been prevented; seven terror attacks have, sadly, been completed and, tragically, have seen the loss of multiple Australian lives. Our government has legislated 12 tranches of very significant changes to our national security legislation, and the parliament will be tasked this week with perhaps the most critical of all those changes in recent years—that is, the assistance and access bill. That is the only way that we can help our security agencies and police prevent terrorist attacks like the one that, tragically, we saw occur in Bourke Street in Victoria. The No. 1 priority of this government is keeping Australians safe, and dealing with the criminal use of encryption is the most urgent and important change that is required to keep Australians safe.
As members opposite interject, we on this side of the House, like all members of the Australian public, listen to ASIO when they tell us that 95 per cent of the current targets that they are scoping for terrorism use encrypted applications. The commissioner of the AFP has said that we need these laws—in his words—to:
… give police a fighting chance … in an era when the information that we gather is encrypted by default.
We on this side of the House note that he doesn't say an advantage; he says 'a fighting chance'. When he uses the word 'police' he doesn't mean just federal police; he means state and federal police. We have now reached a sticking point with this critical legislation where members opposite want to deny this type of benefit to state police. We will talk about this overnight, but this side of the House will not deny these powers to state police and give them only to federal police. Our view is that the lives saved by state police are the same as the lives saved by federal police—that is, they are Australian lives. The Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police has said very clearly:
We have been using the term going dark for a while. I think the reality is they have now gone dark.
This legislation is urgent. (Time expired)
My question is to the Attorney-General. I refer to his previous answer and to the front page of The Australian newspaper, which appears to quote directly from a confidential submission to the intelligence committee about the government's encryption bill—which is a criminal offence under national security legislation, punishable with up to two years in prison. Under national security legislation, a prosecution for this offence can be instituted only by the Attorney-General or with his consent. Can the Attorney-General guarantee to this House that he will not stand in the way of any prosecution for this criminal leak?
I thank the shadow Attorney-General for his question. It is the case that an article in The Australian today reads:
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin wrote to the joint committee on intelligence and security to express concern about Labor's proposal to split the encryption bill.
"The AFP is very concerned such a purpose-based approach would pose a variety of significant issues that would challenge the effectiveness of the regime and undermine the policy intent of the measures" …
Whether that was a confidential communication or not, I simply cannot answer. The shadow Attorney-General's question said that it 'appears to be'. Forgive me if I will reserve my view as to whether or not it appears or doesn't appear to be until I've had the chance the speak with permission—
Mr Brian Mitchell interjecting—
The shadow Attorney-General says that appears to be some form of confidential communication. As I have noted, forgive me for wanting to speak with the commissioner first to the determine whether that was or was not some form of confidential communication and to discuss that matter with him. If he takes the view that some action should be taken I will listen to that view. But if only it were the case that the shadow Attorney-General was as concerned about the national security of Australians who face terrorist attacks as he is about smearing the Prime Minister or any member of this side of the House. This is the classic modus operandi of this member opposite. Whenever he runs into problems, because of his own failure to act in a reasonable way, he runs a smokescreen and runs a smear campaign. The difficulty that the shadow Attorney-General has is that no Australian could physically be as smart as he thinks he is.