Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Bill 2006

In Committee

10:50 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Senator Boswell, who has not been about tonight, says, ‘Thank goodness for that.’ You are waiting for the 11 o’clock finish, aren’t you? Because he has not been here for the debate, he must not know what is in this legislation, or he would be horrified.

The Greens amendment limits this legislation, which allows government agencies—a whole stack of them—to catch SMSs and listen in to phone calls, mobile communications and all of the things totally innocent Australians use these days. We are wanting to limit that massive intrusion on the right of Australians not to be snooped on by government when they are innocent. This is not about terrorism; this is about a whole range of things—taxes, quarantine and a whole pile of other things.

Senator Boswell might be amazed to know that totally innocent Australians can have their intimate phone conversations with their loved ones tapped by a whole range of government snoops, not in the name of terrorism—it has nothing to do with that—but a whole range of other issues. The Greens are here doing the Liberals’ job of defending the rights of the Australian individual—time honoured since our democracy came into being. Many Liberal legislators of the past would be horrified to know that a conservative government which has the numbers in both houses of parliament has taken this opportunity to legislate against those rights.

The Greens limitations are very short of the mark. They should be much more complex, but we recognise the number situation in here and we are just prepared to put some things on the line. The first part of this amendment—if it were to be adopted—would ensure that:

(1) To the extent that there is any inconsistency between this Act and Australia’s obligations under international treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Australia’s obligations under those treaties prevail and override the operation of this Act.

I will be interested to hear what the Minister for Justice and Customs has to say about ensuring that Australians have the protection of an international covenant on rights that we have been trying to get China not only to adopt—as it has—but also to implement and that we are trying to get countries with dictatorships to take notice of. Australia was busy in formulating and bringing into being the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but, as has been pointed out by senior legal authorities in this country, this legislation cuts right through the safeguards that that covenant, which Australia has ratified, should be giving to Australian citizens who are innocent of any wrongdoing.

The second Green qualification on this act reads this way:

(2) Nothing in this Act authorises the interception of communications—

and you can read there: ‘by government snoops under the direction of people like Attorney-General Ruddock’—

(a) of a person unless the person is suspected of engaging in the planning of, or other involvement in, terrorist acts or murder;

Let us qualify this legislation by preventing people from being involved in violent crime. The minister might like to say what the limitation is if it is not terrorist acts or murder. Where does the throw of the net in this legislation stop? The amendment continues:

(2) Nothing in this Act authorises the interception of communications:

(b) where those communications contain information which is:

(i) the subject of legal professional privilege; or

(ii) derived from information that is the subject of legal professional privilege.

(c) where those communications contain information:

(i) the subject of doctor-patient confidential medical communications; or

(ii) derived from information that is the subject of doctor-patient confidential medical communications.

We ask: why should innocent people be opened up to their phones being tapped and their computers being intruded upon for personal information, particularly where they expect they are confidentially passing information to their professional legal adviser or their doctor? If the government or, for that matter, the opposition, which supports this bill, are not prepared to support this vital Greens amendment, let us hear from them as to why the confidentiality expected between innocent citizens and their doctor or their lawyer should not be respected anymore in this great democracy of ours, which this government is eroding day by day as parliament sits—short as that time might be now that the government has control of the Senate. The Greens amendment goes on to say:

(2) Nothing in this Act authorises the interception of communications:

(d) of Federal or State Members of Parliament; or

(e) of High Court judges or Federal Court judges.

I ask, through you, Temporary Chairman Watson, of the Minister for Justice and Customs how the government could possibly be contemplating, as it does in this legislation, allowing spying by government agencies on members of the High Court of Australia or judges of the Federal Court of Australia. It is dangerous territory, don’t you think, Temporary Chairman? And it is all the more remarkable because this can be done not related to any act of terrorism or violence—it might be a taxation matter. It is dangerous territory indeed because it crosses that barrier, the separation of the functions of the judiciary and those of the executive—in this case, the Howard government which, as my colleague Senator Milne has said on a number of occasions, stands before the flag, puts its wattle in its lapel and calls on the name of ANZAC but, like no government before, rips away piece by piece at the time honoured conventions and protections of the right of the individual in this country. It is extraordinary, is it not, that the Greens are standing in defence of those rights, as the Howard government strips them away?

Progress reported.

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