Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Bills

National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014; Second Reading

10:31 am

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | Hansard source

May I begin by thanking all honourable senators for their contributions to this debate. This is quite a historic debate. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has served Australians well and has kept our country safe for 65 years since it was inaugurated during the last year of the Chifley government, in March 1949. The powers and functions of ASIO were the subject of comprehensive review by Justice Hope in the Hope report of 1977, on the basis of which the current ASIO Act was drawn. The amendments, which the government brings to the Senate today, are the most significant set of amendments to the ASIO Act and to the powers and functions of ASIO since the time of the Hope report. So this, as I say, is a debate of some historical significance.

Not all of the subject matter of the bill is directed to ASIO. There are amendments as well to the statutes governing other national security intelligence organisations, in particular, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and others, and there are many consequential amendments. However, I think it is fair to say that, far and away, the most important of the amendments in the bill are the amendments to the powers and functions of ASIO.

ASIO, as I said a moment ago, has served our country well and has kept our people safe for 65 years since the time the first Director General of ASIO, Sir Geoffrey Reed, was appointed by the Chifley government. It is very timely, therefore, that this debate comes at a time when we have just appointed a new Director General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, a former distinguished commander of Australia's Special Forces and secretary of the Department of Defence, who commenced his role on Monday of last week.

The bill before us is the fruit of long, bipartisan cooperation. I want to thank the Australian Labor Party for their support and their significant role in the shaping of these measures. I also want to acknowledge and thank other minor party and crossbench senators who have indicated their support for these reforms, in particular, the Palmer United Party and Senator Xenophon, who have already spoken today.

The history of this legislation arises from a reference to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security by Attorney-General Roxon during the life of the last parliament to undertake a comprehensive review of Australia's national security legislation. One of the topics that the PJCIS report examined was the powers of the agencies including, in particular, the powers of ASIO, and 22 recommendations were made in chapter 4 of that report in relation to ASIO powers. This bill adopts 21 of those 22 recommendations.

During the 43rd Parliament, I sat on that committee, and I want to take the opportunity to pay tribute, in particular, to Mr Anthony Byrne who chaired the committee during its hearings and who conducted a very, very comprehensive and important inquiry in a spirit of immaculate bipartisanship and professionalism. I want to thank all the other members of the committee as well. The fact that the committee was able to produce a bipartisan report should of itself provide reassurance to those who may be sceptical of this legislation, but it commands the endorsement of the Australian political mainstream. It commands the endorsement of both sides of politics and of successive Labor and coalition governments.

It fell to me as the incoming Attorney-General to deal with the recommendations of the PJCIS report and, as I have said, the government decided to adopt 21 of the 22 recommendations in relation to the powers of the agencies.

When the bill was prepared—and, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, I introduced it into the Senate in the last sitting week before the winter recess—it was referred again to the PJCIS and, with the change of government, there was a change of the chairmanship of the committee. It is now chaired under the admirable leadership of my colleague Mr Dan Tehan, the member for Wannon. The PJCIS examined the bill and it came back with 17 further recommendations, six of which involve relatively minor legislative change. I am pleased to be able to tell you that the government was able to accept all of those 17 recommendations and those recommendations which involve legislative change will be incorporated in the government amendments, which I will move in the committee stage.

This has been an impressive example, if I may say so, of the parliament through its committees working with the executive government and the agencies of the executive government to reform our law in the national interest. It has been an impressive example of the parties putting patriotism above partisanship and working together for the common good. As I said before, it is very timely that this bill should be before the Senate for consideration at this time. It is a lamentable fact but an unavoidable truth that Australia at the moment needs the protection of its intelligence services perhaps as never before. Certainly, there has been no time since the Cold War or perhaps even no time including the Cold War when the domestic threat posed by those who would do us harm has been so immediate, so acute and so present in the minds of our people. Tragically, we saw that illustrated as recently as overnight in Melbourne.

The approach that the government has taken to this legislation is to give the agencies the powers they need to keep Australians safe. The protection of the public is the paramount duty of government. Every duty, every obligation and function of government is secondary to the paramount obligation to keep our people safe. However, because we are and must always continue to be a free liberal democracy we must always be very careful in crafting our laws to keep our people safe, to ensure that we do not overreach and that the powers that are entrusted to our security agencies are subject to rigorous oversight. That has been the philosophy that we have brought to this legislation, to give the agencies strong powers and to subject those powers to strong safeguards and strong oversight mechanisms.

I have listened with respect to the contributions of those who criticise this bill. I listened with respect, in particular, to the contributions of Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Xenophon. I want to thank Senator Leyonhjelm and Senator Xenophon for making themselves available to speak to me and my staff so that we could consult them on the bill. Senator Xenophon has indicated his support for the bill, subject to one reservation which, if I may, I will deal with in the committee stage.

Senator Leyonhjelm has indicated his opposition to the bill. It disappoints me that that is the position you have taken, Senator, but I understand and respect your philosophical approach. I understand and respect the fact that you believe that the power of government should be used sparingly, if at all, in a free society. If I may presume to paraphrase your political philosophy in a sentence that, I think, is it. But may I remind you, Senator Leyonhjelm, that freedom is not a given. A free society is not the usual experience of mankind. Freedom must be secured and particularly at a time when those who would destroy our freedoms are active, blatant and among us. It is all the more important that our freedoms be secured by those with the capacity and the necessary powers to keep us safe. I want to reassure you, Senator Leyonhjelm, that the powers that are invested in the agencies by this bill are a proportionate, a judicious and a limited response to the threats we face, and I want to extend that assurance to all members of the Australian public.

I thought, if I may say so, my colleague Senator Lazarus put it very well in the contribution he made a few moments ago when he said, 'I love this country, I love our way of life and I love our freedoms.' Every man and woman in this chamber would share those noble sentiments of Senator Lazarus, but most of us also accept that to protect and secure those freedoms it is necessary to empower the agencies of government to protect us from those who would shred them.

I wonder if I might deal with the particular issues that have been foreshadowed, by way of amendment, by the Greens, by Senator Leyonhjelm and by Senator Xenophon for the committee stage debate. Let me conclude by once again thanking the Labor Party for its bipartisan contribution to this debate. Let me in particular thank the successive chairs of the PJCIS Mr Anthony Byrne and Mr Dan Tehan and the members of that committee for their outstanding work. Let me acknowledge and pay tribute to the recently retired Director-General of ASIO, Mr David Irvine, largely on whose watch this legislation was prepared and among whose legacies to the organisation this legislation will be; and the officers of the Attorney-General's Department, led by Jamie Lowe, who have, at a departmental level, made such a significant contribution to its preparation. Let me end where I began: this government will do what is necessary to keep Australia safe and we will do so in such a manner as will keep Australia free.

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