Senate debates

Thursday, 28 June 2018


National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018, Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018; Second Reading

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Over 200 times this has happened with different pieces of legislation and amendments at both state and federal levels over 20 years. At the federal level it would be well into double figures. We've amended these pieces of legislation 30 or 40 times. And each time I'm sure we heard 'unprecedented threat'. Each time I'm sure we heard 'urgent'. We've certainly heard them time and time again. I quoted yesterday from an example from August 2004, under the shadow of the same non-existent urgency to ban same-sex marriage. We also had the non-existent urgency to deal with an 'unspecified threat' that suddenly had to be dealt with.

Each time, we've never really had the opportunity to test why these specific powers are needed. And, inasmuch as there have been reviews of some of the extra powers that have been provided to agencies, like ASIO and espionage and intelligence agencies, very rarely has it been said, 'Yes, it was really good that that change was made because otherwise—' Some of these powers have never been used. But what they do give governments is more and more power to use and act in their own interests. This is the political class and the establishment class and the governing class and the state acting in their own interests against anybody they see as a threat.

I saw an interesting quote in an interview yesterday that Mr Hastie, the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, gave to the ABC. The interviewer was asking, in respect of journalists, about how much transparency is okay, because the government's likely to say it's made amendments now that makes it okay for journalists—it's safe now, if it's in the national interest. It's the old national interest test that's used in so many pieces of legislation. It's all over the place. It's in the Migration Act as well. It never has any meaning. The government can interpret it to mean whatever it likes. National interest means what the government says it means, which means national interest is the government's interest. And that's how it has basically operated in a legal sense time and time again. But the particular quote that caught my eye was Mr Hastie saying that apparently, under these amended bills, there's robust defence for journalists, and another check and balance is that the Attorney-General has to consent for a prosecution. That's okay then! The Attorney-General has to consent! That makes me feel much more relaxed—not.

We saw—I spoke about this last year, and I think we'll see about a specific case later today—the Pine Gap protesters and the way the Attorney-General not only explicitly consented to pursuing but also tried to get peaceful, harmless protesters, who presented absolutely no security threat at all, jailed for years. On the matter of consent, the Attorney-General enthusiastically pursued the powers that they had—powers that hadn't been used for decades that were set up for completely different purposes under an act during the Cold War—and used those powers totally for political purposes. If they can use powers under a 60-year-old act that had been set up for completely separate purposes, in the context of the Cold War, to pursue harmless protesters conducting prayers and singing songs inside Pine Gap but nowhere near the actual facilities, imagine what they can do with all of the powers that this Senate keeps giving them time and time and time again.

Mr Hastie also said there was protection, saying:

… the Attorney-General actually has to consent for a prosecution, so there's a number of different things that have to be done for a prosecution to proceed, and that's designed to prevent a chilling effect on the media because a free media is critical to democracy and we don't want to diminish that at all, in fact we want to enhance it and I think we've struck the right balance …

The ABC host said, 'Given you've made such bold statements about the need for free reporting of these matters, I'm curious as to whether you are uncomfortable with codifying jail time for journalists for doing just that—for acting as a free media.' Mr Hastie said:

What we can’t have is radical transparency.

This is a new concept—not just any old garden-variety transparency but 'radical transparency'. He said the whole point of the secrecy offences was 'to prevent privileged and classified information from being inappropriately disclosed'. Of course, it will be the government that will decide what is inappropriately disclosed. We all know the government itself, over time, has repeatedly disclosed classified information. When it's in their interests, they're happy to do it. They just don't want anybody else to do it if it's against their interests—and those are the interests of the government of the day. The ABC person said, 'So where do you draw a line? What is "radical transparency"?' Mr Hastie said:

Radical transparency is Julian Assange dropping a whole bunch of commonwealth secrets out for public consumption …

That's what it is. That's just one example. But he is, of course, an Australian citizen—from Queensland originally, I might say—who has basically been abandoned by this government. I'm not giving him a character reference, but I am certainly saying he has a right as an Australian citizen to receive proper support against what has clearly been an international conspiracy by governments to try and silence him. He has been kept in isolation for years. He has been basically silenced already because of the threat he poses to the state—not to the community, not to the public. The things that he exposed and, more specifically and definitely, that Edward Snowden exposed are things that governments wanted hidden, things so-called democratic governments were doing to their own people. So we have that definition: 'Radical transparency is Julian Assange.' These laws are attempts to criminalise and attack people like Julian Assange. Let's not forget that Julian Assange is acknowledged as and registered as a journalist, and actually won a Walkley Award for his work exposing governments acting against their own citizens. We've seen this time and time again in the United States; it's a case of great debate at the moment.

Let's not forget the other very significant thing. We've had this march over the last couple of decades towards more and more powers for our intelligence agencies. The size of ASIO and relevant organisations has expanded, and the size of their budget has gone through the roof over the last couple of decades—and that's in the context of ASIO's own history, their published history, showing the number of times they've clearly overstepped their legal authority. They have clearly acted against the rights of citizens in this country, based on their own belief, their own internal little bubble. I'm not saying they're bad people; I'm saying that's what happens when people are put in a bubble and made to think that their views are the only views that matter, and where there is no transparency and the powers that people are given are absolute. It is almost inevitable that, regardless of the good character of those involved, if people are put in a situation where they're given such absolute powers with such minimal accountability and transparency, you will get abuse of those powers. So, to expand those powers further, particularly without proper scrutiny and genuine opportunity to test the assertions made by the government of the day as to what those powers will and won't mean, is incredibly dangerous. That's why the Senate should have supported Senator McKim's motion to have these new pieces of legislation scrutinised by a Senate committee.

I'm sure the minister will give answers he believes are true, as he's advised, over the course of the committee stage of this debate. However, there is no capacity for those answers to be tested by a range of other people and all of the legal experts in this country who have a whole range of different political views, ideological perspectives and philosophical ideals. We will do the best we can but, as good as Senator McKim and others in this chamber might be with their forensic minds, it would be much better to open that up to all of the forensic minds around this country to properly test all of the amendments that have been put forward to make sure they do what they say they are going to do. Even if you totally agree philosophically with the intent of what's being proposed here—which I do not—this would make sure that there are not broader powers than are intended, that they're worded the right way and that there are commas in the right places. We all know of times when this has gone wrong in the past. I'm deeply concerned about what is being done here. It is deeply disappointing that the Labor opposition is going along with the government in this process, although it is unfortunately not surprising because it's happened so many times before. (Time expired)


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