Senate debates

Thursday, 26 August 2021


Foreign Intelligence Legislation Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading

3:29 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] It's one of the duties of government to protect us all from the nefarious activities of those who would seek to terrorise and disrupt our society. To do so we have established authorities and bodies to provide such protection. Bodies such as ASIO need to be properly resourced and enabled. We enable them through legislation which strictly corrals their activities in a very strict set of parameters. The legislation under which they operate dates back to 2000, the turn of the millennium. In those days, we busily used phones and faxes. I'm reliably informed that it was easier to track the source of communications in those days, domestic or overseas. Now we deal in emails, mobile phones and messaging apps—you name it. With these types of communications, it becomes more difficult to ascertain whether the communication is foreign or domestic. With this comes the issue of our agencies being denied access to critical foreign intelligence which may be vital to our national wellbeing.

The changes proposed simply update the law and don't grant agencies new powers. Nevertheless, for those who, like me, have an instinctive wariness about Big Brother government, there are reassuring safeguards and they are robust. Allow me to deal with them. First of all, foreign communications warrants can only be issued for the purpose of obtaining foreign intelligence from foreign communications—for example, relating to foreign terrorists or cyberthreats. The warrant request must specify how the risk of the incidental interception of domestic communications will be minimised. The Attorney-General will issue a mandatory written procedure to identify domestic communications that may have been incidentally intercepted; to destroy any domestic communication that is so identified, unless it appears to relate to activities that present a significant risk to life; to notify the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, or IGIS, of any identified communication not destroyed because it appears to relate to activities that present a significant risk to life; and to deal with any other matters relating to intercepted communications. A warrant cannot be issued unless the mandatory procedure is in place.

Before issuing the mandatory procedure, the Attorney-General must consult the ministers for defence and foreign affairs, the IGIS and the Director-General of Security, and the procedure must be reviewed at least every three years. The IGIS has extensive powers akin to those of a standing royal commission and is an essential safeguard. The law requires that the collection of foreign intelligence under section 11C warrants must be highly targeted, and this will not change.

Having read all that out, one really wonders how the Australian Greens, in their contributions, can satisfy themselves that they spoke with any integrity in relation to these measures. We were harangued about this leading to a fascist state or a police state. It's clearly not. The safeguards embedded in this legislation ensure that the right balance is provided in protecting the community whilst also protecting civil liberties. With these things, there is always a balanced, moderate and sensible approach. Of course, as soon as you mention the words 'balanced', 'moderate' and 'sensible', you lose the Australian Greens in the public debate, because, for them, everything is perfectly black or perfectly white; there is no sense of exercising a judgement which can both protect civil liberties and protect our nation as much as possible from cyberattacks and terrorism. So I would really invite the Australian Greens to reconsider their approach to matters of public security generally and to this bill especially.

The comments of Senator Thorpe, if I might say so, were also unfortunate and regrettable. Her contribution did defy any analysis. There was a lot of hyperbole—well done on that score—but, when it came to fact, detail or reality, all those elements were, sadly, absent.

Using incidentally intercepted domestic communications that relate to activities that present a significant risk to life will allow agencies to share life-saving intelligence. I would have thought that is something anybody in a civilised society would seek for their people. That is what this government seeks for its people, for the Australian people, who we seek to serve in this place. We are seeking to get the balance right. It is good to see that the Australian Labor Party, which is in fact potentially a party of government, unlike the Greens, understands these issues as well.

To summarise, in this age of ever-increasing technological sophistication, especially in the area of communications, we need to allow our security agency to keep pace. While some of the issues may be complex, one thing is pretty simple: an Australian who serves the interests of foreign governments is an agent of such a foreign power, whether they are onshore or offshore, and Australians deserve protection from such nefarious activities and such nefarious actors. The bill, with its safeguards, will do exactly that, which is why it enjoys my support and, I trust, the chamber's support. This is a bill worthy of quick resolution by the Senate, because it is important our agency, ASIO, be clothed with the appropriate power and authority to keep us safe and to ensure that the legislation under which it acts and operates is legislation that allows it and empowers it to act in this modern age of telecommunications and that brings it forward from the 2000-era turn of the millennium some 20 years ago, where the communications methodologies were so different from what they are today. The bill is well crafted, well focused and well moderated by the various safeguards, and I commend the bill to the Senate.


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