Legislation bolstering the power of security agencies and introducing tough new punishments for whistleblowers has been passed by the Federal Parliament, as Labor and the Coalition combined to ease the new measures through the House of Representatives.
The morning saw animated debate in the House as Greens MP Adam Bandt, Independents Andrew Wilkie and Cathy McGowan, and Labor member Melissa Parke expressed serious concerns about the legislation, reiterating warnings it would allow ASIO to monitor the entire internet with a single warrant and send journalists to prison for reporting issues of significant public interest, including abuses of powers by security agencies.
Dissenting MPs took aim at one of the Bill’s most controversial sections, which will impose a 10-year prison term on any person who discloses information that may “prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation”.
The section has been criticised for targeting journalists and attempting to shut down the potential for Edward Snowden-style whistleblowing.
Bandt tried to draw the government on the type of reporting that could be prosecuted under this provision.
He suggested that under the legislation a journalist who reported an incident in which an ASIO operation resulted in the death of an innocent civilian or bystander would be liable to jail time.
“An Australian could be killed in a bungled operation and no-one would have the right to talk about it, and no one will have the right to know,” Bandt said.
While The Australian newspaper published an editorial supporting the changes earlier this week, Bandt put an impassioned defence of journalism to the Parliament, and probed the government as to whether important stories would be suppressed by the laws.
“In Australia, journalism plays a vital role in holding the government to account and thanks to journalism here and around the world we have read about things like the bugging of the East Timorese cabinet. We have found out that Australia tapped the phone of the Indonesian president’s wife,” he said.
The Minister for Justice Michael Keenan said whistleblowing would still be able to occur through other official avenues and those who believed ASIO had overstepped its powers could lodge complaints with the Inspector General.
He supported the increased penalties for those who publicly reveal information that put operations or officers at risk, but declined to respond to specific questions put by Bandt.
“The government makes no apology for criminalising that conduct,” Keenan said.
In spite of assurances made by the government, Assistant Minister for Defence Stuart Robert appeared to concede the Bill was in part designed to target journalists. He said while most in the profession do not publish stories that could reveal operations or put lives at risk, those unaware of the ramifications of doing so were still able to publish such material.
“The law here is designed to stop the one in a million journalists who are not across the ramifications,” he said.
Amendments by Bandt and Wilkie, including one that would limit the number of devices ASIO can monitor with a single network warrant to 20, were voted down – and in some cases laughed down – by Labor and the Coalition.
Robert pointed to his own household where over 20 devices were connected on a single network – including his fridge – as evidence that ASIO should not have “artificial” or “arbitrary” limits imposed on the number of devices it can access per warrant.
He accused the Greens of having a “luddite” view which failed to take into account the proliferation in the number of devices individuals owned, and said the Attorney-General could still choose to limit the number of devices ASIO could request to access in a single warrant
Keenan said ASIO is already subject to controls in regards to the kinds of information it can collect.
“I’m really not sure how much clearer I can be. ASIO does not access information that is not relevant their security inquiries,” he said.
Cathy McGowan, who was later echoed by Wilkie, criticised the pace with which the legislation was put on the Parliament, and the lack of scrutiny it had been subjected to, especially given the climate of fear resulting from recent anti-terror raids.
“This is not a time to rush through legislation, but a time for a considered approach, a time when we should be our best selves, as the prime minister said,” McGowan said.
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