National security legislation reforms a 'distraction'
Greens MP Adam Bandt, independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Labor MP Melissa Parke react in parliament to the federal government's proposed changes to national security laws.
Former intelligence whistleblower turned federal MP Andrew Wilkie has accused the federal government of exploiting fears about terrorism to rush through new national security laws that push Australia towards a "police state".
The government's first tranche of national security changes passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday with the support of the Labor opposition, although one Labor backbencher broke ranks to speak out against the laws.
Tasmanian independent Mr Wilkie, Victorian independent Cathy McGowan and Greens MP Adam Bandt all voted against the laws, which passed on the voices.
Former long-serving federal bureaucrat turned MP, Andrew Wilkie, voted against the new laws. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The laws include jail terms of up to 10 years for journalists who disclose details of ASIO "special intelligence operations" and provide immunity from criminal prosecution for intelligence officers who commit a crime in the course of their duties.
ASIO can apply for the computer warrants to be issued and they can only be authorised by the Attorney-General, who is currently George Brandis QC.Under the laws, ASIO officers will also be able to access, modify, disrupt or alter an unlimited number of computers on a computer network with a single warrant, which many have feared could allow the entire internet to be monitored, as it is a "network of networks".
Labor MP Melissa Parke speaks on the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Mr Wilkie said he was especially concerned the laws would encourage ASIO officers to use force without the "inconvenience" of including trained Australian Federal Police officers in their operations.
"At some point in the future we'll have spies kicking in doors and using force with no police alongside them and that is another step towards a police state," he said.
"Why is the government – with the opposition's support – wanting to overreach like this?
"I can only assume the government is wanting to capitalise on and exploit the current security environment. I can only assume that the security agencies are delighted they have been invited to fill in a blank cheque.
"It is clearly overreach by the security services who have basically been invited to write an open cheque. And the government, which wants to beat its chest and look tough on national security, said, 'We'll sign that'.
"And the opposition, which is desperate to look just as tough on national security, said, 'We'll countersign that cheque too'."
Mr Wilkie said the new penalties for journalists and whistleblowers who disclose details of "special intelligence operations" (SIOs) amounted to the government "bullying" the media into more compliant reporting.
"This is clamping down on free speech; this is clamping down on oversight of what the security agencies are up to," he said.
"This is absolutely disgraceful," Mr Wilkie said, who was a former whistlerblower who warned Australia not to go to the Iraq war as there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Labor backbencher and member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, also spoke out against the bill, breaking ranks with her colleagues.
"I do not support a number of key elements in this bill, and I am aware there are further even more controversial bills coming before the Parliament in the near future," she said.
"There has not been convincing evidence of inadequacies in the existing legal framework that warrant the broad extensions of powers we see here," she added.
"I am particularly concerned that this bill entrenches and amplifies the lack of protection for whistleblowers regarding intelligence information and penalises with up to 10 years jail the legitimate actions of journalists and others doing their jobs in holding the government to account in the public interest."
Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt raised concerns that the media would not be able to report on innocent bystanders killed under bungled SIOs.
"If these laws pass, our security agencies could inadvertently kill an innocent bystander and journalists would not be able to report on it," Mr Bandt said.
He also raised concerns about journalists being put behind bars for up to ten years for revealing the existence of an SIOs.
"People could go to jail under this! People could go to jail under this legislation," Bant yelled.
Justice Minister Michael Keenan said the government made "no apologies" for trying to protect the secrecy of covert intelligence operations.
"This is not, as has been wrongly suggested, about preventing the release of information that might simply embarrass the government of the day or expose it to criticism," he said.
"This is about providing a necessary and proportionate limitation on the communication of information that relates to the core business of intelligence agencies. And I need hardly add that unauthorised disclosures of intelligence-related information, particularly on the scale that is now possible in the online environment, can have devastating consequences for a country's international relationships, a country's intelligence capabilities and very importantly for the lives and safety of intelligence personnel."
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dryfus said the new laws were justified and carefully-targeted, but the government had not explained them well to the community.
"I must say that in the case of the SIO scheme the government has not explained itself well," he said. "It has allowed some misunderstandings of what this legislation enables to gain currency."
Mr Drefus said Labor had demanded amendments so that only journalists who knowingly disclose details about secret counter-terrorism and counter-surveillance operations would face persecution.
"The community should be reassured of the limited scope of the offence provisions," he said.
"Labor would not and will not ever support laws which prevent journalists who report on security and related matters from doing their jobs."
"No-one can inadvertently breach this provision. But where journalists are aware of the possibility of endangering ASIO officers we expect them to act responsibly.
"These laws will not criminalise the good-faith activities of journalists."
Crossbencher Ms McGowan said, "It is not a time to rush through legislation. This is a time for considered approach, this is a time when we should be our best selves as the Prime Minister reminds us."