SUBJECT/S: Prime Minister back down on press freedom; housing affordability.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Labor obviously welcomes that the Prime Minister has backed down on the issue of protections for journalists. We have been asking for a warrants system now for quite some time.
It took Bill Shorten to write to the Prime Minister to get him to back down. It is frustrating that it’s taken this long, but it is pleasing that the Government is now working on an amendment which we’re waiting to see.
JASON CLARE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: This is a good result. It’s a victory for journalists, it’s a victory for Bill Shorten. This has been an area of disagreement between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. We’ve been consistent that we believe that journalists deserve this special protection and that law enforcement agencies should have to seek a warrant before they can access a journalist’s telecommunications data.
The Prime Minister has been implacably opposed to this. Yesterday he backed down. That’s a good thing. We now need to see the amendment that the Government’s proposing and they need to develop that in consultation with Australian media organisations as well as with the Opposition and the crossbench.
JOURNALIST: The move raises a few questions. Firstly, how do you define who is a journalist and who is a member of the public? How that warrant is going to be accessed. Has that been ironed out yet?
DREYFUS: There’s obviously questions about how you define what is a journalist, but it’s something that the Australian Parliament has engaged with before when Labor passed a journalist shield law that’s now part of the Evidence Act. At that point we grappled with what is a journalist. We’re waiting to see how the Government chooses to frame this amendment.
I can say that we’re already got in the amendments that are already agreed to by the Government. This was a kind of notification scheme, some indication of how the Government is going to proceed.
JOURNALIST: There is supposed to be a committee meeting later on to examine this particular issue. Will that committee still go ahead, the Coalition’s asking you to withdraw support for-
CLARE: That depends. It depends upon whether agreement can be reached on the amendment. The Government’s got an opportunity over the next few days to develop an amendment and get the support of the Opposition, the crossbench and Australian media organisations. If they can’t do that then it may be useful to have a hearing on Friday so that the Chief Executives of News Limited, Fairfax, Channel 9, Channel 7, Channel 10, ABC and SBS can provide assistance to the Government to finalise this.
JOURNALIST: You’ve got privacy advocated saying if it’s good enough for journalists it should be good enough for the rest of the community for the police to call for a warrant. Is that being considered by Labor, is that another step that should be taken?
DREYFUS: Journalists occupy a special position in our society. The concept of press freedom is an absolutely integral part of our democracy and that’s what this is directed at. It is directed at ensuring that we can have, as far as possible, continuing press freedom, that journalists, as is part of their professional ethics are able to protect their sources. I can’t go to exactly how that is going to be achieved, but Labor has said all along that a warrant scheme is what’s required. We’re now waiting, as I said, for the Government to produce a draft of the amendment.
JOURNALIST: So, with that legislation, if that amendment is produced, how quickly do you believe before that legislation (inaudible)
CLARE: We expect that the debate on this legislation will commence later today and will be debated in the House of Representatives this week and debated in the Senate next week. So the obligation is now on the Government to get cracking, draft the amendment, consult with the Opposition, consult the crossbenches and consult Australian media organisations to make sure they get the amendment right.
JOURNALIST: But there’s still concerns, as you mentioned that meeting on Friday might still go ahead. Does that mean that we shouldn’t be rushing through this legislation?
DREYFUS: We need to take our time on drafting these amendments. As Jason has already said there will be a purpose in continuing with the inquiry that the Government agreed to hold and has asked the Intelligence Committee to hold. We’ll be hearing on Friday from chief executives of all of Australia’s media organisations. I think they’ve got, very likely, something really useful to add and if the amendment hasn’t been agreed by then I think that that hearing should proceed.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask you, sorry, on something different-
DREYFUS: Have we finished in relation to telecommunications data?
JOURNALIST: On the warrants system, why do you think that would protect journalists’ integrity?
DREYFUS: We’re looking at any system that can provide a check that causes authorities before they simply go out and get the telecommunications data belonging to journalists, to have to go and seek authorisation from an external party. At the moment, and this has been so since at least 1979 when the current Telecommunications, Interception and Access Act came into force, it’s been possible for the telecommunications data of all Australians, and that includes journalists, to be obtained by police forces and agencies simply by, in effect, filling out a form.
This will mark for the first time, subject to of course what can be agreed and what the amendment looks like, a protection for journalists in order to enable them to fulfil their professional ethic, their obligation that all journalists keep to their sources, to keep them confidential.
JOURNALIST: But that’s the problem though, that warrant process could be a tick and flick, it could require them contacting that media organisation first before that happens. I mean, it’s fair enough to say that there can be a warrant, but if the media organisation doesn’t know about it-
CLARE: It is important that it’s not a tick and flick. That’s why we have been consistent in our approach that this needs to be an application before a judge, where it needs to be tested by the law enforcement agency and the judge making the decision about whether the warrant should be granted. As Mark said, at the moment a law enforcement agency can access a journalist’s metadata without a warrant, they simply fill in a form.
The British Parliament passed legislation two weeks ago to require their law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before they can access a journalist’s metadata. We think that’s the right approach. We have always though that’s the right approach and this legislation is an opportunity to, for the first time, introduce that into the law.
JOURNALIST: If it was your information that you had given a journalist as an informant, would you be happy that the judiciary should be in charge of whether that becomes public or not?
CLARE: I think that it is important that law enforcement agencies, before they access that data, have to make that case to a judge. There needs to be an independent process. There’s not at the moment. If this amendment is passed it will be. As Mark said, journalists are a special case. They are different. If you access who they are talking to then that can undermine press freedom. And often it is who the journalist is talking to that is more important than what they said. That’s why we think there needs to be an independent warrant process like has been established in the United Kingdom.
JOURNALIST: So just to my question, you’d be comfortable leaving that in the hands of the judiciary with your information that you’d given a journalist?
CLARE: I would be much happier. We believe the best approach is for this decision to be made by a judge not by someone inside the law enforcement agency.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask if you think it’s time that we did something about negative gearing in this country to, as a way of dealing with housing affordability?
DREYFUS: I’ve had my head deep in this Telecommunications, Interception and Access Act questions, deep in looking at whether or not we can achieve protections for journalists. I can say Australians have been talking about this issue of negative gearing for a long time. It’s always important that we do discuss aspects of our tax system.