House of Representatives Speech- National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014

  I rise to speak in relation to amendments (3) to (10) moved by the member for Melbourne. The first group of those amendments is the omission of the first offence, which appears as part of the secrecy provision that is section 3P. The member for Melbourne said that his amendment protects whistleblowing. It does nothing of the kind. I have some knowledge of these matters, because I brought what is now the Public Interest Disclosure Act into this House last year. A scheme of whistleblower protection expressly confers protection on whistleblowers.

I rise to speak in relation to amendments (3) to (10) moved by the member for Melbourne. The first group of those amendments is the omission of the first offence, which appears as part of the secrecy provision that is section 3P. The member for Melbourne said that his amendment protects whistleblowing. It does nothing of the kind. I have some knowledge of these matters, because I brought what is now the Public Interest Disclosure Act into this House last year. A scheme of whistleblower protection expressly confers protection on whistleblowers.

This amendment would simply remove one of two secrecy offences that appear in the bill. As a consequence, it is an amendment that completely fails to address what is an important policy goal, if not a crucial policy goal, of maintaining the secrecy of special-intelligence operations. As the minister has pointed out, it is secrecy that protects the wellbeing—and potentially the lives—of undercover ASIO officers.

I assure the House and the Australian community that Labor understands the concerns that have been raised about section 35P. In this provision the parliament needs to grapple with the competing policy priorities of free reporting and of the ability to safely conduct national-security operations. Given the nature of special-intelligence operations, it is imperative that there be a general protection for their secrecy. We are reassured by the clarification in the amended bill that no journalist could ever inadvertently breach section 35P1, among other amendments. I can assure the Australian community that we will monitor the operation of the amended provision to ensure that it lives up to our understanding—and the understanding of the joint intelligence committee—as to how it is intended to function.

The other part of the group of amendments moved by the member for Melbourne is the omission of increased penalties for communicating intelligence information by ASIO officers, employees and contractors and the new offence that grapples with unauthorised dealing of records. Labor opposes these amendments also, on the basis that the Greens party clearly does not appreciate the importance of maintaining confidentiality of our security agencies' operations. It is the nature of their work that it be conducted in secret.

These provisions deal with misconduct by those who have been entrusted by the government with valuable information. Those people bear a serious responsibility, to the community, to meet their obligations and to maintain the confidences that have been entrusted to them. It is hard to see why serious penalties should not apply when ASIO personnel breach their obligations. That is what these provisions deal with. Labor appreciates the difficulty of maintaining confidence in our agencies. We think it important that there be confidence in our agencies, but we think the amendments proposed by the member for Melbourne are the reverse of anything that could achieve that end of building confidence.