Tuesday, 06 March 2018

 Amendments to Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill

Media release

The Turnbull Government has committed to refinements and improvements to the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill to ensure it strikes the right balance between keeping Australia safe and not impeding the ordinary and important work of journalists and media organisations.

The Bill is the next stage in a five year process of modernising our national security laws which is absolutely vital to protect Australians.  Safeguarding Australia's national security will always remain the Turnbull Government's number one priority.

As ASIO has said, foreign intelligence activity against Australia is occurring on an unprecedented scale and is probably more dangerous in many respects than at any time since the Cold War.

I have been carefully considering the issues raised by media organisations and others to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to devise a series of amendments to improve the Bill.

I have met directly with a range of key stakeholders, including representatives of Australia's major media organisations to ensure the proposed amendments address central concerns raised by the stakeholders.

There has been no intention to unnecessarily restrict appropriate freedoms of the media.  Where drafting improvements are identified that strike a better balance, the Government will promote those changes.

Considering and making amendments to national security legislation reflects the process that has been followed for the nine tranches of national security laws passed since 2014, which have seen 273 Government amendments to those Bills, including 125 recommended by the PJCIS.

These amendments have been provided to the PJCIS during its inquiry into the Bill to ensure it can consider them before it delivers its report later this month.  It is expected the inquiry process, as has been the case with the other nine tranches of national security legislation, will make further recommendations for drafting improvements which the Government will consider in due course.

There is a strong history of bipartisan support for national security legislation in Australia and I would hope that these amendments which ensure media freedoms, whilst maintaining the Bill's integrity to protect Australians and the sovereignty of our democratic institutions, will also secure bipartisan backing.

The Attorney-General's supplementary submission to the Committee will be available on the PJCIS page.

Summary of amendments:

The amendments propose to Schedule 2 of the Bill will:

  • create separate offences that apply to non-Commonwealth officers that are narrower in scope than those applying to Commonwealth officers and only apply to most dangerous and serious conduct; and
  • narrow the definitions of inherently harmful information and causes harm to Australia's interests, which will form part of the offences applying to Commonwealth officers;
  • strengthen the defence for journalists at section 122.5(6) by;
    • removing any requirement for journalists to demonstrate that their reporting was 'fair and accurate';
    • ensuring the defence is available where a journalist reasonably believes that their conduct was in the public interest; and
    • clarifying that the defence is available for editorial and support staff as well as journalists themselves.

The amendments also address a number of other concerns including the definition of security classification, the breadth of the offence at section 91.3 and the application of strict liability to elements of the offence relating to security classified information.