Thursday, 07 June 2018

Attorney-General welcomes Committee Report on Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill

Media release

Attorney-General, Christian Porter, welcomed the release today of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on the Government’s National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017.

"This is a major step forward in securing passage of this critical legislation and protecting Australia’s democratic systems from Foreign Interference, and it is my expectation that the Bill will be considered and passed during the next sitting period later this month," the Attorney-General said.

"The Committee has made 60 recommendations, the large majority of which are minor changes to definitions and drafting clarifications. The most substantive changes are those that adopt the Government’s proposed amendments which I submitted to the Committee as part of its deliberations earlier this year.

"Those Government amendments expanded the public interest defence for journalists and created separate graduated offences for commonwealth officers and non-commonwealth officers. The amendments were designed to strike the best possible balance between keeping Australia safe and not impeding the ordinary and important work of journalists and media organisations.

"In addition to minor drafting amendments and the adoption of the substantive Government amendments that I provided earlier this year, the additional substantive changes now recommended include that:

  • There be a reduction to the maximum penalties for the proposed new secrecy offences, and to require the consent of the Attorney-General to any prosecution under these proposed new secrecy offences;
  • That all secrecy offences in other Commonwealth legislation are reviewed; and
  • Clarification that the journalism defence extends to all editorial, legal and administrative staff within the news organisation.
"Even in the time that it has taken to consider the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, the threat environment has changed and become more acute. As senior ASIO officials have said repeatedly in recent months, we now live in a time of unprecedented foreign intelligence activity against Australia with more foreign agents, from more foreign powers, using more tradecraft to engage in espionage and foreign interference than at any time since the Cold War."

"Given the rapid change in the threat environment it is the Government’s intention to consider the report and recommendations for amendments very quickly and my expectation is that the Bill, in essentially the form now recommend by the Committee, should be passed through Parliament during the next sitting period later this month; noting of course the primary and most significant recommendation of the report is that the Bill be passed."

The Attorney-General said this Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill were both critical to modernising our national security laws as part of the Turnbull Government’s commitment to keep Australians safe and the Attorney-General wanted to make particular note of the hard work of the Committee in the last two weeks to produce this most recent Report.

"Safeguarding Australia’s national security will always remain the Turnbull Government’s number one priority and the Committee’s role in considering and making amendments to national security legislation is at the centre of a process that has seen ten tranches of national security laws passed since 2014, with the Government accepting 128 recommendations of the Committee, resulting in 293 Government amendments," the Attorney-General said.

"This process was conducted squarely in the national interest and represented a real fulfilment of Australians expectations for cooperative bipartisan conduct when serious national security issues are at stake. On this point I would like to personally thank the Chair Andrew Hastie MP, the Shadow Attorney–General, the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP, and Deputy Chair, the Hon Anthony Byrne MP, for their skilled and good faith dealings with my office to deliver recommendations which ultimately improve the Bill."