NSWCCL worked with other councils for civil liberties through January and February to respond to the large, complex and alarming Espionage and Foreign Intervention Bill 2017 and the related Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017.
These Bills are part of a major package of proposed legislation relating to national security and foreign intervention which also included three other bills: the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017, the Security of Critical Infrastructure Bill 2017 and the Home Affairs and Integrity Agencies Legislation Amendment Bill 2017.
These Bills encompassed much beyond foreign intervention and national security. They also encompass an extraordinary multi-faceted attack on civil society’s right to participate in public political discourse.
This attack included a massive expansion of national secrecy laws capturing not just public officials but also any person who makes an unauthorized disclosure of information covered by these laws. Journalists rightly protested that the secrecy laws effectively criminalised every phase of journalists work. Charities and independent advocacy bodies like GetUp were targeted so as to undermine their participation in public political discourse. Many of the offences carry very serious penalties – in the case of general secrecy offences more than doubling current penalties.
The PM rightly described this package as ‘the most important overhaul of our counterintelligence legislative framework since the 1970s’. It was therefore a disgrace that we were only given a few weeks to comment on them. Strong protests from civil society groups eventually gained an extension into mid/late February.
Few organisations were able to respond to all the Bills in this timeframe. NSWCCL in conjunction with the Joint CCLs prepared submissions on the large and important Espionage and Foreign Intervention Bill 2017 and the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill. We failed to get in a submission on the equally alarming Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017.
The reaction from civil society and the media – and the Law Council of Australia (LCA) - has been ferocious. The Attorney-General Christian Porter responded with a package of amendments to alleviate the impact of the secrecy offences on journalists.
This was a smart and positive move by the AG. His proposed amendments to his own Bill were in line with recommendations made by civil society and the LCA – however they are a long way from solving the very problems with these Bills.
The Parliamentary Committee on intelligence and security will report on the most significant of these Bills in April. In the interim NSWCCL will do what it can to persuade Parliament not to pass these Bills - and certainly not in their current form.
Dr Lesley Lynch