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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 109

Mr McCLELLAND (2:21 PM) —My question is addressed to the Attorney-General. Attorney, I refer to the story that appeared on the front page of yesterday's Daily Telegraph titled `Spy games'. Given reports that the information in that story came from `a senior Government source close to Cabinet', what guarantees can you give that the government's proposed security legislation will not prevent public interest stories like this one from coming to light? What specific measures in the legislation will protect the freedom of the press and the right of every Australian to know?

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) —I am pleased to be given the opportunity to set the record straight. What was just said was a misleading piece of information. The government is seeking to establish a regime to protect the national security across the board. It is very important that we see this as being a matter in the public interest, and I hope it will receive bipartisan support.

The article to which the member for Barton refers relates to the espionage bill that is contemplated for introduction. The espionage bill is a piece of legislation that was developed in the last parliament and introduced. It was designed to bring the espionage offence up to date to take account of recent events and, in particular, to deal with a situation that arose in 1999 in relation to Jean-Philippe Wispelaere which demonstrated that there was a need to modernise the offence.

Included in that bill was a provision designed to restate a provision in the Crimes Act relating to official information and to transfer it, in more modern and appropriate language, to the Criminal Code. Media reports have suggested that the purpose of this aspect of the legislation is to plug leaks, to stop whistleblowers and to curb the freedom of the press. Nothing could be further from the truth. That provision in that bill did not seek to change the law in any way; it simply sought to change the form in which it was expressed. I am encouraged by a recent article in the Canberra Times that correctly reports that the bill will not create any new official secrets offences.

As I said when I first introduced the bill in September last year, the bill is primarily designed to strengthen Australia's espionage laws. The espionage offences will be significantly different but the provisions relating to official information will not be. I look forward to the Labor Party supporting the bill when it is reintroduced.

The SPEAKER —I inform the House and the questioner that, while I allowed the question to stand and the answer to be given, the answer was close to anticipating debate, which falls outside the standing orders. I realise it was not a matter for controversy across the House but I was conscious of it.