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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 57


Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (1:13 PM) —in reply—I extend my thanks to the members for Barton, Wentworth, Banks and Hinkler, who have spoken during this debate. The Australian telecommunications interception regime performs a very significant role. It protects the privacy of users of our telecommunications system, while balancing that against the need to provide our agencies with effective tools to investigate serious criminal offences and security matters. This bill effects an important change that will ensure the protections conferred by the act do not impose an undue obstacle to law enforcement and other agencies requiring access to stored communications.

As I have said before, the government acknowledges that a broader review of regulation of access to the content of communications is required. I was interested this week to see media reports suggesting that the government had agreed to undertake a review on this issue because the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee had recommended it. In fact, I foreshadowed a review in these terms when I first introduced these measures in the 40th Parliament. The committee, which has bipartisan representation, acknowledged my proposal to conduct such a review in its report and merely sought to ensure that the review would take place. The government has always been and remains committed to reviewing the regulation of access to the content of stored communications to ensure the regulatory framework keeps pace with technological developments.

The member for Barton noted in his comments his concern that the practical implication of excluding stored communication from the interception regime be addressed in the review that we have foreshadowed. As I have previously indicated, the review will focus on the most appropriate means of access to stored communication. While I will separately announce the terms of reference for the review in due course, I agree that it would be appropriate that the review examine all relevant regulatory mechanisms, including those set out in other legislation.

The amendments contained in this bill represent a practical step forward to acknowledging the effects of advancements in technology on access to the content of communications and the need for a review of the regulation of stored communications in the light of technological developments. It needs to occur in a timely way. The reason we are taking the approach that we are here is that I did not think we could leave a situation where, in very sensitive investigations that might involve access to stored communications such as messaging, emails and the like, the authorities did not have an immediate mechanism to be able to access that material if required.

However, I also recognise that there were some differences of view about how that should proceed, and they were not going to be resolved in the short term. This is a short-term mechanism that we can put in place immediately to address the urgent need, and the review is to enable us to look at the other issues in a sensible way, taking into account the variety of interests that different bodies have and to come up with a more comprehensive solution. So the mechanism is here because of the urgency, and I have to say I am disappointed that we did not get this legislation earlier. I am disappointed that the Senate committee wanted to go back again and again and re-examine the issues each time the bill came forward. It seemed to me that this is really a short-term measure. The review that is promised in 12 months is a reasonable outcome, and it could have been dealt with earlier. It seems to me we have not suffered, but that may be more luck than good management. I hope the bill now secures a speedy passage.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.