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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10178


Mr KEENAN (StirlingMinister for Justice and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Counter-Terrorism) (09:45): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Impersonating a Commonwealth Body) Bill 2017 will amend the Criminal Code Act 1995 to safeguard the Australian public from misrepresentation and false statements purportedly made on behalf of Commonwealth bodies.

The government condemns the impersonation of Commonwealth bodies and is committed to strengthening public confidence in all communication emanating from them.

Recognising the importance of this issue, this bill introduces new criminal offences and an injunction power to prevent people from impersonating a Commonwealth body. These measures will ensure the Australian public can have confidence in the legitimacy of communications from government agencies, and will safeguard the proper functioning of government.

Impersonating a Commonwealth body criminal offences

It is essential to a well-functioning democracy that the public have trust in the legitimacy of statements made by government agencies. That trust will inevitably be eroded if people are able, with impunity, to represent themselves as communicating on behalf of government, without any authorisation.

Accordingly, this bill introduces new offences to criminalise conduct where a person falsely represents themselves to be acting on behalf of, or with the authority of, a Commonwealth agency.

For the purposes of the new offences, a Commonwealth body would be a Commonwealth entity, a Commonwealth company, or any service, benefit, program or facility provided by or on behalf of the Commonwealth. The offences will capture false representations in relation to a broad range of government bodies and services, from the Attorney-General's Department through to Centrelink and Medicare.

This bill seeks to address a possible gap in our criminal law, which means that impersonating a Commonwealth entity, company or service may not be appropriately prosecuted. It is already a criminal offence to impersonate a Commonwealth official. It is less clear whether the current offences cover a person pretending to be, or acting on behalf of, a Commonwealth body—which is why we have taken action.

The bill introduces offences to ensure the punishment reflects the person's state of mind in making the false representation.

The primary offence covers circumstances where a person intends that, or is reckless as to whether, their conduct will result in, or is reasonably capable of resulting in, a false representation. This conduct will be punishable by up to two years imprisonment.

The amendments also create a new aggravated offence where a person falsely impersonates a Commonwealth body or service with the intent to gain, cause a loss, or influence the exercise of a public duty. The more serious and deliberate nature of this conduct warrants an increased maximum penalty of five years imprisonment.

These penalties are commensurate with offences for impersonating a Commonwealth official. The bill contains safeguards to ensure that neither of these offences unduly limits the freedom of expression.

Impersonating a Commonwealth body injunction powers

The bill also enlivens the injunction provisions in the Regulatory Powers (Standard Provisions) Act 2014. This will provide persons whose interests have been, or would be, affected by the false representation the opportunity to prevent such conduct through a court-issued injunction.

The bill will enable affected persons to apply to a relevant court for an injunction to prevent conduct in contravention of the new offences in the Criminal Code.

The purpose of this power is to enable affected persons to act swiftly, if needs be, to prevent conduct amounting to false representation of a Commonwealth agency. These amendments are critical to protecting Commonwealth bodies from criminal misrepresentation and ensuring the public has confidence in all communication that comes from the Commonwealth government.

Conclusion

This government is committed to safeguarding the proper functioning of Australia's democracy and ensuring that Australians have trust in the validity of communications from Commonwealth bodies. The bill will strengthen public confidence in all such communications, and ensure that those who deceive the Australian public are ultimately captured by the law.

Debate adjourned.