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Wednesday, 26 November 1986
Page: 2792


Senator COONEY(4.21) —The report of the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception was tabled last week. Senator Archer addressed some remarks to it. Senator Black incorporated a speech in Hansard. The conclusion one comes to as to whether telephones ought to be intercepted in the interests of the solving of crime or of preventing spies from invading Australia depends very much on one's philosophy. Certain principles should be put before the Senate: First, privacy is essential to a free society. Secondly, those who claim the need to invade that privacy bear a heavy onus to prove that need. Thirdly, whether telephone tapping should be extended beyond the Commonwealth to the States or Territories and to other offences than those provided for currently is a matter for parliament and not for law enforcement authorities. Fourthly, crime is abhorrent and should be suppressed. Fifthly, the preservation of a free and democratic society is paramount in any contest between the principle that crime ought to be suppressed and the principle that a free and democratic society should be preserved.

Privacy means the ability of people to communicate about matters undetected, if you like, by authorities and unhampered by other people. If people want to discuss business, if they want to discuss their illnesses, if they want to discuss family matters of an intimate nature or even of a not so intimate nature, if they want to talk about family squabbles or simply want to exchange pleasantries over the telephone they should be allowed to do so. That is an essential reason why the integrity of the telephone should be preserved. Claims are made that telephones ought to be tapped to prevent crime. Society has agreed to that in respect of serious drug offences. One can understand that. However, whether telephone tapping powers should extend beyond that is very much a matter for parliament. It has argued that because the police could more effectively do their job if they had an unrestricted power to tap telephones, they ought to be allowed to do so. But if one follows that argument down the line, it would allow television sets to be put into private rooms, private gardens and into the bedroom, for that matter, simply in the interests of preventing or detecting crime. It would mean that children would be encouraged to inform upon their parents. It would mean that all sorts of stringent measures which are not consistent with a democratic society would be adopted.

That is the real contest. A pronounced extension of police powers, including the right of unrestricted telephone tapping, poses a considerable threat to the very fabric of this society. The fabric of this society consists, amongst other things, of strong and vibrant threads of freedom, of democracy, of the ability of people to live unhampered by authority and by other people. If we allow unelected authorities to decide how much of our privacy and liberty are to be invaded and the extent to which we will be scrutinised, the ability we have to control our lives and our own community weakens and dissolves. That is the real problem with the question of telephone tapping.

The integrity of telephone communications is one of those areas particularly indicative of the sorts of people we are and the sorts of freedoms we enjoy. When we consider crime and the means we have of suppressing it, we should ensure that the means do not grow into something more terrible than the crime they are meant to interdict. Those whom we place in charge of detecting crime in this community should remain under the control of the community through the parliamentary process. Simply because they demand increased power it should not be given to them. It is for society to decide the extent of the power to be held by law enforcement agencies. There is danger in propositions arising out of this report of simply saying that any time an unelected law enforcement authority wants to do something, no matter how draconian, it should be allowed to do it. That is a sure recipe for a totalitarian society which we must abhor and avoid at all costs.