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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 58


Senator GREIG (12:37 PM) —I too am keen to respond to the opening speech by His Excellency, the Governor-General. During his speech, the Governor-General indicated that the government would press ahead with a number of the most controversial bills from the last parliament—namely, a bill to facilitate access to private SMS, email and voice mail communications without an interception warrant; a bill to establish an extensive surveillance regime for law enforcement officers; and a bill which will undermine the right to a fair trial by preventing those fighting criminal charges from accessing all the evidence used against them.

Each of these bills has previously attracted, understandably, widespread community opposition and will have significant implications for the protection of human rights around this nation. The consistent characteristic throughout each of them is that the government has failed to demonstrate a legitimate and specific need for the changes they contain. Indeed this has been a consistent characteristic of much of the legislation introduced by the Howard government since September 11, 2001 in the name of fighting terrorism. The immediate relisting of these bills is a disappointing indication that the government intends to persist with its flawed strategies to combat terrorism.

There is no doubt that terrorism presents new challenges for governments around the world—it is random, indiscriminate and decentralised and has given rise to a sense of fear among some in the community. Governments must take the threat of terrorism seriously and develop new strategies to combat this threat. Those strategies need to be specific, targeted and effective. But the strategies adopted by the Howard government have been just as random and indiscriminate as the threats they seek to combat. Many of the government's initiatives have been focused on prosecuting and punishing those who have committed terrorist acts rather than on preventing terrorism in the first place. While bringing terrorists to justice is vitally important, saving lives is even more important.

Intelligence has a fundamental role to play in preventing terrorism. Yet until recently our intelligence agencies were poorly equipped for this role. Rather than invest more resources into intelligence agencies, the government's initial response was simply to invest them with more and intrusive new powers. It was not until the Willie Brigitte debacle, in which a cable from French authorities went unnoticed by ASIO for three days, that the government decided to pour additional funding into intelligence and establish the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week National Threat Assessment Centre.

The government has now introduced more than 20 pieces of so-called antiterrorism legislation. But there is no doubt that the new powers for intelligence agencies represent the most radical changes. The infamous ASIO bill, which Labor eventually let through the Senate, invests ASIO officers with the power to take any Australian into secret custody for up to a week for the purpose of interrogating them. Such individuals have no right to silence and are required to prove they do not have the information ASIO is looking for, or face five years in prison. Of most concern is the fact that this legislation is not directed at individuals who are suspected of involvement in terrorism, since those people can already be interrogated under the current criminal justice regime. Rather, it is targeted specifically at law-abiding Australians who may have information relevant to ASIO—in other words, nonsuspects. The legislation enables ASIO to interrogate teachers, journalists and lawyers, for example. It could also be used against the innocent family members, neighbours or colleagues of terrorist suspects, or against those Australians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, causing them to witness a particular incident of interest to ASIO.

In our experience we Democrats have found that overwhelmingly most Australians are committed to preventing terrorism. If they have information that might be useful to the authorities, they are likely to come forward and volunteer that information. But it seems that the government would prefer ASIO to take these people away, hold them secretly for up to a week and interrogate them for that same information. This strategy punishes law-abiding Australians for the actions of terrorists. It is misdirected, heavy-handed and unjustified. For these reasons, we Democrats maintain our strong opposition to the legislation and have consistently voted against it.

Another feature of the government's antiterrorism strategy is to significantly increase the level of surveillance within the community. Again, this strategy is indiscriminate and infringes the privacy of all Australians. Increasing surveillance is the focus of both the Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment (Stored Communications) Bill 2004 as well as the Surveillance Devices Bill 2004. The first of these will enable the police to access private SMS text messages, email and voice mail communications between individual Australians without the need to obtain a telecommunications interception warrant from a judge. ASIO already has the power to access these communications without a judicial warrant. The objective of the Surveillance Devices Bill is to facilitate the use of other surveillance devices, including listening devices, tracking devices and optical surveillance devices such as videos. Again, some of these devices will be able to be used without obtaining a warrant.

The approach which we Democrats have consistently taken when considering proposed new antiterrorism powers is to assess, firstly, whether there is a demonstrated need for new powers and, secondly, whether they involve any infringement of rights and liberties and, if so, whether that infringement can be justified. Unfortunately the vast majority of the government's antiterrorism initiatives have been excessive and involve serious infringements of rights and liberties. The government often fails to demonstrate any deficiency in current legislative arrangements and therefore the need for new powers is questionable. For these reasons, the Democrats find most of the government's antiterrorism agenda unacceptable.

We Democrats have also adopted a different approach to the concept of balancing human rights against national security. The Howard government consistently talks about the need to balance human rights and civil liberties with the need to keep Australians safe. It has carefully created a perception, which we believe is a false perception, that human rights and civil liberties are somehow inconsistent with national security. In other words, we must be prepared to sacrifice certain rights if we want to be safe. But human rights and civil liberties are not a liability in the fight against terrorism; on the contrary we argue that they are a powerful weapon. A strong culture of respect for human rights will help to address the root cause of terrorism, not just its devastating and subsequent effects.

The government talks about terrorists threatening our freedom and our liberty, indeed our way of life. Yet the government's response to terrorism also encroaches on our freedoms, liberties and way of life—unjustifiably so. The Attorney-General himself has acknowledged that no amount of security measures can fully insulate us from attack. So while the government moves in the direction of a police state it acknowledges that this strategy may not actually be effective. Significantly, the Howard government's assault on human rights extends back to well before September 11, 2001, and it continues on a range of fronts that are unrelated to terrorism.

Debate interrupted.