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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23478

Mr HUNT (6:06 PM) —I came to this chamber and I come to this debate on the ASIO Legislation Amendment Bill 2003 with a passionate belief in and commitment to basic freedoms, individual liberties and the notion of a society which is essentially free and which gives people a chance to pursue their own lives and destinies and to make their own choices. One of the greatest challenges for any society faced with external threats is to ensure that it does not derogate from core liberties and freedoms.

In a post September 11 environment, where we have moved from classic confrontations and threats across state borders—transnational threats—to a situation where there are non-state actors willing to use means which have not traditionally been part of the threats faced by Western democracies, we have to deal in a balanced way with providing security on the one hand and protecting our liberties, our freedoms and the essential values which define who we are on the other. We have to deal with that trade-off while maintaining an important balance.

I believe this bill preserves those rights and freedoms and the integrity of the values that brought many of us to this chamber. But it does so in a way that recognises that we are not as we were two, three or four years ago, that there are real threats now which are aimed at the heart of the society we live in and that those threats have to be dealt with.

I want to briefly outline to the House what I believe to be the core threat facing not just this society but much of the developed world. You have in al-Qaeda a non-state actor. It is a fringe group—an extreme group—that is a perversion and a betrayal of its own faith. Islam is a fine and noble religion with a powerful tradition of peace and preaches many of the highest sentiments known to humanity. This is not about Islam; this is about a perverted ideology. The core ideology within the al-Qaeda movement is simple. It seeks to take that which was in place under the Taliban in Afghanistan and to apply it on a global scale. If you view it this way, it is a 100-year vision of a Taliban style globe. Al-Qaeda has as its strategic objective, on a 30-year basis, the capacity to destroy or destabilise core Islamic countries. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and now Turkey have all been subject to acts by al-Qaeda seeking to destabilise and fragment their countries and to use them as a base for long-term activities.

On that front, we see that, very simply, in order to achieve that goal they are willing to use types of force and types of activity that target civilians, civilian and humanitarian organisations, whether they are in Turkey, in Iraq, in Morocco, in our own region—as we saw with the attacks in Indonesia and the Bali tragedy—or in other Western countries, as we saw most notably with September 11. That risk is real, it is palpable; it is the ongoing state of conflict in which we find ourselves now. It is aimed at destabilising Western engagement with these core Islamic countries and, ultimately, at breaking down the existing structures in those countries so it can fill the vacuum. That is the strategic objective. This legislation helps to deal in a very modest and careful way with an entirely new threat regime. We now face a level of conflict with a nature and notion of threat that was previously not in place.

I wish to address three things briefly: the background to this bill, its importance and some of its core provisions. On the background: since September 11 and the recognition that the level of threat was far greater than we had previously understood, the government has taken a series of steps aimed at ensuring our basic security and dealing with this new type of non-state threat in a way that makes all Australians feel more secure. Firstly, legislation was passed in July to enhance ASIO's antiterrorist powers. Secondly, legislation was passed only last month to list the military wing of Hamas and the Lashkar-e-Taiba as terrorist organisations. Thirdly, the Criminal Code Amendment (Terrorist Organisations) Bill 2003 has been developed to list all terrorist organisations as they arise—and appropriately—as illegal. The latest addition to these measures is the ASIO Legislation Amendment Bill 2003. In essence it aims to remove any deficiencies in the questioning regime of terrorist suspects so as to enhance ASIO's ability to collect the base information necessary to conduct investigations. It also safeguards sensitive information gathered by ASIO to protect Australians from terrorist networks, whether they are al-Qaeda, affiliated or like organisations.

As you can see from that overview, this legislation has three main purposes. First, we seek to enhance the current legislation so as to address shortfalls, particularly in adapting to changing terrorist tactics and activities. That is the nature of the challenge that we face. Second, we seek to permit ASIO to more effectively carry out its intelligence monitoring and gathering duties, particularly in the prevention of the execution of terrorist attacks in Australia and elsewhere, by increasing the legal tools available to ASIO to intercept and prevent attacks rather than deal with them and address them after they have taken place. It is the very same thing that we apply within our own domestic laws for the police. There are cautious protective measures to ensure that these powers are used in the most limited fashion, but the fact is that the nature of the challenge we face is greater than any we have faced before. Third, we seek to safeguard the information gathered by ASIO and in particular to ensure that our national security is not compromised by limiting the flow of information from a person suspected of terrorist activity.

It is worth reflecting on the importance of the bill. These reforms are part of the government's ongoing commitment to deal with this new type of non-state threat—one that is not merely hypothetical but real, as we have seen from September 11 and Bali—and emerging threats to our security. There are real and palpable challenges in relation to these types of agencies; their willingness to use force against civilian targets, their weapons, the opportunities they have for exploiting technology and their attempts to develop—as have been revealed in al-Qaeda's own tapes—and exploit new forms of weapons of mass destruction. If they can get them—if terrorism and weapons of mass destruction can be linked—then, whether the target is Manchester or Liverpool or Lyon or any other great city, there is a new risk that we must face.

In that context, there will be four core legislative measures taken so as to achieve the goals of the ASIO Legislation Amendment Bill 2003. Firstly, the bill extends from 24 hours to 48 hours the maximum time a person may be questioned under a warrant where that person needs an interpreter because they are either unwilling or unable to communicate in English. Essentially, the time needed to carry out a full investigation doubles and the time provided to carry out that full investigation is also doubled. It is a simple, practical measure. I understand that the member for Cunningham challenged it and, while I respect the views of the member for Cunningham, I disagree. Simple, plain logic indicates that a process which may require double the time should be allowed double the time. We are talking still about a maximum of 48 hours.

Secondly, the legislative measures in this bill also reduce the risk that a subject may leave or attempt to leave Australia should they be served with a warrant by authorities. In essence, what this amendment attempts to do is to ensure that if a warrant is served on someone they cannot flee. It does that by requiring them to surrender their passport to authorities when a warrant is served because of a matter of national security. That is neither onerous nor unreasonable; it is simply practical and sensible.

Thirdly, the bill seeks to clarify the powers of ASIO with respect to a warrant. In particular, it clarifies that a warrant for questioning may include arrangements for detention of a subject, or other actions that are allowable under the act, where that subject is suspected of terrorist activity. That detention—again for minimal periods—is subject to the most rigorous and strict compliance mechanisms.

Fourthly, the legislative measures in this bill safeguard sensitive information. They do that by overcoming the fact that the current legislation does not preclude a person from discussing information they obtained during questioning with others. Very importantly, it ensures that there is a protective mechanism to secure and contain information which may be drawn from investigations. It is a simple but important measure.

In looking at the provisions of the bill I wish to make four brief comments. Firstly, part 1 of the bill under section 34HB—which assesses and makes provisions for the time for questioning in front of an interpreter—takes steps to double the maximum time a person may be questioned under a warrant from 24 hours to 48 hours when an interpreter is present. That fulfils the first of the goals.

Secondly, part 2 of the bill under section 34JC enforces the surrender of a person's passport after they receive notice of a warrant for questioning. It implements the passport surrender provisions. In addition, part 3 of the bill under section 34F removes any doubts surrounding the powers of ASIO with respect to a questioning warrant. Questions have been raised about ASIO's powers and this provision clarifies the capacity for a person to be subject, under a warrant, to detention for a brief and limited period.

Finally, part 4 of the bill acts to deter people from seeking to find out what was discussed with, and obtained by, ASIO, and from releasing information obtained by ASIO for a period necessary to ensure that, at the height of a threat, the government can act to ensure that the threat is addressed.

This is a sensible and simple package of measures in the context of a heightened international threat—one that I fear will be with us for as long as I and all my colleagues within this chamber remain members of this House. But these measures also protect the core values that are fundamental to our society: the essential notions of freedoms and liberties. The measures are part of a package that we have looked at and balanced and, while in some ways the government is more limited than it might ideally want to be, I think it is a healthy thing that there are those checks and constraints and balances in place. I support this bill. I recognise that it comes in the context of threats that we have not previously faced. I am delighted to commend the bill to the House.