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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2089

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(4.40) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

This Bill amends the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979 in two main respects. Firstly it will enable Telecom, in specified emergency situations, to intercept a telephone call in order to establish the location of a caller so that appropriate assistance can be given.

Secondly, it will enable formal evidence of acts done by Telecom employees in enabling members of the Australian Federal Police to execute an interception warrant to be given by certificate in court proceedings.

The Telecommunications (Interception) Act permits a Federal Court Judge to issue a warrant to members of the Australian Federal Police to intercept telecommunications in the course of investigating narcotics offences. The warrant is given to Telecom whose employees take the technical steps necessary for Police to conduct the interception.

Initially, material obtained by interception was used for criminal intelligence purposes. However, as it is admissible as evidence in criminal proceedings, there are cases where it is appropriate and necessary to put the material into evidence.

Strict proof of actions taken by Telecom employees would require those employees to give evidence in Court. Telecom management has been advised that employees are unwilling to give such evidence because public identification of their involvement in narcotics interception would cause fear for their own safety, that of their families and that of their fellow workers.

Telecommunications interception is of great assistance to the Australian Federal Police in the prevention and detection of drug offences. It would be contrary to the public interest for the lawful interception of telecommunications to be reduced or prejudiced. In this Bill, the Government proposes that evidence of acts performed by Telecom employees to enable the execution of an interception warrant be given by a certificate signed by the Managing Director of Telecom. Such a certificate would be conclusive proof of the matters contained therein.

The matters which will be contained in the certificate are formal matters of evidence only and do not go to any issue before the court.

The Government recognises that there is an objection to a prosecutor seeking to establish, by certificate or averment, an element of the prosecution case going to the conduct of the accused. However, proof that a warrant was executed strictly in compliance with its terms is a purely formal matter. Further, proving compliance by certificate would not conflict with the recommendations of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs. That Committee has taken the view that Parliament should enact legislation to ensure that averment provisions are only resorted to by prosecutors where the matter which the prosecution is required to prove is formal and does not relate to any conduct on the part of the defendant.

Further support for this proposed amendment is to be found in the reports made by Mr Frank Vincent, Q.C., and Special Prosecutor Redlich.

I turn now to the other major amendment. A number of organisations and individuals have requested that telecom be allowed to conduct emergency interceptions, in order to locate the origin of a call where life appears at risk. The classic situation is where a person informs another, by telephone, that he proposes to commit suicide. As the law currently stands, such interceptions are unlawful.

The Government accepts that any interception of a telephone call is an invasion of privacy and is cautious in extending lawful interception. However, it is clearly desirable to locate the origin of such calls as soon as possible. It is also desirable for police to be able to communicate the location of the distress call to persons who can assist in preserving life. Accordingly, the Government proposes that the Act be amended to provide that where a member of a police force forms the view that the tracing of the location of the caller is likely to assist in dealing with the emergency, he may request Telecom to intercept the telephone call and to provide the location of the caller to police. The amendment also provides in effect that the police may lawfully communicate the whereabouts of the caller to people such as ambulance officers or doctors who can assist in preserving life.

The use of this power of interception will be monitored. The Bill requires the Managing Director of Telecom to report annually to the Attorney-General on the general circumstances of each intercept. The Bill also provides for the Attorney-General to table that report in Parliament.

The Act also makes a number of minor amendments. The first is to rectify an omission in the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1985 passed by the Parliament earlier this year. The amendment in question referred to documents or information which may be given to the Stewart Royal Commission. It included a definition of ''unlawfully obtained material'', as meaning certain documents or information which disclosed the commission or possible commission of an offence against a law of the Commonwealth or a law of a Territory. This Bill adds to that class certain documents which disclose the commission, or possible commission, of an offence against a law of a State. The Bill also provides that this amendment be deemed to come into operation on 29 March 1985, the date upon which the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1985 commenced operation.

Sub-section 7 (6) of the Act provides that material obtained by an interception may be lawfully be given in evidence in certain prosecutions proceedings. This Bill makes it clear that those proceedings include committal proceedings. Finally, the Bill provides that this amendment, and the amendment enabling certain matters to be proved by certificate, apply in relation to proceedings instituted before or after the commencement of the Bill. This Bill has no financial implications and I commend it to honourable Senators.

Debate (on motion by Senator Reid) adjourned.