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Thursday, 20 November 1986
Page: 2618

Senator ARCHER(3.38) —I speak to the Joint Select Committee on Telecommunications Interception report because it is important that it be spoken to in view of the fact that when the inquiry finished a minority report was brought down. There was general agreement in the Committee on all the fundamental issues. While acknowledging the ultimate necessity of telecommunications interceptions in the fight against crime many submissions were against the proposal. However, no evidence of telecommunications interception as not being effective came forward from anyone. The Committee supports the fact that participation by the State and the Northern Territory, the National Crime Authority and the New South Wales Drug Crime Commission is totally optional. It is up to them to apply individually for registration under the Telecommunications (Interception) Act if they so desire.

The proposal to extend powers to other authorities came out of the drug summit of April 1985. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) gave the undertaking then so the inquiry was really one for implementation issues only. Already more than 18 months have been lost since the undertaking was given. The Committee was unanimous in its support of the extension of powers to the States, the Northern Territory, the Crimes Authority and the New South Wales Drug Crime Commission. It was unanimous in requiring strong safeguards in the operation of interceptions; it was unanimous in ensuring the protection of innocent people and of requiring heavy penalties for all breaches, it was unanimous in instituting total bans on all the equipment used, or for use, illegally. There were no differences of opinion on any of those matters and that is what is really important. However, there was a minority report to which I was a party and the dissent comes from the areas of operation, the methods of implementation, the safeguards and reporting required, the degree of seriousness of crimes to warrant interceptions, the use of material obtained and the speeding up of getting the legislation passed and operative.

The majority report of the Committee failed to provide a reasonable, workable implementation of the major issues of operation. To follow the recommendations in these areas would have very severely hampered the adequate operations of the Drug Summit undertaking. The dissenting report, if accepted, will minimise delays in implementation, establish the most workable system, maintain the tightest security, avoid additional bureaucracy and restrain unreason- able costs.

We must remember that discussion about fighting crime-serious crime, murder, kidnapping, organised crime involving drugs and the like-is important. It is not simply an academic exercise. The system to be installed must work simply and efficiently. The proposal for a single national agency is unsupportable operationally. To centralise would be cumbersome and expensive and would get the operation out of the hands of the agency which authorised it. The extension of this to a regional office operation would defeat the aims of the proposed single authority on the one hand, and retain the weaknesses of time, duplication, et cetera on the other. We must admit that all Federal Government law enforcement operations are already undermanned and underfunded. Why would this be granted a priority?

The cost recovery proposal is a myth. The method of calculating rent, power, stationery, authorised and unauthorised labour costs could never be agreed upon and, under a central monstrosity, would be enormous. The vast majority of State interception requests will naturally be for matters totally within a State's boundaries, and to involve a national agency can only be detrimental to the efficient fight against crime. That is what it is all about. I must ask: Is the Government in earnest in fighting organised crime?

The main report has provision for two lots of supervision. Either would be quite adequate; both would create a real impediment. Then there is a request for an entirely new Bill which would replace the existing Bill and the basic Act. This may well be desirable but would inevitably delay implementation when there is great urgency if the Government's bona fides is to be preserved. I would like a new Act, but the practical approach is to put a sunset clause in the amended Bill and to have the full replacement Bill as soon as possible thereafter.

Then there is the call for all warrants to be issued by a judge of the Federal Court of Australia only. Why? The minority report for all practical reasons suggests that warrants be issued by a judge of the Federal Court or a judge of the Supreme Court, and there is no reason why this would weaken the proposal in any way. Not one witness offered any evidence to support these quite unreasonable impediments. Little, if any, weight was given to the evidence of the law enforcement authorities. Urgent action is what is required without a minefield or obstacle course on the way. Law enforcement agencies are fighting a new breed of criminals these days. Additional funding is not being provided. While old methods are effective to a point, resources are finite and the methods are limited. Interceptions have been proved effective in Australia and overseas and are essential, but they must be reasonable and workable. The whole Committee places very high priority on privacy, as do most Australians, and we must recognise that criminal elements rely on that and abuse it accordingly. We must gain access to their phones.

Finally, we all agree that the use, ownership, possession, importation, manufacture or whatever of all interception equipment should be banned and heavy penalties should be imposed upon anybody breaching those regulations. We did achieve general agreement on the vital issues. The dissenting report took greater account of producing something that was feasible and workable. The investigations were interesting and the Committee very compatible. I thank the Chairman, Mr Martin, and the Secretary and staff for their excellent work and co-operation. I record my thanks and appreciation.

Debate (on motion by Senator Robertson) adjourned.