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Thursday, 28 August 2008
Page: 4035

Senator LUDLAM (1:15 PM) —I would like it noted that this is not officially my first speech. I apologise for the quality of my voice—it may not be any kind of speech! The Australian Greens acknowledge that the amendments proposed by the government through the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment Bill 2008 are non-controversial. The amendments provide clarity and substantial detail about exactly who has the authority to issue evidentiary certificates to listen in on the phone calls, voicemails, text messages and emails of Australians.

However, the surveillance activities covered by the legislation are highly controversial, as is clear through past debate in this place about the effectiveness of the checks and balances to ensure that privacy rights are upheld. I would like to take this opportunity to note that this week is National Privacy Awareness Week, which the Privacy Commissioner has deemed ‘an opportune time to review your practices and procedures for handling personal information’.

On 14 May this year an amendment was proposed by Senator Bartlett for an independent and periodic review of the implementation and oversight of the act—an amendment that was rejected. This legislation, which the government had serious concerns about when they were in opposition, should be reviewed to ensure that it is consistent with Australia’s international treaty obligations. The Australian people should be provided with evidence that this level of surveillance is actually necessary and is being used in successful prosecutions. It should also be reviewed to ensure that necessary, lawful and proportionate access by law enforcement agencies to telecommunications data is balanced with the public’s right to communicate free from surveillance.

Privacy is protected in this act in two ways. Firstly, authorities that issue warrants are required to take privacy into account before they issue these warrants, and they are not to be issued if alternative means of investigation are possible. Secondly, there are several requirements as to what may be done with the content of intercepted messages. However, it is very concerning that only a very small number of warrants are rejected or withdrawn on privacy grounds. Of 3,287 warrants sought in the year to June 2007, only seven were rejected or withdrawn. The total number of warrants issued in 2006-07 is greater than that in the previous reporting period and actually exceeded the number of warrants issued in the United States. Over the same period, 2,929 warrants were issued in Australia as compared to 1,839 in the United States.

This means that an Australian telephone is 23 times more likely to be bugged than an American telephone. Why is that? Does the government believe that there is something in the Australian character that demands such a high degree of surveillance and eavesdropping? In the US, only judges may issue telecommunications warrants, but in Australia almost all are issued by nonjudges, as we can see from the list of authorised personnel listed in the legislation before us today.

Australians should be able to communicate with their friends and colleagues without a range of organisations listening in. It must only be in extraordinary circumstances when that right to privacy is denied. And who exactly is being spied upon? Too often it has been people who are working for peace and human rights or organising using their democratic right to free expression that we hold dear in this country. Why are these people under surveillance? In conclusion, the Greens recognise that these are sensible and non-controversial amendments to some deeply troubling and controversial legislation.