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Member of Council for Civil Liberties expresses concern at the proposed relaxation of phone-tapping restrictions

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Australians could have a lot more people listening in to their telephone conversations, if the Government accepts the recommendations of a review carried out by the Federal Attorney-General's office. The review proposes widening the range of suspected offence where the police are allowed to use phone taps, and making it legal for individuals to record their own phone conversations. It also accepts police force and corruption agencies' criticisms of the federal phone tapper, the Telecommunications Interception Agency, and proposes handing over some of the federal powers to the States.

Civil liberties groups have responded angrily to the review, and we're joined in the studio now, by Beverley Schurr from the New South Wales Civil Liberties Council. To talk to her, Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Beverley Schurr, a Federal Government review has proposed relaxing some phone tapping restrictions. Have you seen that report?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: Yes, I have. It's an important review but it's also the result of an internal federal government inquiry. There were no calls for public submissions and I believe it should be more widely circulated in the community. So far, only the police and the prosecutors have made submissions, and it's turned into a policeman's wish list.

FRAN KELLY: So, recommendations have been made purely on the submissions put from the security forces?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: That's right.

FRAN KELLY: Well, one of the recommendations is simply that individuals should be able to tape their own telephone conversations . Now, is there anything sinister about that?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: Well, in several State laws, people are not permitted to tape conversations under the Listening Devices Act. The federal law has always outlawed permitting people to tape conversations without the permission of the other person on the phone line, and this is the first time this broadening of power has been suggested in Australia. It rather reminds me of the old Polish telephone system under the martial law days when whenever a person picked up a phone, they'd hear a recorded message saying: `Warning, this telephone call may be tape recorded', and that's maybe have to be introduced in the Australian phone system, if these recommendations are agreed to.

FRAN KELLY: What's actually the danger in it, though? Isn't it my right to tape my own conversation, in my own home, or at my own office?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: No, there are provisions for emergencies, such as people who have to record incoming calls like ambulance services and other agencies, and they're permitted by law to tape those calls, if there's a warning beeping sound for the person calling in. In all other cases, people have the right to expect the conversation is private and the Federal Government has the responsibility to ensure the privacy of the phone network.

FRAN KELLY: Well, the review also recommends handing over more direct phone tapping rights to State police forces, with orders coming from State Supreme Court judges, not Federal Court judges. What's your view on that change?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: We've got to look at it in the context of the 16 years of illegal State police phone tapping in New South Wales, which also involved police from several other State police forces. In that light, our submission is that the Federal Government should retain responsibility for ensuring State police follow the law.

FRAN KELLY: But the police forces and the anti-corruption agencies have all canned the job that's being done by the federal agency. Now do you know how effective that agency is?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: Well, that agency has got special powers to quickly put emergency taps in place, and it has responsibility to produce an overall federal annual report, and also it's oversighted by the Ombudsman, although they have a lot of difficulty assessing the work of the TIA. So, it has powers and I believe it should be retained in all our interests.

FRAN KELLY: Well, just finally, there's a widening of the range of offences that phone tapping can actually be used for, is also being recommended. Again, couldn't that be seen to be in the public's interest?

BEVERLEY SCHURR: When phone tapping powers were under present law, were introduced in 1979, phone tapping was said to be an extraordinary power and limited to extraordinary offences, and this report just seems to propose that it should be applied to every suspected offence.

FRAN KELLY: Beverley Schurr, thank you.