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Tuesday, 10 December 2002
Page: 7630

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (10:03 PM) —The government opposes these amendments put forward by the opposition. The opposition has argued that the bill should be amended so that it is a questioning regime only and does not permit the detention of persons. The government does not accept this proposal. It believes that the fundamental purpose of the bill would be thwarted by this approach. This bill deals with those circumstances where coercive questioning and detention, subject to strict controls, are necessary in the interests of public safety. For example, it may be necessary to detain a person to allow urgent intelligence investigations to continue unimpeded and to prevent them from informing others about ASIO's investigation. In some situations, the capacity to detain will be critical.

What we are dealing with here is not a normal situation, as you have with a criminal investigation. This aspect goes to national security where people are suspected of actively planning to bring about harm to the community at large or, indeed, something much greater than that. Detention is not just about questioning. It is also about prevention—it is about acting to prevent terrorist attacks. It would be absurd not to have a power to detain a person for a limited period in a situation where there is evidence that they will tip off their terrorist associates. We need sufficient powers to prevent persons from alerting the terrorists that we are on to them. The only way to protect against this is to hold a person incommunicado, subject to strict safeguards, while questioning for the purposes of intelligence gathering.

Those at the front line of meeting the terrorist threat tell us that, in order to protect the community, they need the power to hold a person incommunicado, subject to strict safeguards, whilst questioning them to gather intelligence. This is a need that we have to address in this bill. The opposition amendments do not do that. Warrants under the bill will only ever be used as a last resort. It is important that, when no other measures are available, our intelligence agencies have this essential tool to prevent terrorist attacks. The detention of persons is a significant power, but one that is necessary in the new environment of threat that we experience.

The government have taken active steps to ensure that the safeguards included in this bill remain consistent with our fundamental democratic values and freedoms. In the opposition's proposals we see nothing that advances what this bill needs us to do and what our security agencies need. We believe that we do that in our bill, but at the same time we have regard to those democratic values and freedoms which I mentioned. We believe that we have to make tough decisions in the interests of the safety of all Australians. A bill such as this is the sort of decision that I mention.