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Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Page: 4101


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (12:17): I rise to also make a contribution on this package of bills, the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018. These bills, I deeply believe, are an appalling crackdown on civil society and freedom of speech in this country. I'm particularly concerned about the impacts on civil society. Ever since I stepped foot in this place as a senator, I have been championing civil society and the role of charities and the not-for-profit sector in our democracy in this country, and I've been acting to protect their right to advocacy and their role in our democracy, because major changes in this country have nearly always been driven by civil society, with this place following where they lead. Their role is critical.

This package of bills is the latest move in a long line of steps that conservative governments have taken to stifle dissent, and the Turnbull government is continuing this approach. I have stood many times in this chamber to speak against proposals—which conservative governments have brought to this place and championed—to reduce the role of civil society and the role and capacity of charities and not-for-profits to advocate for change. It is all very well for this government to praise the role of charities and not-for-profits—for example, when they're tending to 'the poor'; when they are ministering to sections of our community. But woe betide them if they dare advocate for a change of policy which will make the lives of people better! That's not, apparently, what those on that side of the chamber want to see. Well the Greens will always stand up for the rights of charities and not-for-profits and civil society to do their work and to be able to advocate for change.

Charities and not-for-profits have been under siege by Mr Turnbull, who's continued the work of previous conservative governments, and many of his glass-jawed MPs, who apparently don't like the spotlight focused on them. They don't like the fact that civil society speaks out about, and criticises, their policies. Sometimes they speak out in favour of them, but apparently government MPs don't like it when civil society is advocating for change. They clearly can't bear the facts of life of a democracy, that citizens have a right to scrutinise government policy and to advocate to improve it. Civil society is a critical part of our democracy. As I said, most of the change that has happened in our community has been led by civil society. They are the leaders; this place follows on.

This series of bills—in fact, there's a three-pronged approach in this; there's a third bill, which we haven't debated yet and which I'll come to in a minute. We have this package of bills, but we also have the electoral reform bill, which sought to tie up charities and not-for-profits and civil society organisations in bureaucracy and red tape and cut off their sources of funding. We've also had the change, to tie up charities even further in red tape, that has already gone through this place—that is, the change to the way charities report some of their activities through the Electoral Act. They changed 'The purposes for the public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means', which is the area of the Electoral Act that requires charities and not-for-profits to report to the AEC, to:

The public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election) by any means.

The AEC and the government say that doesn't change the reporting period, but it has caused mass confusion among charities and not-for-profits because how could they know whether an issue that they are talking about or advocating for is likely to be before electors in an election. How can you know?

During estimates I asked the AEC if they had put out the guidelines for how this should be interpreted, because it started from March. At that stage, they hadn't. Those guidelines are out now, and the feedback I get from community based organisations is it's still as clear as mud. The AEC said it doesn't change the reporting requirements. Well that is not the legal advice that some not-for-profits and charities have received. That change brings with it very significant penalties for charities and not-for-profits, particularly for their chief finance officers. So this government yet again, when they're supposed to be the mob that are reducing red tape, have further tied up our charities and not-for-profits in red tape with a view to stifling and silencing their comments. They're betting that charities and not-for-profits will be put off speaking out because they are concerned about that requirement, because they won't know if an issue that they talk about is likely to be before electors in an election. That is this government's attempt to clamp down on charities and not-for-profits.

Right from the start it was clear that this electoral reform bill was not motivated by concerns about the influence of foreign money in Australia. If it were, why on earth didn't the government start in the most obvious place, which the Greens have been campaigning on for years—that is, putting caps on all donations to political parties and limiting expenditure to boot?

Why didn't they start there? We've been advocating this for a long time. In fact, it was clearly designed to silence those in Civil Society who work every day to make this country better. The people and the groups who advocate for better services for the homeless or an end to Australia's cruel offshore prison camps are what this legislation was aimed at.

The Turnbull government drafted its electoral funding legislation to make sure that members of Australia's development community, for example, can't advocate for a decent foreign aid budget, when that budget has shrunk to its lowest levels ever. It wanted to make sure that environmental organisations can't campaign against massive dirty fossil fuel projects like Adani's Carmichael coalmine. The government seems to have put the electoral funding legislation on the backburner because of the hard work of campaigners in Civil Society. It's a shame they haven't put the other two bills in the same place. Instead of acknowledging that the Australian people have serious concerns about its entire foreign influence package, it is pushing ahead with the espionage and foreign influence transparency scheme bills—despite the fact that the legislation hasn't had enough scrutiny through this place. Not only is it proceeding but it's, in fact, attempting to ram it through the Senate without proper consultation.

These are bills that will change the way in which we conduct our democracy, yet they have only been through the secretive Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The only parties that are on that committee are the coalition and the Labor Party. The rest of this chamber is excluded from that. This is extremely bad practice when we're talking about legislation like the espionage bill. George Williams was quoted in this chamber previously this morning. The dean of the University of New South Wales Faculty of Law and constitutional law expert sums up some of the concerns about the espionage bill well. On 11 June, Professor Williams wrote an opinion piece in The Australian and he said:

Even with the changes of the parliamentary joint committee, the bill will remain incomplete and dangerous. It will contain overbroad and uncertain definitions of critical concepts such as national security—

Oops! I said the word 'security'. Take that out of the quote!

The law also will undermine freedom of speech and of the press.

He goes on to say:

As in past inquiries, the committee has given low weight to these values. It has failed to put forward amendments to prevent journalists being imprisoned ... The possibility also remains that people who publish information about Australia's economic and political relations with other countries will face jail under new espionage offences.

The espionage bill could criminalise activities like protesting in the streets to stop Australia declaring war on another country—something that, in fact, I have done myself—or to draw attention to possible breaches of humanitarian law by the Australian government. Peaceful and non-violent protestors at our detention centres might find themselves classified as saboteurs and subject to 20-year jail terms, according to legal advice obtained by Civil Society. Charities may have won a limited exemption from the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill so that they won't have to register as agents, but it's a hollow victory when other parts of the legislative package potentially criminalise public discourse on issues like food security, economic conditions and migration and refugee policy.

You might well ask: how can the government get away with this type of behaviour? How can it possibly rush this legislation that is so significant without proper scrutiny? Well, it's with the support of the opposition, with the support of the Labor Party. This is the same Labor Party that, last week, railed against the injustice of the government's undemocratic decision to gag and guillotine debate on the income tax cuts. And, while the Labor Party were in here this morning saying they wouldn't agree to gag and guillotine this debate, they are essentially doing that by siding with the government and ramming this through now, at this sitting, and failing to support the Greens in our attempt to refer these bills to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, where we could have scrutinised the 280 amendments that were made, virtually in the blink of an eye, in the House of Representatives yesterday. They have not been through adequate scrutiny. If this had gone to the legal and constitutional affairs committee, those amendments could have been scrutinised.

This is the very same Labor Party that just a week ago said it supported the Hands Off Our Charities Red Line Principles. Those principles urged all MPs not to undermine our democracy or unduly constrain public-interest advocacy. Yet the moment the term 'national security' is bandied about they seem to lose all scruples. Now is the time for Labor to stand up for Australia's democracy. All it has done, so far, as my colleagues have pointed out, is sandpaper off the roughest edges of this legislation. Rather than continue its pattern of slavishly following the government in the name of bipartisanship on security, it should allow the Senate adequate time to consider this legislation.

As Senator Rhiannon pointed out, there are other not-for-profit organisations that are still, potentially, caught up by this legislation. Not all of civil society is protected by the amendments that have been put forward. That is a disgrace in this country. We are a democracy. We need to do all we can to protect civil society. As my former colleague Scott Ludlam put it: with the opposition in this semi-comatose state, the wheels of democracy can still turn, but they are almost completely disengaged from what is really happening below the surface. This is about civil society. That is what I am deeply concerned about. I will always stand up to protect the role of civil society in our democracy. It is time that Labor woke up. They need to join with us to send this legislation off for proper review so that we can make an assessment as to whether the amendments that have been made to this legislation do what the committee recommended they do, to make sure they deliver what the committee recommended. How do we know? We don't—because we haven't had time to look at those amendments.

We all know that this legislation does not need to be passed before the winter break. We know that, given time, we can properly scrutinise this. And I would suggest it is highly likely that we would find some issues with those amendments if they were subject to proper scrutiny. The government's excuse of the upcoming by-elections—really?—has got to sound hollow to themselves. They must feel a little yucky when they use the by-elections as an excuse for this legislation. We need to draw a line in the sand, and we need to protect civil society and democracy in this country.

I'd also like to let people know that I will be moving second reading amendment 8476 once the Senate has dealt with my colleague Senator McKim's amendment. This legislation does not need to be rammed through this place. It should not be rammed through this place. It needs proper scrutiny because it has significant ramifications for democracy in this country. We need to stand up and protect our democracy, not ram this through right now with 280 amendments that we haven't had time to scrutinise properly. We will give it a red-hot shot in this chamber, when we are in Committee of the Whole, to ask the government questions and to look at these amendments. But we can't possibly do the same job in the Committee of the Whole that we could do if we were to subject this to a public inquiry through the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, where we could hear from experts like Professor Williams and a whole range of others who are taking an interest in this legislation. We did not get an opportunity to hear from them before these amendments came before us to be debated.

It is a bad day for this country when this sort of legislation is rammed through this place without that scrutiny of the whole of the community so that we can have access to advice from expertise on these matters. This legislation is going through with poor process. It's poor legislation. I'm deeply concerned about its implications for civil society.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Marshall ): Senator Siewert, could you confirm the number of the foreshadowed second reading amendment?

Senator Siewert: It is 8476. My understanding is that it has been circulated in the chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Amendment 8476 has already been moved.

Senator McKim: I think you'll find it was 8475.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Is that right, Senator Siewert?

Senator Siewert: Yes, what he says!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Leyonhjelm.