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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18769

Mr NEVILLE (7:03 PM) —The Communications Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2003 makes some minor but crucial changes to a raft of acts, including the Telecommunications Act 1997, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act and the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act. Before I start my contribution, I want to say that I have always been an admirer of the contributions by the member for Blaxland, but I am at variance with him tonight in a very strong way. He attacked my colleague the member for Herbert on the basis that he was introducing some overt partisan politics that questioned people's loyalty and dated back to the dim, dark ages—as he described it—of the Menzies era, and that there was no reason why our Australianism should be challenged, we should be pilloried in this place or any Australian should be challenged. Is that not what he said?

Mr Hatton —If I can be of assistance!

Mr NEVILLE —Yes, I am sure he did say that. He then went on to pillory the private contractors who work for Telstra. I ask the member for Blaxland: why would a private contractor with probably many years service to the community in electronics or telecommunications be any less loyal an Australian than a member of the union that services that site? Why would he be any more of a security risk? To say that there is a security risk in subcontractors or contractors having access to Telstra facilities is tantamount to saying that Telstra could be infiltrated by people who do not have the security of this nation at heart.

There is another thing I find extraordinary in that. If the full sale of Telstra is completed, it will mean that two-thirds of the shares are owned by Australians—in legislation. Not only that, but the majority of directors will also be Australian, and two of those directors must always come from regional Australia. On top of that, the chairman must always be Australian and the organisation, no matter what overseas acquisitions it might make, must always be headquartered in Australia. Why would the private owners of Telstra, two-thirds of whom will be Australian, be any less loyal than people would be to a publicly owned Telstra? If you want to start those arguments, you deliver an outrageous slur, on one hand, to private contractors who might be employed by Telstra and, on the other hand, to Australians who for good and just reasons have bought shares in Telstra. Many on the opposition side of this House have bought shares in Telstra because they thought it was a good and secure proposition for them and their families. So, if you are going to get self-righteous about the member for Herbert, let us not bring similar invective into our arguments.

I am also alarmed that the member for Blaxland said that he has heard on good authority that SingTel will be able to go around the provisions of this act. If he is tying that to SingTel being the communications provider for the House and these members, I challenge him to bring that information immediately to the attention of the Speaker and the President of the Senate, because if that is the case it is a very serious charge. If he is concerned about the security of our networks, I think he should also raise that—first with the Speaker and the President of the Senate, and then perhaps through a question in both chambers to the appropriate ministers. Because I for one—

Mr Hatton —What about my speech in this House?

Mr NEVILLE —If you do have that information, I would suggest you very readily bring it to the attention of the right authorities. Don't let it just hang around there in space. I would like to go on with the rest of my contribution. By the way, that does not in any way diminish my respect for the member for Blaxland. I think it was perhaps an aberration tonight—I usually find his contributions very good.

Mr Hatton —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order—and it is stretching things, but this may be of assistance. The member was not in the chamber at the time the member for Herbert was speaking when he pleaded with the ALP not to be soft on terrorism. That gave rise to my comments.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. L.R.S. Price)—There is no point of order.

Mr NEVILLE —Despite that ruling, I accept the intervention in the spirit in which it was given. I will not speak of all the amendments that are in this bill but rather will focus on the crux of the bill, which is the further strengthening of Australia's telecommunications security by way of tightening our data disclosure and interception services. I point out too that this will not make the methodology any more intrusive than it currently is in existing acts. All it does is widen the scope of the organisations being looked at. These overarching amendments will consolidate and support the work of our law enforcement agencies chiefly by giving the government a greater say in the provision of carrier licences to individuals or entities. Under these new arrangements, all applicants seeking a carrier licence will come under scrutiny in terms of national security and will be refused a licence if they are not deemed suitable under those conditions.

In the first instance, the process of assessment will be carried out conjointly by the Australian Communications Authority and the Attorney-General's Department, with input from ASIO. Future scrutiny or action will take place with input from the Prime Minister's department or the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. It is surprising that we should have to subject this bill to a Senate inquiry, when we have all those levels of scrutiny put in place by the bill. Those levels of scrutiny, in conjunction with the Attorney-General, will have the power to veto the granting of licences and to direct the cessation of any or all carriage services by the licence holder—and that would only be done, of course, in the most extreme instance. Applicants will not have the right of judicial review decisions by the Attorney-General, but this is in keeping with the current exclusions under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act for similar decisions based on national security considerations. Despite that, legal resource remains available through the Federal Court under the Judiciary Act 1903 and the High Court under the Australian Constitution.

This is sensible and proactive legislation which does not impinge on existing privacy rights of individuals or entities. We do not necessarily seek to expand our monitoring activities or become more intrusive, as I said before; rather, the government believe that by fully assessing the carrier licence applicant in the light of national security concerns we can nip potentially concerning and dangerous activities in the bud. This bill does not increase or broaden the ability of security agencies to intercept telecommunications content; rather, it gives the government of the day and its security agencies the power to prevent the acquisition of carrier licences or to halt services if they are deemed to be unsuitable in terms of our national security interest.

Further to this point, the carriers will be required to provide interception capability plans for every carriage service they operate. They will also be required to provide all information relating to communications deemed of interest to our national security bodies—for example, where did the communications come from, where were they directed, at what time of day were they sent and what was their duration? When you are dealing with security matters those things can be of vital interest, as we all know from recent times. Today the media carried stories that Hambali was looking to even have a go at the APEC meeting in the future, and that gives me a bit of a cold chill. Any intrusion into telecommunication services that would identify static going through the various Internet networks that could pick up information on these things I think would be vital. All these measures are vital for the speedy gathering and analysis of material and information which could be relevant to Australia's national security or that of its allies.

Any argument that the opposition might put up to this legislation pales into insignificance when compared with recent world events. To my way of thinking, any reasonable measures which might be taken to prevent terrorist atrocities, particularly in Australia or against Australians, are worthy of consideration by this parliament—not to have a long tortuous process of going through Senate committees in some mistaken belief that we have to be terribly fair to these people. We do not want our carriage services used as a conduit or tool by those who would seek to do us harm.

In this day and age of terrorism, militancy and fundamentalism, our security agencies must have access to information regarding when and where suspect communications originate, their destination and the recipients of such information and, as I said earlier, the time, the length of the communication and so on. By having the ability to monitor such information, Australian enforcement agencies can build a profile of activity, map any increases or escalation in such communications and take action to prevent a catastrophic event. Such information is critical to prevent acts of terrorism and, in the long term, to crafting a case for prosecution.

The Competency Group for Islam, a German agency which polices hate crime violations, has publicly broached the topic of tackling dangerous terrorist linked information on the Internet. This agency has 35 full-time workers trying to prevent terrorist cells from setting up in Germany and provides vital information to the nation's security agencies. In one instance it found on a web site a depiction of Osama bin Laden shooting George W. Bush and on another a Chechen rebel assassinating the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The agency leader, Herbert Landolin Mueller, was quoted as saying that such web sites are `propagated by people fluent in several languages and who are best not underestimated'—chilling words indeed. He goes on to say that `we are not dealing with stupid people who do not understand the tools of the modern Western world'.

Can you imagine the danger posed by such extreme and violent material falling into the hands of zealots who might find inspiration from such depraved actions? This agency cannot be shut down—and this is the point I am trying to make—on this particular web site, because it is hosted in the USA. But if such content were to appear on an Australian service provider, this legislation would allow our security agencies to monitor it, to allow for the withdrawal of the provider's licence.

I believe the opposition should unreservedly support this legislation because of its overarching implications for Australia's national security. As far back as 2001 the then opposition communications spokesman, Stephen Smith, echoed the same sentiment when he asked about security concerns over the sale of Cable and Wireless Optus to SingTel. On the ABC's AM program on 23 August 2001, he said:

... of course we wouldn't in any way have a view other than the defence and security organisations having the national interest and security interest of Australia uppermost in their minds.

So it would seem the opposition agrees that national security should be our key concern when it comes to the control and regulation of domestic telecommunications. Further to this point, the member for Griffith and shadow foreign affairs minister said that Australians wanted to know what practical measures were being taken to minimise the threat of terrorism—and I stress the words `what practical measures'. He said:

What the Australian people ... want to know is whether the Prime Minister has implemented all the necessary measures to reduce the risk of ... a terrorist attack ...

Implicit there is that measures such as those we are debating tonight should be attended to. What is clear is that the government are implementing those measures and this amended legislation reflects our commitment to protecting, building and securing Australia's future.

The ALP can be quite sensitive when the government, through measures such as this, limits the amount of offensive and dangerous material transmitted by our communications system, more often than not arguing that you can never stop these things. I question how committed the opposition are to cleaning up our telecommunications sector. I recall their arguments while debating the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 that, by removing offensive content—such as material containing detailed instruction in crime and violence or drug use, child pornography, bestiality, excessively violent or sexually violent material or real depictions of sexual activity—this government was somehow enacting draconian measures of censorship upon the Australian public.

The ALP might be coy about their commitment to tightening our legislation relating to communication content matters, but I for one believe that we must keep pace with technology changes and have the skills and legal impediments that would prevent those who would corrupt the young and the ignorant from having their wilful way. The fact that we do not catch all these corrupters is no reason why we should not ramp up the fight and seek better methods to overcome their agendas. By extension, similarly—and arguably of greater importance—is the security of this nation. I cannot see for the life of me why we should be coy about this and be equivocating about Senate committees and the like. I would have thought this legislation would have gone through without any debate at all.

Mr Gavan O'Connor —We know your past record; that is why.

Mr NEVILLE —Oh, yes! I am sure all in the House recognise that the tightening of licensing of individual entities may not prevent every single circumstance of dangerous information or material relating to national security or defence being short-circuited. But it will make an appreciable act of defiance to such people; it will make life for them more difficult. For those reasons, I commend the bill.