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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 4913

Senator GREIG (6:40 PM) —I rise to speak on the Criminal Code Amendment (Espionage and Related Matters) Bill 2002. The Australian Democrats believe we have a consistent approach to issues of national security. We are strongly supportive of attempts to enhance Australia's security and the safety of Australian citizens. However, we firmly believe that civil liberties must not be unduly compromised in the name of national security. We are supportive of this legislation, as it will strengthen Australia's espionage laws.

This bill differs in some important respects from the bill that was originally introduced in the House of Representatives last year. That bill provoked significant and understandable concern in the community arising out of provisions that would have permitted the jailing of public interest whistleblowers. The government responded that the proposed laws did not change the substance of the existing official secrets provisions but simply modernised the language.

We Democrats are strong supporters of public interest whistleblowers. Those who speak out against corruption and impropriety deserve protection. Whistleblowing is often the only way that impropriety can be exposed. However, this can come at a significant personal and career cost to the whistleblower. The often justified fear of reprisal can stop potential whistleblowers from coming forward. As a result, corruption or improper conduct can continue unchecked.

As it happens, we currently have a private senator's bill before a Senate committee that proposes comprehensive whistleblower protection. The existing level of protection for whistleblowers is absolutely inadequate. The Australian Democrats believe that the government has failed to address the issue of whistleblower protection. The report of the Finance and Public Administration Committee on the Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2001 [2002] is to be tabled this Thursday. It is my hope that the government will look at that report very closely, with a view to determining whether it is time to finally take action with regard to this issue.

Turning to the bill itself, I should start by saying that the existing espionage provisions in the Crimes Act are quite dated and it is appropriate that they be modernised. We support the increase in the maximum penalty for espionage from seven years to 25 years. The government advises that penalties in comparable jurisdictions for equivalent offences range from the death penalty in the US to 14 years imprisonment in the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

Espionage is an extremely serious offence and it should be treated as such. The damage that can be caused by espionage is sufficient to warrant a very severe maximum penalty. In the current security environment, it is vital that countries that share information with us can be confident that we will afford it appropriate protection. For that reason, we support the proposed protection of foreign-sourced information belonging to Australia.

A number of outdated provisions will be repealed by this legislation. These include provisions relating to harbouring spies, illegal use of uniforms, special powers of arrest without warrant and so on. The modernisation project is a welcome one and has the support of the Australian Democrats. This bill has changed in a number of respects since it was initially introduced in the House of Representatives. In the face of significant public concern, a number of provisions were removed from the bill. The bill was then referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee. The committee identified a number of problems with the bill, to which the government responded with amendments. I think it is appropriate that the government has taken on board reasonable objections and made changes accordingly. In his second reading speech, the Attorney-General, Mr Williams, stated:

The government is committed to protecting Australia's national security and punishing those who threaten Australia's interests. That is the purpose of the bill. It is not aimed at hampering or preventing public discussion.

... ... ...

The espionage provisions send a clear message to those who choose to betray Australia's security that this government regards espionage very seriously.

That is a sentiment supported by the Australian Democrats and, consequently, we will be supporting this legislation.

It has been mentioned in part that part of the reason for bringing about these changes and this legislation related to what has been called the `Wispelaere case' in relation to Mr Jean-Philippe Wispelaere, and I would like to make a few comments about him and his case. According to a press release of 18 May 1999, the Attorney-General said that Mr Wispelaere was arrested at Dulles Airport, Washington, on 15 May 1999 and charged with attempted espionage. His arrest followed a joint investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. When he appeared in court a couple of days later, he is alleged to have made unauthorised disclosure of US intelligence material.

Mr Wispelaere, a Canadian-born Australian citizen, had worked for the Australian Defence Intelligence Organisation between 13 July 1988 and 12 January 1999, reportedly as an analyst of American spy satellite photographs. After leaving the DIO, he went to Bangkok where he attempted to sell hundreds of top secret documents to an unidentified foreign embassy. The US was informed by the embassy involved and an FBI sting operation lured him to the US where he was arrested.

Following Mr Wispelaere's arrest, the Attorney-General requested an inquiry into the circumstances of the case and advice on additional measures which might be necessary to strengthen the protection of classified material. The report by Mr Bill Blick, the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, recommended more stringent vetting of staff and strengthened security procedures. The 2001-02 budget included an extra $12 million over four years to enable ASIO and the Attorney-General's Department to undertake security improvements in line with the Blick report.

Mr Wispelaere was judged not fit to stand trial in January 2001, after treatment for mental illness. He has blamed Australian intelligence services for not questioning his behaviour and he asked to be extradited back here to Australia to face charges. This request was rejected by the Australian government. Mr Wispelaere pleaded guilty in March 2001 and was sentenced to 15 years jail in June 2001. He has agreed to cooperate with the US and Australian intelligence agencies. In June 2001, his father was reported to be considering suing the Australian government for negligently giving his son a security clearance without recognising his schizophrenia and addiction to steroids. US prosecutors have agreed to allow Mr Wispelaere to serve the last five years of his 15-year sentence in Australia if a prisoner transfer treaty is in effect by that time. When we get to the committee stage of the bill, I would like to explore some of those issues further with the minister. But the bill in general has our support.

Debate interrupted.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN (Senator Sandy Macdonald)—It being 6.50 p.m., we move now to consideration of government documents.