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Wednesday, 27 June 2018
Page: 4091

Senator KITCHING (Victoria) (11:30): I welcome this chance to speak on these important bills, the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018. They are this parliament's bipartisan response to the threat of foreign states and hostile non-state actors exerting improper influence over our democratic system of government, our political landscape, our alliances and our decision-making process.

A very important part of the process of achieving consensus on security legislation has been the work of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. This committee works on a consensus basis and enjoys the confidence of both government and opposition members. It's for that reason that I think the members of the Senate should read and take seriously the committee's report on the espionage bill. I would like to commend all members of that committee, but I would particularly like to commend my colleagues in the Senate, Senator Wong and Senator McAllister, and Senator Fawcett, and my friends in the other place: Mr Andrew Hastie, the chair of the committee, and the deputy chair, Mr Anthony Byrne.

The gist of the committee's report is summed up in the following blunt statement:

… the Committee has received compelling evidence that Australia is facing an unprecedented threat from espionage and foreign interference. The Committee has also received evidence that current laws are not adequate to deal with this threat. Unchecked, espionage has the potential to significantly reduce Australia's long-term security, and foreign interference could undermine our democracy and threaten the rights and freedoms of our people.

The committee has therefore recommended to the parliament that:

… there is a pressing need to strengthen and modernise current espionage and foreign interference laws.

I accept that the provisions of the first version of the bill were drafted in good faith. I don't agree with the Greens political party that the parties that form government have some sinister authoritarian motive in designing that bill. The bill has been through an appropriate and extensive process in the intelligence and security committee of this parliament. And of course, earlier this month, the committee released a 400-page report. It is a public document. Neither the government nor the opposition has sought to keep this secret, as the Greens political party speakers have suggested in their contributions this morning.

The bills now have a more nuanced approach. They take into account some of the principles that make our Judaeo-Christian Western liberal democracy the precious system that it is. In the first version of the bills, there would have been an unacceptable impact on the openness of our democratic society. For example, they would have perhaps threatened journalists with severe criminal penalties for reporting on matters that might have embarrassed the government. They would have imposed unjustified burdens on charities. They would have perhaps required any Australian academic engaged in joint work with an overseas university to register as a foreign agent. The bills before us currently, though, and which we are debating, do have a more nuanced approach.

But our system is precious. It is a way of life that allows people to breathe deeply in the air of freedom and to live their life with a liberty that also allows for the honouring of a social contract. There is an honesty in this way of life. For security legislation to be effective in achieving its objectives, it must command broad support in the Australian community. To gain that support, it must meet three criteria: it must be clear and unambiguous in its terms, it must be proportional and appropriately targeted to the threat, and it must be enforceable. This bill complies with these criteria.

The Greens political party would have you believe that some of the provisions of this bill are somewhat alarming. But we have seen in the past that every time security legislation is brought to this parliament, a chorus of voices is raised proclaiming that the new laws represent the end of freedom and democracy and the dawn of a new age of authoritarianism. These fears always turn out to be grossly exaggerated. Despite 15 years of new security legislation, Australian democracy remains as robust as ever. Our media remains as free as ever. Our judiciary remains ever-vigilant and ever-ready to strike down legislation that it deems has infringed on our freedoms. Civil society organisations remain as free to investigate, to criticise and to protest as ever they were. Nothing in this bill, as it has been amended, will change any of that. That is why I find it regrettable that some on the crossbench always make these wild accusations of sinister government conspiracies. They need to learn from the story of the boy who cried wolf. If every piece of security legislation, no matter how carefully drafted, is denounced as the end of freedom as we know it in this country, we run the risk that when real threats—real threats, as described by our security agencies—to our freedom appear then warnings will not be heeded.

The national security bills are necessary because is it absolutely undesirable to have foreign interference in our political system. We must also protect our civil society—for example, our media and our universities—from being penetrated in a more insidious manner. This modern form of soft power is much harder to combat than the crude efforts of totalitarian societies of the last century. These laws are necessary, and I trust that the parties that can form government will use them wisely. But trust is not enough. As Ronald Reagan used to say, 'Trust, but verify.' It is up to us in this parliament, as well as up to the media, the courts and civil society, to verify that these powers are not abused. I think the history of the past 20 years shows that we in Australia are up to the task of holding our governments to account for the way they use the powers this parliament gives them. It is up to all of us in this parliament to be attentive to that responsibility.