Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Espionage laws overreach
As the definition stands, ‘national security’ could mean … anything


Unfortunately, today’s news that the government and Opposition have reached an agreement on the draft provisions of the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill hardly instils confidence. Bipartisanship on national security is often so tight, the light can’t get in. We don’t know exactly what the two major parties have agreed yet, but it’s a worrying sign when activist group GetUp! has been given a heads-up: “you’re not going to like it.”

The espionage bill is one of three pieces of legislation introduced last year by the government, ostensibly to deal with threats from countries like China and Russia; the other two are the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill and the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill. None have passed the parliament, but have been or are still the subject of parliamentary inquiries. The Australian this morning reports [$] that the US congress will “follow the Turnbull government’s lead in cracking down on Chinese political interference” by introducing a bill that would “implement greater transparency and regulation of Chinese-funded enterprises across the US, including academia, and the formulation of a long-term strategy to counter Chinese interference in US politics and society”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently signalled that he would push ahead with the espionage bill with or without a report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and this morning Fairfax Media’s David Crowe reported that Labor and the Coalition have negotiated a dozen “technical” amendments that will be outlined on Thursday in a bipartisan report. The committee is chaired by Andrew Hastie, who sensationally sounded the alarm about Chinese developer Chau Chak Wing a fortnight ago under privilege. According to Crowe the amendments will “make it clear that people can take concerns to the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the government watchdog over spy agencies, without falling foul of the new laws because they disclose confidential information.” Crowe adds that “The government has also agreed to further amendments beyond those it released in March to address strong criticism about the way the original bill might put journalists or others in jail for handling or reporting sensitive information.”

In March the attorney-general, Christian Porter, announced amendments to soften the espionage bill, narrowing the definitions of “inherently harmful information” that “causes harm to Australia’s interests” under offences applying to Commonwealth officers, and protecting journalists by removing a requirement to demonstrate their reporting was fair and accurate, and allowing a defence in situations where the reporter reasonably believed that their reporting was in the public interest. Because the government knocked off a few rough edges applying to journalists, much of the media stopped paying attention.

GetUp! believes that the public has so far failed to comprehend the significance of the espionage bill, which creates criminal offences carrying life sentences, particularly because the definition of “national security” is extremely broad, and includes “economic and political relations” with other countries.

Here are two examples of how it might work, according to GetUp!: first, journalists reporting on breaches of trade agreements by Australia, which would damage Australia’s relations with the other party, could face anywhere between 20 years and life in prison. Second, if an advocacy group organises to block a public road in protest against Australia’s declaration of war against another country, participants could face 25 years in prison.

GetUp! legal director Alice Drury does not know what is in the final report, but says “We have been told that we’re not going to like it.” Given the harsh sentences, she says the provisions are an “egregious, blatant breach of the democratic rights and civil liberties of Australia”. A spokesperson for the attorney-general indicated that GetUp!’s concerns are nothing new, but could not say more ahead of the committee’s report. “The proposition that hundreds of thousands of people who might protest against a policy like the Iraq war would face jail terms is just ridiculously wrong,” he said. Hardly reassuring.

since this morning

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce has insisted that he will recontest the seat of New England at the next election, amid reports that former Nationals leader John Anderson had been approached to stand.

Clive Palmer has cleared [$] a hurdle in his defamation lawsuit against Malcolm Turnbull, who excoriated the businessman’s “disgraceful” role in the collapse of his Queensland Nickel company.

in case you missed it

The latest Guardian Essential poll shows the ALP ahead of the Coalition 54 per cent to 46 per cent, after a messy week for the Turnbull government and the revival of the Barnaby Joyce controversy.

During his listening tour of drought-stricken New South Wales and Queensland, the prime minister yesterday said [$] that farmers will ultimately have to adapt to the consequences of climate change. Meanwhile, scientists say the chance of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is rapidly disappearing as carbon emissions again ramp up in China while reductions in the US and elsewhere stall.

Pauline Hanson is facing an escalating war with One Nation colleague Brian Burston that could see her sanctioned in parliament for breaching Senate rules by trying to punish him for refusing to vote the way she wants.

Former NSW Labor minister Rodney Cavalier has slammed [$] Mark Butler, the party’s national president and a senior federal frontbencher, for “self-serving buffoonery” and for whitewashing his history as factional powerbroker and union numbers man. Cavalier also said that Labor is not “worthy of government” while led by Bill Shorten.

Liberal Party elder Fred Chaney has taken aim [$] at Malcolm Turnbull over Indigenous constitutional recognition, questioning his “unilaterally announced” rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

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Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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