The Politics    Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Press freedom or secret warrants?

By Russell Marks

Press freedom or secret warrants?
Will Shorten Labor be able to secure protections for journalists, or will it vote for the government’s metadata bill anyway?

At the time of writing, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten are in frenzied negotiations over amendments to the government’s metadata collection bill on the issue of securing protections for journalists. When the bill was first introduced by Malcolm Turnbull last October, there were no such protections, and the government agreed to delay the vote until this year, thus allowing the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to conduct an inquiry and table its report, which it did late last month. This month the same committee commenced another inquiry, specifically into accessing journalists’ metadata – that inquiry is due to report in June, but the bill is very likely to go to a vote this week.

Shorten is keen to point out that the extended process has allowed better oversight provisions to be included in the bill. He would also be pleased that so far, Labor has avoided being seen as soft on national security. But in its keenness to avoid that wedge, critics accuse Labor of having caved in on a bill that will restrict civil liberties without doing very much to enhance security, given that web-based communication conducted via public internet hotspots and cafes will not be subject to the metadata retention requirements for ordinary ISPs.

Journalists and media organisations are worried that the bill, even if it will require security agencies to seek a warrant every time they want to access journalists’ metadata, will not give journalists an opportunity to contest that warrant or even know about it in advance. Nick Xenophon points out that in contemplating the bill without such protections, the major parties are moving in the opposite direction to the US and British parliaments. Legislation dating from World War One makes it illegal for journalists to receive leaked government information that hasn’t been authorised for disclosure, and as Philip Dorling writes in Fairfax, metadata can function like electronic fingerprints, thus increasing the likelihood that journalists will be successfully prosecuted – and jailed – for receiving leaks. Yesterday the AFP confirmed that it is already occasionally accessing journalists’ metadata.

The Roundup

Kidnap fears

Nassim Khadem and Gareth Hutchins report in Fairfax: “Tony Abbott has told Coalition party room members that the government would wind back tax disclosure laws after complaints by private business owners that they could be kidnapped when people realised how wealthy they were from tax information that was made public.”

University deregulation

Melissa Clarke reports at ABC News: “The Senate has voted down the federal government’s legislation to uncap university fees, the second time the Coalition’s higher education changes have been rejected.”

James Bennett reports at ABC News: “Australia's universities are warning they will be forced to make ‘difficult decisions’ on campuses, courses and staffing levels without more funding.”

Ebony Bowden reports at The New Daily: “Christopher Pyne is proudly a ‘fixer’. He made the declaration during a Sky News interview on Monday, during which he announced that 1700 research jobs he had threatened the day before were no longer under threat. But how exactly he ‘fixed’ the problem remains a mystery.”

Budget 2015

Heath Aston and James Massola report in Fairfax: “Tony Abbott’s bullish prediction, that the federal budget will be back in balance within five years, has raised the prospect of future deep spending cuts to replace blocked measures in the Coalition’s first budget.”

Peter Martin comments in Fairfax: “Abbott’s commitment to balance the budget in five years was unwise. He has no way of knowing what’s around the corner.”

Greg Jericho asks at The Drum: “Is Abbott’s jobs target now out of reach?”

John Daley and Danielle Wood comment in Fairfax: “Negative gearing is an untouchable of Australian tax policy. It survives because of persistent myths that it improves housing availability and reduces rents. It survives because 1.2 million taxpayers – mostly voters – use it to minimise their tax.”

Peter Martin reports in Fairfax: “Joe Hockey might have just found a way to broaden the Coalition’s political base. The latest Essential poll shows young people and Greens voters are responding well to his push to allow first home buyers to get early access to super to buy houses.”

Seeking refuge

Michael Gordon reports in Fairfax: “The Abbott government’s plan to reduce the threshold for assessing whether people face torture or degrading treatment if they are returned to their countries of origin faces certain defeat in the Senate.”

Max Chalmers reports at New Matilda: “At least three refugees living in the community on Nauru were hospitalised overnight after a stone throwing attack knocked a couple off a motorbike, and a young woman attempted suicide in the Anibare camp.”

International relations

Ian McPhedran reports at News Corp: “Sweden has accused the Abbott government of spreading lies about its submarine building capability.”

Katilin Thals reports at The New Daily: “Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny has taken offence to a St Patrick’s Day video message from Tony Abbott.”

AFP report at ABC News: “Indonesia says tourists from an additional 30 countries will soon be allowed to visit without a visa, but the policy will not be applied to Australia.”

“Red tape”

Louise Yaxley reports at ABC News: “The federal government says new cuts to red tape it will announce today will take its total savings in compliance costs since coming to government to nearly $2.5 billion.”

Jake Sturmer reports at ABC News: “A safety net for monitoring chemicals in Australia’s domestic food has been axed by the federal government.”

Republic

Malcolm Farr reports at News.com.au: “The republic debate returned to parliament today when Labor snuck in a plea for an Australian president while backing legislation giving women rights to royal succession.”

NSW election 2015

Gabrielle Chan reports at Guardian Australia: “The Greens will preference the Labor Party in a large number of seats in the New South Wales election.”

Lynne Chester’s analysis at The Conversation: “Electricity privatisation is clearly the biggest issue of the New South Wales election campaign. And as the March 28 polling day gets closer, the debate is heating up, with a rush of claims and counter-claims masquerading as facts.”

Environment and energy

Lisa Cox reports in Fairfax: “Environmental violations in India by mining giant Adani will be the subject of a Federal Court case challenging the company’s development of Australia’s largest coal project.”

Hockey’s defamation trial

An AAP report at Guardian Australia: “Joe Hockey is seeking ‘substantial damages’ which could potentially top $1m for a Fairfax Media story he says falsely implied he was corrupt and could be bought.”

Politics

Lenore Taylor reports at Guardian Australia: “Tony Abbott has told his party room that MPs should talk up the government’s achievements and talk down Labor, then end any conversation with journalists.”

Dan Moss reports at The New Daily: “Senate President Stephen Parry is making ‘no comment’ on allegations the official record of parliament is being manipulated by the paragraph.”

Mark Kenny and Matthew Knott report in Fairfax: “A legislative slap in the face on university reform may be the least of Christopher Pyne’s problems with voters in his home state of South Australia threatening to truncate his career as a Liberal MP.”

James Massola reports in Fairfax: “Chris Porter, touted as a possible future PM, will on Wednesday introduce the federal government’s third omnibus red tape repeal day bill.”

Latika Bourke and Matthew Knott report in Fairfax: “Bill Shorten has been sent a warning shot to fix the way he operates and consult his colleagues more during an extended debate on metadata in the Labor caucus on Tuesday.”

Tom Burton comments at The Mandarin: “Instead of learning from the best of Westminster and Washington, Australia has picked up the worst.”

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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