Australia’s national security laws are ushering in a reign of terror

Only a handful of politicians have resisted Australia’s Brave New World of national security laws

By: David Leyonhjelm

Published:, Saturday 18 October 2014 10.00 AEST

On the night of 25 September 2014, attorney general George Brandis was taking Australia into a reign of terror. There were only a handful of witnesses, even though there were seats for hundreds and cameras covering every angle.
He was shepherding into law a bill that gives our spies and their friends a licence to injure, to embed malware into computers, to break into the houses of people suspected of nothing, and to arm and train rebel groups to overthrow governments in foreign countries.

A bill to jail anyone who reports on past corruption and misconduct in our spy agency. A bill so fuelled by paranoia that it seeks to jail spies who dare to use a photocopier without an explanation.

Three exasperated senators stood in opposition to the bill at one end of the tennis-court-sized chamber. A trio not used to standing together – senator Xenophon, senator Ludlum and me. A trio armed with too few votes, and whose weapons of reason were useless in the absence of open ears and minds.

At the other end of the chamber were the closed ears and minds of Brandis and his Labor counterpart in the senate, senator Jacinta Collins.

The chamber was otherwise almost empty, save for a few clerks and staffers.

The Palmer United Party (PUP) senators had just left the chamber, after successfully amending the bill to add their personal draconian touch. They proposed a tenfold increase in the penalty for disclosing the identity of a spy. The government and opposition, not wanting to seem soft, backed the PUP thought bubble despite expert groups and security agencies seeing such a change as unwarranted.

The PUP senators then joined Coalition and Labor backbenchers for dinner in the parliamentary dining room. The backbenchers needn’t hear the arguments against the bill. They would vote for the bill because their leaders told them to do so. It could have been to reintroduce the death penalty; their vote would still be yes.

The media were missing from the galleries - despite this being one of the most important moments for press freedom in Australia’s history – because the attorney-general had sprung a surprise sitting on everyone and the journalists had gone home.

So our unlikely trio soldiered on in the near empty chamber. Each of us attempted the mildest of amendments to inch Australia back from the attorney-general’s Brave New World.

We attempted to limit our spies to hacking 20 computers per warrant. To limit hacking to whatever was necessary to carry out an authorised operation. To remove the offence of disclosing intelligence information in instances where no one is endangered and no operation is prejudiced. To remove the offence in instances where disclosure is in the public interest, such as disclosures of Asio corruption and misconduct. To require judges to consider the public interest when sentencing someone for disclosing intelligence information. To ensure the law only stays on the books until 2025.

We even attempted to amend what seems like a clear drafting error: that the attorney-general commits an offence when he discloses general information about past intelligence operations.

In spite of an earlier commitment to consider our amendments, the attorney-general summarily dismissed them all.

So attention then turned to Labor’s position.

Senator Collins listened carefully to our amendments and responded that they were “minimalist” and “may indeed warrant further consideration”. She then went on to say that Labor would not be supporting any of the cross-benchers amendments.

It was a jaw-dropping, George Costanza inspired, do-the-opposite moment. Had anyone been in the chamber, there would have been gasps of disbelief. Collins went on to explain that Labor would vote the government’s bill into law, but would consider fixing up the law at a later stage.

Now while I am new in this job, I can count. Labor can’t fix up the law once it has been passed in the Senate. They don’t have the numbers in the House of Representatives.

The bill is now the law. And finally, too late, no less a Labor figure than Anthony Albanese refers to it as draconian.

September 25 was a bad day for freedom in Australia.

By: David Leyonhjelm

Published:, Saturday 18 October 2014 10.00 AEST


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