Mark Dreyfus MP

Member for Isaacs
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PJCIS Inquiry Into The Impact Of The Exercise Of Law Enforcement And Intelligence

26 August 2020

The Intelligence and Security Committee has unanimously concluded that existing Australian law does not adequately protect freedom of the press, or the public's right to know, and significant reforms are needed.




26 AUGUST 2020

No journalist should ever face the prospect of being charged, or even jailed just for doing their jobs.

Law enforcement agencies should never raid journalists, just because they are embarrassing the government.

But when a journalist’s home and the ABC headquarters were raided on consecutive days in June 2019, the Prime Minister responded to community concern with a wave of the hand and the glib declaration that “it never troubles me that our laws are being upheld”.

According to the current Prime Minister Federal Police raids on a respected journalist and the national broadcaster were just business as usual in Australia.

It was only in the face of overwhelming political pressure that the Morrison Government asked the Intelligence and Security Committee to conduct an “Inquiry into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the freedom of the press”.

Not that the Prime Minister thought that such an inquiry was necessary. Even after establishing the inquiry the Morrison Government insisted that the law was perfect as it is, and that no changes were needed.

To quote directly from the first submission to the committee by the Department of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General's Department, “the current legislative frameworks appropriately balance the importance of press freedom with the imperative to protect national security”.

The absurdity of the Government's position that nothing needs to change was laid bare when the Committee asked the Department of Home Affairs how many warrants had been issued, or even how many were currently in force against journalists in Australia. Incredibly the Department told the Committee that it did not know, and that it did not care to find out because to do so would be an unreasonable diversion of the Government's resources.

Let that sink in.

The Morrison Government asked the Committee to inquire into the impact of the exercise of law enforcement and intelligence powers on the press, told the Committee that the existing legal framework in relation to freedom of the press was appropriate, and then admitted that it did not actually have any idea how the existing legal framework was operating in practice and nor did it care to find out.

It is yet another example of the Prime Minister confusing his own spin for substance.

The Intelligence and Security Committee does not agree with the Prime Minister that nothing needs to change.

In the report that it has tabled today the Committee has unanimously concluded that existing Australian law does not adequately protect freedom of the press, or the public's right to know, and significant reforms are needed.

Perhaps most significantly the Committee has recommended sweeping changes to the way in which warrants are issued.

If Recommendation 2 of the Committee's report is implemented warrants that relate to professional journalists and for media organisations could only be issued by a superior court judge acting persona designata, where such a warrant is sought as part of an investigation of an unauthorised disclosure, or common law secrecy offence.

While the Committee accepts that such warrants should continue to be issued without notice to the journalist or media organisation, the Committee recommends that those warrants must be contestable by a public interest advocate.

Further details of the contestable warrant framework and how it would operate are set out in the Committee's report.

In total the Committee made 16 recommendations including in relation to the harmonisation of state and territory journalist shield laws, ensuring that agencies are not marking documents as secret without good reasons, the Public Interest Disclosure Act, 2013, and extending existing defences for public interest journalism to a range of Commonwealth secrecy offences.

The Committee has also recommended significant changes to existing record keeping and reporting requirements so that the Government must tell the Australian people how many warrants are being sought in relation to journalists and media organisations.

All of these are positive recommendations.

However, for the reasons outlined in our additional comment to the report, Labor members believe that the bipartisan recommendations of the Committee do not go far enough to protect freedom of the press and the public's right to know.

In our view the Morrison Government should regard the Committee's recommendations as a starting point for reform.

Broader reforms are clearly needed, including in relation to matters that are outside the purview of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

I would like to acknowledge the hard work of all Committee members. In many ways, this was unlike any inquiry the Committee has ever undertaken.

On behalf of Labor Members I would like to thank the Committee Secretariat for their excellent work on this report, and to thank the Liberal Members of the Committee, particularly the Chair, the Member for Canning, for the constructive way in which they have engaged with us over the course of this inquiry.