Labor MPs used the first substantive parliamentary ‘debate’ on data retention to congratulate themselves on their hard work in ensuring that the government’s legislation will be passed.
Debate last night resumed on the second reading of the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014, with Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney-general, saying Labor is “determined to ensure that our national security and law enforcement agencies have the powers that are necessary to keep Australians safe”.
The retention of telecommunications data “has been occurring in a largely unregulated manner by private companies in Australia for many years,” Dreyfus said.
“This data has been accessed under the current legislation, the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, by a large number of agencies hundreds of thousands of times a year.
“The concern expressed to the committee by law enforcement and security agencies is that, while access to this data is often vital to their operations, technological change and changing business practices of telecommunications providers mean that less data will be retained by some companies in future.”
“Given this context, Labor has approached this bill as an opportunity to regulate and improve the efficacy of data retention for law enforcement and counterterrorism purposes, while at the same time introducing safeguards that will greatly improve the transparency and accountability of both telecommunications data retention and access to that data,” Dreyfus said.
The shadow attorney-general acknowledged that the bill will “have significant implications for the rights and the privacy of all Australians”.
“That is why Labor has been clear since the bill was introduced by the Minister for Communications last year that, if the government is to create a data retention regime, it needs to ensure that that regime is counterbalanced by appropriately strengthened safeguards and oversight mechanisms.”
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in its report on the bill made 38 recommendations for changes, including amendments that addressed some widely repeated criticisms of the proposed legislation, such as the government’s push to have the data set outlined in regulations.
“Labor members [of the PJCIS] secured recommendations for a number of significant improvements to the way in which the proposed data retention scheme will operate, with a particular emphasis on improved oversight and accountability measures,” Dreyfus said.
The government has said it will implement the PJCIS’s recommendations.
The government has also responded to Labor’s push to force law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant if they want to access journalists’ metadata.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the government will amend the bill to require agencies “to obtain a warrant in order to access a journalist’s metadata for the purpose of identifying a source”.
Read more: Labor waves through data retention
The proposal met a less-than-warm reception from the journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance: “Accessing metadata to hunt down journalists’ sources, regardless of the procedures used, threatens press freedom and democracy,” the organisation’s CEO, Paul Murphy, said.
“It means important stories in the public interest can be silenced before they ever become known, and whistleblowers can be persecuted and prosecuted. It means journalists can be jailed for simply doing their job.
“The so-called ‘safeguards’ recommended by the Parliamentary Committee were no safeguards at all because they still allowed government agencies to hunt down journalists’ sources. Similarly, the Prime Minister’s proposal also allows those agencies to trawl through a journalist’s metadata in order to expose a confidential source.
“Putting a hurdle like a warrant in the way will not change the outcome: using a journalists’ metadata to pursue a whistleblower.”
Despite the self-congratulatory tone of Dreyfus’ speech, the government is yet to publish its proposed amendments to the bill.
Addressing the House of Representatives the opposition’s communications spokesperson, Jason Clare, rejected Abbott’s rhetoric about an impending crime wave if the bill is not passed.
“It is true that some telcos have reduced the amount of data they hold,” Clare said.
“But it is also true that the major telcos—Telstra, Optus and Vodafone—all told the committee in public hearings that they have no intention of reducing the amount of data they currently retain.”
“The real reason to support this legislation is this: law enforcement agencies access our telecommunications data right now, with very few rules and very little oversight,” Clare argued.
“If the recommendations of the joint standing committee are adopted, tighter rules will be put in place, and for the first time there will be oversight of the agencies that access our data and their use or misuse of it.”
The legislation “will mean tighter rules and, for the first time ever, real oversight of the use and misuse of this data,” Clare claimed.
Debate on the bill was adjourned.