Parliament votes to introduce new secrecy and espionage offences

Parliament votes to introduce new secrecy and espionage offences

Australia has a new espionage and secrecy regime, after the Parliament voted to pass the Turnbull Government’s proposals on Thursday evening. Over the last six months, civil society and lawyers’ groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre, raised serious concerns over impacts on freedom of expression.

The final version of the law incorporated significant changes made to the secrecy offences, based on detailed recommendations made by the Federal Parliament’s intelligence committee. In a report in early June, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security stated its support for the goal of addressing foreign interference, but recommended 60 substantial changes to the proposed laws before Parliament pass them.

The Human Right Law Centre gave evidence to the Committee that the broad definitions in the proposed laws risked capturing whistle-blowers acting in the public interest and creating a culture of secrecy across government.

The Committee’s recommendations, reflected in the final form of the law, include replacing the 20 year prison sentences proposed by the government with a maximum penalty of 10 years for offences involving the communication of information, and 3 years for other types of conduct.

In March, the Attorney-General recognised the serious problems with the bill and proposed amendments to narrow the criminal offences for handling government information and strengthen defences for journalists. Those amendments still left whistle-blowers exposed to lengthy terms of imprisonment, and did not address the suite of new espionage and sabotage offences that could be used to arrest protestors and activists.

Civil society also raised concerns that other proposed offences of espionage and sabotage were too broad, and could capture global cooperation, and peaceful protest, on global issues such as poverty reduction, migration and climate change.

The Human Rights Law Centre argued for the overbroad espionage offences to be narrowed to ensure that civil society did not bear risks of long terms of imprisonment when communicating with the public and the United Nations. While some changes to the espionage offences were made in the final form of the Bill, these changes were unfortunately not adopted. The new law therefore risks being incompatible with the implied freedom of political communication.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission to the Committee is here, and its supplementary submission is here.

For interviews or further information please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519