After almost six months of investigation and consultation, the bipartisan parliamentary committee charged with reviewing the government’s proposed foreign interference and espionage laws have come to terms – but only by making sweeping changes.
The intelligence committee recommends 60 amendments be made to the legislation, which was first announced by the then attorney general, George Brandis, in December, the most recommendations the committee has suggested since the Coalition came to power in 2013.
The government now expects the legislation to be passed into law later this month, in what would be the biggest and most significant overhaul of Australia’s security and foreign interference laws in decades.
Labor had hesitated over accepting the legislation, after media companies and NGOs raised concerns they would be prosecuted under the revised laws for doing their jobs.
It is expected, given the bipartisan support, the government will accept all the changes, following a standing tradition that Labor and the Coalitionremain in lockstep on national security issues.
Key among the changes is the clarification of definitions including what constitutes a classified document, what is considered “prejudicing national security” to ensure it includes an element of harm, not just embarrassment, and tightening the definitions of “sabotage”, “political violence” and “foreign interference”.
The original bill risked sweeping whistleblowers, aid workers, journalists and other not-for-profit workers into its net through its wide-sweeping definitions, while the changes include ensuring there is an element of intent, as well as harm, and introduces a public interest defence for publication of secret documents.
The recommendations also set out two steps before a journalist can be charged under the new legislation and would require the head of the specific intelligence or security agency to certify documents had been correctly classified, while the attorney general of the day must consent to any prosecution.
“The committee accepts that there is a pressing need to strengthen and modernise current espionage and foreign interference laws, and supports the intent of the bill to achieve this outcome,” the committee concluded.
“In doing so, the committee recognises that the bill proposes to rewrite substantially Australia’s criminal laws relating to secrecy, espionage, foreign interference and sabotage.”
The committee also recommended the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor conduct a review of the laws after three years.
At a press conference recommending the changes, Mark Dreyfus said Labor would support the bill, as long as the amendments put forward by the committee were agreed to by the government.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, said the committee’s report was “a major step forward in securing passage of this critical legislation” and indicated the government would accept the recommendations.
“The most substantive changes are those that adopt the government’s proposed amendments, which I submitted to the committee as part of its deliberations earlier this year,” he said in a statement. “Those government amendments expanded the public interest defence for journalists and created separate graduated offences for commonwealth officers and non-commonwealth officers.
Source: The Guardian