AA bill referred for independent review

James Riley
Editorial Director

The federal government’s highly controversial encryption legislation has been referred to an independent monitor for review by the parliament, the first time this has ever occurred.

The Assistance and Access Bill, passed by Parliament in December last year, has been referred to Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Dr James Renwick, who will be investigating whether it includes “appropriate safeguards for protecting the rights of individuals, remains proportionate to the threat to national security and remains necessary”.

The referral was made by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the first time it has passed legislation to the monitor in its history.

AA bill: Legislation has been referred to the INSLM for the first time ever.

But the INSLM won’t be reporting back on the bill until 1 March 2020, while the PJCIS’ own review into the operations of the bill will be tabled later next year.

“The Assistance and Access Act seeks to respond to highly technical challenges encountered by Australian intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and the Act has attracted significant domestic and international attention,” PJCIS chair Andrew Hastie and deputy chair Anthony Byrne said in a joint statement.

“In our view, the INSLM provides a valuable, independent perspective on the balance between necessary security measures and the protection of civil liberties. As such, the INSLM is an important and valued component of Australia’s national security architecture. The committee looks forward to the outcome and any recommendations made by the INSLM in the review and report.”

The INSLM reviews the operation, effectiveness and implications of national security laws, and whether they are appropriate, proportionate and necessary. It has access to all relevant materials in relation to the legislation regardless of its classification, can compel answers and will hold public and private hearings.

Under amendments made to the legislation, the INSLM was set to launch a review of the bill by the end of this year, but the PJCIS has now brought this forward.

The PJCIS itself is set to table its own report on amendments made to the legislation on the last sitting day of last year next week, the day after the budget is passed down on Tuesday. The committee will be also conducting its own review into the operations of the Act over the next year.

If Labor has its way, another review will also soon be launched into the economic impact of the encryption-busting powers.

The Opposition is also pushing for a series of amendments to be made to the Act next week, with shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic confirming this week that Labor will be moving a number of changes to fix issues with the new powers.

But the Assistance and Access Bill has not been listed for debate for the two Senate sitting days next week in an interim schedule released on Friday, and the government will be reluctant to bring on another debate before the PJCIS reports back, which could be late on Wednesday.

Speaking to ABC Radio National on Friday morning, Mr Husic said the government should be thanking the Opposition for its efforts to fix the new laws.

“I think Peter Dutton should spend less time criticising me and actually more time sending me a thank you card, because frankly Labor is saving him from himself. We took on board all those pieces of advice as they were presented to the bipartisan Parliamentary committee that made the recommendations and we are saying we want to put those amendments to the Parliament,” Mr Husic said.

“They only got through because we said we’d give the powers as contained in these laws over the break but on the firm commitment we’d be able to debate the amendments when they return. We had a commitment, they reneged. These laws as they stand, they have to be changed and we will be pushing for that.”

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