Encryption bill fight gets ugly

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The political debate over the highly contentious encryption bill has become even uglier as a vote fast-approaches, with the government accusing Labor of “running a protection racket” for terrorists.

It comes as the Law Council of Australia has slammed the “politicisation” of the national security issue and calling for Parliament to not rush the “unprecedented and complex” legislation.

The Coalition and Labor have returned to the negotiating table behind closed doors, but both are throwing barbs at each other in public.

Government ministers are attempting to position the Opposition as supporting terrorists because it is calling for further consideration and review of the legislation, which would give new powers to law enforcement and agencies to compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted data.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused the Opposition of siding with the terrorists.

“Labor are quite happy for terrorists and organised criminals to chat on WhatsApp, leaving our security agencies in the dark. There is no excuse for this type of weakness,” Mr Morrison said.

Other ministers followed suit, with energy minister Angus Taylor saying Labor was “running a protection racket for terrorist networks”.

“To think that Labor would want terrorists to be able to communicate with each other beyond the reach of law enforcement…I think that Labor are using excuses,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann added.

Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus labelled the government ministers’ comments as “desperate” and “incompetent”.

The Opposition has offered to pass an amended version of the legislation which would give these powers only to agencies working on anti-terrorism operations, but said this was rejected by the government on Friday.

Plans for the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security to release a report on the legislation, accompanied with a Labor dissenting report, on Monday were scrapped, with both parties reopening discussions, Mr Dreyfus said.

“Labor is pleased the government has returned to its senses and come back to the negotiating table,” Mr Dreyfus said in a statement.

The Law Council of Australia put out a timely statement on Monday morning, criticising the “politicisation” of the encryption bill.

“When dealing with sensitive and complicated legislation like this, it is completely inappropriate for any politician to accuse anyone of putting at risk national security because they are raising legitimate concerns about legislation,” Law Council president-elect Arthur Moses said.

“Allegations like that should not be thrown around like confetti in a democracy such as ours. The energy would be better spent on getting the legislation right. In this area, as in all legislation that impacts on the privacy and rights of Australia, it is essential that Parliament heed calls to act with caution, moderation and restraint.”

The Law Council also called on Parliament to take its time and not rush the passing of the legislation, warning of the “very real risk of unintended consequences of not properly scrutinising the bill”.

“This unprecedented bill is far too complex to be rammed through Parliament in its entirety in just four days. Parliament must proceed carefully to ensure we get it right. Rushed law can make bad law,” Mr Moses said.

“Failing to properly scrutinise this bill risks unintended consequences which may impact on the privacy and rights of law-abiding Australian citizens, the media and corporate sector.

The Law Council is particularly concerned with the ability the new powers would give agencies to access encrypted information without needing to obtain a warrant.

“The bill will authorise the exercise of intrusive covert powers with the potential to significantly limit an individual’s right to privacy, freedom of expression, and liberty. It is our strong concern that these requests could side-step the need for a warrant,” it said in a submission to the committee.

“We here law enforcement or intelligence agencies would otherwise require judicial or Administrative Appeals Tribunal or ministerial authorisation or approval, they should not be able to make voluntary assistance requests or a technical assistance request,” it said.

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