The parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the highly contentious encryption bill has found itself in the political cross-hairs, with the government claiming it is dragging its feet while industry groups and the Opposition urge it to take its time and get it right.
Following a terrorist attack and further arrests in Melbourne recently, the federal government has called for the controversial encryption laws, which give new powers to authorities o compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted communications, to be passed before the end of the year.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has “insisted” that the legislation be passed in the next two sitting weeks, while Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has accused the Opposition of using the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry to “delay and obfuscate”.
“I have spoken to (committee chair) Andrew Hastie about ways in which the committee can deal with this an expeditious way so that the parliament can deal with it as soon as possible. We need to get this resolved sooner than later,” Mr Dutton told Sky News last week.
He also said that the committee process has “gone on too long”.
The calls to bypass the committee process have been slammed by industry groups and tech and privacy experts, who in a joint statement have said that “cool heads need to prevail” and the committee needs to be given time to scrutinise the important legislation.
It appears highly unlikely that the legislation will be passed by Parliament before the end of the year, with only two sitting weeks remaining and a public hearing for the inquiry scheduled for just two days before Parliament rises for the end of the year.
But in a statement, committee chair Andrew Hastie left open the possibility that the hearings will be rescheduled or cancelled, giving the government the opportunity to pass the legislation in the last sitting week in early December.
“The committee will hold hearings next week with relevant agencies to hear evidence regarding the necessity and urgency of the proposed powers, as reported by some in recent press,” Mr Hastie said in a statement.
“The committee will publicly announced any changes to the scheduled hearings as advertised.”
A Coalition of industry bodies representing the likes of Facebook and Google released a joint statement on Friday slamming the government’s attempts to bypass the committee process and calling on more consideration to be given to the legislation.
Groups that signed the statement include Internet Australia, the Australian Information Industry Association, DIGI and the Communications Alliance.
“The encryption bill stands to have major consequences for millions of Australians, their confidential data, and on businesses that will be captured by the proposed bill,” Internet Australia chair Paul Brooks said.
“Therefore it is crucial that lawmakers give the bill serious consideration and work with stakeholders to fix its well-documented flaws,” he said.
“There is a need for cool heads to prevail, accompanied by detailed analysis of the impact on Australians and Australian businesses, and for lawmakers to approach this important task systematically while following due Parliamentary process.”
The committee has received numerous submissions raising serious concerns with the legislation that need to be given time to address, AIIA general manager of policy Kishwar Rahman said.
“The PJCIS is one of the vital ‘checks and balances’ that are central to the integrity of our democratic and legislative process. The committee has worked diligently and constructively to do, in its inquiry into this complex and far-reaching piece of legislation,” Mr Rahman said.
“Almost all of the submissions have raised serious concerns about the implications of many aspects of the proposed legislation. This includes the threat it poses to the cybersecurity and privacy of all Australians and to the reputation of Australian industry, including SMEs and startups, competing in a global market,” he said.
“The flow-on impact of the proposed legislation on Australian industry competing in a global market needs to be given proper consideration.”
The committee needs time to work through many of the existing issues with the legislation in its current form, Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton said.
“A rushed and flawed piece of legislation is laden with the potential for unintended consequences that could act to the advantage of criminals and terrorists and to the disadvantage of Australians and Australian industry,” Mr Stanton said.
“It needs to be clear that the bill as currently drafted not only raises privacy concerns but stands to jeopardise the security of the internet globally and the framework of trust required for it to function properly.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten has maintained that time needs to be taken to get the new laws right the first time.
“You’re better off doing the job the first time correctly rather than having to clean up a botched job. We absolutely want to make sure that we can discover what the terrorists are up to, but we’ve got to make sure we get the laws right,” Mr Shorten told reporters on Friday.
The committee presented only a three-week window for submissions and originally intended to only hold one public hearing. This was expanded though, and there are now four additional hearings slated before the end of the year, with two already having been held.