Passing the highly controversial bill was an “incredibly hard choice”, and the Opposition will look to strengthen protections in the scheme if it wins next year’s election, shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic said.
Mr Husic was one of several Labor MPs to speak out against the contentious legislation in the House of Representatives last week.
In a farcical day, Labor passed the bill through the lower house with a promise to move further amendments in the Senate. But after the federal government shut down the lower house for the year, the Opposition was left with the choice of passing the bill unamended or leaving the legislation in Parliament over the Summer break and leaving itself open to rhetorical attacks from the government on national security grounds.
The Opposition chose the former, and has faced intense scrutiny and criticism from the tech and digital rights communities since.
Speaking to InnovationAus.com on Wednesday morning, Mr Husic criticised the government for politicising the issue and forcing Labor’s hand.
“We made an incredibly hard choice. We exercised a hard choice in giving the security agencies something to work with in the meantime between now and the return of Parliament,” Mr Husic said.
“It’s hugely frustrating and it shows how flimsy some of the government’s arguments were leading into the sitting fortnight, where they demanded this law be passed and then walked away from it.”
“Trying to score these types of political points on national security is completely unworthy. We need to get the balance right between national security and economic security, and if you mess with a system like encryption that is used by businesses to establish trust, then you’re damaging economic security in the process.”
Mr Husic acknowledged the concerns about the new powers and Labor’s role in passing them, and has continued to criticise the legislation despite his party supporting it.
“I understand there are people who feel strongly about what we’ve done. I appreciate they won’t necessarily agree with our position, but we’ve tried to get the balance right,” he said.
“This is a space that requires longer-term reform, and making sure the tech sector’s voice is absolutely heard in that reform process. There are a number of us across the Opposition that hold that view.
“There are a number of us arguing and flying the flag for those people that were very concerned about the impact on technology by the bill.
“We’ve been urging caution, as well that other countries have tried this and realised the challenge in trying to achieve what the government wants. As I’ve regularly said, once you break it, it’s hard to remake it, and people should be very mindful of that.”
In announcing Labor’s backflip on the bill, opposition leader Bill Shorten said he was doing so on the condition that further amendments be passed in the first sitting week next year.
But no agreement had been reached with the government on this, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed that it would not pass all of Labor’s amendments.
“We’ll entertain amendments that are consistent with the joint recommendations from that committee. We’re not going beyond that. Labor can try to water it down through whatever means they like…but we’ve been very clear. I hope that Labor can get over their attempts to block it,” Mr Dutton told reporters on Wednesday morning.
Mr Husic confirmed that Labor wuld look at further amending the legislation to strengthen protections if it wins next year’s federal election, including for improved judicial oversight of the scheme. He said the current oversight scheme for the encryption legislation is “tissue tough”.
“It’s something we have to do. The government refuses to have a serious judicial oversight mechanism. We could have a dedicated judge with a well-resourced team that could assess applications received,” he said.
“At the moment we have a combination of either ministers considering those applications or a retired judge. With all due respect I think a system as sensitive as this involving encryption needs much more substantive measures than what the government will allow.”
The Opposition will be watching closely on how the scheme is implemented over summer, despite a number of secretive measures ensuring a lack of transparency on how the new powers are being used by agencies.
“The key test will be the experience over the next two months. The government will be watched closely as much as it can be given how secretive some of the elements of the bill are. But if the experience shows overreach, and the impact of that overreach, then that has to be taken into consideration when Parliament resumes in February,” Mr Husic said.
“My concern about what’s happened is we’ve effectively created a lab environment for this government. What makes them think they’ll be able to achieve something that the US and UK governments thought carefully about and realised they had to be especially carefully about?
“No-one doubts we need a longer-term solution to be able to remove an encryption cloak from those that seek to do harm to others, but we can’t harm the rest in the process of achieving that. We need to find something workable.”