A farcical day in the Parliament has ended with Labor caving at the last minute and passing the government’s encryption bill, just as it looked like the controversial legislation would remained stalled until at least February.
The decision is a win for the federal government and a major blow for the local tech community. At least, that’s the telling of the tech sector, which has railed for years against the new powers.
The new laws allow agencies to compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted data.
The legislation was passed by the senate with 44-12 votes just before 7.30pm on Thursday night, with Labor reversing its earlier position and supporting the bill unamended.
The government’s former Digital Transformation Office chief executive Paul Shetler slammed both parties for the move, saying the legislation will “hurt Australians”.
“The capitulation by Labor was very weak and very disappointing,” Mr Shetler told InnovationAus.com.
“The Coalition and Labor have just managed to trash Australian tech in overseas markets, to damage press freedom, to assault privacy rights and to leave citizens open to victimisation by criminals, since backdoors can be used by any actor – state or criminal,” he said.
“This is pathetic from the Coalition and very, very weak from Labor.”
The contentious bill looked set to be left languishing in Parliament over the extended summer break after the federal government opted to not extend the lower house’s sitting hours to avoid an embarrassing loss on a different vote.
It had earlier been slightly amended to include a definition of “systemic weakness” and to require notices to be assessed by the communications minister along with the attorney-general.
With Labor pushing for further amendments to the bill in the Senate, it would have had to be passed back down to the house for approval, meaning it would have to wait until the first sitting week next year in February.
But after its amendments were shot down, Labor caved and voted through the unamended legislation in the Senate.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten confirmed the move in a press conference just before 7pm, saying Labor would support the “rushed” and “botched” legislation if the government pledged to move further amendments next year.
“Now it falls to Labor to contemplate how we handle the encryption laws which are stuck in the senate,” Mr Shorten told the media.
“Labor is put in this invidious situation…I will not sacrifice the safety of Australians merely because Mr Morrison doesn’t have the courage to deal with it,” he said.
“We are not going to go home and leave Australians by themselves with inferior laws of national security. I think it’s a tragedy that Mr Morrison can go home and leave national security laws undone.”
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus also admitted that the current legislation is “inadequate”.
The legislation was passed by the senate before the Opposition had an agreement in place with the government that it would move the further amendments in the first sitting week next year.
Mr Shetler said the legislation is a “terrible thing” that has been “badly thought out”.
“It’s just really bad policy. It weakens the products they can use – people think these products are secure, but they won’t be. A backdoor for the government is a backdoor that anyone else can get into,” Mr Shetler said.
“The real issue is about privacy, about crippling products and losing access to products from foreign countries, and making Australian products unappealing on the world market,” Mr Shetler said.
“Why would you buy a security product from Australia after this? Who in their right mind would do that? I wouldn’t.”
There were chaotic scenes in Parliament for the last sitting day of the year, with the Opposition changing its position multiple times on the bill.
The joint committee tasked with reviewing the legislation released its rushed report last night, leading to the government to unveil 173 amendments to the bill early on Friday morning.
Debate on the legislation in the lower house saw Labor MPs lining up to criticise the bill, and then promptly vote in favour of it.
Labor MP Julian Hill said he believed the legislation was “flawed” but passing it was the “sensible, grown up” thing to do.
Shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic also said he was “deeply concerned” about the legislation.
“The reality is that people are deeply concerned that if you do weaken encryption in any way that it will be watched by people that want to cause harm, and they will do it,” Mr Husic said.
“We do have concerns with what has been proposed. A lot of us are deeply concerned about this.”
But only Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent Andrew Wilkie voted against the legislation as it sailed through the lower house.
The Opposition signalled its intent to move further amendments to the legislation in the senate in line with the committee report. But with the government facing an embarrassing loss on a bill to provide quicker medical assistance to refugees on Nauru, it moved to adjourn the lower house.
At the time this was, in effect, sacrificing the encryption bill with it being unable to be given the greenlight by the House.
But with debate on the bill in the senate extending into the night, Labor backed down and agreed to pass the legislation as is, meaning it will come into effect before Christmas.
DIGI, the lobby group representing tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter, slammed the government and Opposition’s support of the bill, and warned that some tech companies may rethink their Australian operations.
“The changes proposed in this legislation potentially jeopardise the security of the apps and systems that millions of Australians use every day. DIGI members will continue to assess the impact of this legislation and what it means for their operations in Australia,” the organisation said in a statement.
“The legislation is out of step with surveillance and privacy legislation in Europe and other countries that have strong national security concerns.
“Several critical issues remain unaddressed in this legislation, most significantly the prospect of introducing systemic weaknesses that could put Australians’ data security at risk.”