Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 Bills

I rise to make a few brief comments about the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2016 and I do so as a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security which considered this bill in detail and, indeed, engaged with not only the industry players that Senator McKim has just referred to but also the government agencies that came before the government highlighting the requirement for this legislation.

The first thing I would like to point out, particularly following Senator McKim’s points which go very much to the ideology of the Greens in opposing any attempt by the government to make sure that our community continues to be safe, is his conflation of two issues. He mentions, on a number of occasions, data retention as though this bill is intending to extend or somehow change the data retention requirements. In actual fact, the intent of this bill is to better manage national security risks to the telecommunications networks from espionage, sabotage and foreign interference. What the bill is looking to do is extend the work that Australia has been doing with industry over a number of years on the systems that we rely on, whether it be industry in their own business, the general public, government or security agencies. All of us now are enabled through data, whether it is on your mobile phone or on computer networks in your office. Data and telecommunications are essential, and, if we are to remain both secure economically in terms of espionage and secure from a national security perspective in terms of espionage against the state, as in government information and secrets, then we need to make sure that the system that transports that information is secure. The one reference in this bill to data retention is not about expanding and duplicating the scheme. The intent of it is saying, ‘If, in your data retention obligations, you have offshored or you plan to make changes, you need to advise the government of the fact that you’re making changes to a regime which is a critical part of our national security infrastructure.’ There’s a deliberate attempt by the Greens in this debate today to conflate these two issues. This bill is about making sure that the whole network that we all rely on is and remains secure.

In fact, the evidence taken by the PJCIS and consequently our recommendations go to address some of the concerns that have been raised around things like the transparency of information and the degree of communication from government to industry. Our recommendations say: if government becomes aware of a particular threat that industry should be taking cognisance of and where they should be acting to prevent an intrusion or a weakness in our telecommunications system, then government needs to be sharing that information more transparently with industry. In fact, this bill is about increasing the amount of cooperation and transparency between government and industry to make sure that, when we see threats, we work with industry to address them and that, when industry make changes to their networks, to the physical architecture or the contractual arrangements, which might expose Australians’ information to threat, they advise government of that so that we can collaboratively work on keeping Australians safe.

My colleague Senator McAllister has stepped through a number of the details of the bill, so I’m not going to repeat all of that. There has been a bipartisan position reached on this. I just want to highlight the fact that there are two key elements where this government has been working, by and large in bipartisan cooperation with the opposition, to make sure that Australians remain safe. That’s in terms of national security and countering the terrorist threat in particular but also from the economic perspective. I will start with the latter: Lloyd’s, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, estimates that the threat to the Australian economy is in the order of $16 billion over the next decade from cyberattack and espionage. We are under constant cyberattack, particularly from international players—and also, potentially, some domestically. Sydney actually ranks 12th of the world’s major financial centres in terms of the degree of risk. Around $4.8 billion is the potential loss if cybersecurity is not taken seriously.

Whilst companies can take individual steps, the network upon which data is passed is key in terms of making sure that that data is safe. The particular company can take all the measures they like, but, if the pathways upon which that data is transmitted are not secure, then all the efforts an individual company may have made come to naught. That is why we are focused on making sure from an economic perspective that the networks are secure; hence this bill to increase the security framework of our telecommunications networks. The recommendations made by the committee were particularly to address some of the concerns that were raised by industry during the hearings. The government has chosen to accept all of the recommendations from the committee, and they form the basis of what is before the Senate today.

On the national security side, the integrity of our telecommunications system is important not only to stop intrusion but also for things like the data retention provisions. Data retention has been used for many years in Australia. It doesn’t matter whether you are dealing with child pornography, organised crime or, indeed, terrorism, it is one of the most important tools that our law enforcement agencies have. So as we look back and congratulate our agencies on their 13 significant disruptions of plots to conduct terror, as we look at the fact that since 2014 more than 70 people have been charged as a result of 31 counter-terrorism operations around the country, it comes down to the fact that the government, in cooperation with the opposition, has passed eight major tranches of legislation to give our law enforcement agencies the tools they need to respond in a timely manner to a rapidly evolving threat.

You can see that threat evolving globally and even here in Australia. Over the last four or five years, we have gone from a period where terrorist plots were largely a network of people with a coordinated and complex plot that our agencies could engage with over a period of months in terms of surveillance and collecting evidence before acting to what we now see globally and even in Australia, which is that terrorist plots can be very simple, very quick and low-technology. The laws the agencies require to obtain intelligence and also to act to keep Australians safe have changed.

So this government has passed eight significant tranches of legislation, including the Criminal Code Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Bill 2016, which was passed to allow the continued detention of high-risk terrorist offenders. A reasonable person in the street would agree that, if somebody has not renounced the ideology that made them a risk in the first place, we would be foolish to be releasing them back onto the streets while they still pose a risk.

The Criminal Code Amendment (War Crimes Act) 2016 was passed to enable the ADF to legally target members of armed groups such as ISIL in Syria and Iraq. We had the situation where some domestic law was preventing the effective engagement and disruption of an enemy that is sworn to Australia’s destruction, that has been committing genocide in parts of the world. So we have passed legislation to make it possible for the ADF to be effective.

The Counter-Terrorist Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2016 lowered to 14 years the age limit on control orders. Why? Because we are seeing people as young as that involved in both the preparation and the actual conduct of terrorist acts and our community rightly expects that we will give our agencies the powers they need to deal with a threat that is evident, that is here today.

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill was passed, providing for the revocation or renunciation of citizenship of dual nationals convicted of or engaged in terrorism-related conduct. When I go to various functions in the community in Australia probably the most frequent comment I get from men and women is: ‘If somebody is engaged in terrorist acts against Australia, why do we allow them back into the country? Why do we keep them here?’ This bill made it clear that, where somebody has dual citizenship and has essentially renounced their Australian citizenship by taking terrorist action against Australia, their Australian citizenship will be removed; and that has occurred.

The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2015 is not a new power; there has been data retention for many years. But with the changing commercial environment people no longer needed to retain for billing purposes the kind of information that shows person A picked up a phone and rang for 15 minutes. That is how telcos used to bill. They would look at your telephone record and charge you for the calls you made. Now that the world has moved on—through much more internet based protocols to packages where you buy up front, they have no commercial need to retain much of that information. Yet that information—whether it is child sex offences, organised crime and drugs, or terrorism—is critical to our law enforcement agencies. That bill was not about creating new powers; it was largely about preserving one of the most effective tools that our agency has. In 2014, the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) was passed enabling ASIS to assist the ADF in relation to terrorists and updating and expanding the regime to apply to enablers. Commonsense measures say that if an Australian citizen is overseas and doing something to the detriment of Australia, our interests or our allies then ASIS can help the ADF. And that people here who are enabling and preparing for an act are people we should be able to engage with as opposed to those who are actually in the act of committing a terrorist offence. The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Act 2014 was passed to respond to the threat of Australians engaging in and returning from conflicts. And, finally, there is the National Security Legislation Amendment Act (No. 1) 2014.

The reason I have run through those bills is that they have been passed on a bipartisan basis in the parliament in the interests of the Australian public, and I make no apologies for those bills. The government’s first priority is keeping Australians safe. This most recent bill, whilst not directly a counterterrorist bill or directly a counterespionage bill, goes to the integrity of our telecommunications and data systems which provide a vulnerability if we do not keep them secure. That vulnerability goes to both terrorism-type offences and national security as well as to our economic security through cyberattacks.

I encourage people who are interested to download the PJCIS report, where we go through both the submissions and the government’s submission in detail as to why this bill is required. This piece of legislation is implementing the recommendations of the PJCIS. I particularly want to highlight that the ideological objection of the Greens is misplaced specifically in regard to this bill because it is not about increasing data retention powers. It is about saying that if a telco has an obligation under the data retention regime and they choose to change the nature of their network then they need to advise the Commonwealth so that we can have a sensible discussion about the implications. I am very happy to support this bill and commend it to the Senate.