Data Collection Matters of Public Interest

Sometimes expiry of time on some speakers is a very good thing. I appreciate the fact that Senator Ludlam feels very strongly about these issues but I do take exception to a number of the remarks he has made and the inferences he has made about the Australian government—in fact, not only the Australian government but also the Australian opposition, in this case, on how we view matters of national security.

Senator Ludlam talked about the human right for privacy. The human right for privacy? What about the human right to be safe? What about the human right to be able to live your life, whether it be in your family circumstances or in your workplace, secure in knowing that you are not about to be attacked by somebody who fundamentally disagrees with the basis of our community? What about the human right to live your life free of the fear that on holiday somewhere, whether it be in Australia or, as we have seen in the Bali bombings, your life or your wellbeing is going to be cut short by the actions of others? There is a balance and another side to every concept and, when it comes to human rights, I have to say the right to privacy, whilst important, must be held in balance, must be held in tension with the other rights that Australians expect and should deserve to have protected by their government. Security, safety and freedom from injury and fear are pretty powerful motivators to make sure that that balance is right.

In terms of the comments made about the Attorney-General and his labelling of Mr Snowden as a traitor, it may come as a surprise to Senator Ludlam that there are in fact many people in the Australian community—not the fringes, as he would identify, but in the mainstream Australian community—who do not view the actions of Mr Snowden or, indeed, the actions of the ABC, as positive things. Yes, we believe in the freedom of speech. Yes, we believe in the freedom of the media. But they also need to recognise their responsibilities when it comes to Australia’s security and national interests. There is a balance there, like most things in life, and the actions in this case were not wise actions. I had over two decades in Australia’s Defence Force, and one of the things we were shown on almost day 1 when we signed up was the Australian Crimes Act section 79, which talked about anything that was classified, restricted, secret or top secret and the limitations on what we could do with that information.

For the ABC, at the end of the day a taxpayer funded organisation, to receive documentation marked with classification levels that indicated that it should not be freely circulated, it is instructive to go look at the Crimes Act and see the kinds of penalties that are awarded to people who mishandle classified information: up to seven years imprisonment for a person who receives a sketch, a plan, a photograph, a model, a cipher, a note or a document is guilty of an indictable offence if they mishandle that or give that away inappropriately. It goes right through to people who have not had proper regard or care for a sketch: imprisonment for six months. To willingly and knowingly put into the public space something that is classified and would be detrimental to Australia’s interests and national security is in fact an unwise act. For Mr Snowden to have been an instigator of that and seeing the damage that will cause to his nation, I think the term that Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General, placed upon him as being a traitor is by no means unwise or inappropriate.

Is the human right, desire and obligation of the government to provide safety and security for its people a real concern here in Australia? Clearly, yes. We have seen in Bali the fact that there are people who intend to do us harm. We have seen just recently in the appeal by the three men from Melbourne who had been convicted of terror charges about the planned bombing at the Holsworthy Barracks that the DPP has now come back and appealed the sentences that they were given. Whilst the men lost their appeal, the DPP is now coming back and saying that the 18 years that they were give are actually inadequate for the crime that they committed. These three men were part of an Islamist terror cell that planned to enter the Army barracks armed with military weapons and shoot as many people as possible before they were killed or ran out of ammunition. When you have a real and present threat like that in a community, there is a reason for Australia to have an intelligence service and capabilities to make sure the Australian community is safe.

The wording of this MPI talks about ‘indiscriminate data collection’. I say that there is nothing further from the truth in terms of whether this information was in fact indiscriminate. Senators would be aware that this matter of data and who collects things was closely considered in a report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security which was tabled just this year. There are a number of measures that make sure that the intelligence that is collected is not indiscriminate. In fact, there are good protections in place that require the approval of the Attorney-General if specific information is to be required.

The committee considered many submissions. In fact there were more than 5,300 submissions made to that inquiry. But one of the interesting parts—I see Senator Ludlam nodding his head—is that many of them were form letters. That is an indication of the fact that you do get lobby groups within a community who will try to get people to raise a concern on the basis of the story that has been pitched to them. Those are still valid contributions, but what they do not do is accurately reflect the level of concern in the Australian community of people who have the balanced understanding. That is why it was instructive to see that the committee in its report did not come out and say it was black and white. The committee recognised that there were issues pro and con. They recognised that privacy was a concern, but they also recognised that on balance it was important for the Commonwealth to have security agencies and the ability to collect information. So I think it is important that, despite the diversity of views within the committee, they recognised that access to data is a critical tool that allows Australia’s law enforcement and security agencies to investigate serious crimes and threats to national security.

The wording in this MPI is really quite inappropriate. The message that would trigger so many of those form letters are words like ‘indiscriminate data collection’, because it implies that we have rogue agencies out of control and doing whatever they like, whereas in fact, as this Senate inquiry showed—having reported in June this year—there is actually considerable oversight, considerable control and considerable constraint on what they are allowed to do. That the Greens may not like the fact that it exists does not undermine or take away the very valid justification for the existence of our intelligence agencies and the processes that they so diligently undertake.