The federal opposition has refused to back the government’s controversial encryption-busting bill as it stands, urging it to instead reconsider proposed interim measures that limit the powers to counter-terrorism.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus wrote to Attorney General Christian Porter on Friday afternoon to inform him that it appeared the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) would “not reach bipartisan agreement” on the bill.
He said was the first time in more than decade the committee had not reached agreement on a national security bill.
Amendments made to the last fifteen national security bills through the committee process have been agreed to by the government since 2014.
Dreyfus singled out interference by ministers in the committee’s deliberations since the legislation was referred last month as the root cause of the break down in negotiations.
Both Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called on the committee to cut short its public consultation to have the legislation through parliament before Christmas.
“The PJCIS has worked cooperatively under Prime Minister Abbott and Prime Minister Turnbull,” Dreyfus said.
“Under Prime Minister Morrison, its processes appear to have broken down thanks due to the interference with the committee by key ministers in your government, and ultimately the subversion of the democratic parliamentary committee process.”
He said that Labor’s position remained that an interim version of the bill should be passed initially, while the committee continues its scrutiny of the bill.
The interim version, first flagged by Dreyfus earlier this week, would limit the bill's proposed powers to only counter-terrorism functions to allay the concerns of urgency expressed by law enforcement and national security agencies.
“Labor considers it is a workable compromise considering the extraordinary pressure put on the committee to cut its scrutiny of the bill short,” he said.
“Your government’s refusal to even work with this offer – despite written assurances of support – is extremely disappointing.
“To be clear, this would have clearly met the stated needs of the security agencies, while allowing the committee to identity deficiencies in this rushed legislation, which could only result in recommendations to strengthen it, not weaken it.”
However, as the committee’s membership swings in the government’s favour, with six liberal members and only five labor members, the bill could still pass through the committee.
Dreyfus said the government's failure to “listen to the wide-ranging and significant concerns” canvassed by through consultations would “result in significantly deficient legislation” and had driven labor “to this point”.
Another fly in the ointment was the late revelation late on Thursday that President of the Senate Scott Ryan held serious misgivings that the Bill as it stands would act to directly undermine the function of parliamentary privilege.
With many in the government now seemingly convinced the Coalition is odd on to lose at the next election, there is essentially no incentive to pass the Bill in its current form because it would effectively hand Labor a live weapon.
Dreyfus, in the interim is making hay.
“... we will not be forced into a situation where the Parliament passes a bill that is unworkable and potentially weakens Australia's security,” he said.
“I urge you to reconsider your position and return to cooperating with Labor.”
State police reject curbed powers proposal
However at least one state law enforcement agency isn’t so keen on the bill’s powers being limited to just the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) for terrorism and child exploitation, even if only initially.
In another submission [pdf] to the PJCIS on Friday, Victoria Police’s intelligence and covert support command assistant commissioner Neil Paterson flagged “significant concerns” with Labor’s proposal.
Paterson said the restraint would “significantly impact” Victoria Police's “fight against many crime types that harm community is hampered by encryption”, with encryption now evident across 98 percent of all state warrants issued under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979.
“I would respectfully suggest that limiting powers under the bill to only Commonwealth agencies does not address the current serious harm to the Victorian community presented by terrorists, serious and organised crimes identities and other serious crime offenders and would also significantly hamper the partnership approach to policing these issues,” Paterson said.
Paterson also noted that not all investigations progress to the Joint Counter Terrorism Team consisting of Victoria Police, the AFP and ASIO.
“The continued inclusion in the bill of state and territory police agencies and all crime types is seen as particularly important to Victoria Police,” he said.
“Capability such as those proposed in the bill have the potential to greatly enhance opportunities for collaboration and sharing of information and intelligence in a timely manner to positively impact the safety of the whole Australian community."