Government’s over-the-top secrecy laws will create more problems than they will fix

Government’s over-the-top secrecy laws will create more problems than they will fix

The Australian Government’s proposed legislation to overhaul Australia’s secrecy laws is excessive, poorly designed and does not heed the Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations, the Human Rights Law Centre told a parliamentary committee today.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is currently holding an inquiry into the Government’s proposed espionage and foreign interference legislation which will increase and widen the criminal offences for releasing government information.
Dr Aruna Sathanapally, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said whilst the existing secrecy offences in the Crimes Act 1914 are a relic of the past and need to be replaced, the draft bill would simply make the law worse.
“The cumulative effect of this Bill’s provisions is extraordinary. Government information should be public information except in select circumstances, but this Bill would flip that principle on its head by creating broad criminal offences with only narrow exceptions,” said Dr Sathanapally.
In 2009, the Australian Law Reform Commission provided a detailed blueprint for the reform of outdated secrecy laws. After extensive consultation and with an expert advisory committee including senior public servants, the Commission recommended that the Government narrow the laws so that they would only apply where the release of information damages national security or similar essential public interests. However, Dr Sathanapally said the Government’s legislation does the opposite.
“The scope of the offences is being extended to cover anyone handling or receiving government information and the penalties will be even harsher than they are now.” said Dr Sathanapally.

Public servants and others risk prison sentences of up to 20 years under the draft Bill. Dr Sathanapally said that the new criminal offences may cover documents that the public could request under freedom of information laws, if they know that the documents existed.

Dr Sathanapally said exposing government wrong-doing was in the public interest, yet the proposed laws would discourage people from blowing the whistle on misconduct.
The new Bill includes a public interest defence for journalists, which is essential, but it is not sufficient to ensure that whistleblowers are protected because it does not extend to the journalist’s source or others who assist them.
“It will be very hard for journalists or public servants to navigate these laws. People may stay silent about misconduct rather than face the risks of going public” said Dr Sathanapally.
A copy of the Human Rights Law Centre’s submission to the Committee can be downloaded here.

For further information or media enquiries, please contact the HRLC's Director of Communications, Michelle Bennett on 0419 100 519.

Image: Parliament of Australia website