Changes to over-the-top secrecy laws don’t go far enough

Changes to over-the-top secrecy laws don’t go far enough

Proposed amendments to the Turnbull Government’s secrecy laws are a step in the right direction but don’t go far enough, the Human Rights Law Centre told a parliamentary committee this morning.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is holding an inquiry into the proposed espionage and foreign interference legislation, which would overhaul Australia’s secrecy offences, and introduce a range of other national security offences.

Following strong criticism by the Human Rights Law Centre, Law Council and other organisations, the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, has proposed a range of amendments. However people who expose government misconduct would still face up to 20 years in prison under the bill.

Dr Aruna Sathanapally, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that while the amendments respond to some of the serious concerns, others are yet to be addressed and the laws are still not fit for a democracy that values healthy public scrutiny of government.

"Whistleblowers shouldn’t face imprisonment of 10 to 20 years for exposing government wrongdoing. This is not the message we should be sending to conscientious public servants, civil society or the press. That’s not the type of country we want to be," said Dr Sathanapally,

The Attorney-General has proposed improvements to the defence for journalists, and cut back on some of the excessive protection of government information with little connection to national security or public safety. The changes would also introduce separate criminal offences for public servants, and for those outside the public service, such as the press, civil society or the general public.

However the new laws would still criminalise the mere receipt of government information classified as "secret", with no requirement that any harm was caused to national security.

"It is deeply troubling that a member of the public could still face a prison sentence merely for receiving classified information, for example, as an anonymous tip off to an advocacy group," Dr Sathanapally said.

The amendments largely leave the other offences in the bill untouched, including broad espionage offences and the expansion of the definition of "national security" to include Australia’s economic relations.

"These new laws risk capturing legitimate international cooperation on global issues, and activities in the regular course of journalism, research or advocacy. They need to be comprehensively reworked."

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is due to deliver its report on the proposed laws in April.

Download the HRLC submission here.
Download the HRLC's original submission here.
Read the Attorney-General's proposed amendments here.

For interviews or further information please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519