Improvement but more needed to fix the Government’s excessive secrecy laws

Improvement but more needed to fix the Government’s excessive secrecy laws

In response to serious concerns about the harshness and breadth of the Government’s proposed secrecy laws, the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Christian Porter, has unveiled amendments to improve the protections available to journalists who publish potentially sensitive government information.

Dr Aruna Sathanapally, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, welcomed the amendments which will significantly improve the proposed laws, but said a number of flaws still need to be addressed to ensure the laws are suitable for an open and healthy democracy in Australia.

"The changes will strengthen the defence available to journalists, but the government also needs to ensure that members of the public and whistleblowers are protected when they provide information to journalists in the public interest. The problems in the draft laws were never just about the press — they affect the entire Commonwealth public service and every Australian," said Dr Sathanapally.

Unfortunately, the Attorney-General has not yet put forward changes to the wide range of conduct captured by the new criminal offences. The proposed laws would still severely penalise the mere possession or receipt of certain information and include prison terms of up to 20 years for Commonwealth employees who handle information incorrectly.

"When whistleblowers work to expose government wrongdoing, as a society we should be thanking them not exposing them to jail sentences of up to 20 years. The whistleblower protections in these laws are too weak and complicated to reassure someone who is genuinely considering whether to act in the public interest and expose government misconduct," said Dr Sathanapally.

Dr Sathanapally said the Attorney-General’s approach of providing some early amendments to assist the parliamentary committee considering the laws, was valuable and demonstrates an understanding of the serious flaws in the draft bill originally put to parliament.

"As the Attorney-General has recognised, the parliamentary scrutiny process is continuing. We expect and encourage the Committee to make further recommendations to ensure these laws do not encroach on legitimate transparency and discussion of government matters, which is vital free speech. These changes are certainly a step in the right direction, but more is needed to foster a government culture of openness, so we learn from mistakes and abuses of power rather than try to cover them up,” said Dr Sathanapally.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is due to deliver its report on the proposed laws on 23 March.

"It remains hard to see the role of criminal sentences of 20 years for offences that extend beyond security agencies to every single Commonwealth public servant, such as a Centrelink officer," said Dr Sathanapally.

For interviews or further information please call:

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