New spy laws threaten Australian public
by Peter Mac You may have been wondering why no action appears to have been taken over the tapping of the Maritime Union of Australia's phone system by the federal Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) during last year's "Tampa" crisis. (Previously this organisation was not permitted to pass on information to the government concerning — i.e. spy on — Australian citizens.) The answer is that prior to the Federal election the Howard Government managed to quietly pass a part of its new spying legislation to enable the communications intercept to be carried out legally. The new law fails to protection for Australian citizens against surveillance by the DSD. This legislation is part of a "package" of new provisions which the Government claims is necessary to combat terrorism, but which would actually have the effect of providing government agencies with unprecedented power to override democratic rights in Australia. The "package" includes the Security Legislation (Terrorism) Bill, the Criminal Code (Anti-hoax and Other Measures) Bill, and the Customs Legislation Amendment (Border Security) Bill. The bills are amazing for the breadth of their potential effect because of their failure to clear definitions for suspects or culpable activities. For example, it allows the DSD to intercept the communications of Australians if their activities are seen to affect national security, foreign relations or even simply the nation's economic wellbeing! The former legislation restricted the nature of the offence to that which involved serious crime or threats to personal safety. The Government has denied any intention of using the legislation for arbitrary electronic surveillance of its own citizens, but the Tampa crisis has demonstrated clearly that it could relate to a huge range of activity and virtually gives the government "carte blanche" to spy on anyone. One ominous indication of the degree of authority which the new legislation conveys is the refusal of DSD officials to divulge the rules regarding the privacy rights of Australian citizens at the time of the "Tampa" crisis, on the grounds that this is classified information. Proposed amendments to the Telecommunications (Interception) Act would extend the area of intrusion into people's private lives. It permits ASIO, the police and other authorities to read personal e-mails. The Suppression of Financing of Terrorism Bill would allow the government to prevent financial support reaching the families of those broadly defined as "terrorists". The Howard Government has defined terrorism as a violent attack, or the threat of a violent attack, "intended to advance a political, religious or ideological cause which is directed at or endangers Commonwealth interests." As previously reported, the Espionage and Related Offences Bill would give ASIO new state police powers to arrest and detain suspects for up to 48 hours, without access to lawyers, friends, family or employers. Failure to respond to interrogation within this period would be treated as a criminal act carrying a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. The legislation provides no definition of limits to the means of interrogation. The presumption of innocence is removed and it is up to the suspect to prove his or her innocence. The legislation also contains penalties of up to two years' imprisonment for "whistleblowers" who leak government information. Previous legislation also provided penalties but carried a rider to the effect that those leaking information could avoid the imposition of penalties if they could provide a convincing argument that the action was in the public interest. That qualification is removed in the proposed legislation. If the legislation had been operable at the time, the person who alerted the media to the Tampa crisis (and for that matter, to the role of the DSD in the drama) could have been accused of releasing government information and arrested, detained incommunicado, interrogated, and possibly imprisoned for up to two years. If the government had successfully argued that the issue was one of national security (which it claims), the sentence could have been up to 25 years.