Compromise could see quick passage for parts of encryption bill

Government continues pressure to cut short scrutiny of encryption bill

A potential compromise could see swift passage through parliament of parts of a controversial government national security bill.

Today at a parliamentary hearing into the government’s encryption bill, shadow attorney-general and shadow minister for national security Mark Dreyfus raised as a possibility the committee issuing an “interim report”.

That report could hypothetically support conferring the powers outlined in the bill on agencies conducting counter-terrorism operations, such as ASIO, while other agencies, such as a number of anti-corruption bodies, would not receive new powers.

Dreyfus raised as an option “interim processing of part of the bill in order that the government’s stated purpose of urgency can be served while the committee continues to consider the remainder of the bill and tries to deal with the multitude of concerns that have been expressed”.

The government has continued to increase pressure on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to hand down a quick verdict on the bill, which is intended to undermine the use of encryption by criminal groups.

Home affairs minister Peter Dutton last week wrote to the committee’s chair, Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, citing figures from ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis that 95 per cent of “terrorist, espionage and cyber targets rely on encrypted communications to plan and execute unlawful activity”.

The minister said that the recent Bourke Street stabbing in Melbourne made and the arrest of three men for allegedly planning a terrorist attack mean the “situation has become more urgent”. “I have been advised the individuals in both of these circumstances made extensive use of encrypted communications,” Dutton wrote.

The letter said that there are allegations the trio were inspired by the Bourke Street attack and “others may also have been inspired” to carry out attacks.

He called on the committee to “accelerate its consideration” of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018.

Dutton and Morrison have pushed to have the legislation passed before parliament rises for the year.

The hastily organised public hearing of the PJCIS today heard from ASIO, Australian Federal Police, the Australian Signals Directorate and the Department of Home Affairs.

The PJCIS has historically functioned in a bipartisan manner, with Labor and Coalition members supporting tranche after tranche of national security legislation in recent years.

A clear divide within the committee was on display at today’s hearing, with government MPs feeding witnesses questions that sought to heighten a sense of crisis around the need for the legislation, while Labor MPs attempted to elicit just how urgent it was that the bill receives an immediate stamp of approval from the PCJCIS.

Lewis undercut the government’s case somewhat by indicating he had pushed for the type of changes contained in the bill since he took charge of ASIO in 2014. “I personally raised this publicly... within months of taking over this job,” he said.

The proposed legislation was referred to the PJCIS on 20 September — more than a year since then PM Malcolm Turnbull declared war on maths and close to three years since the former PM raised in parliament the impact of encryption on the work of national security agencies.

The government in July 2017 announced that it would introduce legislation to tackle the issue. An exposure draft was released in August 2018.

Labor Senator Jenny McAllister asked Lewis whether he would agree “there’s nothing specific to indicate that anything might occur at Christmas time but it’s a generalised concern that Christmas is a period of heightened threat”.

Lewis responded: “I think I can safely say that in each case Christmas comes around we do a review of the security of the community around that particular festive season both here in Australia and internationally and on each case that I can think of... there has been additional notice go out to say ‘Be aware, this is Christmas, there is now a period where we have seen in the past terrorist attacks take place.’”

He said it “would be helpful” to ASIO if the legislation was “passed as quickly as it can be.” “Whether that is before Christmas or after Christmas or whenever is really a matter for the parliament and for the government to engage with the parliament to decide,” he added.

The PJCIS has additional public hearings on the bill scheduled for 27 November, 30 November and 4 December. 

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