Shortly after my last blog post on the spying laws, the Australian House of Representatives passed the first Security and Intelligence bill.
By then the government had already tabled its so-called Foreign Fighters bill and referred it to the same Joint Committee of LNP and Labor members who rubber stamped the first bill. I use the term 'so-called' because while the bill is relevant to Australians who choose to fight against foreign governments, it's also about much more than that.
With a absurdly tight deadline set for the report to be tabled tomorrow Friday October 17, the Senate is expected to debate the bill in this sitting of parliament.
As I explained in Indecent Haste: The Rush To Erode Our Freedoms published in New Matilda last week, the Second bill is complicated. It involves more than 50 changes to 19 separate acts of parliament. Its sheer scope is overwhelming, involving everything from declaring zones in foreign countries out of bounds for travellers, creating a new offence of advocacy of terrorism and cancelling welfare payments and visas on the basis of secret ASIO security assessments. It would wipe out sunset clauses for offences that until recently were expected to be repealed.
It’s a grab bag of ASIO demands, some of which were rejected by previous inquiries. Since I completed that story, 35 more submissions have been published on the Committee website and three days of public hearing were completed. ( The Councils of Civil Liberties submission provides a good overview.)
There were many complaints in the submissions and during the hearings about the lack of time provided to complete this second intelligence Inquiry. The short timeframe makes it difficult for legal and community organisations to thoroughly review the proposed legislation, let alone stimulate community discussion about its potential consequences.
With the exception of Freemantle MP Melissa Parke, Labor MPs supported the first bill. So it was a little surprising that when interviewed by Sky News on Sunday, Labor's Deputy Leader Anthony Albanese had a change of heart. He revealed for the first time that he thought the first bill had been too rushed and had insufficient scrutiny. On the face of it, this revelation indicated a degree of slackness or incompetence on Albanese's part that was rather surprising. Whether you support him or not, he is mostly regarded as a competent MP. The interview got a great run on slow news day of Sunday but no one, including Sky News, seemed to have thought to ask him if he will oppose rushing the second bill through the house, especially since fellow Labor MPs on the Committee have already complained of insufficient time for the review?
Since Sunday, Labor Leader Bill Shorten and Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek, who is a member of the Joint Committee,have both disagreed with Albanese about the first security laws. So why did he make this intervention?
One reason might be that he is under pressure to begin to make a move on the leadership. Certainly his grassroots supporters would still prefer him as leader to Shorten. On the other hand, unless Shorten was to step aside, any transition will be messy and remind the electorate of the instability of Labor leadership during the Gillard and Rudd governments.
Another reason might be that many grassroots Labor members are furious about the bipartisan approach to intelligence matters, although this sort of dissatisfaction is not new. Letters have been written to Labor MPs saying people will leave the Labor party over the issue although that is probably also not an unusual event. Late last week, Inner city Sydney Greens handed out leaflets at four railway stations calling on Labor to join with the Greens in opposing the unnecessary extension of powers for spying agencies.
Whatever the reasons for his intervention, let's hope that Albanese reads the bill and the report that will be tabled tomorrow carefully. This time, let's also hope that he encourages his fellow Labor MPs to oppose those sections of the bills that unnecessarily intrude on civil liberties before it is passed, rather than speaking out afterwards. If Labor can stand up to the Abbott government on the Ebola crisis, why not also take an independent stance of spying powers?
Some other reports on the Second Bill
Our first defence to 'threats of freedom' - Dump Freedom Safeguards by Ben Eltham.
ASIO welcomes proposal for 'coercive questioning' powers in security laws by Paul Farrell.