IN AUGUST 2008, the Attorney-General announced that the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) would undertake a review of Australia’s secrecy laws. In particular, the ALRC will look at the scope and appropriateness of the current laws, their consistency and application to other relevant laws such as privacy, freedom of information (FOI), archives, whistle-blowing and data-matching.
Among other things, it is possible the ALRC will recommend that, at least federally, Australia’s secrecy laws be consolidated into the Crimes Act 1914 with specific provisions for the protection of national security and other sensitive Commonwealth information.
The ALRC has now published a 262-page issues paper, available at www.alrc.gov.au, which identifies 63 discrete questions, organised into six broad topics: overview questions, secrecy provision elements, exceptions and defences, penalties, framework, and comparison and interactions with other laws.
Although the timeframe is relatively short, Liberty Victoria will make as comprehensive a submission as it is able to. Liberty’s submission will address most strongly those issues which touch upon civil liberties including how any inconsistencies in Australia’s secrecy laws, at any level, can lead to uncertainty and unfairness.
Secrecy laws must also be clearly worded to ensure there is no ambiguity and to avoid confusion; it is far easier to obey a law one understands! This applies equally to any exceptions or defences.
While Liberty recognises the need to protect Australia’s security, any penalty imposed for breaching our secrecy laws must be commensurate with the crime. Moreover, they should work in harmony with our privacy laws, where applicable.
Most importantly, secrecy laws must not be used as they have been in the past to prevent government from being held open and accountable to its citizens, whether through whistle-blowing or FOI laws.
Over the last 10 years, Australia’s civil liberties have been greatly eroded. This is most apparent in our terrorism laws, which give sweeping powers to authorities to act independently and often with little in the way of checks and balances.
Australia’s secrecy laws are the starting point. If framed and used properly, they will help keep Australia safe. If ill thought out and badly executed, they will lead to abuse and ultimately make Australia less secure.
Liberty Victoria urges anyone interested in this important issue to consider making their own submission to the ALRC — even if it’s only a one- or two-page letter to the ALRC urging that Australia’s secrecy laws protect both Australia’s security and our way of life, which depend upon an open and accountable government which protects, not abuses, our civil liberties.
Georgia King-Siem is a vice-president.