Less than a month to go until Christmas and the Government is finalising its wish list.
At the top of the list seems to be the Telecommunication and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access Bill) 2018 (widely referred to as the Encryption Bill), which Prime Minister Scott Morrison has publicly stated he wants passed before the end of 2018.
Speaking last Thursday, Morrison urged the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) to “complete their review as quickly as possible”.
“Our police, our agencies need these powers now and I would like to see them passed. In fact, I would insist on seeing them passed before the end of the next sitting fortnight,” he said.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton – who is currently on medical leave from Parliament – spoke of the importance of the motion in preventing terrorism attacks on Australian shores.
“We do want to arm the police with the ability to look at these encrypted messages,” he said.
“At the moment many of these people are using encrypted messaging apps and police are dark to those messages and the exchange of that planning.
“That is unacceptable in the current threat environment.”
He alleged there are currently 400 “high priority cases” in which authorities are awaiting the use of these potential powers.
The Christmas threats?
The PJCIS met once again on Monday to deliberate on the current urgency surrounding the matter.
Senator Jim Molan asked Director-General of Security at ASIO, Duncan Lewis, if the fact it is Christmas time justified that “we accelerate the progress of this bill”.
“For many years now, Christmas has created, for the Australian security agencies, something of a high point, if you like,” said Lewis.
“There's a lump in the threat which normally exists. There's a rise over the Christmas period. Some of that is internal to Australia and some of it, of course, is offshore.”
Lewis conceded “there is nothing specific to indicate there is an attack coming [at Christmas] that would therefore warrant an increase in the threat level” but gave the example of an attempted attack in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve last year.
The impact on Aussie companies
It has been suggested that passing this Bill will harm the performance of Australian companies on the world stage – particular those companies that offer encrypted services.
In its submission to the PJCIS, CISCO warned that Australia should be “wary of adopting country-specific mandates” as they would “harm the global competitiveness of Australian enterprises and slow their access to new innovations in technology”.
When quizzed on the matter, Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate, Mike Burgess, suggested the proposed changes should not impact global performance.
“The Schedule 1 Assistance and the compulsive powers are not applicable to foreign intelligence and not applicable to the Australian Signals Directorate,” Burgess said.
“That means they are about domestic matters in Australia. Technology sold overseas that is not used here in Australia or by Australians in Australia is not subject to this.
“They are not compulsive and therefore, unlike other countries in the world, who have compulsive powers go outside their jurisdiction, this isn't the case.”
What happens next?
It is possible that the government could get the bill passed by the end of the year – but it will be a squeeze.
Parliament’s last day for the year is 6 December, while the PJCIS is scheduled to hear evidence up until 4 December.
However, the chances of it passing so quickly are aided by the fact the bill largely has bipartisan support.
In a joint statement on Monday, ALP MP Anthony Byrne and the government’s Chair of the PJCIS said they would continue to fast-track its progress.
“The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security continues to actively consider a request from the Minister for Home Affairs to accelerate its review of the Telecommunications and Other Legislation (Assistance and Access) Bill 2018,” they said.
“The Committee continues to operate in a cooperative and bipartisan fashion as it considers options for the remainder of its inquiry.”