/ 22 November 2023

The low down on secrecy law reform

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The Squiz

The Albanese Government’s plan to significantly reduce the number of secrecy laws in Australia was outlined by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus yesterday. The overhaul of the legislation covers what classified information journalists can publish without fear of a run-in with the law and penalties for the public servants and others who leak it… Dreyfus says the reforms are needed because “there have long been concerns about the number, inconsistency, appropriateness and complexity of Commonwealth secrecy offences”. 

Don’t keep it hush-hush – break it down for me…

A good example: what happened with former News Corp/current Nine journalist Annika Smethurst. Her home was raided by Federal Police in 2019 after stories she wrote that included leaked classified information from Australia’s spy agencies were published in 2018. The threat of prosecution hung over her for almost a year – and the case saw former Attorney-General Christian Porter issue an order that journalists not be prosecuted without his consent. That process would have legislation behind it under Dreyfus’s proposal. As for the people who leaked the information… A new ‘general secrecy’ law would see stronger penalties against people who compromise the “effective working of government”. Human rights experts aren’t happy with that – they say there’s more work to do to “strike the right balance between secrecy and transparency in our democracy”.

Why is this a thing?

It’s in response to a couple of scandals in recent times. The first is from 2019, when former Australian Defence Force lawyer David McBride was charged with disclosing secret military information to ABC journalists. McBride says the info (including allegations of war crimes by Aussie soldiers in Afghanistan) was in the public interest, but he pleaded guilty in the legal case against him last week, prompting questions about protections for whistleblowers. And the second scandal is the PwC tax consultants’ breach. Dreyfus says the new ‘general secrecy’ laws are designed to ensure that sort of “breach of confidentiality” doesn’t happen again. As for what’s next – the fine details need to be worked through, so it’s definitely a 2024 thing… 

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