It is my pleasure to rise and speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Information Disclosure, National Interest and Other Measures) Bill 2022. I am very pleased to reiterate the coalition’s support of this bill because it builds on the coalition’s strong record of taking steps to improve communications services to better support the safety of Australians and the work of our law enforcement and emergency services agencies.
The background to this bill is well understood. It arose from a recommendation of a New South Wales deputy state coroner to remove the threshold of ‘imminent’ from rules around authorities accessing location data from telecommunications providers. Accessing this data is important, because authorities can use a clever system called triangulation to locate missing persons, suspects or those who may have met with foul play. The problem has been in getting the timely approval from the telcos while they dealt with whether the threshold of a serious and imminent threat had been met. Removing the ‘imminent’ threshold, in the view of the coalition, is reasonable, particularly as the request has come from a coroner’s court recommendation. The bill adds an important safeguard: the entity or person being asked to disclose the information needs to be satisfied that it is unreasonable or impracticable to obtain the other person’s consent to the proposed disclosure or use.
There were concerns about privacy and whether there had been enough engagement with relevant stakeholders, so it was only fair and reasonable for those matters to be fully explored as part of an inquiry by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. The committee has now tabled its report and has recommended that the bill be passed. I want to draw from that report and reference the committee’s statement that evidence received:
… was overwhelmingly supportive of the bill’s intended objective of protecting the lives and wellbeing of Australians.
The report also dealt with the issue of balancing privacy and protection. The committee’s view was that the proposed changes ‘do not provide new or additional access to information’ but were more about ‘the timeliness and utility of existing provisions’ around accessing the data. It cited evidence by the department that there were well-established protocols and mechanisms at a federal level by a number of oversight bodies to protect the information obtained from the telcos. The report referred to evidence from the Australian Federal Police, who suggested:
… the amendments would be particularly beneficial to vulnerable people, as they would expedite assistance to missing persons at additional risk of harm due to their personal characteristics …
The bill would also require more detailed record keeping by the telecommunications providers. In reference to industry consultation, we heard that the government carried out what is called a targeted engagement process, but the report stated that the Internet Association of Australia described the process as involving only select industry representatives, which it argued was not good practice. Yes, the government said it consulted with 20 organisations, and these included Commonwealth government departments. But clearly there are industry question marks about whether proper consultation was conducted.
Most of all, it is important that this bill be above politics. I regret to say that the Minister for Communications in the other place could not help herself when she attempted to make some cheap political points in the debate on this bill. In her second reading speech the minister said: ‘I regret to advise the parliament that this is not the first time that this issue has been raised’, referring to a coroner’s case dating back to 2020. But I want to advise the Senate that, despite the minister’s attempt to make a cheap political point, a departmental briefing that I had when I was the shadow minister for communications confirmed that the government had not received a written request from the coroner in relation to amending the act prior to October 2022. So it’s important that we work together as a parliament to be constructive on addressing these issues, but in a way that is above petty politics.
As I said at the start of this speech, the coalition supports this bill, because it builds on our work in office, particularly on this important issue in the communications portfolio.
The Senate review report covers this work, and this was referenced in the coalition’s additional comments in the report. When in government we were leaders in rolling out advanced mobile location, or AML, technology. The coalition’s rollout of AML technology, built into the operating system of Apple and Android telephones, was completed in August 2021. AML provides greater location accuracy to 000 during an emergency call from a mobile telephone, with the objective of saving lives and improving outcomes for mobile callers in Australia. It works by recognising that, when an emergency call is made to 000, AML activates the telephone’s location service functions, if not already activated, and also assesses the location information available to calculate the caller’s location and automatically sends an SMS with the estimated location to the 000 emergency call service.
In 2017 the coalition announced that it would issue a request for tender to deliver the next-generation 000 emergency call service with integrated location based data services, including AML technology. In 2018 the coalition noted discussions with Telstra to implement a new internet protocol platform to facilitate next-generation 000 capabilities as well as AML to provide more-accurate location information by automatically sending location coordinates to 000. In 2020 the coalition announced that AML technology was available for Australians calling 000 on mobile phones. And on 25 August 2021 the coalition announced the completion of the rollout of AML technology for the 000 emergency call service.
These are really important developments under the former coalition government, and of course they build on the many achievements of the former coalition government in the communications portfolio. These include funding more than 1,200 mobile base stations and delivering record investment to support regional connectivity and improved telecommunications infrastructure for disaster resilience, particularly under circumstances in which previous governments—the Rudd-Gillard governments—had not invested any money at all in mobile base stations. So, it is a very proud legacy of this government. We also rolled out the NBN to 99 per cent of all Australians, including upgrading the network so that 75 per cent of premises will receive ultrafast speeds by the end of 2023. It is with a great deal of pride that Labor, with its former policy of rolling out the NBN to every premises in the cities, not in any country areas or any town with fewer than a thousand people, which were always going to get fixed wireless or satellite connection, has now adopted the coalition’s NBN rollout methodology and is building on that very significant work.
We also established the world’s first eSafety Commissioner, including delivering the online safety act, which extends important online safety protections to adults. We held the global digital platforms to account, including under the news media bargaining code, and we passed a wide range of new regulations to combat telephone and SMS scams. It was very significant work.
I do note with regret that we have seen very little action from this government on combating scams, with is costing Australians, as the ACCC has made clear, several billion dollars per year—potentially up to $4 billion per year. We have seen no action from this government on combating scams on the over-the-top platforms such as WhatsApp. Australians would be aware of scams like the ‘Hey, Mum’ scam on WhatsApp, and it is astonishing to me that we have seen so little action from this government on an issue which is impacting so many Australians. Nearly every Australian has a digital device of some kind, and combating scams is incredibly important. I say to the government again that the government must get a hurry on with this very important issue.
In conclusion, we very much trust that this amendment bill will give the police and emergency services greater support in responding to future emergencies. We are, as I have reiterated, very happy to support the request from the New South Wales deputy coroner made in 2022, and we commend this bill to the Senate.
23 March 2023