Politics & the 'war' on terror

Labor and the ASIO Bill

MAXINE McKEW (HOST PRESENTER): The government's bid to give ASIO sweeping new powers has failed - and won't be revisited until next year. Amendments put forward by the Labor opposition last night in the Senate were rejected in the Parliament today, and the end result - was the government voting down its own bill? The insults that were flying last night spilled over into the House of Representatives today. The Senate amendments rejected by the government include the right of those being questioned by ASIO to legal representation of their choice, a limit on the number of days a person can be held for questioning, and a ban on ASIO's power to hold people under the age of 18. The Prime Minister said those changes would have made the law inoperable and accused Labor of security vandalism. A short time after the acrimonious debate in the house, political editor Fran Kelly spoke to opposition leader Simon Crean in Canberra.

FRAN KELLY: Simon Crean, it's been an awfully long night. Thanks for joining us. The PM said the ASIO bill as you amended it is unworkable. Now, that's a pretty big risk for Labor to take, isn't it, to send Australia off into Christmas without this bill?

SIMON CREAN, OPPOSITION LEADER: He's wrong. It is workable. And yesterday they were saying it was unconstitutional and that's been proven to be false. This bill before the House gives ASIO stronger powers than either the FBI or MI5 in the UK, and the government didn't adopt it. That's what's at issue here. The Prime Minister says that he wants tougher legislation. We offer it to him and he passes it up. Now, even if he thought it wasn't to his liking, you would have thought in the national interest he would have accepted it, adopted it, so that something was in place over Christmas, and then come back and had another go again.

FRAN KELLY: Couldn't the reverse be true? Couldn't the same be said to you - why don't you adopt it - even if it's not perfect in your eyes, you adopt it. ASIO says it needs these powers. Why didn't Labor compromise so that something is in place for Christmas?

SIMON CREAN: I think it's a very serious issue, Fran, when we're talking about giving extended powers to ASIO, more powers than its ever had in the history of this country and more powers than the FBI or MI5. When you give those powers, there's got to be safeguards. I think that the Australian public out there has a view about ASIO and intelligence gathering that says there's got to be some safeguards around, and that's what we were trying to do. Now, the bill does that, Fran. What I can't understand is why the Prime Minister passed up the opportunity.

FRAN KELLY: Well, the Prime Minister says the bill doesn't do it. On the face of it, it gives ASIO powers to detain the question, but it also gives the Senate the right to disallow any kind of questioning regime the government puts in place. You keep in the back pocket the right to take those powers away again.

SIMON CREAN: He's wrong on that. Dead wrong. And I'm sure the Australian public doesn't quite understand what a disallowable instrument is. But let me just say that the Prime Minister's defence was based on that, but it's a falsity, and the Attorney-General admitted that falsity when he summed up in the Parliament, because Labor said to John Howard and his team, his negotiators, that if we can get the questioning regime up that we're talking about, we will tap the mat on the disallowable instrument. That was offered to them early this morning, the Attorney-General admitted to it, and they didn't follow up on it, and the Prime Minister based his whole defence on that false premise.

FRAN KELLY: Sure, but as the bill stands, if your bill as amended by you had been adopted, wouldn't it have contained the power for the Senate to strike out any questioning regime the Government put in place for ASIO?

SIMON CREAN: No because we said we were prepared to change on that. That's the whole point. We were prepared to go into negotiations to get a workable bill, a tough bill, a bill with safeguards, and that's what ended up in the Parliament. Now, the government came back with further amendments this morning. Why didn't they include the disallowable instruments, given that we said we were prepared to tap the mat on them?

FRAN KELLY: Is there a bit of confected anger on both sides here? I mean, John Howard points out that Federal Labor didn't make a song and dance about Bob Carr in NSW when he brought in his tough new anti-terror legislation. His bill allows for children as young as 10 to be strip-searched and Labor didn't jump up and down about that. Why not?

SIMON CREAN: It deals with police, powers of arrest and suspects. The ASIO bill is about ASIO giving power to question non-suspects. There's no comparison. But I am angry, Fran. It's not confected anger, it's real anger. Here we are with the community wanting tougher powers against terrorists. The government was offered the opportunity and they squibbed it. They squibbed it because the Prime Minister didn't understand the basis upon which his Attorney-General was negotiating or he's playing politics with it.

FRAN KELLY: You say you're angry. Shouldn't you be worried that without this bill over the next few months there's a general threat that something could happen, an attack could be mounted on Australian soil over the coming months? Shouldn't Australians be very worried we don't have the protection of new powers for ASIO and shouldn't our political leaders have bent over backwards to deliver them, and isn't that on your head if something happens?

SIMON CREAN: No, it's on the PM's head. Because he alone stood in the way of a settlement in the Parliament today. We know members of his back bench wanted to settle. Why? Because they participated in committees that agreed with us. We know his Attorney-General wanted to settle. It's only the Prime Minister - he alone vetoed the bill.

FRAN KELLY: Well, John Howard has said today that Labor is weak on anti-terrorism measures, weak on security, as it was weak on border protection. Now, that kind of allegation - accusation caused Labor a lot of troubles at the last election. Are you concerned that politically this bill not getting up is real political trouble for Labor?

SIMON CREAN: Labor has always stood for the defence of this country, always stood up for it - John Curtin through. It was Labor that established ASIO. We understand the importance of securing our citizens, but if you're going to give additional powers to ASIO, there have got to be safeguards. People have suspicion about ASIO, rightly so, but they also want terrorism tackled. Now, we're prepared to give the additional powers to ASIO with the safeguards. That's what the bill proposed.

FRAN KELLY: Do you think people will understand that, they'll know that, or is it just going to be seen as Labor blocked the fact that the government was trying to give ASIO stronger powers? I mean, isn't it -

SIMON CREAN: No, let's get this right, Fran. Labor proposed the bill. The government blocked the bill. Labor had a bill that would have given powers to ASIO greater than FBI - I say it again - greater than the FBI and greater than MI5 - and the government blocked it. Now, this is a government that says it wants to be tough against terrorists, it needs tougher new laws. It was given those tougher new laws and it blocked it.

FRAN KELLY: Simon Crean, thanks very much for your time.

SIMON CREAN: My pleasure, Fran.

Simon Crean is the Leader of the Opposition and this is the transcript of an interview broadcast on the Lateline late night news & current affairs program on Australia's ABC-TV on 13 December 2002.

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