Australian Civil Liberties Union

ACLU Policy Statements 2002 & Press Releases.

DSD, Free Speech for Public Servants



The Australian Civil Liberties Union has called on the Government to redraft the Criminal Code Amendment Bill to ensure that the bill Is confined to people committing espionage, and does not punish whistleblowers in the public service, The Union’s President, John Bennett said that under the Bill, which aims to increase penalties for spying, public servants who leak information which could embarrass the government could be jailed.

Unless the Bill is redrafted, public servants who leaked information such as the use of the telecard of the former defence minister Peter Reith would face stiff penalties and the public's’ right to know about significant political matters would be thwarted.  Journalists would also be affected in view of a penalty of up to 7 years for receiving information.

Mr Bennett said that a distinction should be made between spies who are a threat to the security of Australia and public servants who drew attention to Government incompetence or malpractice. Ministers seldom admit to their own corruption and maladministration, and the public relies on leaks from public servants, and a free press prepared to publish the leaks to “keep the bastards honest.”

Mr Bennett said that the attempt to punish whistleblowers and journalists, as with the proposal to give ASIO greater powers to detain people, is part or a general overreaction to the events of September 11.

John Bennett, President, Australian Civil Liberties Union, P0 Box 1137, Carlton, Vic, 3053. Phone (03) 9348671; FAX (03) 93478617; e-mail:




The Australian Civil Liberties Union has written to the Defence Minister Robert Hill stating that the Defence Signals Directorate has exceeded its functions by passing on transcripts of phone conversations between the Maritime Union of Australia and the Tampa, to the government.

The ACLU does not accept the Minister’s statement that the breach of the rules by the DSD was merely an inadvertent error in DSD reporting and believes that the actions of the DSD in listening in to Australians during the Tampa crisis and forwarding transcripts which could be used for political purposes, was a serious threat to free speech and the political process which could not be justified by vague references to “national security.”

The DSD is a significant threat to freedom of communication and to privacy. The DSD seems to set its own agenda, is not subject to any adequate external control, does not require phone tap warrants from the Attorney General, and can monitor any phone conversations by satellite.




SYDNEY, Australia, Feb. 9— Australia wants firmer penalties and longer jail sentences for convicted spies and traitors, but broad legislation proposed after Sept. 11 for that purpose could also imprison public sector whistle-blowers and journalists who expose scandals, not state secrets, civil Libertarians and legal experts contend. Press freedom in this country, which has no constitutional right to free speech, has been decreasing for years critics say, as court suppression orders rise and the release of documents under freedom of information statutes slows. The main culprit is the government-sanctioned growth of official secrecy,’ said Warren Beeby, chairman of the Australian section of the Commonwealth Press Union, a group concerned with press freedom.  He is also an executive with the News Corporation

Mr. Beeby points to the espionage- related legislation proposed by the government as one of the most recent examples. The bill was introduced in late September, before Prime Minister John Howard won a third term partly by taking a tough stand on issues of national security. Yet the proposal, which Attorney Genera! Daryl Williams has said will be reintroduced this month, has provisions that could stretch far beyond the scope of national security, critics contend. People who pass on “official information” could be sent to prison for two years, arid those who receive it could also get prison sentences of seven years. Yet the definition of official information is so broad in the bill that it could include routine data available to nearly any government worker, some legal experts said.

“It’s a nightmare,’ said Michael Chesterman, a law professor at the University of New South Wales. Government officials defend the proposed crackdown, insisting that laws intended to protect national security need to be toughened. Spying, they say, would carry penalties of 25 years in jail, up from 7, if the bill becomes law as it is now structured. “Claims that the government intends to use its espionage legislation to plug leaks are wrong,’ Mr. Williams said recently. Part of the concern is that portions of the bill could be interpreted very broadly because some provisions deal only with unauthorized disclosures of information. But, Mr. Williams said, "these are simply intended to restate the existing provisions under the Crimes Act in more modern language."

Peter Robinson, a journalist for more than 50 years in Australia, Japan, the United States and Britain, and the former editor in chief of the daily Australian Financial Review, is sceptical. He contends that governments are pushing through measures that limit their responsibility to be open about their actions. The trend is causing the most serious assault on Australia’s democratic base since World War II, he said. ‘The idea that a journalist could be imprisoned for accepting a leaked document seems, to me, evil, he said. John Bennett, president of the Australian Civil Liberties Union, agrees, saying that the country ought to distinguish between spies and public servants exposing government incompetence or malpractice. A decade ago, a criminal law review panel here recommended that prison sentences for the unauthorized disclosure of official information be limited to certain restricted categories and “no more widely stated than is required for the effective functioning of government,’ said the final report, released by the department that Mr. Williams now runs.

That approach was not taken, however. The proposed legislation does not carve out exceptions based on the source or content of information. Even some within the government have expressed concern that the proposed restrictions are too broad. The attorney general of the state of Victoria, Rob Hulls, is one of them. The legislation “would criminalize genuine whistle-blowers who try to expose corrupt and inappropriate activities,” a spokesman for Mr. Hulls said on Friday. “In a true democracy, bona fide whistle-blowers are protected, not punished,” the spokesman added. Mr. Hulls plans to urge the federal government to adopt protections for whistle-blowers. Brian Greig, the law and justice spokesman for the Australian Democrats, a minority party, said he would oppose any law that would send public servants or journalists to jail for passing on or receiving information that was merely embarrassing to the government. For its part, the government does not seem ready to change its stance. Mr. Williams says safeguards will ensure that legitimate transfers of information can continue. That has not placated critics, including Mr. Beeby. “You’ve got the attorney general holding out his arms and saying, ‘Trust me,’” he said. “And we don’t.”


Becky Gaylord
New York Times, 10 February 2002



Contents of Your Rights

Australian Civil Liberties Union