Lee Rhiannon: ‘The Espionage bill will stifle protest’

Protests such as this blockade against a coal loader in the Newcastle Port could be declared illegal under the new law.

The federal government, supported by the Labor Party, successfully amended the Criminal Code Act 1995 by passing the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 on June 28 to introduce new espionage offences. Green Left Weekly’s Pip Hinman asked NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon about the laws’ possible impact on those struggling for a better world.

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Will the changes make it more difficult to protest? Do they criminalise dissent?

The Espionage bill forms part of an ongoing campaign by the Coalition and their allies to stifle protest and disempower civil society.

For the first several months of 2018 the Greens, charities and civil liberty activists ran a strong campaign against the Electoral Funding Reform Bill, where the [Malcolm] Turnbull government was trying to trick Australians into thinking it planned to ban foreign political donations, when it was actually going after charities and not-for-profit advocacy groups. We were successful, for now, in stopping that bill from passing.

The Espionage bill that was just passed has the potential to have a chilling effect on protest. A huge problem was that the bill did not go to a Senate committee, and Senators were not given enough time to understand the many amendments that were tabled.

We will be figuring out the implications of this bill for years to come, as the changes are utilised in the law enforcement system.

Due to the bill’s lack of definitions and vague terminology, there is a possibility that activists, journalists and charities could be charged and face much greater penalties for actions like blockading coal ports, whistleblowing or even running international solidarity campaigns.

Counteract, an organisation that trains and supports protests and direct actions across Australia, has helpfully explained the situation: “Will people go to jail? Pretty damn unlikely in this parliament. But what about in future parliaments — that is the point. It’s rare for people to go to jail for civil disobedience offences, but it was also unheard of for peaceful climate activists to receive $8000 penalties, and that happened this year.”

Does Australia need new laws relating to foreign interference in government?

The biggest interference in Australian government is big corporate money, and that’s what the Turnbull government should prioritise legislating against. The Greens’ donations reform bills would clean up the corrupting influence of political donations through a combination of greater transparency measures and bans on donations from industries that have an unsavoury track record in influencing decision makers.

The law introduces new offences relating to secrecy of information. What impact will this have on those reporting protest activities?

The concerns relating to secrecy of information go beyond impacts on reporting on protests. Under these changes there is a possibility of maximum life imprisonment for offences “concerning national security which is, or will be, communicated or made available to foreign principal intention”.

Essentially what this means is that a journalist who investigates and publishes a report where the information relates to a serious breach of a bilateral trade agreement, Australian breaches of international humanitarian law during a war, spying activities on other countries, or serious breaches of human rights law domestically, and the report is published online and accessible to people in other countries, there is a possibility of that journalist being charged under the Espionage law.

While the Turnbull government asserts that it will not use these laws against journalists, there is a real possibility of a shift in political sentiment in the future, and these laws could be used on journalists.

Are these changes aimed at shoring up a new wave of nationalism?

This Espionage bill continues the dangerous trend of using “national security” to pass laws which can massively impact civil society and human rights.

Over the past two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in discussion and focus on “security” in Australian and international politics which, in turn, has sparked nationalism: these changes are definitely part of that trend.

Unfortunately, Labor routinely sides with the Coalition out of fear of being seen to compromise on “national security”.

However, the aim of these changes seems to be more about increasing the power of corporations and disempowering civil society than about specifically shoring up nationalism, although that is of course an effect of the “national security” rhetoric used by both Labor and the Coalition.