Asio could question children and more easily use more tracking devices under new powers | Australia news


Australia’s domestic spy agency would be allowed to question children as young as 14 and have easier access to tracking devices under a new bill to beef up Asio’s powers.

The bill – introduced to parliament on Wednesday – would also extend the power of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to question people over “foreign interference”.

In further changes, the attorney general would be able to issue certain warrants orally in emergency situations.

The Greens accused the government of a “dangerous and cynical” attempt “to use the pandemic as cover for the increased scope of the surveillance state”.

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, is proposing a suite of changes to Asio’s existing rules for compulsory questioning, originally introduced after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Under the existing laws, Asio seeks consent from the attorney general and requests a warrant from a judge to question people while gathering terrorism-related intelligence.

Until now, a “questioning and detention warrant” has allowed police officers to take the person into custody for such questioning, whereas a “questioning warrant” has allowed a person to appear at a specified time.

The new bill would allow Asio to continue to use questioning warrants, but remove its ability to use the more severe questioning and detention warrants.

At the same time, though, the bill would enable the attorney general to approve questioning warrants directly without the involvement of a judge. This approval could even be issued orally “in an emergency”, according to the bill’s explanatory notes.

Asio would also be allowed to use tracking devices with internal authorisation in certain circumstances, rather than requiring a warrant.

The bill would also broaden the types of Asio cases that could trigger questioning warrants, allowing them to used in relation to espionage, politically motivated violence and acts of foreign interference, rather than just in relation to potential terrorism offences.

Significantly, Asio would be allowed to seek to question minors aged 14 to 18. Currently it is allowed to do so for those aged at least 16.

The government’s explanatory memorandum says the new rule would be subject to a number of safeguards, including that it could be done only “where the minor is themselves the target of an Asio investigation in relation to politically motivated violence”.

“The need for the lowered age is illustrated by the 2015 politically motivated shooting of New South Wales police force employee by a 15-year-old,” the memorandum says.

“The exclusion of people under the age of 18 years from questioning warrants, including the apprehension power, would leave a significant gap in Asio’s ability to collect crucial intelligence on threats to Australia’s security.”

Dutton said it would be mandatory that a lawyer be present at all times during questioning of a minor, and the bill also provided that a parent or guardian may also be present.

Dutton said the government was moving to ensure Australia’s national security agencies had the powers they need to work in an increasingly complex national security environment.

He said the Asio director general had recently argued the threat to Australia from foreign interference and espionage was higher now than it was at the height of the cold war.

But the Law Council of Australia said it was “very concerned” with aspects of the proposed amendments and was concerned the government was rushing the bill.

Its president, Pauline Wright, said she was concerned “there may be very limited time to scrutinise the proposed laws, which are lengthy, complex and highly intrusive on individual rights”.

She said the government had had more than two years to develop the redesigned questioning legislation since a parliamentary committee tabled its report in May 2018, but there was now a sense of urgency because Asio’s current questioning powers were due to sunset in early September.

“This is not a bill to be hurried through,” Wright said.

Labor called for the bill to be sent back to the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security to be scrutinised “as is normal practice”.

Labor’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, said the opposition would “always take the advice of our national security agencies” while noting the powers in the legislation were “ongoing matters which have been extensively considered since they were first created by John Howard”.

The Greens senator Nick McKim said the national terrorism threat in Australia had not increased for more than five years “and yet we have been confronted with wave after wave of legislation”. He said Dutton had failed to justify interrogating children as young as 14.



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