news Labor’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland has made a series of nebulous statements expressing vague concern about the Government’s latest package of telco-related national security reform, but without actually taking a position on the controversial legislation.
The legislation has been in development by the Attorney-General’s Department for at least a year and is dubbed the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms or TSSR, although the actual exposure draft of the bill released last month is named the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015.
According to the department, the bill builds on existing security obligations on telcos in the Telecommunications Act 1997 by:
- Obliging telcos to take steps to protect their networks from unauthorised access and interference; and
- Requiring telcos to notify security agencies of key changes to networks and management systems that could affect their ability to protect their networks; and
- Providing the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department with powers to request information from telcos, and issue directions to telcos, enforceable by a civil penalty regime.
However, the bill has been widely interpreted as giving the Government power over purchasing decisions made by telcos. This could, for example, give the Attorney-General’s Department the power to stop telcos such as Vodafone and Optus from buying hardware from Chinese suppliers such as Huawei. The Government has already blocked Huawei from winning contracts with the National Broadband Network, although the UK Government has largely cleared the Chinese company in ongoing security audits of its products.
In an interview with Fairfax’s Breaking Politics video series (Rowland has published the full transcript on her website), Rowland was asked whether it shared the Government’s security concerns which had spurred the development of the legislation. In response, the MP gave a series of unclear answers which did not indicate a concrete position from Labor on the topic.
For example, Rowland said:
“It’s well understood across the sector and across all levels of government, I believe, and all policy makers, that the security of communications infrastructure is paramount. This has been known for quite some time and certainly accepted within the industry that security of networks and enabling proper risk assessments to cope with that is fundamental. So I actually think that principle goes without saying.”
And she added:
“… we have long had a situation in this country where national security interests have been based around having co-operation between the sector, the government, and between government agencies. That has long been an established convention. We would not want to see a situation where that convention is compromised or indeed trashed.”
Rowland’s nebulour response appears to indicate that Labor may not have yet formed a concrete position in Shadow Cabinet with respect to the legislation.
The Government is currently taking submissions on the bill through the Attorney-General’s Department, but has not yet released any of the submissions publicly. Interested parties have until 31 July to respond.
After that point, it is likely that the bill will be introduced into Parliament and rapidly passed on to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. As with the previous data retention and other national security laws, it is likely that the Government will attempt to use the PJCIS forum to achieve a bipartisan consensus with Labor on the laws.
If the legislation follows the path of other similar bills, it is likely the Opposition will support the bills with a handful of amendments, and then refuse to engage with the Senate crossbench on further amendments to the bills, due to the terms of the Opposition’s agreement with the Government on the issue.
However, the bill is not popular with the telecommunications industry.
This morning the Communications Alliance — which represents almost all major telcos around Australia — described the bill as adding “unjustifiably, significant additional and intrusive powers to Government”, noting in an interview with ABC Radio that it believed the balance had been “lost” in the legislative process.
And Telstra also pushed back against the bill, noting that it had made its own substantial security investments in its network, which needed to be recognised by Government. Read the ABC’s full article on that here.
It’s sad to see the normally forthright Michelle Rowland taking a very careful middle road with respect to the controversial TSSR package of reforms. However, I don’t blame Rowland for playing it safe — the MP would have to be very brave indeed to stick her neck out on a national security matter and risk having either Brandis or Turnbull — or worse, Bill Shorten or Tanya Plibersek — bite if off. In any case, this is yet another indication that Labor will support this bill, perhaps with a few modifications negotiated through the PJCIS.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting