Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:34): Ever so briefly, I want to support Senator Ludlam's motion and the committee's request to extend the date for the consideration of this reference until a time later in the year when the committee is better able to assess some of the issues. As Senator Brandis has spoken about publicly, and indeed in question time today, this is a pretty complex sort of issue relating to telecommunications interception and access. As Senator Brandis has said, the government's intention is to legislate in this general area. Therefore, the committee thought that it was probably a good idea not to table its final report until we actually saw where the government was going and what it intended to do. A lot of the evidence given to the committee did indicate that the government needed to consult further and to explain further, and that appears to be what Senator Brandis is talking about in his public comments and again at question time today.
This committee was chaired by Senator Ludlam, who, as Senator Brandis acknowledged in question time today, has an expertise in this area that I would suggest few other senators share and that I certainly do not share personally. I will not speak for the majority of the committee, but certainly I think there is a general understanding that something needs to be done to protect all Australians from the sorts of criminal and terrorism activities that are around us in the world we live in at the present time. The committee had some discussions with both ASIO and the Australian Crime Commission. I understand,—and I think most of the committee understand—that there is an essential need to make sure that our law enforcement agencies are well provisioned to do the task that they are given, which is to protect all Australians. I often make the point that the criminals against whom the Crime Commission and ASIO are fighting do not abide by any rules at all. They have no accountability; they can do what they like. Whereas in our society, perhaps appropriately, the Crime Commission and ASIO are constrained by an enormous number of regulations, laws and accountability provisions that they have to follow to the letter of the law. If they step outside that jurisdiction they get front-page headlines criticising them. They are there to try to protect us and they do it, at times, with one hand tied behind their back. They have constraints that the criminals, the terrorists, never have to bother with. Maybe that is essential in a democracy, but it does mean that we do have to make sure that, within the constraints of accountability, privacy and human rights, we give our agencies the absolute maximum ability to do their job which is, as I say, to protect all Australians.
The collection of metadata, which was referred to during question time today, and which Senator Ludlam has probably referenced in his contribution earlier—I apologise as I did not hear all of it—is something that is a little onerous. Some believe that it does infringe on human rights. Of course, I am not commenting on what the committee might report but simply on this interim report. My understanding is that one of the telecommunication companies that gave evidence—and this is all on the public record—indicated, as Senator Brandis mentioned this morning, that they do collect the metadata and that it is currently available. It really comes down to the question of who pays for the cost of, not so much the collection, but the storage and the retention of this metadata. As I understand it, in the evidence that was given to us, there are huge warehouses solely to store the enormous amount of metadata that is collected right around the world and even, currently, in Australia. That is a question that the government will have to assess. I think there was a plea by some of the witnesses for the government to consult with them, to take them into their confidence, so that the constraints which those at the coalface may be aware of, which perhaps the public servants who are drafting the legislation may not be, is fully understood by the government as it proceeds with this legislation.
This report, as I understand it, will now be tabled later in the year. If, as has been indicated by Senator Brandis, there is some legislation coming forward, then no doubt that would be referred to the same committee so as to assess the finer details. I would hope that the government and the Attorney-General, in reading the evidence that has been taken so far by this committee, will get a good understanding of some of the issues involved, some of the issues that are of concern, and will take notice of that in drafting the legislation into the future.
I commend to the house Senator Ludlam's motion to adopt this interim report which, in effect, is simply indicating that we will be reporting fully later in the year.
Question agreed to.