Bill Shorten says Labor achieved 'half a win' on encryption legislation
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Bill Shorten says Labor achieved 'half a win' on encryption legislation

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has defended Labor's role in a chaotic final parliamentary sitting day of the year, saying he secured "half a win" on a landmark encryption bill despite ongoing concerns.

Mr Shorten also stood by his support for migration law amendments that make it easier for asylum seekers in offshore detention to get medical transfers to Australia, after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Labor's position was evidence it is a "risk to our borders".

Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison.

Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Speaking to the media on Friday, Mr Shorten said Labor had ultimately backed the Assistance and Access Bill — giving security agencies new powers to obtain the encrypted communications of criminal suspects — as he felt the need to reach a compromise before the Christmas break.

"I thought it was important that we reach at least a sensible conclusion before the summer on the important matter of national security. We will seek to improve the legislation in the new year. There are legitimate concerns about the encryption legislation but I wasn't prepared to walk away from my job and leave matters in a stand-off and expose Australians to increased risk in terms of national security," he said.

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The legislation passed on Thursday was "not a perfect solution", Mr Shorten said, but he vowed to seek amendments in the first parliamentary sitting week of 2019 and highlighted the government's commitment to work with Labor on the amendments.

Government Senate leader Mathias Cormann said on Thursday night he would consider the amendments.

"I finally, also, confirm that the government supports in principle all amendments that are consistent with the recommendations of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security recommendations in relation to this bill," he said.

Industry groups, tech experts and civil society organisations have expressed strong concerns about the legislation and the government's rush to pass it through the Parliament. The critics have warned the bill may undermine national security, harm Australian companies and weaken the online security of innocent Australians.

"I will take half a win and move forward than simply continue this sort of angry shouting, which I think does mark — I think you'd all agree — the government's conduct," Mr Shorten said.

Labor had been pushing for amendments after the government issued a sudden demand for the legislation to be passed before the summer break. Government tactics on Thursday forced Labor to decide whether to amend the bill in the Senate, and therefore postpone the final law until the House of Representatives considered those changes next February, or vote for the bill without amendments and make it law immediately.

Mr Morrison said Labor had to be "dragged kicking and screaming" to support the bill.

"You don't try and play politics with these things and yesterday that's exactly what they were doing. I'm pleased we were able to stare them down and ensure that the passage of the bill was achieved," he told the Nine Network.

The government avoided a humiliating defeat in the House of Representatives, adjourning the chamber before it could pass migration changes backed by Labor and the crossbench. In blocking the attempt, the government was forced to postpone the passage of major energy policy.

"That was not a bill and they were not changes the government was prepared to accept because it is watering down Australia's border protection. I mean, yesterday Labor and the Greens combined together in the Senate to vote to abolish offshore processing as we know it," Mr Morrison said on Friday.

Dismissing the Prime Minister's attacks, Mr Shorten said Labor's policy included turning back asylum seeker vessels and maintaining offshore processing.

"But if Mr Morrison is trying to argue that the only way you have [border] protections, is not to provide timely
medical treatment to some asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru, that's rubbish.

The amendments to migration laws sought to wind back the discretionary powers of the immigration minister to reject medical transfers of asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island.

Fergus Hunter is a political reporter for Fairfax Media, based in Parliament House.

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