Breakdown on national security a damning indictment of both sides
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Breakdown on national security a damning indictment of both sides

If the tradition of the major parties working together on national security for the greater good hasn’t broken down, it is certainly hanging together by a thread.

The Morrison government has clearly politicised the issue of encryption, all but daring Labor to oppose the new powers to police and security agencies and thereby risk looking weak on national security.

Labor, for its part, has wriggled and tacked so many times it has been hard to keep track of where they stand.

It's been unedifying all round.

The government fired the first political shots on this issue. As far back as the middle of last month, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton was falsely claiming that Labor opposed the encryption powers.

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Then Mr Dutton abruptly asked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security asking it to “accelerate” its work so the encryption laws could be passed before the heightened risk period.

It was dangerous, the government insisted, to enter the Christmas and New Year period - a time of elevated risk, based on recent experience - without ASIO and the police having new powers to call on technology companies for help decrypting suspected terrorists’ messages on platforms such as iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal.

Attorney-General Christian Porter, chairman of the intelligence committee Andrew Hastie, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Christopher Pyne in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

Attorney-General Christian Porter, chairman of the intelligence committee Andrew Hastie, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Christopher Pyne in the House of Representatives on Thursday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

But the implied threat was clear: if there is an attack over the holidays, and the encryption powers aren't in place, it will be the opposition’s fault.

Yet on Thursday, the government nearly torpedoed its own hopes of passing the laws. After all its insistence on urgency, it let the Lower House adjourn for the year because it was suddenly more worried about being embarrassed by the prospect of losing a vote on bringing refugees from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment - which it argued would weaken border protection.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the extraordinary claim at the start of this week that Labor would be “happy” for terrorists to go on using encrypted apps to plot attacks. There was a time, not long ago, when such an extreme remark would have generated furious debate.

When it looked like Labor was going to obstruct the legislation, Defence Minister Christopher Pyne continued in this vein on Thursday afternoon, tweeting - then deleting - the remark that Labor had “chosen to allow terrorists and paedophiles to continue their evil work in order to engage in point scoring”.

In the end, Labor has backed legislation it says is flawed while reassuring Australians that it can be revisited, even though it will be law, inked in the statute books.

Mr Shorten was not going to enter the summer break vulnerable to the charge of weakness on national security. The unspoken reality is that Labor are relying on being able to change the law if they win government early next year.

That should keep happy the substantial number of younger Labor MPs - Ed Husic, Tim Watts, Stephen Jones, Terri Butler and Pat Conroy - who are concerned by what they see as insufficient protections and oversight. They are keen to see this become an election issue, with Labor vowing greater safeguards under a Shorten government.

Something absolutely needs to be done about encryption. The police and the security agencies deserve our serious engagement with this issue. It is unacceptable to have a situation in which authorities, following the law and all the proper processes, simply have no options available to them when there is a national security or law enforcement imperative.

But ramming a complicated, world-leading piece of legislation that few people fully understand through both houses of parliament in a single day - the last sitting day of Parliament for the year - has not been a responsible way to tackle the problem.

David Wroe is the defence and national security correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House

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