Malcolm Turnbull
© Reuters
The Australian government insists Mr Turnbull’s sweeping new espionage bill are necessary and worded carefully, but critics say the new rules threaten to turn the country into an authoritarian regime.
When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia recently proposed new espionage laws, he stressed the need for disclosure: Public officials with ties to overseas governments and entities would have to report any foreign effort to shape domestic politics.

The bills, first introduced in December, were seen by many in government as a vital tool for protecting against meddling by countries like China and Russia.

But lawyers groups, human rights organisations, journalists and government watchdogs have all criticised the new rules as so far-reaching that they threaten to make Australia more like the authoritarian regimes it aims to resist.

"It's giving government a hell of a lot of power, and it's dangerous," said Elaine Pearson, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch.

The government insists the laws are necessary and worded carefully.

Hearings on the legislation started this week, with testimony focused on the risks of the laws' broad approach to security.

As other democracies, including Britain, the United States and Japan, move in a similar direction toward more secrecy with information, we examined what kinds of real-life scenarios might be affected.


Imagine you are a government worker and you have witnessed misconduct - perhaps by an Australian soldier in Afghanistan, or a security analyst pushing false information up the chain of command.

You are horrified and gather evidence to file a report. Then your boss finds out and reports you before you can bring it to a government watchdog, like the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS).

Under the proposed bills, rather than being protected from retaliation by your boss, you could be prosecuted and go to prison - just for handling the information.

"A person who prints, copies or makes notes from a document for one of these purposes, but has not yet or is prevented from, communicating the information to the IGIS would be exposed to criminal liability," according to a report by the Inspector General submitted to Parliament.

This would be the case even if the person who stopped you from filing a complaint was the individual you aimed to report for misconduct.

The result? Fewer disclosures of misconduct big and small, according to the Inspector General, the Commonwealth Ombudsman and legal scholars.

"This is worrying because we know a culture of secrecy does not produce good government," said Dr Aruna Sathanapally, the director of the Sydney office of the Human Rights Law Center. "Abuses of power hide in dark corners."


Now, let's say you are a journalist. Maybe you meet a retired Australian Border Force officer who worked to turn boats of migrants back to Indonesia.

You ask your source to describe his job and he sends you a photo from a day at work in 2013, showing him and a friend posing at sea with rusty fishing boats in the background. You write a story and include the photo.

Immigration officials then tell you that the photo is classified, as it came from a government employee. Your source says it was classified only after he left the job.

But just having the image means you are already in trouble. Offenses tied to dealing with unauthorized government information carry a penalty of up to five years in prison - and that includes simply receiving it.

Even though what you have is not as damaging to the government's image as, say, the Nauru files, which showed a pattern of abuse at Australia's offshore detention centers (and which would also probably be illegal under the bill's provisions), it does not matter.

Under the new espionage law, anything deemed classified by the government - even something as innocuous as a lunch menu - would be seen as "inherently harmful information."

You can defend your actions by arguing your story is in the public interest, with "fair and accurate reporting."

But how that is defined is subjective and if you lose, you could face up to 15 years in prison.

"For the first time the whole reporting process and everybody involved in it, from research to publication, is potentially criminalised," said Gaven Morris, news director for the Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC), the country's largest public broadcaster.

In short, news media companies told Parliament in a joint statement: "There is a real risk that journalists could go to jail for doing their jobs."


When it comes to economic policy, conflicting data and analyses are common.

But if you are a government economist - or just work in international trade - the new espionage law has some provisions for you too.

National security under the bills would be extended to include economic relations - an expansion that set off alarm bells among some lawyers.

"The breadth of the expression 'national security' extending to the country's political or economic relations with another country or countries may have a stifling effect on freedom of expression," wrote the Law Council of Australia, a national association of the country's attorneys.

More specifically, some legal experts asked, would internal opposition to trade deals favoured by the government now amount to a breach of national security?


Now, let's say you work to advocate women's rights or human rights.

You often talk to government and private sector officials about your cause. You also talk to officials from other countries - those who share a passion for your issue or work in that field.

Sometimes, what one official tells you becomes part of a conversation with another official. But if the new espionage bills become law, notes or any other records of those conversations could be illegal.

For Ms Pearson of Human Rights Watch, that means it becomes dangerous for her to talk to American or United Nations officials about what the Australian authorities might have told her about human rights in any given country, not just Australia.

Casual conversation could become criminal if she or someone else dares to take notes about what was discussed, and if the government deems the information vital to its broadened definition of national interests.

Mr Morris at the ABC said that the bills essentially threatens a wide swath of conversations and research involving dissenting or competing viewpoints.

"Consistently, we've seen overreach where governments seek to suppress information because it is embarrassing, not because there is a genuine security risk," he said.

Ms Pearson put it more directly.

She said she would like to give Parliament a simple message: "If you pass this law you're basically taking away freedom from Australians, including the freedom of expression," she said. "It's completely ridiculous."