Legal bodies concerned by Peter Dutton bill allowing Australian spies to question 14-year-olds

Australia's security agencies would be able to question 14-year-old suspects and place tracking devices on cars or in bags with only internal approval under draft laws introduced to parliament.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton at Parliament House in Canberra.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: AAP

Legal bodies say they are concerned about new draft laws that if passed would allow Australian spies to question 14-year-old suspects.

The legislation, introduced to federal parliament by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on Wednesday, also permits the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) to place tracking devices on cars or in people’s bags with only internal approval, rather than a warrant.

The proposed amendments to the Australian Security and Intelligence Act 1979 are based on the government's response to a report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Law Council of Australia president Pauline Wright said the “highly intrusive” amendments need significant scrutiny.

“We are concerned that there aren’t sufficient safeguards and [14 years of age] is just too young for somebody to be compulsory questioned by ASIO,” she told SBS News. 

“Most Australians would consider the monitoring of their location to be highly intrusive.

“What is now proposed is a model of authorisation without need for a warrant at all or the need for ministerial authorisation.” 

Mr Dutton has defended the legislation, saying it was about ensuring intelligence officers had the powers they needed to tackle terrorism and keep Australians safe.

"The director-general recently noted in his annual threat assessment the number of terrorism leads ASIO is investigating has doubled since this time last year," he told parliament.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton. Source: AAP

Previously the lower age bracket for questioning was 16, but minors would require a lawyer to be present.

However, their parent or guardian could be kicked out of an interview if they were being disruptive.

says the minimum age has been lowered from 16 to 14 "as a response to the increased threat posed by minors" and that only teens participating in "politically motivated violence" could be interrogated.

“The need for the lowered age is illustrated by the 2015 politically motivated shooting of New South Wales police force employee by a 15-year-old," the memorandum says.

“The exclusion of people under the age of 18 years from questioning warrants, including the apprehension power, would leave a significant gap in ASIO’s ability to collect crucial intelligence on threats to Australia’s security.”

The legislation also allows ASIO to deprive adults of a lawyer in limited circumstances.

This included if they thought particular lawyers would alert other people participating in an illegal activity or the lawyer was being disruptive during questioning.

The attorney-general would be allowed to grant warrants verbally.

Australian Lawyers Alliance spokesman Greg Barns said verbal warrants would make it difficult to hold ASIO to account.

He was also disturbed by the prospect of questioning 14-year-olds.

"This is unnecessary and completely inappropriate," Mr Barns said.

"These amendments to national security laws are in no way proportionate to the threats facing Australia."

Greens deputy leader Nick McKim said Mr Dutton had given no justification for the need to interrogate 14-year-olds and accused the government of trying to slip in the boosted powers while Australia was distracted by the coronavirus.

"To use the pandemic as cover for the increased scope of the surveillance state is dangerous and cynical," Senator McKim said.

The Law Council said it welcomed provisions that would take away powers allowing security agencies to detain individuals "secretly" for questioning.

“We were very concerned about those measures,” Ms Wright said.

Additional reporting by Tom Stayner, Evan Young, AAP.

4 min read
Published 13 May 2020 at 7:31pm
By SBS News
Source: SBS