Fears intelligence changes could discriminate against ethnic or religious groups

Fears intelligence changes could discriminate against ethnic or religious groups

SBS World News Radio: The Turnbull government is considering whether to expand the powers of its overseas spy agency to monitor classes of Australians rather than certain individuals.

Peter Dutton is being called by some the "Super Minister".

Soon to be responsible for a Home Affairs portfolio combining domestic spy agency ASIO, the Federal Police and Border Force, Mr Dutton says he sees his job more as a Strategy Minister.

"The agencies retain their independent autonomy but they come together in a coordinated fashion and it will mean for example where we now have counter-terrorism unit officers at airports, five years ago that wasn't the case, we can have them more joined up with the rest of the intelligence community."

The government used the release of a widespread review into its intelligence community to unveil plans for a Home Affairs ministry.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the move will allow agencies to better protect Australians from the threat of terrorism.

"Complacency has no place in national security. Yes, we've got great agencies. Yes, we've disrupted many terrorist plots and we'll disrupt more. But we must be constantly seeking to ensure that we work even better together and of course the key in this very hyper-connected world of social media and the internet is connectedness and ensuring those agencies, which are central to keeping Australians safe from terrorism, work most closely together."

But there is one recommendation in the review worrying legal experts.

The law currently allows the Foreign Minister to support the military by authorising Australia's international spy agency to monitor certain Australians overseas - in particular, suspected foreign fighters.

The review recommends allowing foreign intelligence agencies to produce intelligence on a 'class' of Australians, instead of individuals, because of their involvement with prescribed terrorist organisations and regardless of whether it is in support of the Defence Force.

Review author Michael L'Estrange says it is a sensible way to go, considering the country's current terrorism challenges.

"The reason we've gone down this path in relation to class authorisations for Australians involved in proscribed terrorist organisations is that doing it on an individual basis can be slow and it needs to be extremely agile and nimble in response to the challenges we face and we think this is actually a sensible way to go."

The review predicts that class monitoring could extend beyond the members of a proscribed terrorist group to any Australians with a link to it.

But Australian Lawyers Alliance barrister Greg Barns says he worries those powers could be abused.

"The difficulty in Australia is that there are no effective human rights protections against abuse of those powers. We know that these sorts of powers are abused, you've just got to ask Edward Snowden. This is a return to the era where people who are said to have met with someone who may have a link with a particular association are then targeted."

Lawyers are concerned Australians could be monitored because of their religion or ethnicity.

Criminal Defence Lawyer Rob Stary says while it's meant to be restricted to Australia's security and citizens overseas, there is no guarantee it will not spread to domestic agencies.

"The agencies do have a legitimate right, of course they do, to gather intelligence but it's naive to think there's a separation of roles, it just doesn't happen. It doesn't matter what their charter says, it doesn't matter what any mission statement might be, the fact of the matter is that they do and they do so on the basis of protecting national security interest."

But head of the Counter-Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Jacinta Carroll, says religion or ethnicity does not come into the legislation at all, it is just about terrorist organisations.

"The five most deadly terrorist organisations happen to be Islamist extremist organisations. That hasn't always been the case and it won't always be the case in the future. The legislation is certainly neutral on that. It is about a real threat by these politically-motivated organisations that are proscribed as terrorist entities."

The Government has not made a decision on this recommendation.

But it has already used other recommendations in the L'Estrange review as a platform to make dramatic national security changes.

 

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