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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Much needed reforms proposed for secrecy laws

The Australian Law Reform Commission Discussion Paper on secrecy provisions in federal laws was released today with 65 proposals for change. ALRC President David Weisbrot said the proposals involve major changes to the treatment of secrecy in statutes, currently "507 secrecy provisions scattered across 175 pieces of legislation, including 358 distinct secrecy offences carrying a wide variety of criminal penalties." The statute book at present is "more reflective of the old culture of secrecy than the current preference for openness.’

The Commissioner in charge of the Inquiry, Professor Rosalind Croucher, commented:
“In trying to shift the system towards a more open and ‘pro-disclosure culture’, the ALRC proposes a substantial decrease in the use of criminal sanctions—limiting prosecutions to those unauthorised disclosures in which it is alleged that harm has been caused, or was likely to be caused, to a compelling public interest. These include harm to: national security, defence or international relations; law enforcement operations; the physical safety of a person; or public health. Of course, the offence is more severe where the person intends to cause harm or is recklessly indifferent to the consequences. Mostly, however, it seems preferable to deal with these issues through better education and training, improved information handling practices, and by utilising public service disciplinary procedures."
The Paper steers clear of related issues of Freedom of Information and Whistleblowers Protection which are the subject of other review processes. But the shift to a harm test for criminal sanctions would involve burying the current draconian Section 70 of the Crimes Act which provides for up to two years in jail for any unauthorised disclosure, the basis of the conviction of Allan Kessing following disclosure of information about security shortcomings at Sydney Airport.

Disclosure: I'm a member of the ALRC Advisory Committee for this reference.

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