The federal government is pushing ahead with legislation that would allow the Attorney-General to dictate to telecommunications companies which companies they are allowed to deal with on “national security” grounds.

Telecommunications legislation brought to the Coalition party room by Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday passed without debate and was introduced into Parliament on Wednesday at 3.41pm, as all eyes were on the US presidential election. The Telecommunications Security Sector Reform legislation, first proposed in June last year, will give the government powers over what network vendors companies like Telstra, Optus, or TPG can use in their networks.

The government already has this power over NBN, as is evidenced by the ongoing ban on the company using Chinese technology giant Huawei in its infrastructure, but given the almost total private ownership of mobile networks and the extensive private fixed networks, the government believes it needs powers to tell private companies what and what not to use.

Under the original proposal, the legislation would have allowed the secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department to dictate what telcos could and could not install in their mobile and internet networks. The legislation would have also required telcos to hand over any information the secretary wanted, or face fines.

After a backlash from the companies involved, however, Brandis relented and released revised draft legislation in November last year. The revision puts the power in the AG’s hands rather than the secretary’s. The government sat on the legislation for most of the year.

The explanatory memorandum states the legislation is needed because “a voluntary or cooperative approach [with telecommunications companies] is only workable where companies are willing to give due consideration to national security and the public interest”.

The government’s security agencies don’t have “adequate levers” to “engage” those telcos that are not cooperative, according to the document.

In a press release accompanying the introduction of the legislation, Brandis and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said that the government had input from “key telecommunications stakeholders” in the development of the legislation, but the industry did not see the final legislation before it was introduced.

John Stanton, CEO of the Communications Alliance — the peak organisation representing the telecommunications companies, told Crikey in a statement on Wednesday that they had not seen the revised text of the legislation.

While they welcomed some changes, they were concerned that other parts remained vague.

“Among other things there still appears to be a requirement on industry players to ‘protect’ networks that they use, even if those networks are not under their control,” he said.

Brandis has said that the matter will be referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, which will review the legislation, meaning it will not pass until next year, given there are just over two sitting weeks left in the year.

The proposal is going to cost $1.6 million annually to run for ASIO and the AGD.

Peter Fray

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