Integrity commission’s MP phone tap powers reviewed

Concerns have been raised about the potential legality of the proposed National Anti-Corruption Commission tapping the phones of parliamentarians.

Nov 18, 2022, updated Nov 18, 2022
Photo: AAP/Julian Smith

Photo: AAP/Julian Smith

Parliamentarians are reviewing how the body could be granted legal powers to tap phones and access telco data during its investigations.

State-based anti-corruption commissions such as NSW’s ICAC have the power to intercept phone calls.

But having a national body has raised issues around parliamentary privilege, under which the communications of parliamentarians are protected.

“You get more confusion as soon as you give somebody some powers that seem to reach into all the activities of parliamentarians,” Senate clerk Richard Pye told an inquiry into the matter on Friday.

He suggests amendments to put the protection of privilege beyond doubt.

A claim of privilege needs to be made by a parliamentarian but the covert nature of investigations means they won’t know what’s being accessed.

Pye said it was possible another parliamentary officer or the Senate president or lower house speaker could be engaged if the issue arose.

“Trying to find a way the question of privilege can be given some regard from someone separate from the investigative process … is probably the sort of direction you’d expect it to go,” he said.

Liberal senator James Paterson asked whether an independent advocate for parliamentarians could be set up so the subject of an investigation was not tipped off.

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Pye said there would be situations in which an independent advocate would be appropriate.

National security expert William Stoltz said special safeguards need to be put in place to protect sensitive information relating to federal cabinet members.

“The interaction of NACC investigations with the prime minister and other cabinet members must therefore be handled with the greatest care,” Stoltz said.

“Due to the potential chilling effect on cabinet confidentiality and the potential risk to national security information, additional safeguards are required.”

Stoltz said additional measures were needed to protect national security information collected by the integrity body from foreign adversaries.

The Albanese government will need the support of the Greens and one crossbencher to get its legislation through the Senate in the final sitting fortnight of parliament.

Parliament will rise for the final time this year on December 1.


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