Reforms to Commonwealth secrecy offences
The Australian Government will significantly reduce the number of secrecy offences, ensure remaining secrecy offences are fit for purpose, and improve protections for press freedom.
Secrecy offences play an important role in preventing the unauthorised disclosure of information which can undermine national security and harm the public interest. However, there have long been concerns about the number, inconsistency, appropriateness and complexity of Commonwealth secrecy offences.
A comprehensive review of Commonwealth secrecy offences was first recommended by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in 2018 but the Coalition Government never completed a review, and never made any work public.
In December 2022 I announced a comprehensive review of Commonwealth Secrecy Provisions to be undertaken by the Attorney-General’s Department.
That Review has now been completed and the government has accepted the following key reforms:
- removal of criminal liability from approximately 168 secrecy offences out of the 875 total secrecy offences
- further reductions in the number of offences through the enactment of a new general secrecy offence in the Criminal Code Act 1995 that will ensure Commonwealth officers and others with confidentiality obligations can be held to account for harm caused by breaching those obligations
- this new offence will also address the issues raised by the alleged PwC breach of confidentiality
- improved protections for press freedom and individuals providing information to Royal Commissions, and
- establishment of principles for the framing of secrecy offences that will guide the future development and consistency of secrecy laws across Commonwealth laws.
In addition, the Government will be strengthening protections for journalists by requiring ministerial consent for the prosecution of journalists for certain secrecy offences.
The Albanese Government believes a strong and independent media is vital to democracy and holding governments to account.
Journalists should never face the prospect of being charged or even gaoled just for doing their jobs.
The Government believes this additional safeguard, which is supported by Australia’s Right to Know Coalition and the Australian Press Council, will further enhance protections for public interest journalism.
These build on previous steps the Albanese Government has already taken to protect press freedom and the public’s right to know, including:
- The National Anti-Corruption Commission legislation contained the strongest safeguards ever introduced in any Australian Parliament to protect the identities of journalists’ sources and uphold the public interest associated with a free press.
- In June the Parliament passed priority amendments to the Public Interest Disclosure Act which ensured immediate improvements to the public sector whistleblower scheme were in place in time for the commencement of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
- The Government last week commenced a second stage of consultation on further supports for public sector whistleblowers, including whether a Whistleblower Protection Authority or Commissioner is required.
- The Attorney-General’s intervention in the “Alan Johns” matter to ensure the publication of the sentencing remarks from the unprecedented secret trial that occurred under the former government.
- Work is underway, including the development of legislative amendments, to implement the recommendations made by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in its 2020 Press Freedoms Report.
- The Government is also working with states and territories on the issue of harmonising journalist shield laws.
The Review’s final report is available at Review of Secrecy Provisions | Attorney-General's Department (ag.gov.au)