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Why the Submarine Cable bill should be referred to a Senate Committee

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 5 Dec 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (12:07): I am just going to add a few comments and not detain the chamber for long on the second part of Senator Siewert's motion, which relates to the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013.

It is difficult to know whether this is just an administrative stuff-up or whether it was actually an attempt to avoid scrutiny, but I understand that now reason has prevailed. As Senator Moore has indicated, there is a reason as to why it has become the convention in this place that bills of any degree of moderate or high controversy or complexity should almost as of right be referred to Senate committees. It is what this chamber does; it is us doing our job. Preventing an inquiry into a key piece of legislation prevents the Senate doing what it is here to do.

In my experience, you then end up simply litigating it clause by clause in the committee stage before the full chamber, which is not a good use of the chamber's time. You do not get the benefit of expert witnesses and frequently we are dealing with ministers who are acting for someone in the other place and who have a limited experience of what the bill is about. It is not very satisfying for anybody.

My whip tells me that we do have government and I believe opposition support, certainly for the second part of Senator Siewert's amendment, being reported on by 31 March 2014. We sought to refer this bill because when the Selection of Bills Committee was asked to make a call on whether to refer the bill it was doing so in the blind. It had not made its way into the house and none of the documentation was available to us, and it is very difficult to make a judgement call on degree of complexity or controversy if you have not seen supporting documents around the bill. I have received a briefing since then from Minister Turnbull, who made a staffer available to us to talk us through it.

We do have some questions. The bill relates to protection of submarine cables that carry upwards of 99 per cent of data traffic between continents. Obviously senators will be aware of the high degree of public interest at the moment in protection of these cables because they are critical infrastructure. Particularly for an island nation, submarine cables are what link us to the rest of the world. It is not, as some people believe, all satellite traffic-the backbone of the internet is these submarine cables.

Not only do they need to be protected from inadvertent disturbance from shipping, for example; they also need to be protected from malicious disturbance, such as people attaching taps to those fibres to divert the traffic entirely unlawfully. Presumably that is what this bill is designed to protect against. We want to ensure that the results of the statutory review that was undertaken by ACMA five years after the 2005 legislation came into force are adequate, to review the decisions taken by government in addition to the outcomes of the review. That is why we have Senate inquiries.

It is not clear to me on first reading whether the oversight mechanisms proposed in the bill are sufficient, whether the streamlining of permits process as outlined improves the security of this telecommunications infrastructure or not. The bill includes new powers for the A-G to direct ACMA to refuse a permit on security grounds.

It is not at all clear on what criteria those refusals could be made, and that is what a Senate inquiry is for. Given that, as the bill is drafted, these decisions are not reviewable, we need to know what the Attorney would need to have before him as he is making those judgement calls. So I am pleased that we found reason. I am not at all clear as to why this was not simply resolved amicably in Selection of Bills Committee but I look forward to participating in the inquiry over the summer and coming back and if necessary improving the legislation.

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