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Shorten raises concerns about cost and scope of data retention

The Leader of the Opposition has written to Prime Minister Tony Abbott to raise concerns about proposed metadata laws and to protest Government attempts to "politicise" data retention.

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Opposition Leader Bill Shorten Image by Stefan Postles/Getty

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has voiced concerns about proposed data retention legislation, writing a letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott to raise issues about the cost and scope of the regime as well as perceived attempts by the Government to 'politicise' the bill.

The Data Retention Bill is the third and final tranche of counter-terrorism legislation introduced by the Coalition Government in recent months, the first two of which were passed unopposed by the Opposition. It will require telecommunications providers -- as many as 600 across Australia by Mr Shorten's count -- to retain telephone and internet metadata for a mandatory period of two years, and make it available to law enforcement and government agencies pursuing criminals.

While the bill has been widely criticised by civil liberties groups, digital rights advocates and some members of Parliament, Bill Shorten's letter to Tony Abbott now comes as a stronger sign of the Opposition's resistance to elements of the legislation.

In the letter, provided to CNET by the office of the Opposition Leader, Mr Shorten referenced earlier correspondence on the matter sent by Prime Minister Abbott on January 22. He also alludes to statements made by the Prime Minister linking data retention to Sydney's Martin Place siege and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris -- events which the Mr Abbott called "vivid demonstrations of the importance of metadata" for tackling terrorism.

"I am disappointed that recent media briefing has sought to politicise the development and consideration of anti-terrorism legislation," Mr Shorten wrote in his letter. "This is at odds with a responsible and bipartisan approach to such important issues".

While noting the Prime Minister's comments that metadata had played a role in the AFP and ASIO response to the Sydney siege, Mr Shorten said the Opposition had not been briefed on these details, nor had then been provided with the "case studies" distributed to the media by the PM's office.

On the bill itself and Mr Abbott's call for its urgent passage through Parliament, Mr Shorten raised a number of issues with the legislation, including the lack of clarity around the data set and the potential to "erode freedom of the press" if the bill were to pass, as well as major issues about costs:

The Bill will impose substantial costs on Australian taxpayers, either through costs met by the Government or through increased charges passed on to consumers by telecommunications providers.

To date your Goverment has declined to make public information or to provide to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security any detail of the cost of the proposed regime... Although the costs of the scheme to individual service providers may be commercial in confidence, no such claim can be made about the aggregate cost of the scheme to the Australian community.

The Opposition Leader also said a "finalised" data set needed to be made available to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is currently deliberating the metadata legislation.

"I would ask that you ensure this occur immediately to enable appropriate scrutiny," he said. "The Bill proposes that the data set be defined by regulation, however [submissions to the Committee] have argued strongly that as a matter of transparency and accountability the data set should be included in the Bill itself. This will be a further important matter for the PJCIS to consider."

While Mr Shorten said the Opposition "supports expeditious consideration" of the bill by Parliament, he noted that this was dependent on the PJCIS completing its inquiry -- with complete access to the information such as costing and the scope of the data set -- as well as the drafting of any "necessary amendments".

The PJCIS is due to hand down its report on the Data Retention Bill on February 27.