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​Data retention a 'small price to pay' for freedom, says PM

Paying $400 million to implement a data retention scheme is worth it, according to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has warned that law enforcement faces "unilateral disarmament" without metadata access.

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The Prime Minister wants data retention laws to be passed "swiftly". Tony Abbott on Facebook

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has warned that Australia's law enforcement agencies face "unilateral disarmament" in the eyes of criminals if metadata laws are not passed "swiftly".

The comments came at a doorstop interview during which the PM discussed child protection, accompanied by Dan Tehan, chairman of the joint parliamentary committee examining the Data Retention Bill.

While the Attorney-General's Department has still not released an official costing estimate for the bill's implementation, the Prime Minister said data retention would cost in the order of AU$400 million, but said this was "a small price to pay" for Australians.

"We're talking about a $40 billion a year sector and even at the highest estimate we've got, the cost of metadata retention is less than 1 percent of the total sector," said Mr Abbott. "It seems like a small price to pay to give ourselves the kind of safety and the kind of freedom that people in a country like Australia deserve."

In the interview, Mr Abbott also used the issue of child protection to argue for mandatory retention of metadata by telecommunications providers and ISPs.

"It's very important if we are to protect our kids that the police have access to appropriate telecommunications data," he said. "We all know that people who want to abuse children often feed their habits online. It's very important that we have the information that allows...this kind of horrible behaviour to be tracked and prosecuted."

Although the Government's first two national security bills passed unopposed, this third piece of legislation on metadata has not had such a smooth ride, with the Greens staunchly opposing the bill and even the Leader of the Opposition writing to the Prime Minister to raise concerns about cost, scope and even press freedom.

However, the Prime Minister had a warning for critics about the consequences of the bill failing to pass.

"The cost of losing this data is an explosion in unsolved crime," he said. "If we want to combat crime, we need this legislation and if we don't get it, it will be a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of criminals and the price of that is very, very high indeed."

While the final data set has yet to be officially proscribed, Mr Abbott continued the line of previous comments on metadata, using what he called "an old-fashioned metaphor" to explain the complex issue.

"If you look at a letter, you've got the address, you've got the sender, you've got the date stamp, where it was posted and what time it was posted. It's the electronic version of what is on the front of the letter that we want to keep. The contents of the letter, well people can only get access to that with a warrant."