Opposition backs data retention amid criticism over 'back-room deal'

Malcolm Turnbull has thanked the Opposition for helping pass data retention laws, which now include further protections for journalists. But cross-bench MPs say the Bill was amended in "back-room" negotiations.

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Malcolm Turnbull has praised the opposition for supporting data retention. Stefan Postles/Getty

The Federal Opposition has voted in favour of a mandatory data retention scheme in Australia, meaning that metadata laws are likely to pass through Parliament with little opposition.

The news comes as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed the Government worked with the Opposition to draft a series of amendments to the proposed legislation, the most significant of which were new measures requiring "journalist information warrants" to access metadata capable of identifying journalists' confidential sources.

The Government has also announced new provisions to appoint a "public interest advocate" that Mr Turnbull said would be able to "make submissions in response to the application for a warrant on matters of public interest that the warrant issuing authority should consider."

Journalist Information Warrants

The full amendments, which were tabled in Parliament today, stipulate that journalist information warrants allow the capturing of metadata relating to sources who provide information to journalists "in expectation that the information may be disseminated." This includes formats such as news, current affairs and documentaries.

A journalist is defined as "a person who is working in a professional capacity as a journalist or an employer of such a person" and information warrants can stay in force for up to 6 months. Furthermore, persons who disclose information about journalist information warrants, including their existence, non-existence or revocation, are also subject to two years imprisonment under the amendments.

In more general terms, the Data Retention Bill amendments also provide detail around the kinds of information that service providers must keep, including the source and destination of communications as well as the date, time and duration of communications. Furthermore, data to be retained includes "the location of equipment, or a line" used at both the start and end of a communication, with cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots called out as specific examples.

Cross-bench criticism

In his final speech to the House of Representatives before a vote on the Bill, Mr Turnbull thanked the Opposition for "cooperation" in negotiations and for ultimately supporting mandatory data retention.

The Bill cleared the House of Representatives today with all but three cross-bench MPs showing support for a data retention scheme refined by the new amendments. Maintaining their opposition to the laws were independent MPs Cathy McGowan and Andrew Wilkie and Greens MP Adam Bandt.

MPs Andrew Wilkie, Adam Bandt and Cathy McGowan voted against data retention legislation. Screenshot by Claire Reilly/CNET

The amendments to the Data Retention Bill that appeared today were largely negotiated between the Government and Federal Opposition behind closed doors -- an issue that was met with swift condemnation from Mr Bandt, who spoke to the media shortly after the vote.

"All of 20 seconds ago, the copies of 30 pages worth of amendments were given to us and apparently we're expected to digest them and vote on them within the space of half an hour or so. Tony Abbott and Labor have done a back-room deal on Internet and smartphone surveillance laws and are saying to the public and the parliament, 'Just trust us. It will be alright,'" he said.

"Labor may be prepared to roll over as long as Tony Abbott tickles their tummy but the Greens aren't."

The minister was joined in this criticism by his upper house colleague Scott Ludlam, who said the legislation needed further scrutiny.

"We're going to make sure if this Bill is shot-gunned through the House of Representatives and comes to the Senate next week that it will be closely argued...we're going to be asking back bench Labor and Liberal Senators who have concerns to read the damn bill."

When asked whether the bill was expected to pass now that it had bipartisan support, Senator Ludlam held out hope.

"Nothing in this building is a fait accompli," he said. "There may be many twists and turns in this yet but it's not a good sign for any of us when Bill Shorten does a handshake deal with Tony Abbott to sell out our privacy."

Updated at 2:35 p.m. AEDT: To reflect passage of the Bill through the House of Representatives and to correct the list of MPs who voted against the legislation.