New powers for undercover police

The World Today
5 April 2001
Reporter: Edmond Roy

COMPERE: Well, the Federal Government is also looking to strengthen the powers of another, more clandestine, branch of government.

Assumed identities, indemnity from prosecution and sophisticated listening devices are some of the new powers being considered by the Federal Government for undercover law enforcement agents.

The new powers are contained in legislation, introduced to Parliament today, by Justice Minister, Chris Ellison.

Edmond Roy reports.

EDMOND ROY: It has the touch of a James Bond mystique. Where secret agents are given the licence to kill.

Indeed, the latest legislation put to Parliament by Justice Minister, Chris Ellison, has some provisions that even the legendry M would salivate over.

Consider this. Assumed identities. Attaching listening devices on unclaimed packages, and the like. And extending so-called control operations to include such cases as people smuggling, major fraud and other serious offences.

Until now, controlled operations, such as a sting operation, could only be conducted for drug investigations.

So, what has brought all this about?

Justice Minister, Chris Ellison.

CHRIS ELLISON: Well, it's come together as a result of the needs of law enforcement, which have developed over the last year or so.

What law enforcement has said to the Government is that we do need these facilities, these methods of investigation, if we're to deal with organised crime and serious crime.

EDMOND ROY: That's something all through history, isn't it? All law enforcement agencies throughout history, have wanted more powers.

CHRIS ELLISON: Well, we do have checks with these. I mean, included in these, there are checks and balances, for instance, with your controlled operations. Controlled operation has to be reviewed on a three monthly cycle.

There is a criteria for the authorisation of a controlled operation. As with the assumed identities.

I mean, they just can't use these assumed identities willy nilly.

It has to go through a process of authorisation, so there is a check and a balance. Because, what you have to do, is balance individual liberty here, with the requirements of law enforcement.

EDMOND ROY: That, I suppose, answers the question. Are we actually balancing those two?

CHRIS ELLISON: Well, I believe we definitely are balancing those two. And we have done this in a piece of legislation which does have those measures of scrutiny, of accountability, contained within the bill.

You can't just, for instance, have an assumed identity and then use it for the purposes other than for which the assumed identity was granted.

I mean, that is to be carefully monitored. And, of course, the practice, the activity of the law enforcement agencies of the Commonwealth, will come under the scrutiny of the parliamentary committees.

It is something that the Government is very conscious of. But, at the same time, we have to have law enforcement agencies who can combat serious and organised crime, using modern methods.

EDMOND ROY: Not so, says Cameron Murphy, from the Australian Council for Civil Liberties.

He points out that although law enforcement agencies have been given more and more powers, the Mr Bigs of this world have always got away. Leaving the small fry to face the wrath of an overpowering, and unaccountable, law enforcement community.

CAMERON MURPHY: The Serious Crime Amendment, which has been proposed in Parliament yesterday, gives a significant expansion to the definition of controlled operations.

So, they were given extraordinary powers for particular circumstances, to attack the Mr Bigs of the drug business, and other such types.

Well, it now expands that to include other Commonwealth enforcement operations.

The other thing it does is allows the officers to commit narcotics crimes.

I thought the whole objective of these organisations was to combat drug crime.

They're saying that, in order to do that, they need to be able to deal, import and export drugs themselves.

Now, that's just an unbelievable situation.

EDMOND ROY: You don't trust them, do you?

CAMERON MURPHY: Well, I don't trust them. I think that their conduct, over the last decade, has led to some unbecoming situations. Where these organisations have too much power. And, we're allowing it to get seriously out of control.

COMPERE: Cameron Murphy, of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, with Edmond Roy.


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