Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton have traded barbs amid questions about Australia’s press freedom.
Mr Dutton stressed there’s nothing new about the idea that a journalist can go to jail for publishing top secret government documents, saying the suggestion there should be no penalty goes against “tradition”.
But Mr Albanese told Mr Dutton he was “onto (him)” for trying to avoid media scrutiny and hamper freedom of the press.
Asked whether he would be comfortable if that happened, the Home Affairs minister suggested the priority was the leaking of highly classified documents.
“I’m concerned that if people are leaking top-secret documents that can affect our national security,” he told Nine’s Today program on Friday.
“We have laws that operate in this country and the Federal Police have been criticised by people including Albo which I think has been quite unfair to target those officers individually.”
“You are criticising police officers,” he told Mr Albanese.
“I said it’s outrageous that Annika Smethurst’s house was raided by seven police for 7.5 hours. That’s an outrage,” Mr Albanese replied.
“Are you criticising the police Albo? That’s an investigation. They make a decision and you are wrong,” Mr Dutton retorted.
“If you look at the referral — the referral has been made by the secretary of the defence department and the director general of the Australian Signals Directorate as I understand it, they have made the referral to the Australian Federal police. The Federal police have an obligation to investigate that matter if it’s been referred to them. And they’ve got equally an obligation under law to conduct their inquiries independently.”
The Australian Federal Police hasn’t ruled out laying charges following back-to-back raids this week involving two media outlets.
Federal police are investigating not only the leaking of documents by Commonwealth officers but also the publication of the materials following referrals from – according to Mr Dutton – the Defence Department secretary and the director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate.
Search warrants were executed on the Canberra home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst and the Sydney headquarters of the ABC.
The ABC was raided over 2017 stories on allegations Australian soldiers may have carried out unlawful killings in Afghanistan, based on leaked Defence papers.
Ms Smethurst’s home was raided over the 2018 publication of a leaked plan to allow the ASD to spy on Australians.
Mr Dutton, the minister responsible for the AFP, says the laws that can put journalists behind bars for publishing stories with top secret information date back many years.
“That there should be no penalty or consequence for that would go against tradition in our country that spans back many, many decades and the same case in other democracies around the world,” he said.
“There are good reasons and longstanding reasons why a country like us or New Zealand would classify documents in such away.
“The federal police have an obligation to investigate a matter that’s been referred to them.” But he insisted there were legal protections for whistleblowers and that the government defended media rights.
“We do have protections enshrined in law and we value a very healthy fourth estate. There’s no question of that.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese disagreed.
“What we’re seeing here is no-one in the government being prepared to defend the role that media has in our democracy, which is essential,” he said.
“What we need to do is have a mature debate about what the role of the media is in our society, and their capacity to actually provide appropriate scrutiny of government and of opposition.”
Mr Albanese accused Mr Dutton of consistently trying to avoid scrutiny of his portfolio.
“You consistently have been trying to avoid scrutiny in all of the portfolios you’ve had,” he said.
“You characterise secrecy and lack of scrutiny that embodies your entire political career.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he’s open to reviewing the legislation underpinning the AFP searches.
“If there are issues regarding particular laws they will be raised in the normal way that they should be in a democracy,” he told reporters in the UK this week.
“They are matters I am always open to discuss.”
Labor is considering backing a Senate inquiry into the raids proposed by the Greens.
The AFP has left the door open to carrying out further raids as part of its investigations.