The states’ handover of driver licence data for a beefed up national facial biometric matching capability would only bring existing arrangements into “real time”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, after the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to a suite of new counter-terrorism measures.
Turnbull stressed there would be no change to the scope of the data or who could access it. The change was to increase the efficiency and timeliness of getting information, he said.
The COAG communique said the national capability “will help protect Australians by making it easier for security and law enforcement agencies to identify people who are suspects or victims of terrorist or other criminal activity”.
Turnbull told his joint news conference with state and territory leaders: “This is not accessing information, photo ID information, that is not currently available. We are talking about bringing together, essentially, federal government photo IDs, passports, visas and so forth, together with drivers licences.
“These are all available to law enforcement agencies now and have been for many years, if not for generations. What we have not been doing is accessing them in a modern, 21st-century way,” he said.
“It shouldn’t take seven days to be able to verify someone’s identity or seek to match a photograph of somebody that is a person of interest. It should be able to be done seamlessly in real time.”
He said most people “would assume, if the police saw a person they were concerned about, on a CCTV, they could turn to a computer system and quickly work out who that person was. The answer, they can’t. And what we’re doing is ensuring that they can.”
Private sector access to the data is subject to ministerial approvals and privacy assessments.
The most significant of the legislative measures agreed on at the COAG meeting is for a tougher, nationally consistent regime for holding people suspected of terrorist offences before they are charged or released.
At present New South Wales allows people to be held without charge for up to 14 days, much longer than elsewhere. Under the agreement, the NSW regime will be adopted across the country.
The special COAG on national security saw the leaders united on the need to do more, explicitly or implicitly accepting that meant giving security greater priority over individual liberty and privacy than in the past.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said: “There will be some today who will focus on the notional infringement, the notional reduction in peoples’ rights and liberties and freedoms, the rights and liberties of a small number of people.
“Some people have the luxury of being able to have that notional debate. Those of us in positions of leadership do not have that luxury.
“We are called to act and we are called to make the changes necessary to give to law enforcement and our security agencies everything they need to keep Australia safe and that is what this COAG meeting today has done. It is this forum operating at its best.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she would like to see the driver licence register up in time for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April.
In other measures in the package, the federal government will develop a new Commonwealth offence that will allow law enforcement agencies to intervene when a person possesses “instructional terrorist material”. The legislation would have “appropriate safeguards”, the communique said.
The Commonwealth will also develop a “terrorism hoax” offence to “ensure that the potentially broad nature of terrorism hoaxes is criminalised in all jurisdictions”.
The Greens’ justice spokesman, Nick McKim, said Labor and Liberal leaders had “abjectly failed to make the case for today’s COAG decision to sign away yet another tranche of hard-won rights and freedoms”.
“Detaining people for two weeks without charge is offensive to Australian values and the rule of law.
“Creating a massive database of people’s photographs is a privacy invasion that creates a honeypot for hackers.
“Australians would have little faith in the government’s capacity to keep their information safe given the census fail and leaks of Medicare numbers,” McKim said.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.