Tech companies will have to help authorities look at encrypted messages before Christmas after Labor agreed to pass controversial new laws at the last minute.
The laws cleared the Senate on Thursday, with the opposition agreeing to drop its amendments due to national security concerns around terror threats over the holidays.
Labor said its support was contingent on the government amending the new laws in February.
“We’re prepared to let it go forward on that basis knowing there’s more work to be done,” Labor leader Bill Shorten told reporters on Thursday night.
Government senate leader Mathias Cormann said the coalition would comply with Labor’s condition.
“The government has agreed to facilitate consideration of these amendments in the new year,” Senator Cormann said.
The laws require tech companies to help police and intelligence agencies see encrypted messages, which experts say will mean encryption will be broken.
The proposed laws were set to be in limbo if they were amended in the Senate, because the coalition shut down the lower house rather than lose a vote about asylum-seeker children.
Attorney-General Christian Porter told the lower house the new powers are necessary to prevent further terrorist events.
They include extending the powers to state and territory police forces and ensuring they cover a broad range of serious offences and not simply terrorism.
These were both issues Labor had argued against but gave way on.
Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke said Labor was only given the coalition’s 173 draft amendments at 6.30am on Thursday, hours before they were introduced to parliament.
Labor says the bill is too broad and confusing, especially the definition of “whole class of technology”.
“What does that mean? No ordinary person can understand it, and no lawyer can understand it,” shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists ordinary Australians will not be captured by the laws, which are designed to stop terrorists and pedophiles from communicating in secret.
He rejected suggestions the coalition was playing political games to avoid a different vote on removing asylum-seeker children from Nauru.
“Let the scale fall from your eyes. This is not about politics, this is about Australia’s national security,” Mr Morrison told reporters.
The laws are designed to help security agencies and police access communications on encrypted applications like WhatsApp, which are used in an estimated 95 per cent of serious criminal activity.
But under pressure from the opposition, the bill will also now include further scrutiny of the laws in 2019, limiting the powers to only “serious offences” and defining the term “systemic weakness”.
Mr Porter says police and national security agencies will still require a warrant to access the encrypted messages.
“All this legislation does is request – and if they decline, require – the tech companies to assist us in making good on the warrant,” Mr Porter said.