Criminal Code Amendment (Impersonating a Commonwealth Body) Bill

My constituents in Forrest—and every Australian—need to have confidence that when a Commonwealth department contacts them it is actually that department doing the contacting. If an individual or a group pretends to be Medicare, Centrelink, the ATO, the department of immigration or any other Commonwealth department body or organisation, that person or group will be charged. It is illegal. That is what this law is about. So the next time someone decides to send out text messages during an election campaign—or at any other time—and impersonates a Commonwealth department, deliberately scaring the most vulnerable people, that individual will be charged for doing so. To those with malicious intent or scammers pretending to be from a Commonwealth department: it will be against the law, once this law passes, to impersonate Centrelink, the Department of Defence and the Australian Taxation Office.

There are over 2.1 million aged pensioners in Australia. Those people would be particularly worried to get the types of email or texts they received during the campaign. It was a dreadful time and very worrying for many people. This Labor’s famous ‘Mediscare’ campaign impersonated a Commonwealth department, deliberately scaring the most vulnerable people. It will be against the law, once this law is passed, whether it be a scammer or someone with malicious intent, to impersonate Centrelink—or veterans affairs or immigration. It is really important. We saw—graphically—this infamous ‘Mediscare’ campaign during the 2016 election. Thousands of text messages were sent, supposedly, from Medicare. Of course, they weren’t; they were from the Labor Party.
Why is this so important?

One of the great protections in our system of government is that when people come into contact with a government institution, they need to be able to have the faith and confidence and trust that the people they’re talking to or dealing with are in fact government officials. It is a really key part of confidence in our democratic process. That’s why this bill is so important. We already have laws relating to impersonating a Commonwealth official. This is an extension of that to impersonating a Commonwealth body. It covers the situation where it’s not a Commonwealth official being impersonated, but an entire Commonwealth organisation as well. We did see this, as I said, during ‘Mediscare’. It was very clear from those text messages with Medicare at the top that it was deliberately misleading. It was certainly Labor who did it.

This bill will amend the Criminal Code Act 1995 to safeguard the Australian public from misrepresentations and false statements purportedly made on behalf of Commonwealth bodies. The Turnbull government condemns the impersonation of Commonwealth bodies, as I do personally. I see it as well with scammers. We saw this was a giant scam and a giant con. We’re committed to strengthening public confidence in communications from all government departments and bodies.

This bill introduces new criminal offences, as it should, and an injunction power to prevent people from impersonating a Commonwealth body. The measures will ensure that the Australian public, those pensioners and people on lower incomes and anybody that is likely to receive this type of message, sent deliberately with an intent to convince them that it’s a Commonwealth body, will have confidence that if it is that person or that group they will be acting against the law. People need to know and have confidence in the legitimacy of communications from government agencies. It helps to safeguard the proper functioning of government.

People shouldn’t take what happened lightly. We haven’t. That’s why this legislation is here. It is essential to a well-functioning democracy that people in Australia have absolute trust in the legitimacy of statements made by government agencies. Trust is inevitably eroded if people are able with impunity, as we saw, to misrepresent themselves as saying they’re communicating on behalf of a government or a government organisation or body without any authorisation.

Accordingly, this bill introduces new offences to criminalise conduct where a person falsely misrepresents themselves to be acting on behalf or with the authority of a Commonwealth agency, as happened in the ‘Mediscare’ campaign. For the purposes of the new offences, a Commonwealth body would be a Commonwealth entity, a Commonwealth company or any service, benefit, program or facility—it covers the broad spectrum—provided by or on behalf of the Commonwealth. The offences will capture false representations in relation to a broad range of government bodies and services, from the Attorney-General’s Department through to Centrelink and Medicare. Just think what else there could be where we could see this type of campaign running. A scammer could claim to be from Regional Development Australia. Perhaps the Child Support Agency might be the next one, or the Department of Social Services or Human Services. The list is significant.

We did see that disgraceful use of messages that really confused with legitimate messages from the Commonwealth during the 2016 election campaign. Those messages were sent out to people in the
community encouraging them to vote a certain way, based on a falsehood. That’s what it was. It took advantage of a loophole in the current law on impersonating the Commonwealth or its officials. There were pensioners receiving text messages about the government’s policy on Medicare. It was blatantly false. They were spread maliciously in order to achieve an electoral advantage. This gap is being covered by this law. It is already a criminal offence to impersonate a Commonwealth official. This takes that even further.
I am particularly pleased, given the work I’ve done in the online space, that this will cover scammers as well. Because we frequently see scams where people send a false invoice pretending to be from the ATO.

This law will cover those people as well. Today, on Safer Internet Day, the people that are prone to this sort of behaviour better be aware that this law will cover you, too, if that’s what you’re doing. The bill introduces offences to ensure that the punishment reflects the person’s state of mind in making the false representation where a person intends that, or is reckless as to whether, their conduct will result in, or is reasonably capable of resulting in, a false representation. It will be punishable by up to two years imprisonment. The amendments also create a new aggravated offence where a person falsely impersonates a Commonwealth body or service with the intent to gain, cause a loss, or influence the exercise of a public duty. The more serious and deliberate nature of this conduct warrants an increased maximum penalty of five years imprisonment—as it should. These penalties are commensurate with offences for impersonating a Commonwealth official. The bill contains safeguards to ensure that neither of these offences unduly limits the freedom of expression—equally as important.

The bill also enlivens the injunction provisions in the Regulatory Powers (Standard Provisions) Act 2014, providing persons whose interests have been, or would be, affected by the false representation the opportunity to prevent such conduct through a court-issued injunction. This is particularly important online. Very important on election day. The bill will enable affected persons to apply to a relevant court for an injunction to prevent conduct in contravention of the new offences in the Criminal Code. As I’m reminded, it’s important to note that the purpose of this power is to enable affected persons to act swiftly—as you need to, particularly online, and you saw that with the ‘Mediscare’ campaign; there needed to be an immediate and effective response—to prevent conduct amounting to false representation, which is what we saw, of a Commonwealth agency. It was very cleverly targeted, unfortunately, at the most vulnerable. These amendments are critical to protecting Commonwealth bodies from what is, and will be, criminal misrepresentation—and it should be. It should be against the law to misrepresent a Commonwealth agency or body. The amendments will ensure that the public—those people out there who elect us to this place—can have confidence in all forms of communication that come from the Commonwealth government.

The people that live in our electorates take it very seriously when they get any form of communication claiming to be from a government agency. They take it seriously and they need to have confidence that that’s who it’s actually coming from. That’s why this law is so important. We’re committed to safeguarding the proper functioning of Australia’s democracy—that’s what this is about; it’s not about anything other than safeguarding our democracy. Trust is so critical. Australian people need to have trust in the validity of communications from our Commonwealth bodies. After all, if you can’t trust a Commonwealth body, who can you trust? That’s what people say to me. They need to have that level of confidence, and we here are the guardians of that trust. That’s why we take it so seriously, and we do, and why I’m very pleased to be speaking on this bill. This bill will strengthen public confidence in all such communications. Just as importantly, it will ensure that those who deliberately deceive the Australian public are ultimately captured by the law. What a great result that will be. I commend the minister for bringing the legislation to the House. It is important legislation. I commend the bill to the House. I’m pleased that my colleagues are here to support that endeavour.