Friday, November 21, 2008

Australian Government backs police spying on community groups


Government backs police spying on community groups

Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie
October 27, 2008 - 12:00AM

THE Brumby Government has backed Victoria Police's infiltration of activist and community groups, rejecting calls for greater scrutiny of covert police operations.

Police Minister Bob Cameron said the internal police controls covering the secret activities of the Security Intelligence Group were sufficient. "There is appropriate oversight in place as Deputy Chief Commissioner Simon Overland outlined last week," he said.

The activities of the intelligence unit are overseen by Mr Overland, another senior officer and two retired magistrates.

State Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu, the Law Institute of Victoria, Liberty Victoria and numerous community and protest groups have called for the covert activities of police to be supervised by an external body such as a parliamentary committee.

Their calls came after The Age revealed this month that a covert police officer had infiltrated groups such as Animal Liberation Victoria, Stop the War Coalition, Unity for Peace and Socialist Alternative over two years.

The officer also played a key role in the organising committee for the annual Palm Sunday peace rally in Melbourne. The non-violent event has widespread support and is organised by church groups, doctors, unions and students.

The Government and Victoria Police have received letters of complaint from protest group members who claim that police spying is an infringement of their civil liberties.

Mr Cameron ruled out Victoria following the lead of the US state of Maryland, which this year held an inquiry after it was revealed police had infiltrated anti-war and anti-death penalty groups. The inquiry resulted in the Maryland police department announcing it would no longer spy on law-abiding protest groups.

The Maryland infiltration was discovered through documents released under US freedom of information laws.

Mr Cameron, who is acting Attorney-General while Mr Hulls is on leave, also defended the Government against criticism of amendments it made to the Freedom of Information Act in 2006 that allow police to keep secret all documents created by its covert and intelligence unit.

These include intelligence reports on people who may not have committed any crimes, and which can be kept by police for an indefinite period.

"It is appropriate for the purposes of police work that material related to investigations remains secure," Mr Cameron said.

He said the 2006 changes were a "technical clean-up" of the FOI Act and that police intelligence documents had always been exempt from release.

Mr Overland recently told The Age that the police had specifically requested the 2006 FOI changes in order to stop people requesting information from the covert and intelligence unit.

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