Data retention inquiry kept in the dark on costs

The parliamentary committee charged with scrutinising the government’s data retention legislation is unlikely to gain access to the most detailed attempt to assess the cost of the scheme.

The government has engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers to assess the cost of implementing the proposed mandatory data retention regime.

“Before we report I think it would be very, very valuable for us to have an understanding of what the costs of this scheme are likely to be, as well as what proportion of those costs the government intends to subsidise,” Labor MP Jason Clare told representatives of the Attorney-General’s Department who appeared today before a hearing of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has previously attempted to compel the government to table the PwC report into costs.

The PwC report is “still work in progress” said Chris Moraitis, secretary of the Attorney-General's Department.

“And if I did [have it] I wouldn’t be able to share it with you on this occasion because it is part of the cabinet deliberations. So to be honest with you we’re still waiting on the finalisation of that report to inform us of one the quantum and two what reality the Commonwealth bears in terms of the government’s commitment to reasonable coverage of capital costs [for telecommunications providers to implement the scheme.”

Anna Harmer, acting first assistant secretary for the department’s national security law and policy division, said that the PwC report on the cost of the scheme is “one that’s being prepared for the purposes of government deliberations”.

“It’s not a report that we anticipate being in a position to share, and the decision on costings and the decision on the contribution that government makes, the government has reiterated on a number of occasions that it intends to make a reasonable contribution to the upfront capital costs of implementing data retention,” Harmer said.

“But it would be a matter for government as to the timing of that decision and I’m not in a position to advise the committee as to when that might be.”

The deputy chair of the committee, Labor MP Anthony Byrne, described the failure to provide the committee with an indication of the cost of the scheme was “unacceptable”.

“It would be in [the attorney-general’s] interests and the government’s interests to provide information that’s provided to you by PricewaterhouseCoopers to this committee. And if it’s not there will be consequences…

"It’s unacceptable to me… [for] you to come before this committee and say to me you cannot provide a costing. Completely unacceptable. Regardless of what excuse you can provide, it’s unacceptable as an oversight committee.”

Clare said that ASIO and the Australian Federal Police have provided confidential information to the committee.

“That information which is not made public but is available to the committee is extremely useful to the members of this committee in providing the information we need to prepare our report,” Clare said.

“I don’t think there’s any disagreement around this table about how important this legislation is and we’re trying to scrutinise it as best we can to make sure that we provide the best possible advice to the parliament and for that matter the government.

"But a big part of this is how much does it cost. How much is it going to cost Australian taxpayers?... If this committee is deprived of that information in that report, I think that that would be a mistake.”

Moraitis said he would convey the comments to Attorney-General George Brandis.

Today was the third public hearing of the inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014. The committee is expected to table its report on the bill on 27 February.

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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