In opposition, George Brandis called for national security reforms to be heavily vetted before being legislated. Now he’s legislating with no vetting of any kind.
Attorney-General George Brandis has undergone an interesting transformation since becoming a minister. As a member of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security last year, he signed off on the committee’s unanimous report on the national security reform proposals put to the committee by then-attorney-general Nicola Roxon. In chapter four of that report, which focuses on reforms to the powers of ASIO, the committee, including Brandis, recommended:
“… the draft amendments to the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 and the Intelligence Services Act 2001, necessary to give effect to the Committee’s recommendations, should be released as an exposure draft for public consultation. The Government should expressly seek the views of key stakeholders, including the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. In addition, the Committee recommends the Government ensure that the draft legislation be subject to Parliamentary committee scrutiny.”
Now that Brandis is bringing forward in this sitting fortnight the reforms discussed in chapter four of the report, however, he’s changed his tune entirely. It seems there will be no exposure draft. There’s no Independent National Security Legislation Monitor to consult because the government wants to abolish the position. The views of the IGIS remain unknown. Brandis instead has spoken with shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus — and that’s it.
And there’ll be no parliamentary oversight of the draft legislation because at the exact moment Brandis is bringing forward this legislation, the chair of JCIS, Coalition backbencher Dan Tehan, has gone to London with committee colleague Philip Ruddock to attend a conference about oversight of intelligence agencies — an area where Australia badly lags the United States and the United Kingdom.
Brandis hasn’t even bothered responding to the JCIS report, in effect treating the report to which he significantly contributed as a shadow minister with contempt. Instead, he’s sat on his hands until outgoing INSLM Bret Walker flagged serious concerns about the ability of intelligence and security agencies to deal with the potential threat of Australian participants in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The result is another round of national security reform being conducted amid headlines about “Aussie jihadis”.
Moreover, it is occurring at a point when the government’s aversion to scrutiny of any kind is becoming deeply concerning — in effect, it has indeed “disappeared” Sri Lankan asylum seekers, rendering them back to Sri Lankan authorities with a cursory and entirely secret “process” of assessment. This is also a government that had nothing to say about its own citizens being killed by drone strikes, had nothing to say about revelations its foreign intelligence agency bugged the East Timorese cabinet and instead raided and gagged the whistleblower who revealed it.
In effect the government is asking for trust on giving itself greater national security powers. Its behaviour so far has done nothing to earn that trust.