Today, the Senate is scheduled to begin debating an initiative that is sorely needed — the creation of an office of an Independent Reviewer of Australia’s tough anti-terrorism laws. The proposed law has been introduced, not by the Rudd government, but by Liberal MPs, Judith Troeth, Petro Georgiou and Gary Humphries. Troeth and Georgiou have a strong track record in opposing human rights abuse that occurred under the Howard government.

But when senators are considering this bill they might like to take note of a disturbing development in the UK this week, where the powerful parliamentary committee that is supposed to be a watchdog over intelligence and police agencies has been captured by the agencies themselves.

Last Monday, The Independent reported:

The Intelligence and Security Committee, the parliamentary watchdog of the intelligence and security agencies which has a cross-party membership from both Houses, wants to press ministers to introduce legislation that would prevent news outlets from reporting stories deemed by the Government to be against the interests of national security.

And according to The Independent’s report:

The committee also wants to censor reporting of police operations that are deemed to have implications for national security. The ISC is to recommend in its next report, out at the end of the year, that a commission be set up to look into its plans, according to senior Whitehall sources.

One can imagine that if such a system of censorship had been in place in Australia last year, there would have been little or no reporting of the political prosecution and detention of Mohammed Haneef, the former Gold Coast doctor charged with terrorism offences, despite the security agencies knowing they had no evidence on which to base the charge.

The UK Intelligence and Security Committee proposals will inevitably lead to widespread abuses of power by security agencies and the police. Under the banner of “national security”, those agencies would be able to conduct investigations in the knowledge that anyone who breathed a word about their activities would go to jail for a long time.

What has happened in the UK is a classic case of the watchdog being captured and tamed by those it is meant to be watching. The same thing could happen here. Security and police agencies in Australia are no different to their counterparts in the UK — they prefer secrecy. Earlier this year AFP Chief Mick Keelty seriously proposed that in terrorism cases he would brief a selected council of editors about what they could and couldn’t report.

It is critical that the UK lesson is learnt and that the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Laws in Australia is made immune from the disease of agency capture. The Independent Reviewer must have sufficient powers and resources to enable it to be able to seriously examine security agencies and police claims of “national security”, otherwise it will be a toothless tiger and the security chiefs will toast their victory in killing the watchdog.

Peter Fray

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