Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and others baying for the blood of Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, should think long and hard about their arguments. They appear to be saying that it is ok for officials of a government department to secretly and probably illegally, launch an investigation into the Minister to whom they are accountable.

In the case of Mr Fitzgibbon, the intelligence gathering on him also smacks of racism. Mr. Fitzgibbon is friendly with an influential Chinese woman, a Ms Liu — so what? If he were friendly with an American, German, or even Japanese person who had clout with the powers that be in their own country, would the paranoid officials of Defence be so alarmed? The way in which this matter is being peddled by Defence officials is a throwback to the Cold War when to meet with a Russian was regarded as treachery.

Have we not grown up since those days — obviously not in the Defence Department if media reports this morning suggesting that Defence and their fellow jumping at shadows specialists in the security agencies believe that Mr Fitzgibbon’s subletting of a Canberra apartment of Ms Liu is a security risk.

On the question of illegality, there are a series of questions that must be answered, and it is not enough to leave it, as the Secretary of the Department of Defence Nick Warner wants to do, to the Defence Security Authority which is a low level organization primarily responsible for vetting security clearance applications. The legal and ethical issues thrown up by the Fitzgibbon matter are of such magnitude that a senior judge ought to be appointed to examine the matter. Or at the very least the matter should be referred to the securities agencies watchdog, inspector General of Intelligence and Security.

By getting such a low level group to look at the Fitzgibbon matter, Mr Warner is sending an unfortunate signal about accountability.

One issue that must be examined independently is whether the Defence Signals Directorate — a primary military intelligence agency — has been involved on surveillance of Mr. Fitzgibbon, illegally. The DSD has allegedly invaded Mr. Fitzgibbon’s computer. Who authorized this action? Under the Intelligence Services Act 2001 only Mr. Fitzgibbon can authorize a DSD intelligence gathering operation, and if he cannot be located and the matter is urgent, then the Prime Minister or another minister can sign the authorization. The DSD has to prepare a comprehensive submission to justify their wanting to conduct a surveillance and intelligence gathering operation, and these submissions go to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.

There has to be some reason to justify DSD’s activities, namely the security of Australia. Wanting to dig dirt on a minister you do not like is not a sufficient reason one would have thought.

When I worked in Canberra for Finance Minister John Fahey from 1996-99, the Department of Defence was exempted from the efficiencies and savings requirements imposed on every other government agency. This kid glove treatment continues to this day. This is a Department that is arrogant and unaccountable in a way that means it is a danger to Australian democratic processes.

What Mr Turnbull should be doing today is putting aside short term political gain, and focusing instead on the monster that is the Department of Defence. And he ought to be concerned for the contemptuous way it treats the political and government process.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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