It’s been a fairly tame Estimates hearings so far. Only those with patience and a remarkable capacity to stay alert for hours on end will have gained anything. And I’m talking about all the participants, from senators to bureaucrats to journalists.

I’m an unabashed fan of senators who ditch the ego and the Grand Inquisitor act and use Estimates the way it should be used. That’s to fully exploit access to bureaucrats for an extended period to not merely fish for “gotcha” moments but compile information that would otherwise be absent from the public record, primarily because it’s not overly convenient for Governments to reveal it. Given the colossal investment of time and money in having senators spend a fortnight grilling senior bureaucrats and Government ministers, any other outcome is a joke on taxpayers.

Last night ASIO appeared before the Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee. The spooks usually don’t get a lot of time at Estimates, and in any event tend to decline to answer any questions that might relate to “operational matters”. But this was David Irvine’s first time there as head of ASIO, having moved from ASIS, he pointed out very quickly, only six weeks ago.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam had decided to try to find out exactly where the colossal increases in ASIO’s budget allocation in recent years, and in this year’s Budget, had been spent. IT equipment, Irvine said, and more staff. Lots more staff. By 2010, ASIO will have doubled in size to 1800 people. So big has been the increase they’ve had to move into a new $606m building in Russell, which will be chockers right from the moment ASIO move in in 2012.

1800 spies makes ASIO a medium-sized government department, and one of the few enjoying growth. Ten years ago it wasn’t much over 500. Of course, the advent of “Islamic terrorism” changed all that, Irvine said. More than 70% of ASIO’s work was counter-terrorism, Irvine revealed, although he suggested the extra funding would also be used to help beef up its counter-espionage and cyber-warfare activities.

Islamic fundamentalist terrorists can sleep happy knowing their mere existence costs Australians more than a quarter of a billion dollars a year.

As Ludlam politely probed on, it became clear that Irvine hadn’t been particularly well briefed. “I’d have to check that … I don’t know off the top of my head,” he began saying repeatedly. Anxious to avoid straying into trouble, he began taking questions on notice.

“I don’t think we devote any resources to monitoring legitimate protests,” he replied when Ludlam asked why ASIO agents had questioned climate change protestors in Western Australia.

“I’ll have to check that,” he said, when Ludlam gently suggested that didn’t appear to be the case. And he declined to say what changes, if any, ASIO had made in the aftermath of the false imprisonment of Izhar ul-Haque in late 2003. The officers involved in the abduction of Mr ul-Haque remained employed by ASIO, Irvine said.

Moreover, Irvine thought, Justice Michael Adams, the NSW Supreme Court judge who had thrown the statements ASIO obtained from ul-Haque out of court, effectively ending the prosecution of him, had got it wrong when he condemned the behaviour of the ASIO agents involved – men who continue to shelter behind ASIO’s cloak of agent anonymity.

Otherwise, Irvine declined to answer a number of questions because they were “operational matters”. That’s entirely permitted. ASIO’s actual accountability — whether financial or moral — is provided in camera, to the Attorney-General and a Parliamentary committee that meets behind closed doors, not via Estimates, despite the hundreds of millions now flowing into ASIO’s coffers and the outrageous behaviour of its agents. The public can’t be trusted to know.

Peter Fray

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