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Oct 17, 2014

Intelligence committee wants ‘foreign fighter’ changes — and a much bigger role

The powerful Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security wants significant changes to the government's "foreign fighters" legislation -- and a much greater future role for itself in overseeing legislation.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has backed the second round of changes to national security laws introduced by Attorney-General George Brandis, but with some major reservations that set it on a potential collision course with the government.

The committee, chaired by Liberal Dan Tehan, this morning released its report into the “foreign fighters” bill, which establishes a new offence of travelling to a designated conflict area, extends control and preventive detention orders and gives the government additional powers to prevent Australians from travelling overseas. The report, with 36 recommendations, suggests the committee is considerably more concerned about this bill than the first set of reforms, which were legislated in Parliament several weeks ago. Among the committee recommendations are:

  • instead of sunsetting in 2025, as proposed by the government, the controversial and, until recently unused, preventive detention order power will sunset two years after the next election, meaning 2018 at the latest, with a review by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the committee itself to be required ahead of the expiry. The control order power would similarly sunset then; both are currently due to expire next year. That appears to reflect a win for two of the committee’s veterans — Labor deputy chair Anthony Byrne and Senator John Faulkner — who have expressed concerns about the extension of the provisions;
  • the offence of entering a designated area should also sunset two years after the election;
  • some of the language in the bill be should tightened up or dumped: in particular, the committee wants “acts prejudicial to the ‘international relations’” in relation to prescribed organisations either dumped or better defined, after former INSLM Bret Walker SC identified that as a problem in the bill; references to “subverting society”, “engaging in a hostile activity”, “politically motivated violence” and other vague terms should be better defined or linked to existing offences;
  • making it much harder for evidence obtained by torture or duress overseas to be used here;
  • removing the power to designate an entire country off-limits from the bill;
  • powers for the committee itself to review designations of no-go areas;
  • reducing the proposed extensions of the detention powers of Customs, and imposing reporting obligations for them;
  • an investigation by the Privacy Commissioner of the Department of Immigration and Border Protections and Customs’ data storage and sharing processes (which could be explosive if it happens, given Immigration’s poor record); and
  • the entire removal of the proposed power for Immigration to be able to fingerprint and retina-scan everyone leaving and entering Australia.

However, the committee split over the government’s proposed attack on free speech via a new “advocating terrorism” offence. It accepted the argument that current offences — which link advocacy to specific acts of terrorism — need to be widened, but the committee suggests the current drafting is too vague and needs to be made considerably clearer. For example,

“…the Committee does recognise that there is a lack of clarity in relation to what behaviour could be deemed to be acts which ‘advocate’, particularly concerning social media. For example, it is not clear whether a person who ‘likes’ a Facebook comment which contains favourable reference to terrorist activity is ‘advocating’ that others should undertake that behaviour.”

Apart from the specific recommendations, what’s noteworthy about the report is that the committee (which, bear in mind, isn’t an ordinary committee but one established separately in legislation) wants to deal itself much more explicitly into not just future legislative reviews — such as for preventive detention orders — but in overseeing the designation process that the bill would set up. This will be a significant shift by a committee that has traditionally had a limited role, primarily in relation to administrative matters of intelligence agencies, unless a government has specifically requested it to consider an intelligence or security issue.

In addition to the designation oversight and review of sunsetting legislation, the committee thus also wants its role extended to encompass the counter-terrorism activities of the Australian Federal Police (including “anything involving classified material”). These changes to the role of JCIS, if accepted, would establish in legislation a substantially greater review function for the committee not just in future legislative reviews but in overseeing how established legislation is being implemented by the government — in effect codifying the role of JCIS as it has evolved since then-attorney-general Nicola Roxon asked JCIS to review a vast swathe of reforms proposals in 2012. This reflects a desire on the part of some committee members to fill what is an increasingly obvious gap in the broken oversight of Australia’s intelligence agencies, especially compared to the way the Brits and the Americans run parliamentary oversight of agencies.

It all adds up to a significantly greater challenge to Attorney-General George Brandis than perhaps he was expecting. And the government now has a threshold decision to make on whether it accedes to the committee’s desire to play a much bigger role in national security oversight.

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14 comments

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14 thoughts on “Intelligence committee wants ‘foreign fighter’ changes — and a much bigger role

  1. Neutral

    Is that an attempted shirtfront on Brandis by Tehan?

  2. AR

    Spooks will do what they always do, act as they choose on the Hugher Authority of…err.. theysownselves, being the only ones who know enough to be trusted to act.
    And governments will always kowtow because those same uncontrolled nutters have files on all the key players.
    I never met an intelligence agent who was any good who was also normal.
    Whether they are made weird by the job or only the sociopathic excel in that noxious niche is something upon which to cogitate.

  3. Norman Hanscombe

    AR, I have no idea how many “intelligence agents” you’ve had the fortune to meet, but even as one of their victims, and despite the fact I might not rate ALL of them highly, it’s absurd to dismiss them so cavalierly.
    I’d suggest that for anyone who can’t accept Australia faces (and has faced for a long time) real and potential additional threats from fundamentalist terrorists, some basic education wouldn’t go completely amiss.

  4. drsmithy

    I’d suggest that for anyone who can’t accept Australia faces (and has faced for a long time) real and potential additional threats from fundamentalist terrorists, some basic education wouldn’t go completely amiss.

    I’d love to hear about the existential threat Australia faces from terrorism, other than our two main political parties using it as an excuse for more authoritarianism. It’s been a quiet weekend, I could do with a laugh.

  5. Norman Hanscombe

    drsmithy, if you genuinely aren’t aware of the attacks carried out and also foiled over recent years, try phoning a friend who reads newspapers, listens to the radio, watches television or simply drinks in an hotel.
    In the meantime might you also consider examining what a word like authoritarianism normally mean so that you can explain the special definition you use which is a requisite before applying it (as you have)to political parties which don’t share your “True Beliefs”.
    Since for you it’s been “a quiet weekend” you should be sufficiently rested to do this, and you’ll see that your comments might be the basis for the sort of good laugh you desire?

  6. drsmithy

    drsmithy, if you genuinely aren’t aware of the attacks carried out and also foiled over recent years, try phoning a friend who reads newspapers, listens to the radio, watches television or simply drinks in an hotel.

    I’ll take that as a “no”.

    In the meantime might you also consider examining what a word like authoritarianism normally mean so that you can explain the special definition you use which is a requisite before applying it (as you have)to political parties which don’t share your “True Beliefs”.

    I am quite confident you know nothing about my beliefs, “true”, or otherwise.

    On the other hand, today’s Liberal party – and to a somewhat lesser degree, Labor party – currently present a far, far greater threat to Australian society than any rag-tag group of terrorists on the other side of the world could ever hope to.

  7. Norman Hanscombe

    drsmithy, if you genuinely couldn’t understand that wasn’t a “no”, you have a more challenging task ahead of you than even the more mediocre university students displayed in the 1960s. Another problem for you is shown by your quaint interpretation of my reference to “True Beliefs” which certainly didn’t imply they were true and didn’t even require that I needed to know what their detailed content was.
    In the 1960s, Sydney University B.A. Honours Graduates were reasonably talented students. Even then, however, where these highly successful achievers had suffered only one failure while completing their Degree, the most frequent culprit was basic Philosophy I. While interviewing students I found the relevant problem was the need to face up to the possibility their “True Beliefs” could be threatened by having to analyse those beliefs.
    I suggest drsmithy that we should always try to remember we are not alone in whatever problems we face. I wish you good luck.

  8. Neutral

    The ‘authorities’ tell us that there is an existential threat to Australia. Does this NOT mean our very existence is under threat by a bunch of religious wingnuts on the other side of planet?

    The gullible believe it because the ‘authorities’ wouldn’t be in a position of ‘authority’ otherwise. Or for some other equally ignorant naivety.

    However those who like to think for themselves say and ask, ok how does this mob on the other side of planet pose a threat to Australia’s very existence?

    So far the answers have been: silence or inarticulate references to the same ‘authorities’.

    The question remains unanswered. Been asking it since we invaded Iraq.

    So once again.

    Can any protagonist for going to war (humanitarian bombing) please explain how curbing our civil freedoms, rights and liberties (doing the terrorists job for them on our home turf) and whipping up a lot of hysterical nonsense (plastic swords) ameliorate our national security?

    If a sensible, logical and coherent answer can be given by any such protagonist then please feel free to tackle the supplementary question: how is spying on my 10 year old son’s iPod contributing to our national security?

  9. Norman Hanscombe

    Neutral, perhaps you should avoid words such as existential because you seem to misunderstand its standard use. Those involved with analysing potential death threats certainly don’t assume (as you suggest) that every single Australian will meet such a death. Nor would the relevant authorities be so naïve as to assume your “wingnuts” on the other side of the planet are the only ones who could be involved in attacks being carried out here.
    Recent attacks carried out in Australia [in common with those foiled by the authorities] were not your suggested “threat to Australia’s very existence”; but some of us really aren’t keen on [or perhaps in your case indifferent to?] people being murdered in Australia by fundamentalists even though Australia’s existence continued after the victims had been murdered.
    Although I’m not your requested “protagonist for going to war” (and in fact was speaking out and organising wars probably long before you were born) at the times I was being spied upon by both NSW Special Branch and Federal ASIO I understood why they were doing it and accepted surveillance was necessary in times when there WERE individuals plotting to destroy Australian Democracy.
    If, however, you genuinely worry about your 10 year old son being investigated, and don’t understand the fatuous nature of plastic sword “exposes” pushed by faux progressives, you’re not going to take notice of anything which doesn’t ‘support’ your True Believer Fantasies, are you?

  10. Neutral

    lolz ..still no answer ..just the usual ad hominems …the emptiest vessels etc…