In terms of political embarrassments, it doesn’t come much worse than yesterday for Labor. After the bluster and high dudgeon of Monday’s question time, in which ministers were put on the spot by Labor to repeat their denials of bribing people smugglers, yesterday Labor was schtum on the subject in the House. Not a word. The only questions asked about people smuggling and bribery were by the government, mocking the transformation of Labor’s prosecutorial venom into humiliated silence.

The result, of course, of the reports that bribes to people smugglers had been paid under Labor as well.

It wasn’t quite as bad in the Senate, where Penny Wong put questions to the sublimely awful George Brandis on the issue, but carefully phrased around the comments of Indonesian ministers and officials. The Indonesian vice-president, foreign minister and security minister thus became human shields for Labor’s embarrassment. To follow up Wong, Kim Carr asked about the leaking of information about the involvement of intelligence services in the bribery to News Corp. But only the Greens were prepared to directly ask questions on the subject that had so animated Labor just 24 hours earlier.

It was a potent demonstration of just how feeble Labor is, a party that had enjoyed the unexpected gift of an incompetent government for so long that it appears to have become even less skilled at communication than it was in government. The Coalition bribed people smugglers to smuggle people back to Indonesia, despite claiming that people smuggling funds terrorism. The Coalition had an extremist charged with violent crimes write to it to ask if it was OK if he contacted Islamic State and did nothing about it, hid the letter from the Lindt Cafe siege inquiry and misled Parliament about it. The Coalition cabinet is badly split on handing a fool like Peter Dutton unfettered power to strip people of their citizenship. But Labor is the party feeling under pressure on national security.

No wonder Abbott intends to keep hyping terrorist hysteria all the way to the next election. Labor’s ineptitude is so great it even makes his own look tolerable.

That’s the politics. But yesterday was important for other, underlying reasons. Bill Shorten, echoing the government in response to his own questions, insisted to journalists inquiring about bribing people smugglers “when it comes to security matters, we simply don’t comment”. Like the government, he offers no justification for that; like the government, he relied on that refusal to comment to avoid embarrassment. Treating Australians with contempt about national security matters is a bipartisan game.

But Richard Marles, Labor’s normally invisible immigration spokesman, also refused to answer questions yesterday about what the Australian Secret Intelligence Service might have done in terms of bribing people smugglers, because to do so would be illegal. It’s not clear that Marles is necessarily correct, but the “official secrets” sections of the Crimes Act might apply if he were to state what he knew about ASIS’ activities in bribing people smugglers. Let’s assume that he is correct and put aside the inconvenience that senior intelligence officials and governments frequently reveal ASIS’ activities for their own purposes — indeed, that the possible role of ASIS in bribing people smugglers was leaked to a favoured media mouthpiece. Marles is saying that a politician is unable to reveal the activities of ASIS even if those activities are illegal — as bribing people smugglers may well be under both people smuggling and funding terrorism laws.

So where do we turn for an investigation of whether ASIS broke the law? This isn’t, of course, the first time ASIS has committed a crime. But if the opposition won’t, or is so incompetent that it cannot, do its job of holding the government and its agencies to account, where do we look? The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security? As has been repeatedly demonstrated, there are serious questions about Vivienne Thom, the outgoing IGIS, a woman who couldn’t even be bothered investigating ASIS’ illegal behaviour in bugging the East Timorese cabinet, and who appeared relaxed in the face of being misled by ASIS about a firearms incident. In any event, Thom insists she must work in secret, so any investigation would be out of the public gaze.

If the IGIS won’t do its purported job, who else? Senate committees won’t get far trying to ask intelligence agencies questions about operational matters. And under existing law, the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security cannot initiate a review into the possibility of illegal behaviour by ASIS or any other agency (and, who knows what benefits a corrupt ASIS agent might obtain when bribing crooks like people smugglers?)

Indeed, JCIS can’t initiate anything — it must be tasked to conduct inquiries by the government. There’s no one to inquire into such law-breaking.

Under a US-style independent congressional intelligence committee that is clearly separate from the executive, this could be investigated. It’s the Senate Intelligence Committee, after all, that was engaged for years in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the CIA over torture — a fight the committee won. Under reforms that the now-retired John Faulkner wanted to introduce — and which Labor continues to sit on — we would have moved closer to the US model by giving JCIS the power to initiate its own inquiries, even if there would not have been genuine separation between the executive and the committee.

But as it stands, possible crimes by ASIS and other intelligence agencies are protected from scrutiny and investigation unless a government is forced to commission one. And both sides are complicit in that, as Shorten’s pathetic “we simply don’t comment” demonstrates.