One of the likely promotees in the coming reshuffle of the Turnbull ministry is Dan Tehan, member for the Victorian seat of Wannon. If Tehan joins the frontbench, that creates an interesting problem in regard to his current position, as head of parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Tehan has been a mixed bag as chair of the committee. Under him, Labor’s push to expand the remit of the committee and make it more than a glorified estimates committee for spooks has resulted in the committee’s functions and importance increasing significantly, and Tehan deserves credit for that. But he has also, entirely inappropriately, undermined perceptions of the committee by spruiking national security legislation that the committee would then go on to review, casting doubt on whether the committee was truly considering the expansions of counter-terrorism agency powers that came before it, or merely rubber-stamping them.

If promoted to the ministry, Tehan will have to relinquish his committee role — you can’t be a minister and be on the committee — so a new member and new chair will be required.

One member who will be aching to become chair is far-right Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic. Nikolic’s time on the committee has been entirely composed of badgering witnesses who dispute the need for ever-greater powers for national security agencies, and sniping on Twitter at the media. Nikolic is not merely obsessed — contrary to the government’s foreign policy — with attacking Iran but seriously believes that there shouldn’t even be a debate about greater powers for security agencies. He said late last year any questioning of greater security powers is “redundant” and security agencies shouldn’t be burdened with “nonsensical public commentary.”

Given the entire rationale of the committee is to monitor and review the administration and spending of intelligence agencies and report to Parliament about it, and review what is now, post-Tehan, a wide range of national security powers, Nikolic’s hostility to any form of debate about security powers would appear to render him entirely unfit for even being on the committee, let alone chairing it. There’d be no quicker way of turning JCIS into a meaningless rubber stamp for whatever security agencies wanted.

A far better candidate for chair is South Australian Liberal senator David Fawcett (there is no requirement that the chair be a lower house MP, although that tends to be the case). Fawcett has played an active role in the many reviews undertaken by the committee over the last two years and performed thoughtfully and sceptically in his probing of the Attorney-General’s Department and security agencies. Fawcett is currently chair of another joint committee, Corporations and Financial Services, and would have to relinquish that role, but JCIS, as a statutory committee, is a more senior and important position.

There’s also the question of who would replace Tehan if he gets promoted. Remember that Kevin Rudd served on the committee during his backbench period; Malcolm Turnbull might be tempted to put Tony Abbott on the committee. This might offset the Abbott faction’s narrative that Turnbull is soft on terrorism, while Abbott would have to stay silent on the specifics on issues that are before the committee (there are legislated penalties for committee members who leak proceedings).

Even without personnel changes, JCIS is in flux. It has incrementally expanded its remit and changed the nature of its role under pressure from Labor members like John Faulkner (now retired) and Anthony Byrne, the deputy chair. But with ever-growing security powers and budgets, Australia still has a real problem of oversight of intelligence agencies. There is no way Australians would ever see a clash between a JCIS member and the head of an intelligence agency like this vituperative exchange from the US earlier this week, when a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee quizzed the head of the CIA about the CIA’s spying on the committee.

Australia needs a more robust, independent oversight mechanism for intelligence and national security, otherwise voters can have no confidence our security agencies aren’t doing what they like while hiding behind “operational security”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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