Scott Morrison Bourke Street
(Image: AAP/Ben Rushton)

Another terror incident in the heart of one of our major cities. More fatalities. Another effort by political grubs — Morrison and Dutton — to use terrorism for race-baiting. And, yet again, a perpetrator not merely known to security agencies, but known enough for them to have assessed how much of a threat they were.

An assessment that turned out to be a wrong call — albeit one wrong call in hundreds, if not thousands. The Melbourne murderer Hassan Khalif Shire Ali had his passport cancelled, such was the concern about his willingness to go abroad to fight for ISIS. But nothing more.

The last five years have seen a remorseless growth in the powers of our intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, far beyond the already draconian levels of the Howard years. Our privacy and basic rights have been savaged in the name of protecting us. Combined with the capabilities afforded by technology, we’ve become a literal surveillance state, and one in which, time and again, we’ve learnt we cannot trust our own government, except to look after its own interests. And yet, repeatedly, violent men, well known to agencies, murder Australians.

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Then there was the horrific plot of the Khayat brothers — also known to ASIO, but not to the same extent as Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis or Shire Ali — to destroy an Etihad airliner out of Sydney. A plot that came within an ace of succeeding, but which for sheer dumb luck and a moment of panic by the perpetrators would have seen hundreds die in Australia’s own 9/11. Our agencies were utterly oblivious to the plot, and had to be told of it by a foreign intelligence agency. And it involved a large amount of explosives sent though the post from a war zone.

There has never been any accountability for this near-catastrophic intelligence failure. Nor, apart from a worthless desktop review, of the intelligence failure around Monis, even though the handling of the Lindt Cafe siege itself has been the subject of robust coronial assessment. We are continually told how wonderful our agencies are, but have no means for vetting that claim.

Oversight isn’t a glamorous issue in intelligence. It can seem process-obsessed and banal, but without effective oversight, bureaucratic systems simply don’t work as well as they can. Even the most dedicated and hard-working officials — as most of our intelligence officials are — behave differently when they know they will not have to account for their actions. And as we have detailed so often here, our intelligence oversight mechanism in Australia is profoundly flawed because of the absence of any parliamentary oversight process beyond the poor and limited oversight of the highly constrained joint committee on intelligence and security, which is controlled by the government of the day. Australia is now the only 5 Eyes country with no effective oversight of its agencies.

The only people interested in fixing this serious problem in recent parliaments have been Labor’s John Faulkner — now long departed — and Anthony Byrne, and the crossbenches, led by Nick Xenophon and his successor Rex Patrick. The Labor Party, once committed to bringing to fruition Faulkner’s legislative proposal for major reform of the PJCIS, appears to have lost interest. Agencies and bureaucrats themselves — including the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security — are resisting the idea. Of course they are — what bureaucrat ever called for more oversight of themselves?

But without effective parliamentary accountability for intelligence and counter-terrorism services, there is no reason why the failures around Monis, Shire Ali, and the Khayat brothers won’t continue to happen. And what if next time it’s not a so-called “lone wolf” with a knife and some gas bottles but someone with an ounce more luck than the Khayat brothers?

If a mass casualty incident occurs, the failure will have been less that of our intelligence agencies and police forces than the politicians who are supposed to be watching over them. Their failure to take oversight seriously could have horrific consequences. And the evidence was there to see all along.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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