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intelligence oversight Rex Patrick
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick. (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The prospect of any moves to rectify Australia’s deeply flawed intelligence oversight mechanisms has vanished after Labor yesterday joined with the Coalition to kill off a move by South Australian senator Rex Patrick to expand the powers of parliament’s intelligence committee.

Patrick’s bill to give the committee the power to conduct its own inquiries into operational matters, subject to a veto by the government for sensitive matters, was referred to the Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Committee in August for a short inquiry which attracted just six submissions and a public hearing lasting exactly 56 minutes. Yesterday, the committee issued a report with the major parties rejecting the bill.

Labor has previously professed to support expanding the remit of the intelligence committee to enable it to conduct inquiries of its own volition. Unlike normal parliamentary committees, the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is tightly controlled by the government and prevented from initiating its own inquiries or examining the operations of intelligence agencies. Labor reintroduced a bill, originally prepared by John Faulkner, to reform the PJCIS in 2015 but it was killed off by Malcolm Turnbull in a sneak Senate move in 2016.

Labor’s enthusiasm, however, has waned since. In “additional comments” by Labor senators (not a dissenting report from a government-chaired inquiry), they noted:

… the substance of Labor’s proposals has since largely been adopted in recommendations 21 and 23 of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review undertaken by Mr Michael L’Estrange AO and Mr Stephen Merchant PSM. Despite receiving the review well over a year ago, the government has yet to act on these two recommendations.

Well, it’s true that the government — preoccupied with playing musical chairs with the party leadership positions — has done nothing about the intelligence review except the one thing it didn’t recommend (establish a Home Affairs portfolio to pander to Peter Dutton’s ego). But it’s false to say that the L’Estrange-Merchant review adopted the substance of the Faulkner bill: as Crikey pointed out more than a year ago, the review only pretended to expand the remit of the PJCIS. Crucially, it would still prohibit the committee from initiating reviews into the operational matters of agencies.

Instead, Labor used the objections of Margaret Stone, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (and thus, an office with an institutional interest in preventing any rival source of authority in the same area) to the proposal as a basis for rejecting Patrick’s bill. Stone had devised an obscure “separation of powers” argument to maintain the arbitral role Patrick’s bill gave her in relation to government attempts to veto inquiries was inappropriate.

The final word is best left to Patrick, who could have justifiably expected more support from Labor.

Despite the Executive’s views, there is no reason why the Parliament should not give immediate consideration to enhancing its scrutiny of the Australian intelligence agencies without further delay. The issues are well known. Information and analysis are not lacking, only political on the part of the government.

Australia’s intelligence community agencies are not infallible. In the future their performance will be tested in a much more demanding security environment and the Australian parliament will need to subject our intelligence agencies to much closer scrutiny than has been the case previously. This Bill provides a sensible and secure framework within which to extend parliamentary scrutiny to the operations of Australia’s national security and intelligence agencies.

Let’s fervently hope Patrick is not proved correct by tragic events in coming years.

Peter Fray

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