Kristina Keneally labor home affairs Anthony Albanese

It’s hard trying to follow Labor’s position on what role parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security should play. Labor used to support reforming the committee to give it significantly greater oversight powers for intelligence agencies and the ability to initiate inquiries.

It even introduced a bill to that effect in the Senate. Then it lost interest. When Rex Patrick tried to introduce a similar bill, Labor killed it by referring it to a committee. Maybe they thought empowering the committee was a bad move if they were about to get into government. As they say in the classics: LOL.

Now, Labor’s home affairs shadow Kristina Keneally — a newcomer to the issue — has flagged that reforming the committee might make its way up the Labor agenda again. “Labor supports reforming the [the committee] not only to review legislation but also to provide increased oversight of intelligence and security agencies to accompany their increased powers,” she wrote today. “Reforms such as these were recommended as part of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review commissioned by the government. Among our Five Eyes part­ners, Australia is an outlier in not providing oversight such as these.”

That’s all correct, except the the alleged “Independent Intelligence Review” — more accurately, a stitch-up job by the security establishment — didn’t really recommend a substantial change to oversight by the committee. As you’d expect from a review conducted by two national security bureaucrats, they wanted to prevent the committee from overseeing security agency operations, and confine it to reviewing legislation and budgets.

To Keneally’s credit, at least she gets that parliamentary oversight — or the almost complete dearth of it — is a key issue in the lather the governing class is whipping itself into over the increasingly aggressive and malicious abuse of powers by security agencies toward those who would hold them to account. Unless the government — which is usually the perpetrator of these abuses — wishes it, there will never be any parliamentary scrutiny of them, because the government-controlled committee is rigidly limited to looking at bills and ticking off on agency budgets.

In the United States, security agencies fear and resent congress’ powerful intelligence committees — the CIA even spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee while it was compiling its detailed report on CIA torture, and was forced to apologise for doing do.

Here, any attempt to question security agencies about their misconduct, corruption or, in some cases, actual crimes — think ASIS’ diversion of counter-terrorism resources to bug the Timor-Leste cabinet, or ASIO’s kidnapping and false imprisonment of Izhar Ul-Haque — is brushed off with the line that officials don’t have to discuss operational issues. Or there’s always the ready resort to a claim of “national security”.

What should be worrying — not comforting — is that the Prime Minister is meeting with media executives to discuss the raids and their aftermath. The rich irony is that these meetings are themselves secret, and likely amount to a demand for special treatment for journalists when our government’s war on scrutiny extends far wider than the media, who have their own platform to make their case in a way other victims of security agencies do not.

Oh, and just in case you think sections of the media are participating in this process with clean hands and good will, check out this piece in The Australian today from someone called Geoff Chambers.

As Crikey pointed out last week, the tradition at The Oz is to smear Labor as “soft on terrorism” if it questions in any way the government’s relentless extensions of security powers. Now, however, Labor has failed to question those powers enough: “despite token amendments and rhetoric, Labor can’t hide from the fact that it backed in laws that have amplified press freedom concerns”, while “Labor has publicly targeted media outlets that have put its policies under scrutiny”.

You might be forgiven for thinking the Coalition — which is unmentioned throughout the piece — has been in government for the last six years but, apparently, Chambers think Labor has been in power all along. It demonstrates that when it comes to the national interest versus demonising Labor, News Corp will take the route of malicious partisanship every time, even when it leads to its own journalists being raided.

Peter Fray

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