In an extraordinary assault on what’s left of national security bipartisanship, the government has attacked the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) and humiliated one of its most prominent backbenchers, Andrew Hastie, implying he has endorsed Labor’s attempts to undermine national security.
Illustrating the extent to which national security has now become entirely about wedging Labor, the government yesterday openly attacked the committee, which it controls and chairs, for recommending changes to its foreign fighters bill. For the first time since the Howard years, most of the committee’s unanimous recommendations about amendments to the legislation — and particularly around giving the power to exclude foreign fighters to an independent figure rather than a politician — have been rejected by the government.
This rejection was disguised in the government’s response to the committee’s 18 recommendations by standard bureaucratic weasel words like “the government notes this recommendation” or “the government accepts this recommendation in principle” despite refusing to implement them. But all pretence was abandoned this week in parliamentary debate over the bill. The committee was merely, Peter Dutton told parliament on Tuesday, “a management tool for the Member of Isaacs [Labor’s Mark Dreyfus] … We are not going to have our bills that are important to keep Australians safe watered down by this individual … this government will not tolerate it.”
Dutton went further yesterday, claiming “Mark Dreyfus waters every bill down … what ends up happening is we end up with a bill that’s ineffective and these matters are too important for that … I’m not going to allow national security agencies to be stymied by Mark Dreyfus’ ability to water down bills.”
The government would no longer be accepting the recommendations of the committee — only if, Dutton said “it was in the national interest” to do so.
Bear in mind Mark Dreyfus doesn’t run this committee — Liberal Andrew Hastie, former SAS officer and national security hardliner, does. Who else is on the committee? Such softies as far-right senators Eric Abetz and Amanda Stoker. All have signed up to the committee’s recommendations which have been rejected by the government. All now stand accused by Dutton, by implication, of supporting Labor efforts to “water down legislation”, stymieing national security agencies and making recommendations that weren’t in the national interest.
For fifteen years or more, the PJCIS has been a mechanism whereby, away from the wedge politics relentlessly played by the Coalition on national security, mature consideration of security issues could take place. Moderates of both parties could try to temper overreach by hardliners eager to override civil liberties and privacy — and address poor drafting or hidden agendas by bureaucrats. It was the PJCIS that had — in an earlier iteration of the foreign fighters’ bill — spotted and stopped an unauthorised attempt by bureaucrats of the then-immigration department to collect biometric data on every citizen using an airport.
Under Rudd and Gillard, the committee’s role was expanded to routinely vet proposed national security legislation, an innovation retained by the Abbott and Turnbull governments, which referred all tranches of proposed new security laws to the committee and abided by the recommendations made by the committee, which is always chaired by the government.
And while the Coalition has resisted proposals to expand the role of the committee further to bring it into line with similar committees in the US and the UK, it agreed to a recommendation from the L’Estrange-Merchant intelligence review to further increase the capacity of the committee to request oversight of intelligence agencies and initiate reviews into non-operational areas of national security.
Except, all that’s now dead in the water. The PJCIS is now just another parliamentary committee that can be ignored when it serves the political interests of the government. Indeed, worse, both government and opposition committee members are guilty of stymieing security agencies and making recommendations that aren’t in the national interest.
Maybe, finally, Labor will learn its lesson on national security: no matter what it does, no matter how closely it hews to the government on national security, it will be accused by the government and by News Corp of being soft on terrorism. It has played by the rules and tried to use the PJCIS as an effective forum for addressing concerns about national security overreach, and copped plenty of grief for refusing to play the actual role of an opposition, leaving that to the Greens and the crossbenchers. Now that the PJCIS has been abandoned as a credible forum by the Coalition, Labor will have to think hard about whether to bother with it.
As for Andrew Hastie, who did more for national security before entering politics than the likes of Dutton and his bureaucrats could ever dream of, he’d be well within his rights to tell the government exactly what it can do with its committee chairmanship.