Director-General of Security—ASIO and MI5 compared

The appointment of Mike Burgess (currently the head of the Australian Signals Directorate) as the next Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation continues a pattern over ASIO’s 70-year history of appointing a male Director-General from outside the Organisation. The second of ASIO’s 14 Directors-General, Peter Barbour (1970–75), remains the only career ASIO officer to have been appointed Director-General. In comparison, the UK’s Security Service (MI5), ASIO’s much older British equivalent on which it was modelled, has a somewhat different pattern of appointments for its 17 Directors-General over the 110 years since it was founded in 1909.

Until 1993, MI5’s Directors-General were appointed in secret and their names were not disclosed publicly (although, as MI5’s website notes, ‘the names of several previous DGs had become public knowledge before then’ and the website now lists all former Directors-General). Not only was Dame Stella Rimington in 1992 the first of two women to be appointed as Director-General of the Security Service, she was also the first Director-General to be publicly named (the following year). In 2002 Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller became the second woman appointed to lead MI5. Both women were career MI5 officers appointed from within the Service.

A total of twelve Directors-General (excluding MI5’s founding Director-General) have been appointed from within the Service, with one (Sir Dick White) having headed both the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), the UK’s foreign intelligence service. Similarly, ASIO’s 12th Director-General, David Irvine (2009–14), is the only person to have headed both ASIO and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), although ASIO’s sixth Director-General, Harvey Barnett (1981–85), also served as Deputy Director-General of ASIS.

Despite the fact that ASIO’s longest-serving (1950–1970), and arguably most influential, Director-General, Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, was from a military background, the initially unnamed ‘security service’ was established in March 1949 by Prime Minister Chifley as an agency within the Attorney-General’s Department with a judge (Justice Sir Geoffrey Reed) at the helm. It was, however, described by Chifley in his founding directive (below) as being ‘part of the Defence Forces of the Commonwealth’ the task of which was:

… the defence of the Commonwealth from external and internal dangers arising from attempts at espionage and sabotage, or from actions of persons and organizations, whether directed from within or without the country, which may be judged to be subversive of the security of the Commonwealth.

Parliamentary Paper No. 249/1977, Intelligence and security, Royal Commission, Forth Report, Volume II - Pages 18 and 19

(Source: Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security, fourth report, volume II, October 1977)

Some months later, in August 1949, ‘Australian Security Intelligence Organization’ was adopted as the name for the nascent service (the change in spelling to ‘Organisation’ was made by legislative amendment in 1999).

The majority of Directors-General in both ASIO and MI5 have come from a defence or military background, although over the years ASIO has been led by career diplomats in almost equal numbers. By comparison, relatively few Directors-General of MI5 have had diplomatic backgrounds—the first Director-General to be appointed from the diplomatic service was in 1978, with the then British prime minister explaining later that ‘he had wanted “to bring someone into the office from a different culture”’. Commenting on the Whitlam Government’s strongly-held view (in 1975) that the role of Director-General of ASIO should ‘always be filled by a person holding judicial office’, Justice Hope noted in volume one of his fourth report on the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (p. 188):

A requirement that ASIO’s most senior official should always come from the judiciary means that he or she can never be appointed from the ranks of the organisation. That is unfair and removes an incentive to those interested in making their career in ASIO.

Today, MI5 is about twice the size of ASIO, and while both organisations employ roughly equal proportions of women, ASIO appears to have a higher proportion of staff from culturally diverse backgrounds:

  No. of
Women Minority
Disability Age
1980 45.6% 17.9% NESB*
0.5% Indigenous*
1.1%* ---
MI5 4000
40% approx. 8%^ 3% 50% under
40 years

* based on 1,862 staff for whom Equal Employment Opportunity data was available (NESB—‘non-English speaking background’).
^ described as being from ‘black or ethnic minority backgrounds’.

The Director-General of ASIO is appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister for a term not exceeding seven years, and the Prime Minister is required to consult with the Leader of the Opposition before recommending someone. Over ASIO’s history, Directors-General have served, on average, for just over five years. Directors-General of MI5 have ‘in recent years … tended to serve about four to five years in their post’.

The current head of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, commenced his term of office on 15 September 2014 and will see out his five-year term to the day, with Mr Burgess’s term of office starting on 15 September 2019.

This article was amended on 13 August to clarify a comment on staffing composition.


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