The key elements of Australia’s intelligence oversight system were put in place in the 1980s following the Hope Royal Commissions. The most significant change since was the creation of the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor in 2010.
The demands on Australia’s oversight system have not stayed static in the decade since.
Parliament has passed dozens of bills that adapt the powers of agencies to respond to an evolving set of national security threats. There have been changes to the structures of Australia’s national security apparatus, including the creation of a new department of Home Affairs.
If we want our agencies to be in the best possible position to face today’s challenges, they must be supported by modern and effective oversight bodies. This is because strong and effective oversight mechanisms do not stand in opposition to our national security arrangements – they are best understood as an essential part of them.
Intelligence oversight bodies have a unique role in democracies. Much of our nation’s intelligence work is necessarily secret – this means that the usual agents of democratic accountability such as civil society, the media and even parliament are less able to fulfil their usual functions.
Dedicated intelligence oversight bodies fill this gap. They are empowered to examine the legality and propriety of intelligence activities, even those that are otherwise necessarily kept secret. In doing so, they help build the culture of trust that is necessary for intelligence agencies to be able to operate effectively in a democracy.
This was recognised by the authors of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, who identified oversight as one of the four priority areas for reform in order to ‘further strengthen the state of trust between the intelligence agencies and the Australian community of which they are part’.
The present bill aims to implement the oversight recommendations made in that review. In doing so, it represents what Professor George Williams told this committee was:
… a modest and incremental improvement when it comes to responsible government and democratic accountability through parliament, and [a] sensible improvement in the role and functions of the PJCIS.
Four days before this Committee was due to report, the government released the unclassified version of another review – the Comprehensive review of the legal framework of the National Intelligence Community undertaken by Mr Dennis Richardson AC (the Richardson Review).
Labor members consider that the release of the report is long overdue – the classified version of the report has been with the Government since December 2019. It is a substantial piece of work – the unclassified version runs to 1300 pages and includes 203 recommendations.
The Richardson Review includes lengthy consideration of Australia’s oversight arrangements and makes a number of detailed recommendations aimed at improving them. This committee has not received evidence about the Richardson review or had sufficient time to consider its implications for the present bill. However, Labor members observe that amendments to this bill in response to the Richardson Review’s findings and recommendations may be appropriate.
Labor members also note the evidence of the IGIS that further amendments may improve the operation of the Bill and better align it with the intentions of the Independent Intelligence Review. Labor members thank the IGIS for this advice and consider that such amendments should be pursued when this bill is considered by the Senate.
Subject to the amendments contemplated in paragraphs 1.11 and 1.12 above, the Intelligence and Security Legislation Amendment (Implementing Independent Intelligence Review) Bill 2020 should be passed.
Senator Tim Ayres Senator Kimberley Kitching