House debates

Tuesday, 27 November 2018


Office of National Intelligence Bill 2018, Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:10 pm

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor supports the Office of National Intelligence Bill 2018 and the Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018. These two bills will implement a number of the recommendations of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review, conducted by Michael L'Estrange and Stephen Merchant, by establishing the Office of National Intelligence, or ONI, which is to be led by the Director-General of National Intelligence.

The Office of National Intelligence will be responsible for leading Australia's national intelligence agencies. While the new Director-General of National Intelligence will not be empowered to direct the specific activities of agencies, he or she will be able to direct the coordination of agencies to ensure there are appropriately integrated strategies across the suite of agency capabilities. The Director-General of National Intelligence will also be tasked with keeping the Prime Minister informed on matters relating to Australia's intelligence agencies.

Each of Australia's Five Eyes partners currently has a single point of coordination for its intelligence agencies, and this is what the Office of National Intelligence will provide for Australia. In addition to its leadership role, the Office of National Intelligence will replace the Office of National Assessments and be responsible for preparing strategic assessments and reports in relation to international and domestic matters that are of political, strategic or economic significance to Australia. As is the case with the Office of National Assessments, those assessments and reports will be prepared on the basis of information that is collected from publicly available sources. This marks an extension of the ONA's existing assessment and evaluation function, which is currently limited exclusively to international matters.

Labor also supports the Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018, which repeals the Office of National Assessments Act 1977 and makes a series of consequential amendments to other acts to reflect the proposed operation of the Office of National Intelligence.

The bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security looked carefully at these two bills and recommended four improvements, each of which was accepted by the government. The amendments tabled by the government yesterday give effect to the committee's recommendations. Among other things, those amendments will ensure that the Privacy Commissioner is directly involved in drafting the ONI's privacy rules and that those rules are made publicly available on ONI's website.

Since 2014, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has considered 15 substantive national security bills and made over 300 recommendations for amendment, all of which have been accepted by the government. I commend my parliamentary colleagues on the committee—Labor, Liberal and National—for their careful, considered and bipartisan approach to these two bills and for recommending a number of improvements. This is how national security issues should be dealt with, and that is how national security issues have been dealt with in recent history.

In that spirit, I urge the government to work with Labor to implement two of the other recommendations that were made by Michael L'Estrange and Stephen Merchant in the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review in relation to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Strong and effective oversight does not undermine our national security community; it enhances it. Public trust and confidence in our security and intelligence agencies are best ensured through strong and rigorous oversight and scrutiny. Australia has a unique configuration of oversight that spans the parliamentary, judicial and executive branches of government. Institutions, such as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, have complementary functions. Labor's existing proposal for reform of the committee recognises and maintains these arrangements. The proposal is embodied in the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Amendment Bill 2015, which is presently before the Senate. This bill arose out of work done by former Senator John Faulkner and others, and contains a suite of measures designed to ensure that the committee has the powers it needs to acquit its duties to the parliament and the Australian people.

As it happens, the substance of Labor's proposals was largely adopted in recommendations 21 and 23 of the 2017 Independent Intelligence Review. However, despite receiving the review well over a year ago, and despite the fact that the government has said that it will implement the recommendations of the Independent Intelligence Review, the government has yet to act on these two recommendations. So, while Labor is pleased that the government has now acted on Mr L'Estrange's and Mr Merchant's recommendation to establish an office of national intelligence, there is more work to be done. I commend the bills to the House.

12:15 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with great pleasure that I get up to speak on this important legislation, the Office of National Intelligence Bill 2018 and the Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018. I understand that a lot of people look at this legislation and say it's anodyne in its attempt, and it's largely administrative for a lot of the operations of different government agencies. But the reason I want to talk about it is its critical role, particularly around parliamentary oversight. As you know, there is an amendment that makes it possible for greater oversight by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security.

Parliamentary oversight is one of the most fundamental principles that sits at the heart of our democracy. The truth is that it is within the wisdom of the crowds of people who sit in this place—and I accept wholeheartedly that that wisdom is challenging at the moment—and of parliamentary oversight and transparency that our democracy works. When you have bodies that operate with a high degree of secrecy and a high degree of absent transparency—and, I might stress, for legitimate reasons, because of the seriousness of the issues that are being affected, like the Office of National Assessments—it's incredibly important that there is proper parliamentary oversight of their procedures, of their practices and of their activities. That's what parliamentary committees do.

As you know, I'm the chair of the House Standing Committee on Economics, which has parliamentary oversight of a lot of the independent regulators. I appeared before the Senate as a former commissioner or parliamentary officer, as Australia's Human Rights Commissioner. Appearing before the Senate was a critical part of my role of making sure that those who are commissioned or charged with incredible powers are held accountable to the people whom they serve, who are ultimately Australians, and, by proxy, through their representatives.

I think this is particularly important in the space around intelligence. A simple basis is: we know why information can't be released in the public square. We know that, when we're dealing with allegations of terrorism, investigations or undercover officers, and looking at how data is collected and what it's used for, there must be a robust secrecy and a protection not just to the people who may be directly affected but to people who may be undercover or contributing to the activities of an operation—and not just to them, but to their families and their friends—and to make sure there are successful investigations and other activities, and to make sure that there is success to keep Australians safe.

It goes to a point of trust: trust that Australians should be able to have in our government and in our federal authorities to do their good and important work. What I've seen consistently is that there is a very high degree of trust in agencies like ASIO and the Australian Federal Police—I don't think most Australians would know the Office of National Assessments. One of the reasons Australians trust them is that they know they do important work, and they know that they keep us safe. But there is a comfort that comes from parliamentary oversight, and, frankly, I'd like to see a lot more of that. I'd like to see parliament holding agencies to account. This is not a point of partisanship—although, sometimes we might devolve into that—it's a point about how we're going to run our bureaucracies and our agencies.

Frankly, I don't think there's enough oversight of the Australian Taxation Office, an agency that is set up to manage the tax affairs of the nation and make sure we secure the revenue to support the base of activities that we decide happen in this place but then goes on to provide the services the Australian people have come to expect. There isn't enough oversight over agencies often that have the power to investigate people's private affairs, particularly their tax and financial affairs, and frankly I think there is probably a case to have much greater scrutiny over how a lot of those agencies operate and whether they successfully work with individuals, small business and big business to do their job.

Sometimes when I'm driving along, I hear these ads on radio by companies that promote the concern that many Australians have about the Australian Taxation Office and whether it is going to be on their back. Don't misunderstand; I believe that Australians should have respect for the state and its purpose, because it is a common wealth of all of us. But I also think that there should be accountability for those people who seek to implement and interpret the law. You hear this all the time from small businesses who are concerned about it, who fear taking on the ATO because they fear they might have a very dangerous consequence to their business and they're going to get adverse rulings, or they fear they are going to get dragged through bureaucratic bullying. Certainly, that's the fear.

I know that might sound a little off topic, but the same principles apply to national security agencies. We should be able to hold the police to account. That's not to question their motivations and it's not to suggest that they're doing anything wrong; but they are here to serve the people, to maintain a degree of law and order in our society. What parliamentary scrutiny and accountability does, whether it's through committees or any other means, is achieve that end in the national and public interest. So, while seemingly irrelevant amendments to the Australian Border Force Act 2015 may not excite the public mind, they are critical. They are critical to our duty to the people we serve. These amendments are critical to the degree of confidence that Australians can have in our democracy. They are critical for the electoral legitimacy that we all secure in sitting in these seats. And it's a privilege and a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. It's a privilege and responsibility that serves our country well.

It goes back, of course, many decades, back to looking at parliamentary oversight of the setting of tax rates and why ministers or the Crown shouldn't be able to impose legislation or regulation around rates or any other means which has the effective consequence of a tax without parliamentary sovereignty and approval. It goes to the heart of parliament itself. And it doesn't just apply to tax; it applies to every artifice that this government—Liberal, Labor or anything else—entertains. That's why one of the great challenges we face in our modern democracy is that the executive is not all powerful. The executive has a critical and important role to represent the Crown and to administer the Commonwealth of this country, to govern for the national interest and for everyone. We're going to have some disagreements—everyone will from time to time—about how that is best done, and rightly so. The role of departments is to regulate and implement that through to execution for the Australian people, and we in this place in parliament have a responsibility as well.

Based on what I've been told only moments ago, there is going to be increased scrutiny in this parliament as numbers change. That wasn't going to be the point of my remarks today, but it's an interesting coincidence. But it does highlight the power and the sovereignty of this place and the legislative means that we go through to maintain that accountability. And, frankly, one of the things that I find most difficult and disturbing in this age is how much power parliament hands to the executive. That's not a comment on this government or, particularly, the previous one or the one before that or the one before that or the one before that. We, as parliamentarians, must defend parliamentary sovereignty because, if we don't, who will?

12:25 pm

Photo of Alex HawkeAlex Hawke (Mitchell, Liberal Party, Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate on the Office of National Intelligence Bill 2018 and the Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018. As the 2017 Independent intelligence review noted, the challenges faced by our intelligence community will intensify over the coming decade. In a rapidly changing world, Australia's intelligence architecture needs to change too. Our intelligence agencies need to be positioned to respond to the next conflict, the next terrorist threat or the next technological innovation. Whatever comes our way, we need to be ready.

Our national intelligence community agencies demonstrate excellence, but, as the 2017 Independent intelligence review stated:

These forces of change are challenging the structures in place for co-ordinating the activities of our intelligence agencies.

That is why the reviewers recommend the establishment of an office of national intelligence, and that is why the passage of these bills is so important.

ONI's leadership function and the requirement in the bill that it perform this function in ways that promote the appropriate integration of intelligence capabilities across the national intelligence community will go a long way to achieving greater coordination. ONI will also be responsible for providing advice to the Prime Minister on national intelligence priorities, requirements and capabilities, and matters relating to the national intelligence community as a whole. Further extending ONI's assessment and evaluation functions and its ability to cooperate with other national intelligence community agencies will enable ONI to better support the work of others. The positioning of the Director-General of National Intelligence as the head of the national intelligence community, with the responsibility of keeping the Prime Minister informed on matters relating to intelligence, will enhance this coordination.

The Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018 makes amendments to a number of acts to support the proposed operation of the ONI bill. Though many of these amendments simply reflect the transition of the office of national assessments to the ONI by updating references and other legislation, other more substantive amendments will provide important functionality to the new organisation. Some amendments will improve the ability of other national intelligence community agencies to cooperate or share information with the Office of National Intelligence. Some will enhance oversight; others will enable ONI officers to better perform their functions by accessing and assuming identities regimes.

All in all, these arrangements, along with transitional provisions, will ensure that the ONI is able to function effectively from its establishment. The Office of National Intelligence (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2018 contains a number of other measures to support the operation of ONI and the Director-General of National Intelligence, including directions and guidelines powers, access to information provisions, secrecy provisions, the continuation of the national assessments board, and privacy rules to protect Australians.

I'd like to thank the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for their detailed consideration of the bills. The work of the PJCIS has led to four government amendments which fully implement the committee's recommendations and will be tabled shortly. In particular, the committee consideration has contributed to enhanced transparency provisions being incorporated in relation to the privacy rules, and I want to thank the PJCIS for their deliberations. I also thank my colleagues from both chambers and all sides of the chamber for recognising all of these important needs.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.