Thursday, 28 June 2018
National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018; In Committee
I concur with the comments of the previous two speakers. That excuse—and that's all it is—is one that's used so frequently in here it probably would just save time if there were an auto button on the minister's desk and they could press it and play a recording without having to wear out their vocal cords. The minister has to do a lot of talking tonight, and I appreciate he's done well to maintain his equilibrium in the face of a lot of appropriate but nonetheless persistent questioning.
Another reason given is one that really triggered way too many echoes for me—that is, this isn't the appropriate vehicle to put forward this amendment. I've heard that used a number of times when a perfectly appropriate amendment is put forward to address something completely valid. It's just a matter of ensuring more comprehensive and adequate scrutiny of these government agencies that we have already given absolutely enormous, unprecedented and wide-ranging powers to with almost no way of assessing how they are being used in any meaningful way. And even those members who are part of the closed shop of the existing Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security are limited in what they can see. As Senators Patrick and McKim have already outlined, our country falls way behind our allies with regard to parliamentary scrutiny.
The Greens and others on the crossbench don't accept this false argument that somehow the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has to consist only of the so-called parties of government—and that phrase in itself shows just what sort of mentality we have here. It's not just a confidential club; it's a secret club, and it's something that the rest of the parliament is locked out of. There is a role for the parliament, as a representative of the people, to ensure that the executive, the government, the state and the agencies of the state actually use the extraordinary powers they are given appropriately. There is any amount of evidence—we won't take the time of going through it now—about how those powers haven't been used appropriately in the past.
The other fact is the committee has had a non-government member on it. We know that Andrew Wilkie, an Independent MP, was a member of that committee from 2010 to 2013. That was at the time there was a hung parliament and, as part of agreements reached, he got the completely appropriate agreement to be on that committee. And, of course, he's also a very well-qualified person to be on that committee. Not only did we have someone who wasn't part of the so-called parties of government; he wasn't part of a party. But it was okay for him to be on the committee; the sky didn't fall in.
The great irony, of course, is that Mr Wilkie was the victim of inappropriate leaking when he was working for an intelligence agency. A report that he wrote when he was a systems analyst for the Office of National Assessments somehow found its way to Andrew Bolt. Andrew Bolt had this document and, quite appropriately, thought he'd write about it. For some reason or another there's some problem with letting people from non-government parties onto this committee. I don't know why—we can't be trusted or something; we might reveal things. That Independent member, when he became an ex-worker for an intelligence agency for the government, had something leaked against him—and quite obviously leaked against him purely for political purposes. So that single incident itself shows that there needs to be proper scrutiny of the activities of these agencies. This is just one more example.
Time and time again we've seen, over decades now, legislation after legislation that gives more and more powers to these agencies. Senator McKim earlier moved for a sunset clause. Never once has there been legislation to wind back any of it, even a little bit, not even those powers from the 1950s, from the Cold War. They've never been wound back; it's always more and more and more. We won't even put a sunset clause on them, so they just continue to expand. So we now have these powers where pretty much everybody in the country is under this mass surveillance regime, with all sorts of risks and all sorts of penalties and major jail risks for all sorts of potential activities. But the agencies themselves? Zero scrutiny. A small attempt like this—and, frankly, let's not forget this is a pretty minor amendment; it's not like we're wanting to bug ASIO while they're bugging us. It's a just little bit more proper and broader scrutiny, and being able to dig a bit deeper about what's going on. And yet all we hear is, 'This isn't the appropriate vehicle; this isn't the appropriate time.' Well it would be good if we could at least get a commitment to an in-principle agreement, but we can't even get agreement about getting a national ICAC for scrutiny about what the government itself and the politicians—all of us—are doing, so to expect to get proper scrutiny of intelligence agencies is probably asking a bit much. But there is a growing desire amongst the Australian community for growing scrutiny of parliamentarians and government, and that has to include those agencies that have the greatest powers of all to scrutinise the citizenry.