Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Intelligence and Security Joint Committee; Report

6:17 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present a report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on Reviews of administration and expenditure no. 18 (2018-2019) and no. 19 (2019-2020): Australian intelligence agencies, together with the minutes of proceedings of the committee and the transcript of evidence. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am pleased to present the report on behalf of the committee. In delivering this report the committee fulfils one of its primary statutory duties under the Intelligence Services Act, that being to review the administration and expenditure of six of Australia's intelligence agencies: the Office of National Intelligence, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation and the Defence Intelligence Organisation. This report brings to a close what has been an extensive review process that was further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions on members of the committee, the agencies being reviewed and the parliament as a whole.

This is core business for the PJCIS and the committee takes the responsibility of the administration and expenditure reviews very seriously. For half of the agencies involved, this is the only discrete parliamentary oversight of their functions that is undertaken as they are not subject to Senate estimates processes, nor do they produce public annual reports or budget statements. These reviews ensure that these agencies are scrutinised regarding the appropriate use of their funds and resources to achieve their stated objectives and mission statements. Budgetary arrangements are scrutinised, along with administrative information such as the strategic direction and organisational structure of each agency; their human resources and performance management; the public accountability and public relations of each agency; and legislative changes impacting their operational and litigation matters.

Review no. 18 was interrupted by the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the committee, under the former chair, decided to roll over consideration of the 2018-19 review material into a combined effort with the 2019-20 material for review of no. 19. The committee undertakes classified and restricted processes for these reviews, given the nature of the material provided and the crucial work of these agencies. These processes require careful management of nearly two years of work, culminating in the report that I present today.

The committee has found that all six agencies have managed their administration and expenditure appropriately in a period of significant operational pressure, not only from the impact of COVID-19 but also from the evolving security and technological operating environment, as well as the continued maturation and reform of the national intelligence community. The committee was particularly impressed with the way in which the intelligence community was able to continue their important work, despite the disruptions of the pandemic and the public health restrictions put in place. The committee will pay close interest in the future to the continuity of business plans and redundancies agencies put in place to militate against disruptions in the event of future pandemics.

The committee has made four recommendations for government to consider. The first two recommendations are to investigate options for shared services to support staff complaints and resolution mechanisms, as well as psychological support for staff of intelligence agencies. The reviews highlight the need for ongoing and seamless access to staff support and psychology services, not only from the nature of the work of these agencies but also in the face of challenges from COVID-19 and the evolution of the threat which needs to be countered. The committee has also recommended that the Archives Act be amended to ensure that agencies could address ongoing matters regarding expensive repeated requests for material that have been stuck in lengthy and expensive legal processes. Finally, the committee recommends that a review of the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic be undertaken by the Office of National Intelligence, ensuring they are captured and shared across the entire national intelligence community. The committee has also made a statement in this report regarding the future direction it intends to take with future administration and expenditure reviews, which will be to focus on themes and issues of concern rather than just routine matters that are adequately reported or examined elsewhere.

I want to put on the record my personal thanks and extend my gratitude to the extremely hardworking men and women at the head of our intelligence community: Mr Andrew Shearer, Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence; Mr Mike Burgess, Director-General of Security; Mr Paul Symon, the Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service; Ms Rachel Noble, the Director-General of the Australian Signals Directorate; Lieutenant General Gavan Reynolds AM, Chief of Defence Intelligence; and Mr Scott Dewar, Director of the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation. By their very nature, most of our intelligence agency heads are very limited in what they can say publicly about their work and the amazing people that they employ.

It is also not appropriate for them to respond, as much as they may wish to, to the criticism which often comes that way, much of it unjustified. In my view, the most unfair of these recent criticisms came from the former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who really should know better, given the office he once occupied. Our intelligence agencies provide the best quality insight that they can, and then it is up to political leaders to make the policy decisions which flow from that. So let me say on their behalf: in my experience, our intelligence community is full of diligent, professional and dedicated people who take compliance with the law, their ethical obligations and the national interest of our country very seriously.

Of course, we can never just take it on trust that that will always be the case. Any self-respecting liberal democracy must have in place a robust system of oversight and scrutiny, both to ensure that the significant powers we grant our agencies are used appropriately but also so that the public can have confidence that that is the case. So I'd also like to thank the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor and the Auditor-General for the role that they play in assisting the PJCIS to perform our parliamentary oversight duties.

I have the privilege in this position of working closely with the leaders of our national intelligence community, and I thank them for their cooperation and their transparency and for making available some of the most sensitive information about their agencies to assist the committee to complete its review. While most Australians will never see the work that they do, we should all be very proud of and extend our gratitude to them, especially amid the increasingly challenging security environment in our own region. Similarly, I extend thanks to my fellow committee members—in particular, the former deputy chair, Anthony Byrne, and the new deputy chair, Senator McAllister, for their focus and dedication in fulfilling a critical part of the committee's statutory duty and parliamentary oversight role. I commend the report to the Senate and I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.