I rise to make a few brief remarks about the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014. I am doing so both in my capacity as a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and also as chair of the government’s legal affairs policy committee, which has carriage of these matters.
Firstly, I reject outright the imputation that was just raised about the motivations of the government—that somehow the whole move towards this legislation and these measures is an attempt to divert attention away from other issues. It is an outrageous claim, particularly given—
I said the opposite of that!
I will take that interjection, Senator Ludlam. The claims were made both last night in the program, as has been referred to, as well as by many other people. The claims or orders that have come from ISIL in the last 24 hours highlight the fact there is a real risk the government needs to respond to, to make sure its intelligence agencies have an appropriate legislative basis for their actions to protect Australia.
I also reject outright the claim that somehow it is our foreign policy that has made us victims or targets of terror. To look at things such as the Bali bombings, which targeted Australia: those occurred before Australia became involved, in a military sense, in the Middle East. It is a statement by these organisations that they reject the very nature of our way of life—our plural, liberal, secular democracy as a form of government. They reject the individual’s rights—the right to freedom of conscience and to hold one’s own beliefs—as opposed to a centrally directed approach. They reject that outright. That is why we are a target, and that is why we need to take appropriate measures to support the security of our nation.
This bill does not present an annual increase of powers, as Senator Ludlam has just claimed. In fact, it is a package of targeted reforms to modernise and improve the legislative framework that governs the activities of the Australian intelligence community. It principally amends two pieces of legislation, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 and the Intelligence Services Act of 2001. One of the important things to remember is that this is not just something the government has cooked up. It has come about predominantly because of the report last year of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, as well as a number of recommendations from other agencies; but predominantly from that report. It has been a process, and part of the reason the process has occurred is the recognition of the fact that the two acts we are talking about are quite dated in a number of areas—some at the sharp end in terms of being operational and some at the administrative end, in terms of things like employment practices and how we go about employing people. So there is a range of measures encapsulated in this, which are just going to the process of due diligence by a government, with strong bipartisan support—and I want to put on the record here my respect for and gratitude to Mr Anthony Byrne from the other place, who is the deputy chair of the committee, from the opposition, who worked in a very constructive manner with the government to process the review of this piece of legislation. I will not talk too much more about that report because I will be tabling that on behalf of the committee and will be speaking to that subsequently.
The important point from a national security perspective, though, is that we have layers of security to protect our community, but the most important layer, the most effective layer, is intelligence. With effective intelligence, all the other layers become far more effective. Without intelligence, the other layers become quite reactive. It is a bit like the walls that were built in history to try and protect countries from other attacking forces; the attackers would find ways around them. Intelligence is one of our most important aspects of defence, and if our agencies are to remain effective then they have to be supported by legislation that allows them to respond rapidly to emerging security threats, both domestic and global.
To this end, the bill contains measures that address some of the practical limitations in the current legislation. As I said, they have been identified by the parliamentary joint committee. I know Senator Ludlam has talked about us debating a bill when we are not sure what is there. Well, we have seen the bill. The Attorney-General has issued a media release saying that the government will accept the 17 recommendations of the parliamentary joint committee, and he has also indicated in that release that they will be tabled and, during the committee stage, just like amendments from other political parties, dealt with in the committee stage. The government will be tabling those so that we can deal with and debate them and people like Senator Ludlam can ask questions in the appropriate process, which is the committee stage of the Senate.
I will just briefly outline the key areas that this bill goes to. As I said, it is looking at modernising the number of statutory employment issues. Some of these have not actually been updated for over 30 years, and they need to be updated. It is modernising and streamlining the warrant based intelligence collection powers for ASIO. One of the things that we have seen, in this most recent wave of atrocities committed, around the world and here in Australia is the use of social media. When some of this legislation was written, people still conceived of a computer as a great big box in one room, as opposed to smartphones, social media and the other networks we now have that are commonly used by people who are committing crimes. So, clearly, the legislative basis that underpins the work of ASIO and other agencies needs to recognise the developments in technology so that they can take appropriate actions to respond to developing threats.
There are a number of safeguards that are put in place, and a lot of the work that was done by the parliamentary joint committee in reviewing this bill was to look at how we could increase the safeguards—particularly IGIS, the independent body that was set up to do oversight. The comment was made before that the parliament has no idea of how some of these measures or some of these powers are being used. Well, that is not correct, because IGIS is set up as an independent body with deep probing powers to monitor what goes on within our intelligence services.
Part of the reason it is important to get this debate right is that we have to balance both the public interest and transparency, with not only the effectiveness of the agency but also the safety of the agents concerned. This particularly goes to the issue of SIOs—the intelligence operations that are essentially undercover operations. What is one person’s whistleblowing motive—they might see something they think is inappropriate—put out in the public space not only potentially makes the operation ineffective but also very literally puts at risk the lives of people who are serving their nation and seeking to keep our community safe. So the committee looked to see how we can make sure that we make very explicit in this legislation the fact that IGIS exists, and that people who go to IGIS with legitimate concerns are exempted from the parts of the legislation that make disclosure about an SIO illegal. That is one of the ways that the committee is looking to make sure that we find that balance between saying, ‘There is a public interest in being able to hold an organisation to account, and IGIS is there to do that,’ but, at the same time, ‘What one person sees as legitimate whistleblowing can literally be a death sentence for somebody who is serving their nation.’ So we need to get that balance right, and I believe that the committee’s report on the legislation and the government’s acceptance of those recommendations will achieve that.
In conclusion, as I said, I will be talking about the committee’s report in some more detail when I table that in the Senate later this week, but I do strongly support both the intent of the government in the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill and, again, I welcome the bipartisan support of the opposition in this matter.