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Keeping an eye on the watchers

By David MacGibbon - posted Wednesday, 15 September 1999

With the possible exception of France, no other democracy allows its official intelligence agencies total freedom from parliamentary oversight the way Australia does.

Purists can argue that ministers are accountable to the Parliament for the activities of their department but that is not the real world.

The Prime Minister (Office of National Assessments) and the ministers for Defence (Defence Intelligence Agency, Defence Signals Directorate), Foreign Affairs (Australian Secret Intelligence Service) and Attorney-General (Australian Security Intelligence Organization) have the heaviest workloads in the Parliament.


Therefore it is impossible for them to have effective oversight and therefore be properly accountable for their agencies.

Legally, the office of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security supervises the agencies and sees that they comply with Australian Law. The Inspector General reports in a sanitised way to the Parliament annually.

In 1987, the Hawke government amended the ASIO Act and created the Joint Parliamentary Committee on ASIO. The committee is an exercise in utter futility because it is forbidden to inquire into any matter relating to foreign nationals, to foreign intelligence, the operations of ASIO or any complaints about the organization. In 1995, My Justice Samuels in an inquiry into ASIS, recommended that a single joint parliamentary committee be set up to oversee both ASIO and ASIS. Five years on, nothing has been done despite the then-government's acceptance of the proposal.

Without a formal committee structure, the parliament is unable to have access to the agencies. No questions are ever answered about their activities by ministers.

Officers of ASIO appear before the ASIO Committee; on rare occasions DIO will appear before the Defence Committee but no representatives of the other three ever appear. No question has ever been asked of a Prime Minister about ONA. It is impossible for the Parliament to make a qualitative assessment of any agency's performance.

The agencies have a budget of at least $445 million annually but it is impossible for the Parliament to make a statement that the money is spent effectively.


Oversight of intelligence agencies cannot take place through the public avenues used for all other departments of state. Oversight of secret agencies must take place in secret.

Different countries use different approaches. The United States Congress through appropriate committees has access down to the most minute detail. Their committee chairmen are briefed on a daily basis on operational matters.

There are inherently great risks to security in such a high degree of exposure but apparently there have been no lapses in security as a consequence. It can be argued, though, that such a depth of exposure is unnecessary for adequate accountability.

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About the Author

David MacGibbon was a Liberal Party Senator for Queensland and takes a keen interest in Defence and Foreign Affairs matters.

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