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Monday, 13 August 2007
Page: 9

Mr KERR (1:05 PM) —May I thank the chair of the committee and endorse his remarks. In the presentation of the next report I intend to make some personal remarks, given that it is probably the final report that the chair will present to the parliament on behalf of this committee. He has been an extraordinarily good servant of the parliament in relation to this important task.

May I endorse the substance of the report. There is no doubt that this report reflects the strain which our various intelligence agencies are inevitably under as they increase their staff size; as they seek to recruit as they need to adjust so that they have an adequate range of skills, including language skills; and as they cover what is a growing gap between the top ranks of officers of long experience and a large influx of newer, less experienced entrants at the bottom end. Those difficulties, however, appear to be being sensibly addressed by each of the agencies. Each has its own individual pressures and different challenges but, insofar as our committee was able to ascertain, the responses of the agencies to those pressures have been well judged.

In this context, of course, the committee cannot behave as many parliamentary committees do and dig down directly to first-hand experience that might potentially challenge the source of evidence that is provided directly by agency heads. We have addressed that issue in our report, at paragraphs 1.11 and 2.77. I do not wish to suggest in any way that we have a suspicion that, were we to do so, there would be a different outcome. It simply reflects the fact that in this area we are particularly limited in our capacity, although we do have the benefit of the insights from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and the insights from the Audit Office, which has provided us with a substantially good basis on which to be confident of judgements that we have made when we add them together with the direct reports from the agencies themselves. So I think the parliament has good reason to be confident of the judgements that are being made by the committee in this regard, but they are subject to the caveats that the report itself states.

I particularly wish to commend ONA for the approach that it has taken, set out at paragraph 2.88, leading to its own internal review of key judgements. Plainly, there were circumstances prior to the invasion of Iraq in which the intelligence that was relied upon was conceded to be far from ideal. One of the issues that future parliaments will have to address is whether to equip this committee with the standing capacity to undertake similar reviews of the tasking and capacities of our intelligence agencies. At the moment we look either to specific areas of responsibility under the legislation, to particular proscriptions, or to the administration and budgetary arrangements of agencies but we do not have the capacity that was given to the former Parliamentary Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD when it undertook the decisions made in the intelligence assessments prior to Iraq. It may be that future parliaments consider that it is truly in the national interest to make certain that the oversight committee does have that capacity, because at the moment our committee could not undertake a similar task were it to take the view that it would be important in the public interest to do so. Those are issues that future parliaments will need to address.

I commend ONA for its own internal reassessment processes and endorse what the chair said about the recruitment, training and other issues. But can I give particular attention, before I finish speaking, to the problem of Indigenous recruitment. It is one area where the agencies have truly let matters slide. There are only a handful of Indigenous employees across the intelligence agencies and, as a percentage of those organisations, their number has decreased. That is truly a very sad statistic and one that could be improved.