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Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Page: 4073

Mr KERR (6:45 PM) —I thank the member for Lyne and, previously in this debate, the member for Macquarie for their thoughtful contributions on the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2010 and related bill before the parliament. It is true, as all speakers have observed, that we are not immune from the passions of our day and, when a society is fearful, it is a natural first reaction to respond vigorously and to take measures necessary for that society’s protection. In the course of doing that there is need for reflection to ensure that the remedy is not worse than the malady against which it is directed.

I have been in this parliament as a member of the House of Representatives standing committee on legal and constitutional affairs, however named, or as the minister responsible for law and justice, however named, for more than 20 years and I have seen the ebb and flow of debate in relation to these enormously consequential matters. Can I say in respect of the legislation in front of us: this is good and incremental legislation. It reflects a thoughtful balance that has been informed by considerable independent input but also by the long work of many parliamentarians.

I think it was nine years ago, when Labor was in opposition and I was the shadow minister for justice and customs, that I introduced into the parliament a bill to establish a joint standing committee of this parliament to do precisely what the bill now envisages—that is, to establish an oversight of the Australian Federal Police. At the time, that was not recommended, but it does show that work that is done by parliamentarians in this place builds a foundation upon which later reflection can be had and that work we sometimes see as having been a failure at its time is not necessarily so—that is, that those of us who work to argue and to advance a coherent and logical position in respect of these issues can have successes many years after we felt the first sting of failure.

These measures are important because they are in areas where this parliament is always going to be confronted by the very real necessity to take strong action to deal with threats that come either from organised criminal gangs or from terrorist organisations, and there is, of necessity, no public sympathy for those who threaten us. But, just as the Athenians sent out a fleet to destroy a city that had offended them and, after being persuaded the next day by Pericles to have second thoughts, sent out another trireme to chase down the fleet, sometimes we in this parliament have to be the assembly that has the opportunity for calmer reflection to ensure that we do not go too far.

Much of the work that is done in that regard is done behind closed doors in private. It has been recognised, I think, by the member for La Trobe, who comes from the other side of the chamber, that it is rare that there is anything other than constructive debate within those committees; that we do not break up into partisan differences when we come privately to discuss these great challenges. Jason Wood, the member I referred to, has a history as a former policeman. I served on committees of which he was also a member, and the differences we bring and the perspectives we offer by way of different starting points are enormously valuable to inform the work of this parliament and, through that, change the outcomes in legislation.

I want to reflect on the anti-terrorism aspect of the legislation that we are passing. The work of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security, previously the Joint Standing Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD, was absolutely critical to ensuring that there was a significant response within the parliament so that the measures that were taken in the heat of the events after September 11 did not overreach. People will argue that, nonetheless, those measures in some estimations went further than they would have wished. Equally, others would say that there was an imperative case that this parliament act to ensure the safety and security of its citizens. Both starting perspectives have a very significant element of validity.

It is only in the privacy of a room where you can sit down and look at those strategic, law-enforcement and security issues in a rather bipartisan way that you can create a reporting document that goes to your colleagues and can inform a debate that actually leads to changed outcomes. That was very successful and it also involved some people of courage. I note the tributes that have already been paid to the member for Macquarie in his former role as attorney. There was also the former Chief Minister of the ACT who took a position which was contentious and, I thought, courageous at different stages.

Without people in this parliament who are prepared to be contentious and courageous from time to time this assembly does not do any good work. But that is not the only thing that works. It is also the work that is done by the joint committees acting responsibly, often without anyone sighting their discussions. For quite obvious reasons—if you are discussing the strategic orientation of intelligence services or law enforcement, these are not matters necessarily that will be discussed in public—many of their hearings are in camera. It is in those calm meetings, without the flourish of public attention, that much good work is also done, and the balance has come out well.

I congratulate the attorney, who is with us today, on continuing to be receptive to hearing the concerns of his colleagues on all sides of the chamber. This is a set of issues that concerns not merely those with Labor and Liberal allegiances but also Independents, Greens and all those others who make up this rather healthy and ferocious democracy of ours.

I should not take any greater time because, in a sense, we are all agreed and there is no necessity to repeat much of the debate that has already been had on this set of legislative measures, but I do hope that at some stage we also take the opportunity to look at an overall assessment of the number of parliamentary committees and whether it might be time for some serious strategic attempt perhaps to reduce the number of those committees but also to strengthen the resources available to them so that they can do the focus work that they need to undertake. This is a really important area of parliamentary oversight that we have now added, that of the Australian Federal Police, but it is a large one.

When the Keating government was in office they established an organisation called the Office of Strategic Crime Assessments which had a relatively short life and I think published only two reports. The idea of that was to look at the strategic forward settings for where our law enforcement efforts should be most focused. At that time it was looking at over the horizon threats from Russian organised crime and various other anticipated threats that we might be subject to. The issues of our present day, which we are perhaps not sufficiently focusing on, are economic crimes.

There is a conference to be held in Lisbon in about four weeks’ time under the auspices of the International Society for the Reform of Criminal Law, focusing on the threat to the nation state of economic crime. That might be a very important area for this committee to look at in terms of the policy settings and resourcing of the Australian Federal Police. But if those committees are not properly resourced and if members of parliament belong to too many committees such that they cannot undertake their appropriate supervisory work with the rigour and support that is required, then these processes really will become lip service rather than truly effective.

I do think it is time. I understand that each area of policy calls on the establishment of a committee, and the like, but the number of parliamentary committees has grown enormously and the resources for each committee—by way of secretarial and research assistance—have diminished accordingly. The resources have not increased. To make this sort of committee work you need parliamentarians who are prepared to devote a significant amount of their parliamentary service to it, as they do always on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

As a member of that committee for a number of years, I witnessed the very intense and careful work of members because they knew that it was a crucial committee that needed very significant attention. People who came onto that committee took it terribly seriously, as did those who came before them. Equally, this committee will not work unless people give it the same kind of significant attention. I think it is perhaps something for future parliaments, as I get ready to transform from a rooster to a feather duster in some months’ time—certainly before April next year—when the next election is held. I suppose as a parting comment to those who will be ongoing, as the member for Lyne will be, it is worth considering whether the number and resources of committees have been become such that the truly important work of these committees in their supervisory and oversight roles cannot be adequately resourced.

With those remarks, I commend the Attorney for this legislation and I commend all members who have participated in such a constructive way. I acknowledge that the heartbeat of this House is often not seen by the community. The heartbeat of this House is the work that is done quite often unseen and which results in improved outcomes through the collaborative work of these committees. I thank the chamber.