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Opposition criticises role played by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in resolving complaints of former ASIS agents

HAMISH ROBERTSON: The Federal Opposition has been highly critical of the role played by Senator Evans in resolving the complaints of the disgruntled former ASIS agents. Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, is less scathing in his assessment of ASIS, saying he didn't have too many troubles with the agency's operations. To discuss the Opposition's response to the Government's plans to reform ASIS, we're joined from Canberra by Mr Downer and to speak to him, David Pembroke.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Mr Downer, Gareth Evans says the reforms will lead to a significant advance in what the public knows about ASIS. Do you agree with him?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, they'll lead to some advance. I think it's a typical Evans exaggeration to say it will be a significant advance, but there's some tidying up in his proposals and the Coalition has been consulted on those proposals, and we're likely to support them.

DAVID PEMBROKE: How closely were you consulted?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I had a couple of meetings with Senator Evans and we discussed, at some length, the likely contentious points that he wanted to advance, and we had constructive negotiations on those.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Do you support the establishment of the parliamentary committee which will sit as an oversight on top of ASIS?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes, the parliamentary committee system I think will work well. There's a similar system in the United Kingdom which has been in place for a couple of years and I think, although this committee is unlikely to be able to examine details of ASIS operations, it should do a reasonable job.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Why won't you be allowed to look at ASIS operations, and if you can't look at the operations, how will you be able to know whether or not they're fulfilling their charter?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, because I don't think the parliamentary committee needs to know. What the parliamentary committee needs to know is that ASIS is adhering to Australian law, and as long as it does that and it fulfils its obligations under the new Act, then that is all the Parliament can expect of it.

DAVID PEMBROKE: What about the D-notice system and the 'reinvigoration' of the D-notice system?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, it's good. But I mean, they've had these people 12 years in government and they've ignored it and then suddenly, in the last few days, they've desperately needed to use the D-notice system and they've muffed it, and that's all because the journalists themselves barely know of the existence of the D-notice system because the Government has been negligent in its approach to it. So, sure, it's a good time to review it, but it's a little late.

DAVID PEMBROKE: The inquiry followed the complaints of disgruntled former agents who said that the service was out of control. Do the changes to the grievances procedures that Gareth Evans has announced today ensure that that won't happen again?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, perhaps not forever, but look, the real issue here is that Senator Evans has behaved abominably throughout this whole process. He reviewed all the material in relation to the grievances; he said that that matter had been fully and fairly resolved. The Samuels Commission found Senator Evans to be wrong. So Senator Evans, as a Minister, had been derelict in his duty towards those who had grievances. Senator Evans was also ultimately responsible for the fact that those ASIS officers leaked material. The Director-General of ASIS asked Senator Evans to set up an inquiry, warning that if he didn't these people would go public. Senator Evans didn't set up the inquiry; these people did go public; they damaged the national interest, and there's only one person responsible for that and it's Senator Evans who has been absolutely negligent in his management of ASIS over quite some period of time.

DAVID PEMBROKE: But shouldn't we be confident that that is now in the past, that changes have been made and it won't happen again?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, can I just make this point - Ian McLachlan resigned from the front bench of the Coalition over one of his staff doing something while Mr McLachlan was in South Africa. Senator Evans has been grossly negligent in his management of ASIS. It has led to leaks coming out of ASIS and Senator Evans says: Oh, well, that's all behind us; sorry about the mistakes everybody, but let's think about the future. As a Minister, he is grossly incompetent and I believe this will do terminal damage to Senator Evans' reputation as a public figure.

DAVID PEMBROKE: Alexander Downer, thank you.

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, speaking in Canberra to David Pembroke.