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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21300

Mr BALDWIN (2:44 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. Would the minister inform the House of proposals to allow the Australian Secret Intelligence Service to undertake its functions more effectively and safely?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for Paterson for his question and also for his interest. Tomorrow I do plan to introduce into the House of Representatives an amendment to the Intelligence Services Act 2001. This amendment will allow the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, ASIS, to undertake its functions more effectively and—importantly, from the perspective of ASIS officers—more safely.

Since the act came into force in 2001, the world has changed a lot. There have been the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the terrorist attack in Bali, and of course we are dealing with a still more severe threat of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Bearing all that in mind, not only has ASIS's work environment never been so important to Australia as it is today but the work of our intelligence agencies is critical to the government's efforts to counter terrorism and transnational crime. ASIS people, therefore, are working in an increas-ingly difficult and threatening environment.

The amendment will not change the functions of ASIS. The functions of ASIS will remain as they currently are—that is, ASIS will not be able to take upon itself paramilitary work on its own behalf—but this amendment will allow ASIS's people to defend themselves better. On the rare occasions that it might be necessary, ASIS officers will be able to carry a weapon for self-defence purposes—but only for self-defence. ASIS cannot and will not, under this amendment, be able to initiate any activity involving weapons or violence.

The amendment would also allow for close personal protection to be provided to ASIS officers by other organisations such as, most obviously, the Australian Defence Force, and also improve the ability of ASIS to work with other agencies overseas. Under the current legislation, ASIS could not assist in the planning for the capture of a terrorist where, for example, the capture of that terrorist involved the use of weapons; but with this amendment ASIS would be able to do that. These amendments are important amendments; they will make the Australian Secret Intelligence Service more effective than it already is. But I should take the opportunity to tell the House that I think that ASIS itself has done an absolutely outstanding job in recent years. We admire very much the work that it has done. I have no doubt that in the future it will continue to perform with great capacity and skill.