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Tuesday, 15 October 1996
Page: 4196


Senator MacGIBBON(6.56 p.m.) —The surveillance of intelligence agencies is always a major difficulty for a democratic society. It is one that we manage very successfully in this country. We manage it through two mediums: first, through the appointment of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, whose position was created in the mid-1980s, with powers equivalent to a royal commissioner to inquire into all activities relating to the five intelligence agencies; and, secondly, at another level we do it through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.

It is interesting to note the way in which parliamentary committees have developed over the years. For example, the United Kingdom for years refused to acknowledge that there were any intelligence agencies operating at all in the United Kingdom, despite all the popular novels that have been written about them. In recent years they have set up the security intelligence committee, with oversight of all the intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom. Although they have only been operating for 18 months and the Australian parliamentary committee, which looks only at ASIO, has been operating for nearly 10 years, their ambit of operations is very much wider than what we have. I think it is a requirement in a democratic society that we move more and more to oversight.   One of the essential parts of that oversight is the Inspector-General's office.

One of the things about intelligence agencies is that they are very much a closed culture. People tend to join an agency or be recruited to it and stay in it for life. It is different from the rest of the public service. If they have complaints about promotion, conditions of service or even selection itself, they really do not have the avenues of appeal that other avenues of civilian employment have. So the Inspector-General has an important part to play in that regard.

The previous speaker, Senator Bishop, said something about the Inspector-General's office being under-resourced. I do not think it is lavishly resourced but I think it is drawing a long bow to say, given the volume of work—21 complaints last year—that a staff of six, as it is at the moment, is over-stretched. I would be very surprised if that were the view of the Inspector-General himself. I think for the present workload and the activities they have, it is probably adequate.

Getting back to the need for oversight, the intelligence agencies in Australia are all restrained by the law of the land. The various legislative statutes that set them up are very strict in their restrictions on the organisations. The agencies do observe those restrictions very much to the letter of the law, both with their own internal audit procedures on confirmation of their activities and through the independence of the Inspector-General's office. In no sense are they running around with an Ian Fleming or James Bond type attitude. They are all, in my experience, very responsible agencies.

Of the five of them, ONA, DSD and DIO are intelligence assessment organisations. DSD collects, by technical means, the intelligence which it uses for assessment. So basically they do not come into much contact with the community at large.

ASIS is the overseas intelligence gathering service. Again, it does not come into much contact with the Australian community, or no contact at all. So it is not surprising that, of the 21 cases listed this year, I think 20 of them relate to the activities of ASIO. That is because ASIO is looking after internal intelligence matters: politically motivated violence, espionage and activities of that nature. It does therefore come in contact with a large number of Australians through the year.

In the nature of things, there are those who feel they have been aggrieved. But, for the scale of its activities, to have only 20-odd complaints in 12 months and for the Inspector-General to find that the great majority of those complaints—probably something like 18 or 19—have no basis at all for further investigation is good testimony to the way the agency is conforming to the law and the spirit under which it was incorporated.

At the same time, I think the Inspector-General—both the incumbent and his predecessor—has done a very good job with respect to the legislation that sets them in their position. I look forward to their report next year. In conclusion, the whole of the Inspector-General's position costs only $637,000 a year and we get good value for it. (Time expired)

Question resolved in the affirmative.