BILLS - Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Amendment Bill 2015 - Second Reading

The matter of security, as we have heard, is one that we in this nation take very seriously. We obviously try to balance the liberties and freedoms that citizens would like to enjoy in our country. We take a fairly open-hearted approach to most things and most people from different cultures and different persuasions, and we generally try to abide by the laconic notion of a fair go for everyone. When that notion butts up against the heinous nature of indiscriminate assaults and murders of innocent citizens, in the most extreme consequences, by those who would want to destroy democracy and want to destroy the privileges, rights and freedoms that people enjoy, I think we find it very hard to get that balance right sometimes. I am not suggesting we have not got it right in Australia, but I do know we butt up against the tension point between our sense of freedom as a nation of people who tend not to understand, or tend not to have experienced, the atrocities we see in the Middle East and other places pretty much nightly on our televisions. We have experienced it in Bali with our citizens and in other places, and we are horrified when such things happen.

In fact, today there was a report of a couple of Syrian citizens in Germany capturing a wanted felon, a terrorist, and then reporting that person to the authorities. The appreciation of the citizens of Germany for that helps them have a different view of people who are fleeing from violence in other nation states and coming to their own countries. In fact, they have suggested that such individuals should be honoured with a medal for their services to the nation.

Here we are talking about something that is rather modest in its intent. The amending bill began with people like Senator Faulkner in his time here and way back, as Senator Macdonald said, with the recommendations in the report that came from by Mr Flood and others when we were in the beginning of the horrors of many of these atrocities. Our maturity around the necessity for incursions into the freedoms, responsibilities and rights of citizens was probably not weighed as heavily as it is today. I am not suggesting that it was not.

I can recall, as a young person, being detained by the police. It was not just being detained in the watch house; he actually had a whip, which he threatened to use. He had no power to do this, but he had a whip and threatened to use it. On the floor of the cell he showed us an iron circle to which people had been chained, or potentially could be chained. So the notion of deprivation of liberty is a very important matter to me personally, but, I think, for most Australians as well. But we do not like to be overencumbered by regulation and authoritarianism, or by delegations, when we have a sense that our freedoms are being infringed.

On the other hand, we know that there are people who, as Senator Macdonald said, have no regard for any of this, who have no regard for the sanctity and uniqueness and beauty of human life, and who are prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve an ideological outcome—that is, fundamentally to destroy the principles of freedom and democracy in a nation state, particularly in our country, Australia. It is sad that such things happen. As we come to the parliament of Australia each day we notice outside the parliament officers with guns. When I first started coming to the parliament to lobby in the old Parliament House that was a very rare sight. So the price of our democracy is pretty significant. I do not think we ought to be cowed by those who want to threaten it. Therefore, the necessity of a committee like the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is a critical matter. It is a critical function of the parliament, interfacing with the senior people who have the day-to-day responsibilities of guaranteeing the freedom and safety of the citizens of this nation.

Really, this bill is trying to get that right. I heard Senator McKim, from the Greens, speak of getting the balance of the membership right. I note that the bill proposes that the majority of the government will not be affected by this amendment. It does allow for 11 other members to be nominated by the houses. That is a matter for political movement, it would seem to me. People are capable of doing things in this place to ensure that the representation is there. But I take the point that is being talked about, that there is pretty much a de facto presence on this very important committee.

The responsibility that goes with that is of course paramount to how we deal with sensitive information that comes from the other amendments that are being proposed to have access to information and advice given by the national officer responsible for these matters. That access is not for the purposes of flaunting the information but so that we as representatives of the parliament can be informed about where and what it is our nation has been apprised of at the highest levels, whether it be at the ministerial level, the level of the security council or wherever it is that these matters go to for decision making—ultimately, the executive of government.

The importance of that is also to deal with the question of our responsibility as elected representatives, to try and get a balance between us as the elected representatives, who are accountable to the public and therefore have a trust placed in us to ensure that their safety is looked after in the best possible manner, and the functionaries. I have no doubt that that is what we seek to do and are doing to the best of our capacities. The bill is really about how we can improve in a minor way some of the functional aspects of this. It is not seeking to overcome and overtake the role and responsibility that the agencies have for our security, but it is trying to, I suppose, ensure that the public is aware that we parliamentarians do not leave these things entirely in the hands of very capable functionaries who account to a particular individual—a minister—and not necessarily to the parliament. That is a complex matter, I understand and fully appreciate, and I am not suggesting that we ought to be overturning that. What I am suggesting is support for the proposal that we are putting forward on our side to have the capacity to be informed by reports on these matters and also to look towards initiating inquiries that are significant in this field, to pursue a matter. I would think that you would only do that, given the practicalities of this, after a long period of discussion—interacting with the relevant agencies and the minister responsible—and that it would not be just a case of a rabbit running down a hole hoping to find something. It would actually have to be something of great significance to do that.

We should recall also that intelligence gathering is not always left to those who are the specialists in the field. Often we require and rely upon citizens to inform us about what is going on in particular places to make sure that the eyes and ears, as it were, of the custodians of democracy and freedom that are in the hands of our citizens are also utilised beyond those who are the specialists and the most efficiently trained. So the role for the public in much of this is also critical.

It is about getting the right balance between trust, freedom, efficiencies and capacity to make decisions. No-one is suggesting, through this bill, a frustration with any of that. We are talking about a capacity to be better informed through the committee on national security so that the parliament itself is not just tangential to what takes place at a higher level but is in fact integral to that in a very important way that underpins democracy. It is conditioned and governed, obviously, by the existing tenants of the legislation, so is not something that is being proposed in a vacuum here; it is being proposed in a context.

This is a very minor amendment to the existing legislation that we hope to win the support of the Senate for. It is not opening up a whole avenue for placing at risk the very important and significant matter of national security. In fact, it is trying to improve on that and lend greater support to those who have that onerous task of looking after us and ensuring our nation is safe and that the agencies are resourced. It is critical that their recommendations are taken up, but if they are not known then it is very difficult for those matters to be pursued—outside of the largesse of the minister or his or her responsibilities.

The question of global security weighs on us on a constant basis. Again, I recall some years ago going to the United States and to New York. People actually put money on the window sills of their houses so that people would not break in. There was a sense of fear that gripped the nation at the time—and it has probably only been enhanced by the terrorism acts that have taken place in America since my period there. The sense of fear is a very corrosive element to the principles of democracy and freedom. That is something we need to guard against most diligently whilst we balance the necessity for efficient and effective intelligence gathering and the capacity to orchestrate the activities necessary to undertake tasks while not being curtailed by unnecessary bureaucracy and management. It is getting both things right that is the challenge.

I think what we have tried to do on our side is suggest some minimal changes. They can be improved upon, I have no doubt, but the intent is to ensure, through the membership proposals, that there is a role for the parliament in a greater manner than there has been in the past. I think the capacity to look at sunset legislation is often important, because there may well be amendments that could be made to improve it, or there could be matters that are no longer relevant that ought to be removed as well.

The significant factor, I think, is community trust in its institutions. Primarily, citizens look to the parliament for that to be exercised on their behalf. That is why they elect us. We are elected to make decisions. I appreciate that sometimes those decisions are hard on people's senses of their own freedoms and their own sense of what and how they ought to enjoy their democracy. But we all have to balance the competing rights of each other and the diversity and differences that we bring to our wonderful democracy.

But if we do not appreciate that and if we do not bring those balances then we are simply allowing ourselves to slip more and more into some form of totalitarian state—and I am not suggesting that these amendments have any intention of doing that. We need to bring to the notice of the government and to the parliament the ways in which democracy and its significant structures can be better made to reflect the trust that citizens place in us and to ensure that agents that are brought into existence, that look after our security, are also held accountable. Senator Macdonald's view about oversighting the oversighters is a point that I do not necessarily disagree with: But that is not what we are talking about.

What we are talking about is that there has to be a balance of all the various accountabilities that are required in a rather complex scenario of national security and intelligence gathering. If we can achieve that and improve upon that without placing at risk the necessities for security, confidentiality and privacy—those sorts of issues which are fundamental to good intelligence gathering and for good execution of activities to protect the nation—then that has to be paramount. But I do not think that the amendments that we are proposing in any way hinder or impact on that particular paramount goal.

I think this is a modest set of recommendations. They seek to get the balance right and to bring in a bigger role for parliamentarians—not to usurp, in any manner, the role, function and authority of the agencies—in order to bring some comfort, I think, to the public that security is not always a matter that has to wear a gun. Security is also about: how do you cultivate friendships, freedom and trust with the others who you may not necessarily agree with? It is a bit hard when you do not know who wants to blow you up. But if you do have good intelligence and you do have good security measures, you can hopefully identify that better and you can accord to those people the kind of matters of justice that are— (Time expired)

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