Enhancing parliament’s role in the conduct of national security

In a Strategic Insights paper released today, Creative tension: parliament and national security, we argue that enhancing parliament’s role in national security will reinforce executive accountability, expand public access to policy processes, improve the quality of public debate over national security and serve to strengthen the foundations of Australia’s parliamentary democracy.

If they wish to do so, parliamentarians have the capacity to move the needle in the direction of change to improve and strengthen the management of Australian national security policy in an era of growing complexity, challenge and change.

We suggest several measures that would materially improve parliament’s role in the conduct of national security, without significantly affecting the Executive’s authority.

First, enhance respect for parliament as the forum for consideration of national security issues. This could be achieved by utilising the parliament’s existing procedures to more fully consider and debate issues of foreign affairs, defence, intelligence and border security.

Second, develop parliamentarians’ education in national security by providing a new members’ orientation program focussed on national security; an enhanced program of regular informal briefings to parliamentarians by senior public servants; site inspections by specific national security agencies and the creation of a cross party parliamentary friendship group dedicated to improving understanding of Australia’s national security policy.

Third, examine parliament’s exercise of war powers. While we remain to be persuaded that this idea has merit, we recognise that there’s sometimes intense debate over this issue. The parliament has yet to conduct a thorough investigation into the desirability of Australia extending some measure of authority to parliament in relation to the overseas deployment of the Australian Defence Force. We see an enquiry as worthwhile.

Fourth, greater emphasis should be given to parliamentary diplomacy: our parliamentarians are an underutilised resource of Australia’s foreign relations. At a time when the nation’s overseas diplomatic footprint is proportionately the lowest of any country within the OECD, there’s room for some creative thinking to identify opportunities to make better use of interested and able parliamentarians to enhance our international presence. This could be through parliamentary participation in international negotiations, attendance at diplomatic conferences, membership of delegations and undertaking special missions where a senator or member might possess unique knowledge and experience.

Fifth, a review of parliamentary committees’ resources should be undertaken. A material improvement in parliament’s role demands more attention to increasing the human and financial resources available to key national security committees. This should include considering the feasibility of seconding national security experts to committees for particular enquiries and references.

Sixth, take steps to enhance the potential impact of committees’ reports by the presiding officers establishing a program of training for chairs and potential chairs of parliamentary committees. This would include developing report-writing, with an emphasis on different forms of reports, conveying clear policy messages and ensuring reader accessibility.

Finally, there should be an examination of the roles and mandates of the parliament’s national security committees to ensure that their work remains relevant to the changing demands of Australian society and the development of sound public policy. Each of the existing parliamentary committees in the area of national security need some degree of reform, particularly in intelligence oversight.