Keeping Australians and their civil liberties safe: The principles of the Hope model
4 May 2020|

Previous posts in this series have described how three prime ministers appointed the same man, Justice Robert Marsden Hope, to conduct three inquiries into Australia’s intelligence agencies, and discussed the skills and approach that Hope brought to the task. This post summarises the main characteristics of what might be called the Hope model for Australian intelligence.

Most basically, Hope recommended replacing an uncoordinated group of poorly managed and under-resourced agencies with a coordinated intelligence community.

Starting from first principles, Hope recommended in considerable detail precisely what agencies Australia should have; what each one should do and, no less important, what it should not do; and how they should interact with one another, with the ministers and officials to whom they disseminated their assessments, and with their international partners.

He set out a clear allocation of roles in targeting, collection, assessment, coordination and dissemination. The intention was to integrate the intelligence community into Australia’s governmental system, with clear lines of responsibility and autonomy between agencies, departments and ministers.

The independence of intelligence assessment from policymaking was crucial: the agencies must tell policymakers what they needed to know, not what they wanted to hear.

In a prominent sentence in the report of the first royal commission, Hope stated that one of his fundamental aims was to ensure that the agencies were ‘less the creatures of their parent departments and more the servants of government as a whole’.

An obvious requirement was to move all agencies to Canberra, instead of having three agencies, each linked to a different department, located in Melbourne, where they had little communication with each other, let alone with the government.

More importantly, Hope recommended the creation of a new agency, the Office of National Assessments, at the centre of the intelligence process. In sharp contrast to the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, ONA would be devoted solely to preparing and disseminating assessments. It would not be involved in intelligence collection, policymaking or the ‘covert action’ or ‘special political action’ for which the CIA was notorious. The independence of ONA’s assessments from departmental or ministerial influence was to be guaranteed by legislation.

The relationship between effectiveness and accountability was a fundamental and pervading theme. Hope recognised that agencies would be effective only if the public was confident that they were fully accountable to appropriate authorities.

Hope regarded both the effectiveness and the accountability of the intelligence system as whole-of-government responsibilities. He proposed establishing, as the highest level, a ministerial committee, chaired by the prime minister, to be supported by a committee of departmental heads, chaired by the cabinet secretary. Hope thus foreshadowed today’s National Security Committee of Cabinet and the Secretaries Committee on National Security.

Accountability was to individual ministers, as well as to the ministerial committee, but with provisions to ensure that neither ministers nor departmental officials could unduly influence the agencies’ assessments. In addition, Hope recommended the establishment of a security appeals tribunal, to reassess assessments by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation when they were challenged; and he ensured that the auditor-general had appropriate oversight. Hope also initiated the office of Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, the most important single element of accountability for the entire system.

Rejecting pressure to abolish ASIO, Hope insisted that it must be profoundly reformed. He insisted that all agencies must operate within their respective legislative charters, within the law in general, and with what he called ‘propriety’, or ethically. This required that hitherto secret agencies, such as the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Defence Signals Directorate, not only be publicly acknowledged, but also have their own legislation, which established their legitimacy but also placed limits on their powers and methods. An agency couldn’t be accused of breaching its charter if it didn’t have a charter.

In these and many other respects, Hope designed a distinctively Australian system. He looked closely at intelligence agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, deciding which aspects to emulate and which to reject. He deprecated the fact, for example, that neither the CIA nor Britain’s Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) had legislative charters. Hope also deplored the habit, in both Australia and the UK, of treating ASIS more as the Australian branch of MI6 than as a distinctly Australian agency.

Hope’s attitude to relations with what are now called the Five Eyes partners was hard-headed and realistic. The exchange of information and views, especially with the CIA and MI6, was in Australia’s interest and should continue, but Australia should also maintain its own collection and assessment capabilities, not relying on allies, and should subject its international intelligence relationships to constant cost–benefit analysis.

In Australia, the system had to retain the confidence of both sides of politics. The blatant partisanship of ASIO had to be replaced by political neutrality. During his inquiries, Hope briefed both government and opposition leaders on his thinking, and he prescribed a number of measures designed to ensure that future opposition leaders were kept informed on the agencies’ work. Despite the extreme tensions before and after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, both Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser endorsed his proposals. Hope’s succession of appointments by Whitlam, Fraser and Bob Hawke testified to his success in setting out a non-partisan approach.

Of Hope’s numerous other recommendations on the individual agencies, one is especially important at present. ASIO, he said, should not have any executive powers, such as arrest, which should remain the exclusive right of police forces. Hope was highly critical of ASIO’s relations with the special branches of state police forces, and he started the process by which state governments abolished the special branches.

The Hope model had its flaws and weaknesses. His recommendation that ONA be created largely at the expense of what is now the Defence Intelligence Organisation underestimated the extent to which Australia needed both a strong ONA and a strong DIO, with distinct but overlapping responsibilities.

The economic departments have never participated significantly in whole-of-government intelligence assessment. Turf battles between agencies and departments lasted long after Hope’s inquiries. Achieving the right balance between current intelligence requirements and long-term strategic assessments is a constant problem.

Nonetheless, the Hope model was a huge improvement on what preceded it and had succeeded by the early 21st century in gaining all the agencies a degree of public confidence and trust unimaginable before he began his work. The next post in this series looks at developments since 2000 and into the future.