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Gatekeeping the parliamentary intelligence committee won’t make Australia safer

Posted By on May 19, 2023 @ 06:00

Reports have emerged of a rare stoush over the usually cordially bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS). The source of the fracas is the Labor government’s proposal to expand the committee from 11 to 13 members and remove constraints on its composition that have mostly limited its membership to the two major parties. The Liberal Party has strongly opposed these changes.

This is a worrying development for a committee that has largely avoided partisan bickering over the years, but it’s important to remember that it’s not the first time a government has proposed changes to the committee. In fact, since it was first appointed in 1988 by Bob Hawke’s government, the committee—then the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation—has continually evolved in name, size and function.

Currently, the PJCIS is one of 67 parliamentary committees of the Australian parliament. Parliamentary committees consist of a group of members or senators appointed by one or both houses of parliament. Like other ‘joint’ committees, the PJCIS consists of members from both chambers.

The primary role of parliamentary committees is to do work better done by small groups, such as conducting inquiries, hearing witnesses, considering evidence, discussing matters in fine detail, and formulating reasoned conclusions.

A further advantage is that many different committees can operate at one time, which enables many more matters to be dealt with in detail. This also offers the benefits of specialisation.

However, unlike other parliamentary committees, the appointment of the members of the PJCIS is by resolution of the relevant house on the nomination of the prime minister or leader of the government in the Senate.

The PJCIS’s role is limited to overseeing the administration of the national intelligence agencies, addressing matters referred to it by the responsible minister or by a resolution of parliament, and reporting its recommendations.

The committee is unique in that its oversight of Australia’s intelligence agencies makes elevated levels of secrecy crucial to its work.

The 13 committee members under the government’s proposed legislation would comprise four from government ranks, two from each chamber; four from non-government ranks, again, two from each chamber; and five from either chamber. The requirement for a quorum would also increase from six to seven members. The bill doesn’t amend the requirement that the government hold a majority.

The PJCIS is constituted under the Intelligence Services Act 2001, which stipulates: ‘The Committee is to consist of 11 members, 5 of whom must be Senators and 6 of whom must be members of the House of Representatives’.

Crucially, it has been described as a ‘closed shop’ to crossbenchers because the legislation refers to members of ‘recognised political parties’, effectively precluding minor parties and independents. A notable exception was the independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s inclusion from 2010 to 2013 by Julia Gillard’s Labor government.

The proposal aims to allow the PJCIS greater flexibility, especially in covering absences. In its 2021–22 annual report, the committee noted that its workload continued to be at high levels and that it conducted significantly more reviews and bills inquiries than in the previous reporting period.

The PJCIS’s composition no longer reflects the diverse composition of parliament today, and the government’s recommendation would address this.

But in a move that breaks bipartisan support, a dissenting report by the opposition says that the PJCIS’s members should only be from parties of government and that there’s ‘no evidence’ that two extra members would improve parliamentary oversight.

Moreover, it noted that the proposed amendments were not recommended by former director-general of security Dennis Richardson in his 2020 review of the legal framework of the national intelligence community. However, that review did say that ‘the Committee’s composition is, and rightly remains, a matter for the Parliament’.

The PJCIS has had its detractors. Indeed, when the Hawke government first proposed the creation of the committee, the opposition Liberal Party was initially against it.

If the national intelligence community is accountable to the parliament, then it is the parliament’s responsibility to provide robust and effective oversight mechanisms. Extra members with expertise in intelligence could provide greater confidence in the robust function of parliamentary oversight.

All parliamentary committees, including the PJCIS, benefit from a diversity of perspectives and opinions. Indeed, a greater a level of contestability in the committee could lead to positive outcomes.

It is in the Australian public’s interest to ensure the PJCIS operates effectively, and new members will help it do that. Instead of weakening Australia’s national security, the expansion of the PJCIS would strengthen its capacity to serve the national interest.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/gatekeeping-the-parliamentary-intelligence-committee-wont-make-australia-safer/

[1] Reports: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-05-12/intelligence-committee-federal-parliament-greens-labor-wallace/102341718

[2] Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security

[3] proposal: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security/NSLAB2/Report

[4] first appointed in 1988: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security/History_of_the_Intelligence_and_Security_Committee

[5] 67 parliamentary committees: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees

[6] role: https://www.directory.gov.au/commonwealth-parliament/parliamentary-committees#:~:text=The%20purpose%20of%20parliamentary%20committees,detail%20and%20formulating%20reasoned%20conclusions.

[7] ‘closed shop’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2a8PreUGt8

[8] notable exception: https://www.smh.com.au/national/wilkie-to-oversee-agencies-20101117-17xtg.html

[9] 2021–22 annual report: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/reportjnt/024946/toc_pdf/AnnualReportofCommitteeActivities2021-2022.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf

[10] dissenting report: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security/NSLAB2/Report/Opposition_Dissenting_Report

[11] 2020 review: https://www.ag.gov.au/system/files/2020-12/volume-3-information-technology-powers-and-oversight.PDF

[12] Liberal Party: https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;adv=yes;orderBy=_fragment_number,doc_date-rev;query=Dataset:hansardr,hansardr80%20Decade:%221980s%22%20Year:%221986%22%20Month:%2206%22%20Day:%2202%22%20Speaker_Phrase:%22mr%20n.a.%20brown%22;rec=1;resCount=Default