Laws governing phone intercepts by Australia’s intelligence agencies are set to be updated as a result of an inquiry into the way agencies go about their work, recently released by the Federal Government. The current laws have been labelled “a dog’s breakfast”, according to media reports. Running to 1,300 pages and making 204 recommendations, the inquiry by former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) boss and Defence secretary Dennis Richardson argues Australia’s national security framework is holding up well in the face of growing and more complex threats. But he believes there is significant room for improvement, and has noted that while agencies are constantly seeking more power, they do not really need it.

Australian Independent Senator Rex Patrick condemned the Richardson review of national security legislation and the government’s response for rejecting an extension of Parliamentary scrutiny to cover Australian intelligence agency operations. “Australia remains the only ‘Five-eyes’ country to deny Parliament a role in scrutiny over and ensuring government accountability for national intelligence operations,” Patrick said. “The Richardson review is unquestionably a missed opportunity to bring Australian Parliamentary scrutiny of intelligence into line with our allies and up to an appropriate standard of democratic accountability. But this was an opportunity the government was determined to miss.”

Independent Senator Rex Patrick.

Patrick added that “as things are, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence Services (PJCIS) remains explicitly excluded from any inquiries and reviews of what Australia’s spies actually do. The government has made it clear that’s how they like it. There has never been much doubt that Dennis Richardson, a very long-serving national security bureaucrat, had no interest in enhancing Parliamentary scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons the government chose him and not an eminent legal figure to carry out the review. The fix was in from the very beginning.”

Patrick added that “I have been campaigning over the past three years for an extension of Parliamentary scrutiny over intelligence operations. The Australian intelligence community has expanded greatly over the past two decades and now spends billions of dollars annually and employs many thousands of personnel.  Intelligence operations can have highly significant diplomatic, military and human rights impacts. Within the bounds of appropriate security and secrecy, the Parliament should be able to scrutinise intelligence operations, the success or failure of which may be of vital importance to our nation. I have repeatedly introduced legislation and amendments to achieve this along similar lines to the operation of the Canada’s National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. Regrettably my proposal has been repeatedly rejected by both the Government and the Opposition, even though Labor has expressed in-principle support. They’re too timid to take a stand for scrutiny and accountability.

“Meanwhile both the Coalition and Labor have repeatedly voted for massive expansions of the mandate and power of Australia’s intelligence agencies. In doing so they have progressively circumscribed the privacy and civil liberties of Australian citizens. The government’s responses to the Richardson Report and other legislation currently before the Parliament indicates they are determined to further expand the remit of the surveillance state. In the absence of a commitment to real Parliamentary scrutiny and oversight over intelligence operations, these new measures are unlikely to receive my support,” Patrick said.

Senator Kristina Keneally, the deputy Labor leader in the Senate and MP Mark Dreyfus, issued a joint statement in which they said the “release of the unclassified report of the Richardson review of the legal framework governing the Australian National Intelligence Community is long overdue. Labor welcomes its release but remains deeply concerned that the Government has sat on this report since December 2019. Given the unclassified report runs to 1,300 pages and includes 203 recommendations, and has only been provided to Labor today, Labor will now carefully study this report before providing our response. Labor sincerely thanks Dennis Richardson for his dedication and service in producing his review.”


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