Last week’s raids on the ABC were a sign national security needed more accountability, a Labor MP says. (ABC News: Taryn Southcombe)
A long-term member of Federal Parliament’s powerful intelligence committee says the secrecy over national security has gone too far in the wake of last week’s police raids on the ABC and a News Corp journalist’s home.
- Labor’s Anthony Byrne says the parliamentary intelligence committee needs more power to have greater oversight of intelligence and security agencies
- He fears the Federal Police have been “hung out to dry” by the Federal Government
- A former monitor of Australia’s national security legislation says the Government may need to create a separate authority to vet police warrants
For the past decade, Labor MP Anthony Byrne has been influential on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), which has been responsible for ticking off and amending every major piece of national security legislation drafted by the government of the day.
While he defended the role he played in “keeping Australians safe”, he believed last week’s raids on the headquarters of the ABC and home of a News Corp journalist created the perception that press freedom has been eroded.
“I think the raids conducted last week have shifted the scales a little bit towards ‘well, we need more openness, accountability and transparency’,” he told the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing.
Mr Byrne backed an independent parliamentary inquiry into press freedom and whether the country’s national security regime had eroded the ability of journalists to do their job.
The hawkish MP is highly respected in both Parliament and the intelligence community and does not often inject himself into public debate.
In an unusual move, Mr Byrne called on Parliament to expand the powers of the intelligence committee to give it greater oversight of the country’s security and intelligence agencies.
Declaring “we can’t do our job properly without it”, Mr Byrne said the PJCIS was only “pushing the edge of the envelope” in terms of what such a committee could be doing.
“We need a committee that’s more independent, a committee that does have remit into the operational activities of intelligence and security services and the capacity to initiate [its own] inquiries,” he said.
“I believe this committee needs more power.
“It doesn’t have the powers it needs to discharge [its] obligations on behalf of the Parliament and the Australian people.”
Labor’s Home Affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Kenneally, supported Mr Byrne’s call.
But a beefed-up committee is likely to face some resistance in Parliament, with critics arguing the committee is made up of like-minded MPs who too often fall into line with the demands of intelligence agencies.
Anthony Byrne wants more powers for the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. (ABC News)
Byrne says AFP ‘hung out to dry’
Last week’s raids attracted so much controversy that the AFP’s Acting Commissioner, Neil Gaughan, was forced to front the media to defend his officers’ actions.
Mr Byrne questioned why the Government did not front the media, alongside Acting Commissioner Gaughan, to back up the AFP and explain why some leaks of classified information were investigated while others were not.
“At present there has been no proper explanation by the relevant minister to explain what’s happening,” he said.
“We’re operating in a vacuum.
“I do believe that a good person like Neil Gaughan has been hung out to dry by the Government.”
Former national security legislation monitor Bret Walker questioned “scarce” police resources being spent on investigating the two stories, which he believed were in the public interest.
“I don’t know how these investigations might be thought to justify that kind of expense,” he said.
Mr Walker recommended that to avoid a similar situation, the Government should empower a separate authority to vet any action before police go off in search of a warrant.
“I think we may need to have statutory officers who will control both FOI — freedom of information, access to information — plus disclosure of suspected wrongdoing,” he said.
“And I do mean good-faith suspicions, I don’t mean nasty, slanderous ways of trying to ruin people’s careers. That should remain an offence, of course.”
Between 2011 and 2014, Mr Walker was responsible for reviewing the operation and effectiveness of Australia’s national security legislation.
When asked whether Australia had the right balance between freedom of information and protecting national security, Mr Walker said: “If we’ve got the balance right, it’s by complete accident and we don’t know it”.