Report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security

I will not speak for long on this but, as I often do with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, I want to emphasise the importance of the work the committee does. The issues that this report deals withsecurity and counterterrorism legislationare crucial and pivotal. Whilst clearly the Democrats have had disagreements with both the major parties in the content of some of the legislation that has passed into law with the support of both the major parties in recent years, I want to place on record again my view that this committee does a constructive job in its role of overseeing legislation such as this. I always make the point that I think it would be beneficial to have a third party represented on the committee. That is, of course, proscribed by legislation, so it cannot happen unless we get the chance to change the law down the track.

I also want to take up Senator Rays point that the sorts of accountability mechanisms that this committee provides are a clear legacy of the Senates role over the years as an independent house of review. As a chamber that is not controlled by government, it puts accountability mechanisms in legislation to enable just this sort of review to take place. As long as you have a committee that takes its responsibilities seriously and operates, as far as possible, in a nonpartisan wayand this committee has done thatthen it provides a very valuable mechanism. But the next step of course is: what happens when the reports come down?

The previous report that this committee brought down, in reviewing the proscription regime in regard to a number of organisations listed as terrorist bodies, noted the lack of engagement and response from the government to requests and recommendations from previous committee reports. That, to me, is a worrying sign. Often, the key issue is not a governments policy but the way it reacts to different views, different ideas and parliamentary reports. What we have seen in a whole range of areas in recent years is a growing lack of interest in reports from Senate committees and parliamentary committees and a lack of interest in their recommendations. That shows itself most strongly in the failure of governments to even bother to respond to reportsoften for years. And when they do respond, it is in a fairly derisory way.

In an area as fundamental as security and counter-terrorism legislation it is even more unacceptable when you have a cross-party committee bringing down bipartisan reports that clearly are not seeking to make political points. They are clearly just putting forward constructive assessments of problems they have identified or improvements that they suggest. The recommendation that Senator Ray singled out is a clear example of that. When governments do not even bother to respond to that, or respond dismissively and very belatedly, it is a clear sign of a problem in attitude.

As we all know, legislation is not just about the detail of what is in the law; it is about the way it is administered. The real problem is when the attitude or culture of a department, the government or a particular minister does not allow proper consideration of genuine concerns. That is when the administration of a law becomes very problematic. In an area as serious as this it is something we should be concerned about. I am not saying that all of the evidence already points to that conclusion in this area, but I am saying there is enough around for it to be worryingbased on the lack of a response from government on some previous reports. I think this one will be a real test. The real test will be how promptly the government responds to what is an important report and how considered their response is. Even if the response is prompt, if it is ill-considered then it is not much use either.

Whilst the Democrats are excluded from being part of the committee, we watch its work relatively closely because it is an important area for us. We accept that there is always a balance between security and individual freedom. We think the balance is wrong at present. Even more important than that is not just that the balance is wrong in the legislation but how adequately it is administered and enforced. So we will be watching this closely to see how prompt and adequate the response is. I think it will be a key test of the governments bona fides in this area. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

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