Stronger accountability for intelligence agencies long overdue

Stronger accountability for intelligence agencies long overdue

Australia’s national security and intelligence agencies must be more accountable and transparent, the Human Rights Law Centre has told an independent national review.

The review is being conducted by former senior diplomat and public servant Dennis Richardson and will comprehensively review the entire body of national intelligence and security legislation.

“Watching the major parties rush through the decryption laws despite their extraordinary reach and in the face of major criticism from civil society and business, is a timely reminder of the need for greater safeguards,” Human Rights Law Centre Executive Director Hugh de Kretser said.

“Since September 11, intelligence agencies have been given sweeping new coercive powers to access our private information without a warrant, lock up people not suspected of a crime, punish whistleblowers and more. Agencies have received a massive increase in resources. Yet accountability and transparency measures have lagged badly.”

“Unlike every other Western democracy, Australia has no Charter of Human Rights. Along with a political culture in which both parties are afraid to protect rights in the national security context, this has contributed to a situation where Australia now has national security laws which undermine rights to a greater extent than any of our counterparts like the UK, NZ and Canada.”

 “The appalling case of Witness K highlights the need for reform. We need proper limits on the operations agencies can carry out and greater protections for public servants and others who speak up about government wrongdoing.”

The former intelligence officer, known as Witness K, and his lawyer Bernard Collaery were prosecuted earlier this year for revealing that the Australian Government had sent spies, posing as aid workers, to bug the cabinet room of the fledgling nation of Timor-Leste during sensitive negotiations about oil and gas revenue.

In its submission, the Human Rights Law Centre made recommendations including:

  • requiring that the intelligence agency watchdog report wrongdoing to a parliamentary committee instead of to a Minister;

  • giving the parliamentary committee greater oversight over intelligence agencies and having members of the crossbench sit on the committee;

  • better protecting whistleblowers who expose government wrongdoing;

  • ensuring proper judicial oversight over activities, such as detention orders, carried out by intelligence agencies; and

  • applying freedom of information laws to intelligence agencies.

Another key recommendation asks the Review to address the use of these extraordinary powers to carry out activities not connected with national security, such as spying on environmental activists.

The Human Rights Law Centre submission is here.

Information on the Richardson Review, which will report by the end of 2019, is here.