Oversight of Australia’s Spy Agencies Weak Compared to Other Five Eyes Countries


New research by The Australia Institute shows that parliamentary oversight of Australia’s intelligence agencies is weak compared to others in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence sharing alliance between Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom & the United States, and that increased accountability and oversight measures should be considered.

With the Government considering further expanding the powers and scope of the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), the report reveals important limitations that significantly weaken Australia’s ability to oversee intelligence agencies—including the inability to review any intelligence operations, past, current or planned – in order better to protect the human rights and privacy of Australian citizens.

Key Findings:

  • While all countries in the Five Eyes community have parliamentary committees with oversight of intelligence agencies Australia’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) has key limitations:
    • It has limited powers to conduct its own inquiries
    • It has jurisdiction over Australia’s core intelligence agencies, not all bodies with intelligence functions
    • The committee does not have minor party or independent members
    • Unlike in Canada, the USA and the UK, Australia’s Parliamentary committee cannot review any intelligence operations (past, current or planned)
  • Expanded accountability and oversight measures should be considered for Australia’s intelligence agencies – both general measures, like a National Integrity Commission to investigate corrupt conduct, and specific ones focused on the intelligence community.
  • Protections on the civil liberties, human rights and privacy of individual citizens have not kept pace with the remarkable increase in the data collection, data interrogation and data cross referencing  capabilities of Australia’s security agencies. In a democracy such as Australia, this is the responsibility of the national Parliament.

“Australia’s spy agencies should always receive substantial, public and democratic scrutiny,” said Ben Oquist, Executive Director of the Australia Institute.

“As the surveillance powers of Australian intelligence agencies increase, it is ever more important that the rights of Australian citizens are fully protected and this requires a stronger parliamentary committee to exert greater control over the agencies and ensure greater accountability to Parliament

“With the secret prosecution of lawyer Bernard Collaery and intelligence whistle-blower ‘Witness K’ over the East Timor bugging scandal, and the highly publicised AFP raids on journalist, there is widespread concern around how Australian intelligence agencies are operating.

“Public faith in Australia’s institutions is declining and while there has been a phenomenal proliferation of national security and anti-terrorism legislation in Australia over the last 20 years, checks and balances have not kept up.

“Australia can learn from the oversight mechanisms in other Five Eyes countries, and in some cases the countries will have the same intelligence from the same sources, so oversight should be equally robust in all Five Eyes countries.”

The full report: AUST-INTEL Powers – Parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, by Bill Browne, can be downloaded here.

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