The government’s response to the Richardson review needs close scrutiny
Attorney-General Christian Porter has finally released a declassified version of the “Comprehensive Review of the Legal Framework of the National Intelligence Community” by Dennis Richardson AC, the former head of defence, foreign affairs and ASIO. It is billed as the most substantial review of intelligence law since the Hope royal commissions in the 1970s and ’80s. Coming in at 1300 pages, and produced by 20 staff working over 18 months at a cost of $18 million, the declassified review is clearly a substantial piece of work. It makes 190 recommendations, and all but four of them have been accepted by the government. For all those recommendations, however, the messages that Porter was keen to put across in his press conference today were that the key principles underpinning Australia’s intelligence laws are sound, the legislative framework is complicated but fit for purpose, and our intelligence community operates with the highest degree of professionalism and has “a very strong commitment and track record from exercising all of their powers and their operations and their functions inside the proper limits of the relevant governing law”. As Porter summed it up: “What the Richardson report demonstrates is that there is not a need for sweeping or revolutionary change to the system, [but] that there are some areas where there needs to be change.” So, the intended takeout message this Friday afternoon is that all’s well in the surveillance state bar a few minor technical tweaks – hundreds of pages of them – and we can trust the government and go back to sleep. As if!
The review notes that from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, until August 2019, Australia’s parliament passed more than 124 acts amending the legislative framework for the National Intelligence Community. A key lesson of the last two decades of increasing encroachment of national security–inspired laws – those that intrude on our privacy, curtail free speech and freedom of the press, undermine protections for whistleblowers and enable the surveillance of activists and other thorns in the side of government – is that the devil is in the detail. It will be extremely important, therefore, to closely scrutinise all 186 of the public recommendations that the review has made, and which the government has accepted. It is also important to test the review’s reasons for withholding details of 13 additional recommendations that have not been made public. In a joint statement Labor’s shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus and shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally said they would consider the detail of the Richardson review, while giving Porter a backhander about the time taken to release it, since it was handed to the government a year ago.
In this excellent summary, TheMandarin notes Richardson’s observation that some of the recommendations in the review would be controversial. Almost a third of them concern the creation of a new Electronic Surveillance Act, to replace and streamline laws including the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act and Surveillance Devices Act, which have grown too complex and been outpaced by technological developments. Richardson’s review describes the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act as a “dog’s breakfast”. Today, Porter said that creating a new Electronic Surveillance Act “in itself would be perhaps the biggest national security legislative project in recent history, and it would require the repeal and rewriting of nearly 1000 pages of the existing law on warrants, interception and telecommunications”.
Is the Opposition up to the thankless task of scrutinising and challenging the government’s legislative response to this important review? Not today, it seems, with Labor’s focus once again turning inward amid increasing speculation about the fate of the party under Anthony Albanese. Dreyfus is now touted as a candidate, running on a ticket with Linda Burney, joining other frontrunners Jim Chalmers, Richard Marles, Chris Bowen and Tanya Plibersek. No one is tipping an imminent challenge, but there’s still a week to go.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has finally released a declassified version of the “Comprehensive Review of the Legal Framework of the National Intelligence Community” by Dennis Richardson AC, the former head of defence, foreign affairs and ASIO. It is billed as the most substantial review of intelligence law since the Hope royal commissions in the 1970s and ’80s. Coming in at 1300 pages, and produced by 20 staff working over 18 months at a cost of $18 million, the declassified review is clearly a substantial piece of work. It makes 190 recommendations, and all but four...
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