Howard government told ASIS accountability legislation a priority
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Howard government told ASIS accountability legislation a priority

The Howard government was told legislation to make the Australian Secret Intelligence Service a statutory agency needed to assure the public the agency was accountable and had strict oversight.

The Howard government was told its international spies needed to be seen to be accountable.

The Howard government was told its international spies needed to be seen to be accountable.Credit:Frank Maiorana

While the intelligence agency existed for decades before it was made a statutory agency, its legal basis from its inception in May 1952 was a directive issued by the appropriate minister and endorsed by cabinet.

The legislation recommended wouldn't change the functions of the agency, but would provide for its continuation, ministerial control, the protection of ASIS sources and methods and include oversight of its expenditure by a parliamentary oversight committee.

The 1990s was a tumultuous period for ASIS, when in a 1994 Four Corners program it was alleged the agency held files on Australians, which was refuted in a later royal commission. There were also allegations that ASIS officers were mistreated and acting without accountability.

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The recommendation to cabinet drew heavily on the commission and said the bill "should provide reassurance to the public that ASIS is subject to strict and thorough control and oversight and that it is fully accountable to government".

The national security committee first recommended the legislation, which would continue ASIS' functions as well as introduce a parliamentary oversight committee in 1996, but it wasn't passed until 2001.

The recommendation said the legislation should be considered a "category A" priority for the spring 1996 sittings of parliament.

Cabinet historian Paul Strangio said documents from the time showed the hold up wasn't from parliament, as the proposal had support from the Labor opposition.

"There’s no clear explanation for what's causing this delay but there's clearly suggestions that the notion of ASIS being accountable to parliament was resisted within the intelligence community.  Certainly there's reports in the media [at the time] that there's considerable resistance in the intelligence community to the oversight," he said.

Mr Strangio said Howard as prime minister had written to Alexander Downer as foreign affairs minister early in 1996, instructing him to work with the defence minister to draft legislation to put ASIS on a legislative footing and introduce a parliamentary oversight committee

"From when Howard writes the letter to Downer, a further five years passes so it is quite striking and the silence and lack of explanation probably tells us something," Dr Strangio said.

Sally Whyte is a reporter for The Canberra Times covering the public service.

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