Oversight of Australia's intelligence agencies is weaker than comparative arrangements in other Five Eyes countries, new research from the Australia Institute has found.
The question of who is watching and regulating Australia's spooks has been asked increasingly in recent times, with ASIO seeking new powers to question children as young as 14, and to expand the remit of compulsory questioning powers for espionage and foreign interference laws.
On Tuesday Australian Signals Directorate boss Rachel Noble warned "not all Australians are the good guys," in an address where she defended the power of her agency to collect intelligence on Australian citizens.
Raids on the homes and workplaces of journalists, as well as prosecution of whistleblower Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery have brought the activities of agencies who usually prefer to go unnoticed out into the open.
Australia's intelligence agencies, which include ASIO, the Signals Directorate and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, among others, have a number of accountability mechanisms, including the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Intelligence and Security.
But according to a new report from the Australia Institute's Bill Browne, almost all equivalent committees in the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand (the other members of the Five Eyes alliance), have powers the Australian version does not.
The most significant difference is that equivalent committees in the UK, US and Canada can review operations by intelligence agencies, including current operations. In Australia the parliamentary committee can only review policy, legislation and budget issues.
Oversight of agency operations in Australia is the purview of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security.
"Australia's spy agencies should receive substantial, public and democratic scrutiny," Browne writes in the discussion paper.
"With the government considering further expanding their powers and scope, it is time to consider how robust Australia's current accountability and oversight systems are."
The Australian intelligence and security committee only has partial ability to initiate its own inquiries, and only includes six intelligence agencies, not all government bodies that have intelligence functions. It also typically only includes MPs from the two major parties.
The Institute's executive director Ben Oquist said that Australia needed to learn from the oversight mechanisms in other countries, especially as within the Five Eyes, that intelligence may be coming from the same sources.
"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," he said.
"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."
Attempts have been made in the past to expand the remit of the intelligence and security committee to include oversight of operations at intelligence agencies.
A bill introduced by Senator Rex Patrick in 2018 was voted down after it was met with fierce resistance by the agencies themselves.
The independent intelligence review in 2017 found the current arrangements for oversight of the intelligence community were "appropriately rigorous," but recommended the remits of both the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security be widened to include ten agencies that have intelligence functions, including the predecessor to the Department of Home Affairs and the Australian Federal Police.
That review found extending the committee's oversight powers was "not required to ensure agencies are operating effectively, legally and with propriety".