Disentangling three national security inquiries.

I was recently asked whether the newly announced Council of Australian Governments review of counter-terrorism laws, and the inquiry that resulted in Anonymous attacks on ASIO and DSD websites, were the same thing. They aren’t, but the three different national security inquiries currently happening can be easily confused.

As we don’t have the simplest security bureaucracy in the world, this post explains what inquiries are occurring right now, what they are about, and how to contribute.


The one getting the most coverage is the “Inquiry into potential reforms of National Security Legislation” being carried out by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

The inquiry will examine potential changes to the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979, the Telecommunications Act 1997, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 and the Intelligence Services Act 2001 (which covers intelligence services other than ASIO, such as ASIS).

The most important thing to read on it is the Discussion Paper, which details the proposals and presents some arguments in favour of them.

As it’s a discussion paper, there is no reason to believe the government plans to go ahead with every proposal in it. The paper divides the proposals into categories A, B and C, in descending order of priority. Category A is “those the Government wishes to progress”, category B contains “those the Government is considering progressing” and category C contains “those on which the Government is expressly seeking the views of the PJCIS”.

The data retention proposal, which has caused the most controversy, is in category C. This is the proposal that motivated #OpAustralia, where Anonymous tried to bring down the ASIO and DSD websites and steal private citizen’s data from AAPT. As many have pointed out, this is an incredibly stupid way to convince people we don’t need extra security powers. Political campaigns like GetUp’s, or well-argued submissions to the inquiry, will prove far more effective.

The inquiry is open to public submissions until 20 August 2012.


Another inquiry in the news is a review of counter-terrorism laws being carried out for the Council of Australian Governments. It was announced on Thursday, though it was originally scheduled for 2010.

The Hon. Anthony Whealy QC, will conduct the review. As a judge he presided over the trial of five members of the Sydney Pendennis cell, who were all convicted of serious terrorism offences. He was also the judge for the trial of Faheem Lodhi, who had taken part in a Lashkar e-Toiba guided terrorist plot in 2003. Whealy has also written the papers “Difficulty in obtaining a fair trial in terrorism cases” (paywalled) and “Terrorism and the right to a fair trial“.

The inquiry is open to public submissions until 1 November 2012.


There is also another inquiry, but this one has not been in the news at all. The Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) is conducting his regular annual review.

The current INSLM is Bret Walker, and his job is to examine whether current counter-terrorism laws are effective and justified. His new review will be given to the Prime Minister at an undetermined point before 31 December 2012, and will probably become public some months after. This review will have a particular focus on ASIO powers (questioning and detention), control orders, and preventative detention. I recommend reading the INSLM’s last annual report (which was also his first).

The inquiry is open to public submissions until 10 September 2012.


Why do we have all these inquiries? Largely because national security policy making changed after the end of the Howard government.

A recent journal article by Professor George Williams also made this point: “The change of federal government in late 2007 marked a shift in how Australia’s anti-terror laws have been made. Few new laws have since been enacted and those that have been have involved a more satisfactory process.”

This happened partly because Rudd and Gillard simply had a different approach, partly because their political position was not as strong (compared to when the Coalition controlled both Houses after 2004), and partly because the sense of urgency following attacks like 9/11, Bali, Madrid and London has vanished.

So we currently have a better national security policy process, demonstrated by one public inquiry examining proposed new laws well before they are enacted, and two public inquiries examining whether current counter-terrorism laws are effective and justified.

2 thoughts on “Disentangling three national security inquiries.

  1. I must say, I am truly puzzled at all this focus on “Islamic” terrorism, when there have been no actual terrorist attacks in Australia motivated by Islam. In fact the most recent actual attack, a shooting murder at a Fertility clinic in Melbourne at least ten years ago, was carried out by a extremist Christian.

    Add to this an 81 year old Brisbane man who sent threatening letters filled with live ammunition to various public figures in order to terrorize those he saw as supporting immigration, and another non .- Muslim gun owner who threatened to shoot Att General Roxon and it becomes quite apparent that it would appear white, conservative extremists are more of a threat than Muslims.

  2. Thanks for the comment Nan.

    There is indeed an under-acknowledged threat from far-right extremists. Under-acknowledged in public discussion that is, security agencies have certainly been concerned about them.

    Surprisingly, not many people know about the fertility clinic attack you mentioned, which is the only terrorist act in Australia this century that’s actually killed anybody. Another example of the threat is a plan by Perth-based neo-Nazis to firebomb Asian restaurants in 2004. And another is that in 2010, some people who styled themselves as the Australian branch of Combat 18 (a UK neo-Nazi group) fired bullets at a mosque in Perth. I’m currently researching these incidents for a paper I’m considering writing.

    However, I do think Australian governments have been correct to consider jihadist terrorism the primary threat over the past decade. This form of terrorism has posed the greatest likelihood of killing large numbers of Australians, which the Bali bombings demonstrated. There have also been several failed attempts at launching jihadist attacks within Australia, which would have caused many deaths if successful. The following court documents provide a good introduction to them:


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