Much has happened in the world in the more than 20 years since the creation of the inspector-general, which I understand was originally set up in response to the 1983 royal commission on intelligence and security. The world of 1983 is very different from the world that we see ourselves in today. In 1983, the Soviet Union was still in existence and our security and intelligence services continued to view the world through the prism of the Cold War.
However, much has changed since that time. The Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Union has broken apart. The security concerns of a generation ago seem now a distant memory and the security and intelligence concerns of today are more dynamic and complicated than the world of the Cold War. We have seen the rise of asymmetrical warfare. We have seen the rise of non-state players in this area. We have seen the rise of Asia and in particular China. We have seen instability in our region. But perhaps, most importantly, we have been witness to the tragic events of September 11 2001 and the rise of Islamist terrorism organisations. The events of that day brought into stark reality the presence of not only a new threat to Australia's interests overseas but also a very real threat to the physical safety of Australians domestically and abroad. We have seen this with the Bali bombings and the attacks on hotels and our embassy in Jakarta. At home we have seen our security and intelligence services foil plans to attack military and civilian facilities. These events, both tragic and alarming, underscore the very real impacts of these new world threats on our way of life.
Apart from the change in the types of threats facing Australia, the world has also seen great technological change. In 1983 when the royal commission took place, who could have imagined the changes that we have now seen in technology, especially with the internet and social media. I was in India in 1996, and the internet had just actually hit the streets. I think that I was one of about 120 people in New Delhi, which is a city of some 20 million, using the internet. So we look at the changes that have taken place in just that time.
The use of the internet has been of particular use to al-Qaeda in its recruitment and propaganda. As the Director-General of Security noted in his statement to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee:
The internet helps al-Qaeda in its task. It is both a propaganda and a recruitment tool. It provides terrorists with both a platform to support operational activity and the means through which to project their ideology onto the international stage. The dissemination of violent extremist ideology through the internet poses the very real danger of drawing individuals down the path of radicalisation.
The new threats and the new technologies serve to highlight the importance of having a well-resourced and supported intelligence apparatus. The potential danger and tragedy that could result from not having one is too great. I believe very firmly that the only reason we have been spared the experience of a London bombing or a September 11 is because of the great work of ASIO and its sister agencies. However, it is a constant battle and one with the consequence of failure being very high. That is why this government has invested in increasing the capabilities and capacity of our security service.
In addition, I think these organisations do great work. I have had some dealings—both as a member of parliament and in my former life as someone who was with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and who consulted with the Department of Defence for 10 years—with those people who work in the intelligence community. The work of the staff in our intelligence agencies, by its nature, goes largely unsung. Unlike other public servants who can at least see or speak about the fruits of their work in the world, the members of these agencies must be silent and largely unseen.
It has often been said that the success of the intelligence agencies is usually measured by the things that do not happen—the terrorist attacks prevented and the assassinations that never took place. Thus, it is very easy for us to take their work for granted and possibly, in extreme cases, even claim that they serve no purpose. But we should avoid such simplistic analysis.
However, that is not to say that the intelligence services should be given an entirely free hand in what they do. There are obvious and at times well-founded concerns about the accountability and probity of intelligence services. The concerns are perhaps more relevant given that this parliament has in the past consented to the passage of new laws and regulations which, in the case of security related offences, provide the justice authorities and intelligence services with greater powers and flexibility than would apply in the usual criminal cases.
Our intelligence services are today armed and empowered to a much greater degree than ever before. Their capacity to gather information, and therefore their implied capacity to infringe on civil liberties, has never been greater. While this expansion in capacity is to the credit of the government—for it would be shirking its duty to defend the country if it did not do what it thought was necessary—we must consider the protection of the individual's liberty as well as their safety. I believe it is critical that whenever the state takes on new powers over the individual there must be built-in processes and protocols that ensure these new powers cannot be abused. It is in this light that we should consider this bill, for this bill is about oversight and scrutiny of the intelligence services. It is a true mark of a mature, liberal democracy that it can maintain and support effective covert intelligence services while at the same time ensure that the powers held by these services cannot be abused or used to infringe upon the liberties of its citizens. In this light, I would also like to recognise the work done by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security and her staff in ensuring that our intelligence community are true servants of the Australian community and not their own.
The inspector-general of intelligence has oversight of ASIO and ASIS as well as the Defence Imagery and Geo-spatial Organisation, the Defence Signals Directorate, the Office of National Assessments and the Defence Intelligence Organisation. The inspector-general of intelligence has the responsibility to review and, where necessary, investigate the intelligence services to ensure their activities comply with ministerial direction and legislative requirements and with respect for human rights. The IGIS does so independently, with a capacity to generate their own investigations as well as in response to ministers and the public.
The amendments before this House today are designed to update and modernise this legislation to address issues that have become evident over time. This bill will ensure that the essential work of the inspector-general is carried out efficiently and effectively and will strengthen the accountability and oversight of the Australian intelligence community. The amendments in this bill expressly recognise the role of the inspector-general in assisting the government in providing the parliament and the public with assurances that the intelligence community is subject to scrutiny and is using its powers in accordance with law. It also strengthens the capacity of the IGIS to undertake its own-motion preliminary and full inquiries, provides for the ability to delegate the power of the office with ministerial approval and, as well, provides the IGIS with the capacity to release material to assist royal commissions.
It is a cliche, but true, that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance. I firmly believe that this includes appropriate and robust oversight of our intelligence community. This robust oversight is the reason the Australian public has such support for our intelligence services. This very oversight is the difference between a police state and a modern, liberal democracy. I commend the government for its commitment to national security as well as for its commitment to ensuring that our intelligence services are acting with integrity and propriety. I commend the bill to the House.