Parliamentary Speech: ASIO Amendment Bill

From the top, we support the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Amendment Bill 2023. This bill does some important things. It seeks to centralise top-secret positive vetting within ASIO. It seeks to enable more persistent ongoing evaluations of an individual's suitability to hold a security clearance. It seeks to establish a framework for merits review of ASIO security clearance decisions. It provides ONI with a new function to drive uplift of insider threat capabilities across the Commonwealth, and to independently assure quality and consistency of top-secret positively vetted clearances.

I think we all know that there has been an issue across the Five Eyes countries with leaking of sensitive intelligence information, and we must always seek to modernise and adapt as the challenges and threats to our national interests change. It's a really timely reminder of the importance of information security just as we're seeing an unprecedented revolution in technology—particularly with artificial intelligence and access to information digitally. As the ASIO directors-general Duncan Lewis and now Mike Burgess have said numerous times on the record, we're facing unprecedented levels of espionage and foreign interference in this country. That's why this bill is a welcome adaptation to our current system of governance around security vetting.

This bill will bring security vetting responsibilities in line with the current security landscape, in which espionage and foreign interference are our principal security concerns. I think this bill recognises that ASIO is best placed to appropriately vet clearance holders, as the Commonwealth agency responsible for countering these threats. The government must ensure ASIO is properly resourced to take on this new responsibility so that the provision of new security clearances is not bottlenecked or delayed at a time when our cleared workforce must rapidly increase to deliver key initiatives: the $10 billion investment into ASD, which is called REDSPICE, and, of course, AUKUS. We're going to grow a workforce over the next decade and beyond of 20,000 additional people—not just the submariners, not just those involved in the nuclear industry but also those involved in industry. There's going to be a massive transfer of intellectual property and national secrets on a trilateral basis between the US, the UK and Australia. In order to demonstrate our reliability as a partner in AUKUS, particularly when we will be in receipt of very significant technology from the United States, in the form of their Virginia class submarines and all the attendant technology that enables those submarines, it's really important for our credibility that we have modernised our vetting processes and we can demonstrate to the US and the UK that we can be trusted with their secrets.

In July 2020, the former coalition government established a multi-agency Future Positive Vetting Capability Taskforce to modernise vetting standards to increase consistency, assurance and transferability across Australia's highest cleared workforce. The task force developed a suite of reforms to incrementally replace the current PV clearance, and we are supportive of the additional measures in the current bill that will reduce the risk of compromise of trusted insiders, maximise utility from shared services and improve the mobility and agility of Australia's highest cleared workforce. I think we're going to see more people moving around the Public Service into defence and into industry, and we need to be able to track those with PVs. We need to be able to move them quickly; that's really important.

As noted by the Department of Home Affairs, these reforms are not designed to accelerate the clearance process though. We should be prepared for a scenario where more stringent vetting for security clearance holders means more applicants are rejected at a time when the demand for a security cleared workforce is radically increasing to deliver projects such as AUKUS and REDSPICE. We call on the government to ramp up efforts to attract and retain a cleared workforce to ensure we don't fall behind on these commitments. We've got the Submarine Rotational Force-West that will be established in Perth in 2027, and from 2027 we will see a continued presence of up to four US and one UK nuclear submarines at HMAS Stirling. In order for that to happen, over the next four years we've got to grow HMAS Stirling; we've got to grow a supply chain; we've got to grow a workforce around it. A lot of those people involved will have to have top secret positive vetting security clearances, and that means that the government really has to ramp up its effort to clear as many people as possible without dropping the standards, importantly, given the risk of insider threats and other challenges to maintaining our secrets.

The government should also explain how it is going to properly resource ASIO to undertake these new responsibilities. ASIO, as the director-general has noted in his yearly updates, is working extremely hard round the clock. They are a 24/7 operation, and there are multiple threats that never stop. All you need is one significant threat to get through and we could have a crisis on our hands. So it's really important that we resource ASIO—that we send the signal to ASIO through funding and through manning that their work is important and it's a priority for government, because we can't afford bottlenecks or delays on these security clearances.

Under this bill, those affected by ASIO security clearances will be eligible for internal review under a new statutory framework as well as external merits review in either the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, for existing security clearance holders and Commonwealth employees; or by an independent review appointed by the Attorney-General, for other applicants. The government has announced that it will abolish the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and replace it with a new federal administrative review body. The government should explain what the abolition of the AAT will mean for the new statutory framework of external merits reviews, including the potential for delays that flow from the eventual transition to a new merits review body once it is established.

In sum, we support this bill. It's an important bill. It's about modernisation. It's about making sure that our agencies are fit for purpose, particularly ASIO, in guarding against insider threats and other risks to our own national security but also our relationships. Five Eyes is a longstanding partnership with Australia, the US, New Zealand and the UK, and it's really important that we do our part to make sure that we have the integrity in our system so that we can keep up that really important intelligence sharing. With that, I commend the bill to the House.