CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Andrew Wilkie granted access to classified secrets
, December 11, 2010
During the recent election campaign, disturbing stories emerged about the careless attitude the most senior levels of the Rudd Government had toward national security.
The leaked stories included claims (which were never refuted) that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had sent his 30-year-old chief of staff, Alister Jordan, in as his substitute to chair National Security Committee Cabinet meetings, followed by counter claims that the then Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard had sent in her bodyguard to the same meetings to deputise for her because she was too busy to attend.
It was all part of the unedifying spectacle of the Rudd and Gillard camps dumping on each other to legitimise or attack the fact that a prime minister had been deposed in order to win an election.
At a deeper level, however, the reports of such negligent behaviour sent a shiver through those people in the community who actually understand that national security is arguably the most important responsibility of government.
Alarm bells began ringing that, for the Rudd Government, NSC meetings were an after-thought.
During these meetings the most senior ministers of the government are briefed on developments in Afghanistan and elsewhere where Australian defence and security personnel are putting put their lives on the line for their country.
Former Prime Minister John Howard even weighed into the issue, declaring that he could recall missing just one NSC meeting during his 13 years in government.
"Of all of the things I've read about the current Prime Minister (Julia Gillard), nothing quite offends me more than her casual approach to attendance at meetings of the National Security Committee of Cabinet," Mr Howard declared during his solitary intervention in the election campaign.
It was reported that Ms Gillard had turned up to less than half of the NSC meetings as deputy prime minister. Ms Gillard did not respond to the claims, arguing that she did not comment to the media on details of national security.
But rather than learn that particular lesson from the dysfunctional Rudd administration, Ms Gillard appears to have made another blunder in the domain.
The parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security is a little-known but very important committee in the federal Parliament, which oversees the operation of security agencies.
The committee also has the duty of asking the hard questions of the agencies to justify the considerable taxpayers' money spent on them.
The committee was formerly known as the parliamentary joint committee on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) and the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD).
Unlike other committees, this group often hears evidence in camera, is entrusted with information of a highly classified nature, and receives top-level briefings not available to the public or the media.
It is a bipartisan committee and its members are traditionally handpicked by the leaders of their respective parties based on their credentials as "solid citizens".
In other words, the members of the committee are only people who are experienced parliamentarians with long years of service, MPs recognised with a high degree of integrity, trustworthiness and sober habits, and whose allegiance to their country and the role of security agencies is unquestioned.
The committee is currently chaired by Victorian Labor MP, Anthony Byrne, a former parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Rudd.
The other current members of the committee include four other Labor MPs - Michael Danby, Daryl Melham, Senator Michael Forshaw and former defence minister Senator John Faulkner. It also has three Coalition MPs - Victorian Senator Julian McGauran, Senator Russell Trood and former immigration minister and the longest serving member of the House of Representatives, Philip Ruddock.
Few on either side of politics could argue that any of these names do not fit the bill for the makeup of this committee.
But the other name on the committee - the new independent member for the Tasmanian seat of Denison, Mr Andrew Wilkie - has caused consternation among the security agencies and the Department of Defence.
Mr Wilkie is understood to have made a personal representation to Ms Gillard, and she agreed. This was despite strong advice to the contrary from the agencies, including from the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.
Mr Wilkie became a hero of the Left after he resigned from the Office of National Assessments in 2003, accusing the Howard Government of misrepresenting intelligence for political purposes in making the case for Australia's participation in the invasion of Iraq.
His admirers consider him to be a person who put his career on the line for his principles.
However, he remains an extremely controversial figure in security circles.
Many people inside the Australian intelligence community have misgivings about the way Mr Wilkie prosecuted his case. He was prepared to use confidential information he had obtained while an acting intelligence officer, and he leveraged his personal grievances to transform himself into a national figure at war with the government of the day.
The concern now is that Mr Wilkie's presence on the committee has made it unworkable, according to senior defence advisers, some of whom may now be reluctant to fully brief members of the committee on sensitive matters.
Even Ms Gillard's colleagues inside the Labor Party are questioning her judgment over the Wilkie decision and there is disquiet inside the committee itself about how it is going to operate.