For all the outcry about Scott Morrison’s ill-judged phone call to the NSW police chief to ask about an open investigation involving a federal minister, far more alarming was a suggestion this week in the wake of concern over China’s influence-peddling that Australia’s spy agencies should be given a role in vetting the suitability of candidates for elections.
If there is a perceived conflict of interest raised by political interference in a police inquiry, just imagine the kind of three-ringed media circus that would unfold in future, with the inevitable leaking of intelligence files about wannabe MPs, political enemies in parliament, or even factional rivals.
And it wouldn’t need to be a “real” leak. As is the way with popularised views of all-seeing, all-knowing spooks lurking in the shadows, the mere insinuation that a routine security clearance had been held up by an unsubstantiated question mark could be exploited, quickly transforming the process into a potent political weapon.
At the last federal election, 1514 candidates put their name on the ballot. That’s a lot of dirt for the security agencies to dig.
But the concern isn’t only that secrets have an annoying habit of not staying secret. Imposing a security check on all potential parliamentarians – whether the lowliest backbencher or a minister serving on cabinet's National Security Committee – would inevitably have a cost for open democracy.
What might happen, for instance, if a candidate sought to run solely on a platform of winding back the excessive reach and powers of intelligence agencies? Or if someone campaigned with a heartfelt belief that Australia should radically shift its stance on China, or any other nation for that matter? Would Andrew Wilkie, now an independent MP, who famously quit his intelligence job to speak out against the invasion of Iraq, be cleared again?
The public should not expect unelected bureaucrats to decide who passes a check for propriety or what amounts to undue foreign influence.
True, the major political parties and their own faceless officials haven’t always done a good job of probing the quality of candidates. But the system as it stands, of rigorous media scrutiny combined with the test of public common sense at the ballot box, has been remarkably effective.
Look at the number of politicians who ran afoul of the constitution’s citizenship provisions in the previous parliament, or the candidates disendorsed at the last election. And the focus on alleged Chinese influence is hardly out of the news.
No security agency background check of politicians is carried out at present (as distinct from ministerial staff, who are subject to vetting). But nor is it the case that any politician can waltz into the ASIO headquarters and demand access to the vault. Most MPs have no more access to classified material than a person off the street.
Members of the government are provided intelligence on a need-to-know basis. The education minister is likely never to see a report stamped "Top secret", while the foreign minister, defence minister and others in portfolios related to national security will be briefed into certain codeword compartments.
How far a "need to know" extends is a healthy debate. For instance, if the prime minister is curious about the identity of well-placed source that Australia has managed to turn into an informant – one of the most highly protected secrets of what is termed sources and methods for intelligence collection – does he really need to know? Or should he, as the nation’s democratic leader, have the right to demand to know?
That might seem a different question from the supposed threat of a Manchurian candidate, someone seeking election on behalf of a foreign power with an insidious intent to influence Australia’s politics. Yet the accountability of security agencies to political leaders shows how the present system can function effectively, without the need to surrender more freedom.
If a genuine national security were to arise about a person elected to Parliament, ASIO could brief the home affairs minister or the attorney-general on the perceived dangers. Political leaders, properly apprised, can then make a decision about what to do.
That accountability is crucial. A mystique is often associated with “secret” information, sometimes lending it undue credibility.
Intelligence is not fact, at least not in the sense of meeting the burden of proof that would be required in a court of law. Intelligence material, whether cultivated from human sources, plucked from signals intercepts, or gleaned by a database analysis, is often fragments – hints in a puzzle to be pieced together, all subject to judgment.
How reliable is the line of reporting? What’s the context? What assumptions lie behind the assessment? Do the jagged edges line up in a credible fashion? These are questions intelligence professionals must always ask.
The public can be confident the spies are typically very good at this job because we don’t much hear about failures – because in a security sense, a failure can be catastrophic. A success, by contrast, such as disrupting a terrorist plot, barely registers or is simply unheralded because the worst did not happen.
Yet judgments are not flawless. Saddam Hussein did not harbour weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Mistakes are made. The system can be clumsy. Just as importantly, intelligence judgments also change with the passage of time and with more information.
Australia’s democracy faces enough challenges without needlessly introducing another on our own. In the decision as to who can be a candidate for parliament, spies don’t have a need to know.