Solomon islands intelligence failure underlines need for parliamentary scrutiny

Senator Rex Patrick

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the failure of Australian’s diplomatic and intelligence agencies to provide adequate warning of China’s political manoeuvres to secure a strategic presence in the Solomon Islands.

“Whatever way you look at it, the failure of Australia’s diplomats and spies to anticipate and detect China’s deal with the Solomon Islands is Australia’s worse intelligence failure in the Pacific region since the Sandline crisis in Papua New Guinea in 1998.”

“On that occasion, nearly a quarter of a century ago, Australian intelligence had no inkling about the PNG Government’s engagement of foreign mercenaries until their Antonov transport aircraft pulled up at Port Moresby International Airport.”

“This time the Australian Government is struggling to make up lost diplomatic ground after our intelligence agencies failed to detect negotiations between China and the Solomon Islands for an agreement involving ship visits, logistical replenishment and other related activities.”

“It remains to be seen whether China will secure a military foothold across Australia’s lines of communication in the Pacific.”

“Australia’s High Commissioner in the Solomon Islands, Lachlan Strahan, other senior diplomatic staff and Australian Defence Force representatives in Honiara, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service and the Australian Signals Directorate should all face very searching questions about their performance in what appears to be an intelligence failure of major proportions.”

“This failure should be the subject of a deep inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security – the PJCIS. However, this cannot properly take place as the legislation governing Australia’s intelligence community excludes the PJCIS from undertaking any inquiry into intelligence operations. All they are allowed to inquire into and report on are matters of expenditure and administration.”

“Australia is the only ‘Five-Eyes’ country that has not legislated to allow Parliamentary oversight over intelligence operations.”

“Our intelligence agencies have been granted vastly increased budgets without effective Parliamentary scrutiny of their performance.”

“This is not for lack of trying. Though the 46th Parliament I have repeatedly introduced amendments to the Intelligence Services Act 2001 to allow the PJCIS to review intelligence agency operations. However, on every occasion the Coalition Government and the Labor Opposition have opposed such a reform, saying it is either unnecessary or, in the case of Labor, something that could wait until they get their turn in government again.”

“This latest intelligence debacle should definitely prompt a rethink in both the Coalition and Labor.”

“In any case, if re-elected to the Senate I will reintroduce legislation to extend PJCIS oversight of the Australian intelligence community to include scrutiny of intelligence operations. At the same time I’ll seek to have the Senate refer recent developments in the Solomon Islands and the performance of the Australian intelligence community, to the PJCIS for inquiry and report.”

“Australia’s intelligence agencies should no longer be exempted full Parliamentary oversight. They must be fully accountable for their performance – for their successes and for their failures, which in this case appear particularly grievous and potentially of great strategic disadvantage to Australia.”

/Public Release.