Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 16:11 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 16:11 | SYDNEY

ASIO: Cash, spooks and the future


Graeme Dobell

3 August 2010 08:12

A decade ago, Australia's counter-terrorism edifice cost just over $1 billion. Now it is worth $4 billion.

In the Canberra jungle, growth like that eventually requires review. The big beasts of politics and the sharp minds of the bureaucracy demand an accounting. Are the dollars doing what they're supposed to do? And are the dollars being spent on the real priorities?

How ASIO's new Canberra HQ will look when finished. (Image courtesy of ASIO.)

Shrouded by the mists of time, way back in the deep, distant past – oh, it must have been at the time of the long ago May budget – the Labor Government put aside $3 million for a review of the effectiveness of Australia's intelligence and security agencies. The thinking was that the review would report by the end of next year on the robust growth of Australia's national security complex in all its burgeoning complexity.

The security review should survive the current political review of the Rudd legacy being jointly conducted by the Labor Party, the Coalition and a rather bemused electorate. Certainly, that was one reason why ASIO chief David Irvine agreed a while ago to do an interview with a couple of the Canberra press gallery wise men, Geoff Kitney and John Kerin.

The result of the interview popped out in the glossiest of formats last Friday in the Financial Review's monthly magazine, under the heading, 'State of Security'. No doubt the interview happened long before the election was called, but it matters not, because the real subject was the ravening growth of the security complex since 2001 and what consolidation might look like.

David Irvine knows a lot about shadow play and puppets, having authored a well-regarded book on Indonesia’s wayang tradition. The Irvine day job in recent times has had more to do with spooks. First he headed Australia's overseas spy agency, ASIS, now he sits atop the spy-catchers at ASIO. In his interview with the Fin, Irvine assumes the review and reform of the intelligence community must come, and he wants to get it done calmly, not amid some future crisis:

We have got to avoid what has clearly happened in the United States and Britain, where reform of the community occurs only after some terrible disaster. We have to work out carefully what we think we need. We have to ask what capabilities we are looking for; how the intelligence world is going to change in the next 10 years. Because, crikey, if it is going to change as much as it did in the last 10 years, we have got to keep adapting our capabilities to cope with that.

Amen to such a noble aim. Because the greatly expanded security complex we now have is a product of the same crisis response that gripped the US and Britain. Like its allies, Australia pumped great surges of cash into existing institutions, then tried to make them work better with each other.

David Irvine has one answer ready for the review. He argues that all the extra cash merely demonstrates 'how naked we were in a number of ways'. This will be the line of both attack and defence. September 11, 2001, and the Bali bombing of October, 2002, were the wakeup calls, alerting us to the fact that we weren't spending enough money on national security. Canberra has just been playing catch-up.

Similar sentiments will be needed to explain the huge new ASIO headquarters – the Lubyanka on the Lake. ASIO's current headquarters is tucked out of the way at the other end of Russell – so modest of mien that it has less street impact than the child care centre next door.

The new HQ has the dubious distinction of being the biggest Canberra build since the new Parliament. Even ASIO's chief is a bit worried that the new building is a too exuberant an expression of the victories of the national security complex. The Irvine interview contained an explicit acknowledgment that the huge ASIO complex growing on the other side of the lake from Parliament is a PR disaster: 'The site makes it looks enormous,' Irvine told the Fin. 'Even I am horrified.'

The hope is that trees and landscaping will mute the bureaucratic boast being expressed in concrete. They'll need to be big trees because the image politics of the Lubyanka – the message of the monstrosity — is a lousy look.

Disclosure: ASIO is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.