Earlier this week, Anthony Byrne, the Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Labor member for Holt, exposed the Gillard government for its failure to protect Australia's national security.
He said it was 'disgraceful' and 'astonishing' that the intelligence agencies tasked to protect our country have had their budgets slashed by this government.
It could not have come at a worse time. In recent weeks we have seen terrorist incidents in Boston and London and we are all too familiar with the carnage that followed previous bombings in London, Madrid, Bali and Jakarta.
We have had the director-general of ASIO, David Irvine, warn of the dangers posed by the radicalisation of up to 200 Australians who volunteered to fight in Syria, many on the side of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, and we have seen ASIO, in their written submission to a parliamentary inquiry, say ‘We are likely to see the emergence of new domestic extremists in 2013, either individually or in small groups’.
ASIO's chief David Irvine has said, in a speech to a Security in Government conference in September last year, that his organisation 'is currently managing around 200 active counter-terrorism investigations of various urgency and significance.' This is a high number by any standard.
And we have the national security strategy released by the Prime Minister earlier this year confirming that in Australia four terrorist plots have been disrupted and 23 people convicted of terrorism related charges since 2001. We are all too familiar with the foiled attacks on Sydney's Holsworthy army barracks and Lucas Heights nuclear reactor but there are clearly others.
In light of this disconcerting strategic environment, I therefore cannot for the life of me understand why the Gillard government has significantly cut funding to our national security agencies, but that is what they have done.
ASIO's submission to the parliamentary inquiry states, at page 9, that 'revenue from government in 2011-12 was 328.1 million, a decrease of 16.8 million from the 2010-11 financial year'. It goes on to say ‘ASIO's budgetary situation will continue to place pressure on our ability to meet the expectations of Government and the Australian public’.
As a result, ASIO is looking at a series of options including 'reducing our overseas presence'; 'reducing our foreign engagement for training and capability development purposes'; and 'reducing the amount of domestic and overseas travel undertaken by ASIO officers'.
What is more, due to funding constraints ASIO is unable to increase its full-time staff by 130 to 1,860, the number identified in the Taylor review as optimal for the agency. Again in the words of the submission, 'overall staff growth has been deferred indefinitely'.
The government clearly does not get the reality of today's terrorist threat.
When releasing the national security strategy, the Prime Minister described a 'post 9/11 era' where in her words 'the behaviour of states, not non-state actors, will be the most important driver and shaper of Australia's&8230; security thinking'. But this would seem to be at odds not only with recent statements by security chiefs but also with the mounting evidence of the international and domestic terrorist threat.
What concerns me even more is that ASIO is not alone in having its budget cut.
The Australian Federal Police, which was increased from around 2,000 officers to 6,000 under John Howard, lost 133 million last year and another 45 million from this year in their budget.
Australian Customs have lost more than 61 million and 120 staff.
The Australian Crime Commission have lost nearly 200 staff, or 40 per cent of their current numbers. And the quantum of money actually delivered by the Prime Minister to counter cyberwarfare, an area of real concern, has fallen significantly short of what was promised.
One can add to this list the woeful record of the government's border protection policies, which have seen more than 40,000 unauthorised arrivals in the last few years swamping the security agencies' ability to conduct sufficiently comprehensive or effective security checks. Indeed, in recent days we have learnt that a suspected Egyptian terrorist was held in a low-security detention facility. Fancy the irony of taking tens of millions of dollars away from ASIO but having to find 6&189; billion to fund a border protection blow-out, a problem that was created by this government.
On top of this there are the government's shameful cuts to Defence of nearly 25 billion.
This government's record on national security has been extremely disconcerting. We know the election will be fought on the economy but national security is equally important.