Former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis says proposed security vetting of candidates standing for federal Parliament is unworkable and will lead to allegations of political interference by intelligence agencies.
Amid unprecedented levels of foreign interventions in Australian politics and public life, former foreign minister Julie Bishop has led calls for consideration of tough new security screening of incoming politicians to harden protections around democratic institutions.
In one of his first major interviews since retiring in September, Mr Lewis said he didn’t believe screening of candidates before elections would be effective, revealing he asked Canadian authorities for information about their plans for vetting of ministers involved in national security decision making while still in the job.
“I don’t think there is a possibility, let alone that it’s unwise … for vetting of that nature,” Mr Lewis said.
“In a way it kind of goes against the whole essence of the democracy that we live in. We have all sorts of people in political office in Australia and always have, and I hope we always will.
“I don’t think that vetting by security agencies is a proper way to go forward. It would be, for example, very subject to interference and if it was not, it would be asserted that the intelligence agencies were interfering.”
The former spy boss made the comments in an interview with Australian National University academic Darren Lim and former Office of National Assessments boss Allan Gyngell.
The interview, for the Australia in the World podcast, follows Ms Bishop’s statement last month that it was “extraordinary” that senior government ministers were not subject to the same security clearance and background checks that their political staffers faced to work in Parliament.
Mr Lewis has accused the Chinese government of seeking to “take over” Australia’s political system, including through “insidious” foreign interference operations.
I’m sufficiently old fashioned to think that elected office-holders have a special place, and it’s outside the security clearance process.
— Duncan Lewis
He led ASIO for five years, after serving as the boss of the Defence Department and as an Australian ambassador overseas.
“What is the level of risk you’re willing to carry, how much of a risk is too much?” Mr Lewis said.
“I just think it is unmanageable and during my time as the Director-General of Security, one of the most tricky parts of my job was the issue of the body politic engaging with communities which might present a threat.”
He said politicians asking security and intelligence services for advice on who they can hold official meetings with would also be problematic.
“I think it would end up in tears. People would end up with egg all over their face in all sectors of the community.
“Any public entity should exercise due diligence and inquiry into the background of those who aspire to public office, to elected office, and make sure their own backyard is clean.”
Mr Lewis said it was “odd” politicians didn’t face the same security checks required of senior public servants and others in order to access sensitive information.
“I’m sufficiently old fashioned to think that elected office-holders have a special place, and it’s outside of the security clearance process as we currently exercise it.”
Mr Lewis said the threat of terrorism would remain around the world because fighting its forces was akin to “killing an idea” and called for better co-ordination of nation security issues by those at the highest levels in Canberra.
Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Rachel Noble as the new director-general of the Australian Signals Directorate, the first woman to lead a major intelligence organisation.