Democratic Oversight Matters
The University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle Campus
A glimpse into the secret world of intelligence agencies, the war on terror and power abuses by world organisations is offered in new book, Oversight Matters, offering an academic insight into Western democracies increasing need for oversight of executive power.
Edited by The University of Notre Dame’s political lecturer, Dr Daniel Baldino, with a foreword by the Hon Kim Beazley AC, Oversight Matters explores the political landscape of the Western world, post 9 11, and sets the stage for a deeper reflection on the issue of terrorism and the resulting rise of the ‘secret state’.
“A lot of the debate surrounding 9 11 has been about getting the balance right between liberty and security and I think that can be a very misleading diagnosis,” said Dr Baldino.
“Everyone would agree it’s better to be safe than sorry but what we need to think about is whether a range of unprecedented laws which have expanded the power of agencies such as ASIO and the Australian Federal police are proportionate, whether they’re justifiable and not counterproductive by adding to more fear and insecurity within the wider community.”
In order to nurture a society of understanding, Dr Baldino said policy makers had to ensure they were not placing their own agenda above the responsibilities of intelligence agencies, which could result in a skewing of the public’s perception of threat.
“One of the lessons of the book is that we have to be very wary about the politicisation of intelligence. In other words, intelligence should always inform policy,” he said.
“Policy shouldn’t dictate what intelligence should do. What you had with the situation in Iraq is policy makers had already made up the decision to invade and then put pressure on intelligence agencies to fill in the gaps and provide intelligence to justify that policy and initiative. That’s a use and abuse of the system.
“Intelligence has got to remain objective, apolitical, honest and robust and sometimes intelligence agencies and officers have to tell governments what they might not want to hear.”
Dr Baldino said misuse of power and justification for the war in Iraq would only add to a misperception of Islam and add fuel to the fire for extremists, who were not representative of the faith.
“We don’t understand the many faces of Islam and we don’t understand Islam in and of itself and the media’s correlated Muslims with terrorists which is inaccurate and highly counterproductive,” he said.
“Terrorism is not a new phenomenon, it is existed before 9 11 and there have been left wing, right wing and ethnic forms and now we’re fixated on a particular version of religious extremism.
“Our policy makers ensured us that intelligence had reliably informed them that Sadam offered a clear and present danger. And when the weapons didn’t materialise, part of the question was who’s to blame?”
Dr Baldino said nationalism was a common public response to crisis which in turn added to the growth of executive power.
“People have rallied around the flag and trusted the executive government to do the right thing and I think in many ways it has betrayed that trust,” he said.
“What oversight does is it makes sure that there are other mechanisms, such as legislative and judicial, that can put a brake on executive impulses.”
In addressing whether to trust our politicians and intelligence agencies to do the right thing, Dr Baldino said there were degrees of transparency, accountability and culpability required to give the public confidence and to ensure that intelligence services weren’t manipulated or misused.
“Policy makers need to feel as though they are being held to account and responsible for their actions and part of that requires a certain vigilance on behalf of democratic society, including moral and ethical standards that we expect from our leaders,” he said.
“Unfortunately in an atmosphere of panic and fear and a war on terror we tend to give our leaders far too much discretion. Arbitrary power is always a slippery slope and not healthy for a vibrant democratic society.
“We need to embrace the principles of multiculturalism in the USA, UK and Australia to show the strength and resilience of democracy as well as promoting a more tolerant message.”
Andrea Barnard (+61) 8 9433 0610, Mob (+61) 0408 959 138
Barnard, Andrea, "Democratic Oversight Matters" (2010). Media Release Archive. 136.