Individual Rights, the Concept of Community and the Role of Government in the Global Era

Wednesday 4 October, 2017

On Wednesday 4 October 2017, the Warrane Lecture welcomed speaker Michael L’Estrange AO, the Deputy Chancellor of the University of Notre Dame Australia, who has extensive experience in public policy, foreign affairs and international trade – including having been the Professor of National Security at the Australian National University from 2009 to 2016.

The father of five boys chose to speak to the Warrane boys on the intersection between individual rights, national security and the role of government in the Global Era. ”I’d like to address that in three ways,” began L’Estrange. “The first relates to the independent review of the Australian intelligence agencies, commissioned by the Australian government late last year, which I conducted with a colleague...we sent our report to the Prime Minister in late June, he released it in July.”

He continued: “The work of the Australian intelligence agencies in support of national security highlights, I think, an important interaction between our community’s right to public safety and security on the one hand, and on the other the rights of individuals in that community to their freedom and privacy. The story of this interaction in Australia over recent times provides an instructive example of an evolving consensus on the role of intelligence in the support of national security in a free and democratic society. It also highlights how a clear sense of the national interest can prevail upon an issue despite different perspectives and particular concerns in some quarters.”

“Second, I would like to focus on the role of government in the evolution of Australia’s national security policy-making to which intelligence makes such an indispensable contribution and which is currently being conducted in such complex and unpredictable circumstances,” said L’Estrange. “And thirdly, I’d like to contribute some thoughts on the role of the broader community, and particularly the generation of which the students at this college are a part, in meeting the challenges that national security policy presents in Australia, with a particular focus on the challenges we all face in terms of pursuing Australia’s national interests in a period when our social capital as a community is diminished, and declining further.”

Independent review of the Australian intelligence agencies

L’Estrange told the boys about how in November of last year, the Prime Minister announced an independent review of the intelligence community relating to its six main agencies. The review also looked at the interaction of these organisations with other intelligence agencies. The conclusions of the public report, presented to the Prime Minister in June, centred on four main findings. First – that the agencies were staffed by people of high professionalism, integrity and commitment; and that there existed a strong culture of accountability. Second – that the key challenges faced by the agencies were the broadening range of demands on them as well as the impact of technological change. Third – that these challenges could be met by managing intelligence more as a national enterprise with enhanced integration across a full suite of capabilities. And fourth - that it is critical for a state of trust to exist between the government and the community in relation to the operation of the intelligence agencies.

“By the nature of their mission, Australian intelligence agencies cannot be as transparent as other agencies of government in relation to their activities and outcomes,” explained L’Estrange. “But the quid pro quo is that there needs to be layers of assurance that the agencies are operating lawfully, proportionately and in ways that are authorised by responsible ministers, and that are subject to independent oversight. These are the layers of assurance that underpin a state of trust in relation to the operation of the intelligence agencies.”

“In my view,” continued L’Estrange, “this state of trust currently exists in Australia in relation to the intelligence agencies, and has for the most part over the past three to four decades. But it did not always exist.” He told the boys that from the 1950s to the early 1980s, there was a state of deep mistrust among a sizeable proportion of the Australian population about the motives and operations of the intelligence and security agencies.

“The circuit breaker in terms of perceptions of the intelligence agencies in Australia came with the two landmark Royal Commissions conducted by Mr. Justice Hope in 1974-77 and 1983-84.” His original appointment by the Whitlam Government brought high hopes that he would significantly constrain the operations of the intelligence agencies, and perhaps even recommend their abolition. But as L’Estrange told the boys, he did neither. “He concluded that the intelligence agencies were not a threat to Australian democratic governance, and that properly administered, they were a protector of it, with a unique value-adding contribution to make to public policy. Justice Hope’s Royal Commissions were the most formative and enduring influences in the history of the Australian intelligence community... The reports of the Royal Commissions also articulated better than ever before or since the reasons why properly administered intelligence and security agencies have a necessary and desirable role to play... Most importantly of all in my view, they laid the foundations for the broad bipartisan support of the functions of the agencies that have for the most part existed over recent decades, and for the state of trust that now prevails in the broader Australian community.”

L’Estrange continued: “There are, of course, some individuals and groups who continue to insist that intelligence agencies are still too secret, too undemocratic and too unaccountable – and, what’s more, that they are unnecessary because information now is far more freely available and secrets harder to keep. But such groups are in the small minority. There is a much broader cross-section of Australian society that sees the need for, and accepts the desirability of, properly administered intelligence and security agencies. In my view, there is now a clearly perceived and accepted national interest in the effective operation of such agencies...”

For L’Estrange, the interesting question is this: what was it that transformed the role of the intelligence agencies in Australia from a contested area of public policy to an accepted national interest? He believes four main factors came into play. The first, as mentioned, were the Hope Royal Commissions. These established proper standards of accountability; made agencies’ roles and responsibilities more specific; put Ministerial controls at the heart of operations; better protected the legal rights of Australians; and institutionalised independent scrutiny of agency activities.  Second was the fact that these outcomes were seen to advance security of Australians and the welfare of the nation. Third, that bipartisan political consensus evolved on the role of these agencies. And fourth was the fact that Australians have become more aware of the need for intelligence in an increasingly dangerous world in which extremism has a global reach.

The role of government and the broader community

Following from this, L’Estrange went on to discuss the role of the government in the evolution of Australia’s national security policy-making, as well as the role of the broader community.

“Australia has always been an optimistic country built on an egalitarian spirit and faith in the future. And we are right to remain optimistic about our future now. We live in a society drawn from all parts of the world and we benefit unambiguously from that reality,” said L’Estrange.

He went on to say that as a nation, there is no shortage of the skills and resources necessary to meet the challenges we face, underpinned by the support for our strong democratic tradition. But even so, Australians must be optimists without illusions. An optimistic future for Australia needs to be worked for, and not simply assumed. Responsibility doesn’t lie only with government, but also extends to the broader community.

L’Estrange explained to the boys that the government’s role is centred on advancing national interests in an increasingly complex international environment. The government has to accommodate changing realities as well as the things that haven’t changed - some priorities and key alliances (for example, with the USA) remain enduring realities. And it has to do all this while striking a balance that avoids both alarmism and complacency.

As for the role of the broader community, L’Estrange made it clear that everyone should feel the need to ensure that individual rights are protected in a civic culture that pursues priorities in the national interest. It’s important to keep in focus that what unites the nation is greater than what divides it. He also encouraged an interest in the political world, telling the boys that effective community responses to challenges are harder to sustain in an environment of detachment towards politics.

In conclusion

L’Estrange brought his lecture to a close with the following: “Let me conclude on this note. Accommodating individual rights and sectional priorities within the framework of pursuing national interests and the common good is both the burden and the higher purpose of good democratic governance. It cuts across all the great ongoing policy debates of our time - from the role of government to the function of market economics; from tax policy to social welfare provision; from education and skilling to energy supply and climate change; from the Federal system of our governance to the issues of intergenerational equity. This shifting balance between individual rights, sectional interests and the national interest has a special significance when it comes to national security policy - partly because the stakes are so high, and partly because national security policy making ultimately draws its strength and coherence from the support of the broader community whose safety and interests that policy-making is designed to protect.”

L’Estrange emphasised that: “Australia has demonstrated in the past a capacity to galvanise community support for evolving national security interests in the face of changing national security circumstances. Today, some of the very important societal anchors that have assisted in that process have lost a good deal of their effectiveness - perhaps, and hopefully, temporarily but possibly in a more long-term sense. It seems to me, therefore, that the challenge of our times is to retain the capacity for indentifying, adapting and pursuing our national interests - in national security policy-making as in other areas - without falling prey to complacency, indifference, narrow sectional interests or simply a closed mind. That is indeed a challenge that we all need to meet.”

(This link will display photos from the evening.)

Read more news from Warrane College