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A rare stoush has erupted in parliament’s high-powered intelligence and security committee over a government push that could see whistleblower turned independent MP Andrew Wilkie return to the secretive body.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence prides itself on operating on a bipartisan basis and has only had Labor and Coalition members throughout its history, besides a brief stint when Wilkie served on the committee during the minority Gillard government.
Whistleblower and former intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie.Credit: Rhett Wyman
Wilkie resigned from his position as an intelligence analyst on the Office of National Assessments in the lead-up to the Iraq War, going public with his concerns that the threat of Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction had been overhyped by the United States and its allies.
The Labor majority on the committee, which receives classified intelligence briefings and oversees agencies such as ASIO and the Office of National Intelligence, is proposing to expand its membership from 11 to 13 MPs, extending membership to politicians outside the two major parties.
The Coalition members of the committee said they felt “considerable regret” at writing a dissenting report on the issue, noting it was the first time in 17 years the committee had not reached a bipartisan consensus.
They said extending committee membership would “increase the risk of classified material being leaked, either intentionally or inadvertently”.
“The opposition considers that the only members who should sit on the committee should be from parties of government,” they said.
Labor MPs argued the workload is too high and changing the limitations will allow for more flexibility.
Sources familiar with the government’s thinking said the prime minister, who makes the final decision on who to appoint to the committee, was considering picking Andrew Wilkie to return to the committee.
Wilkie said it made perfect sense for the committee to have a member of the crossbench given there was an unprecedented number of independents in parliament.
“Given my previous membership and intelligence and security background, I would be quick to put my hand up,” he said.
It is also possible the government chooses another MP whom they deem to have the required level of responsibility and acumen. This could include a teal MP like Allegra Spender or Zoe Daniel.
The senior Coalition MPs – including frontbenchers Simon Birmingham, Karen Andrews, Andrew Hastie, James Paterson and committee deputy chair Andrew Wallace – say the changes would diminish the opposition’s influence and allow crossbench or Greens MPs to join.
“Such an outcome would not only significantly weaken the utility of the committee’s oversight responsibilities, but it would almost certainly impact upon the bipartisan nature and good standing of the committee,” they warned.
The committee chair, Labor’s Peter Khalil, accused the opposition of playing politics with national security.
“As chair of the committee in 2021, Liberal Senator James Paterson said the Intelligence Services Act needed reform to manage the increasing scope of the committee and the greatest workload it has ever faced,” Khalil said.
“The Albanese government is focused on delivering responsible and targeted cost of living relief, whilst the opposition are focused on the membership of a parliamentary committee.”
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