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The role of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security

The Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) is an independent statutory office holder appointed by the Governor-General under the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Act 1986 (IGIS Act). The Hon Margaret Stone was appointed as Inspector-General for a term of five years from 24 August 2015, succeeding Dr Vivienne Thom.

The Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (OIGIS) is within the Prime Minister's portfolio but is not part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It has separate appropriation and staffing. As an independent statutory office holder, the Inspector-General is not subject to general direction from the Prime Minister, or other ministers, on how responsibilities under the IGIS Act should be carried out.

Under the IGIS Act, the role of the Inspector-General is to assist Ministers in overseeing and reviewing the activities of the Australian intelligence agencies for legality and propriety and for consistency with human rights. The Inspector-General also assists the Government in assuring the Parliament and the public that intelligence and security matters relating to Commonwealth agencies are open to scrutiny.

The OIGIS carries out regular inspections of the intelligence agencies that are designed to identify issues of concern, including in the agencies' governance and control frameworks. Earlier identification of such issues may avoid the need for major remedial action.

The inspection role is complemented by an inquiry function. In undertaking inquiries the Inspector-General has strong investigative powers, akin to those of a royal commission. These include the power to compel persons to answer questions and produce documents, to take sworn evidence, and to enter agency premises.

The IGIS can investigate complaints, including complaints by members of the public or staff of an intelligence agency, about the activities of an intelligence agency.

The role and functions of the IGIS are important elements of the overall accountability framework imposed on the intelligence agencies. The Inspector-General's oversight of operational activities of the intelligence agencies complements oversight by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Australian National Audit Office of other aspects of governance in those agencies.

Outcomes and programme structure

As explained in the Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS), "Government outcomes are the intended results, impacts or consequences of actions by the Government on the Australian community". That being so, the office has only one outcome, which is expressed in the PBS as the provision of independent assurance for the Prime Minister, senior ministers and Parliament as to whether Australia's intelligence and security agencies act legally and with propriety by inspecting, inquiring into and reporting on their activities.

The 'Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security' is the only programme identified in the PBS as contributing to this outcome.

There were no changes to either the outcome or the programme during the reporting period.

Purposes

Consistent with the above, the OIGIS Corporate Plan 2015–19 describes the purpose of the office as:

to assist Ministers in the oversight and review of the Australian intelligence agencies, to provide assurance to Parliament and the public about the scrutiny of the operation of those agencies, and to assist in investigating intelligence and security matters.

Section 4 of the IGIS Act sets out the objects of the Act as:

  1. to assist Ministers in the oversight and review of:

    • the compliance with the law by, and the propriety of particular activities of, Australian intelligence agencies; and
    • the effectiveness and appropriateness of the procedures of those agencies relating to the legality and propriety of their activities; and
    • certain other aspects of the activities and procedures of certain of those agencies; and
  2. to assist Ministers in investigating intelligence or security matters relating to Commonwealth agencies, including agencies other than intelligence agencies; and

  3. to allow for review of certain directions given to ASIO by the Attorney-General; and

  4. to assist the Government in assuring the Parliament and the public that intelligence and security matters relating to Commonwealth agencies are open to scrutiny, in particular the activities and procedures of intelligence agencies.

In addition, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2013 (PID Act) requires the Inspector-General to:

  • receive, and where appropriate, investigate disclosures about suspected wrongdoing within the intelligence agencies
  • assist current or former public officials employed, or previously employed, by intelligence agencies, in relation to the operation of the PID Act
  • assist the intelligence agencies in meeting their responsibilities under the PID Act, including through education and awareness activities, and
  • oversee the operation of the PID scheme in the intelligence agencies.

Under the Archives Act 1983 and the Freedom of Information Act 1982, the Inspector-General may also be called on to provide expert evidence concerning national security, defence, international relations and confidential foreign government communications exemptions to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Australian Information Commissioner.