The Hope Royal Commissions

1974 Hope Royal Commission

In 1974, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced a Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (popularly known as the Hope Royal Commission) to complete a comprehensive inquiry into Australia’s national security agencies, including an examination of their history, administrative structures and functions.

Honourable Justice Hope, then of the NSW Supreme Court and a former President of the Council for Civil Liberties, was appointed as the Commissioner. Justice Hope was provided with wide discretionary powers in the manner in which he could hold hearings and gather evidence from witnesses.

The Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, received the first of eight lengthy reports on 26 March 1976 and the last on 21 April 1977. Only those portions of the reports which the Commissioner deemed not prejudicial to national security were publicly tabled in the Australian Parliament in October 1977. Many of the originally classified reports were publicly released by the National Archives of Australia in 2008.

The royal commission examined ASIO’s functions and structure, the treatment of human sources, the Organisation’s capacity to respond to threats, liaison with other government agencies, and the tradecraft and techniques that we used at the time. Importantly for ASIO, one of Hope’s main objectives was to answer the question—does Australia need a security service?

While many of the findings of the royal commission were not complimentary of the Organisation at that time, Commissioner Hope noted ASIO had an important role to play in safeguarding Australia against threats to its security. His recommendations prompted the Australian Government to re-state ASIO’s role in legislation leading to the revised Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979, which provided greater clarity on the limits of ASIO’s work.

1983 Royal Commission on Australia’s Security and Intelligence Agencies (the ‘second Hope Royal Commission’)

During the early 1980s, ASIO’s continued focus on Soviet officials in Australia as a counter-espionage priority uncovered the activities of Valeriy Ivanov, a member of the Soviet delegation and KGB officer who was allegedly attempting to cultivate a relationship with a former senior Australian Labor Party figure.

The subsequent investigation by ASIO, and the political and diplomatic consequences for the Government, necessitated a serious response. So, in 1983, Prime Minister Hawke commissioned a new inquiry into the operations, conduct, performance, control and accountability of the Australian intelligence agencies, including ASIO. The new royal commission would ensure that the recommendations of the first Hope Royal Commission of 1974‒77 had been implemented and were meeting the task of providing Australia with the security apparatus it needed.

This royal commission would be longer and more contentious for ASIO and relate directly to the Organisation’s actions and advice on Ivanov.

In the end, the review supported the need for Australia’s intelligence agencies, justified investment in them, and acknowledged the benefits and limitations of the existing procedures and control measures. It recommended ASIO refine its internal policies and structure to become a more effective security service.

Justice Hope made many recommendations that directly affected Australia’s intelligence community and have had lasting influence on ASIO.

Significantly, Hope recommended the establishment of an independent Office of the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), in part to scrutinise ASIO’s operations and ensure our work is lawful, and that we have rigorous internal rules to protect people’s privacy.

Hope made several other recommendations, including amending the ASIO Act to allow us to collect foreign intelligence in Australia, changes to the way we communicate security intelligence to partners and government, and clarification of our role in undertaking security assessments to support other functions of government—like immigration, transport security and protecting sensitive classified materials.

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