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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE PORTFOLIO
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- Committee Name
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Wong, Sen Penny
Faulkner, Sen John
Rhiannon, Sen Lee
Macdonald, Sen Ian
Di Natale, Sen Richard
Fawcett, Sen David
Milne, Sen Christine
McGrath, Sen James
Whish-Wilson, Sen Peter
Dastyari, Sen Sam
Sterle, Sen Glenn
Gallacher, Sen Alex
Wright, Sen Penny
McEwen, Sen Anne
Heffernan, Sen Bill
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Gallacher)
Williams, Sen John
Mason, Sen Brett
Ryan, Sen Scott
Brandis, Sen George
Cormann, Sen Mathias
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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
(Senate-Thursday, 23 October 2014)
FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE PORTFOLIO
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Senator DI NATALE
ACTING CHAIR (Senator Gallacher)
Australian Trade Commission
- Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
- FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE PORTFOLIO
Content WindowForeign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee - 23/10/2014 - Estimates - FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND TRADE PORTFOLIO - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
CHAIR: I welcome the Hon. Senator Brett Mason, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Secretary of the department, Mr Peter Varghese, and his officers. Before asking either party if they wish to make an opening statement, I wish to advise that the Attorney-General, the Hon. Senator George Brandis, is absent for a few minutes at a National Security Committee meeting. Do you wish to make an opening statement?
Mr Varghese : No, thank you.
CHAIR: Before I invite questions by my colleagues, I want to place on record our deep disturbance at the events that took place with the attack in Ottawa last evening. Only now is information emerging. I will not ask you, Secretary, questions but given the fact that Senator Brandis is at a national security meeting I do want to advise the committee that I will be asking the Attorney-General for a briefing when he join us in this committee.
Senator WONG: I was actually going to start by asking Mr Varghese if he could give us an update, to any extent that is appropriate, to the tragic and worrying events in Canada.
Mr Varghese : Senator Wong, my information does not really extend much beyond what is already in the media and what the foreign minister has said publicly this morning. I think the meetings this morning will receive more detailed briefings, including from security agencies. It would be premature from me to speculate on the background of the perpetrators of this attack. The only point I would make from a more narrowly DFAT point of view is that our high commission in Ottawa was within the cordoned-off area, which meant that they were confined to their offices. They have now been allowed to leave. That has occurred and they are all safe and well.
Senator WONG: Do pass on our best wishes to the high commissioner and staff.
Mr Varghese : Thank you.
Senator WONG: I understand also from the public reporting, that the travel advisory has been updated. Can you give us any information about that?
Mr Varghese : I would have to take advice on that. I have been at some other meetings this morning. Justin Brown, I think will be able to update you on that.
Mr Brown : Yes, the travel advice was amended earlier this morning. It was amended simply to advise Australians in Ottawa, particularly in the area around Parliament Hill, to stay indoors while the authorities try to deal with the situation, avoid the affected areas and follow the instructions of building managers and law enforcement authorities.
Senator Mason: I understand that the Australian Federal Police have increased their patrols around Parliament House as well as at the Canadian High Commission in response to Ottawa.
Senator WONG: Can I start with some clarity around the Security Council resolution around Ebola, the process by which Australia, obviously, was supportive of that and the process by which that was finalised? I had some questions in Prime Minister and Cabinet, and there seemed to be an indication that they saw previous versions of the resolution, but obviously there were some final redrafting, which I assume occurred at the UN. I wonder if you can get some background on that?
Mr Varghese : There may be others who can add to the detail of this. The way these resolutions normally work is that we have our mission in New York, which is obviously at the frontline of the drafting process. We have a UN Security Council task force back in the department, which is the gateway, if you like, to the policy agencies in Canberra and does the necessary coordination at this end. As you would appreciate, with any resolution there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. There are a lot of discussions in broader groups and smaller groups. As a very active member of the Security Council, we would have been closely involved in most of those discussions. So we would have consulted with relevant ministerial offices and relevant departments as the language of the resolution was being developed.
Senator FAULKNER: Just for the record, Mr Varghese, which agencies were subject to that consultation?
Mr Varghese : I will ask Mr Merrill, who is the head of our UN Security Council taskforce, whether he can answer that.
Mr Merrill : Just a bit of context: the resolution was actually pulled together in less than 48 hours. It was primarily an initiative driven by the US PR in New York, Samantha Power. At the Secretary-General's request, there was a strong sense that the Security Council be in a position to back in what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is trying to do with UNMEER, the new so-called health keeping mission. The resolution did not go through the normal rather long and elaborate process of multiple drafts. It actually went to blue fairly quickly. We were provided advice on 17 September—that is 16 September New York time—about the intentions of the US. The US didn't actually share the draft of the resolution with the wider council membership until very much later in the piece. That would have been some time on 17 September. I understand that that advice was cabled back to New York—cabled and included in distribution were a whole range of standard government agencies who are tracking what we are doing on the Security Council, including Prime Minister and Cabinet, defence, the AFP and other agencies. I would have to check on that cabling, and I could come back to you with additional detail if you are interested.
The issue for us really was whether you get on board with this resolution now and its basic thrust. There was a strong sense that we needed to move quickly. The longer you let these things drag on, the stronger the sense from certain members whether this is a Security Council matter. You get stuck into a lot of the precedent issues there. So our strong sense was that this was something that we wanted to support and it was something that, in a sense, we were being asked to provide our strong support for by our closest council partners. It was important. There were one or two council members who were deeply questioning why the council would take any action in this area. I will not name names here. Our instincts and our response was not only that we should vote yes—and if we hadn't we would have been the only one who didn't—but that in a measure of solidarity we co-sponsor the resolution. I will add that not all council decisions go through a process of seeking ministerial approval. We have broad guidance there, as provided by the NSC. Our judgement in the department was that this met that test.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you for that background. That is helpful. In relation to the ministerial approval issue, which you raised there, do I understand you to say that this is one of those occasions where ministerial approval was not sought? Is that what you are saying, for the record?
Mr Merrill : That is correct.
Senator FAULKNER: In terms of the department's processes, one thing that is not clear to me—and perhaps Mr Varghese can assist me with this—in relation to the Ebola issue is if there is a lead government agency here in Australia that is coordinating a response on this matter at this stage.
Mr Varghese : We do have an interdepartmental committee that is responsible for dealing with Ebola related issues. Mr Exell could probably give you more detail on that. That committee is co-chaired by the Department of Health and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Obviously we work very closely together within the context of a whole-of-government response that brings in a number of other agencies. I guess the broad division of responsibility is that we take the lead on a number of the international aspects, and we certainly take the lead in relation to the expenditure of aid funds. The Department of Health obviously has the lead in relation to domestic strategies. The consultation and connection with the World Health Organisation is the responsibility of the Department of Health, primarily through the Chief Medical Officer. They are the broad lines of responsibility, but obviously in a dynamic situation people work as closely together as possible.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. Thank you, Mr Varghese. Perhaps if Mr Exell could just give us the background as to when that IDC was established. I appreciate the information we have—that it is co-chaired with DFAT and the Department of Health. What other agencies are involved, and effectively how regularly does the IDC meet? What does this mean in terms of departmental resources for your own department?
Mr Exell : As the secretary has outlined, I co-chair the IDC with my counterpart in the Department of Health. I would have to take on notice the exact first meeting, but from memory it is at least three or four weeks ago that we started a formal process. Obviously, before then there was quite a lot of contact between a range of departments across government sharing information about the situation.
Senator WONG: Sorry, could you tell us the name of the co-chair?
Mr Exell : It is Kylie Jonasson, the first assistant secretary in the office of health protection. We meet at least weekly. In the last week we have met more than that. We had a meeting earlier this week. We have meetings as required. A couple of subgroups have also been established to follow through on particular issues that we may need to actually dive in to a bit more deeply or have broader conversations and discussions around. In terms of the membership, as I mentioned, it is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Health, PM&C, Defence, DMA, immigration, agriculture, Treasury and Finance. I would have to take on notice whether there are other members, but I think that is an indication of the broad membership.
Senator FAULKNER: Either you or Mr Varghese, before we move on, might make a general comment on this. It would be unsurprising if this issue was not getting more attention from DFAT. In terms of the establishment of the IDC and the regularity of meetings and so forth, that appears to be the case. I would be interested in understanding your assessment of where this issue falls as a priority for the department and whether you are now seeing a pattern of increased departmental resources being used in dealing with this issue. As you know, I do not usually expect you, Mr Varghese, to get out a crystal ball and make predictions, but do you have any planning or expectation that this issue might be one of growing significance for your agency's work?
Mr Varghese : This is a priority for the government and therefore it is a priority for the department. The nature of this outbreak is that it is significant. Australia wishes to do its part in helping to deal with it. We have been able to devote the resources we need to devote to it up to this point. If there is a requirement to put even more resources into it, I expect that we will be able to manage that within the existing departmental resources.
Senator WONG: I do not want to spend too much time on the resolution. No ministerial approval was obtained—was that your evidence?
Mr Merrill : Yes. We did not seek the minister's approval for supporting and voting for the resolution.
Senator WONG: There is no suggestion that we do not support it as a government?
Mr Merrill : There is no suggestion.
Senator WONG: Of course, the text calls on member states to facilitate the delivery of assistance, including qualified specialists, trained personnel and supplies and urgent assistance including deployable medical capabilities et cetera. Do those remain propositions that the Australian government supports?
Mr Varghese : As propositions, that is correct.
Senator WONG: But not for us.
Mr Varghese : Well, we have already implemented several of the things that that resolution asks member states to do in relation to the financial contributions we have made to the WHO, to the UN trust fund and to non-government organisations. The government is keeping this issue under close review as to whether there are further measures that are possible to take.
Senator WONG: Let's talk about that 'close review'. The evidence in Prime Minister and Cabinet, I have to say, was that DFAT was not referenced in the IDC, but it might have just been an oversight or I might not recall it. Who in government handles the interactions in relation to further requests from NGOs?
Mr Varghese : Australian NGOs or broader NGOs?
Senator WONG: Broader NGOs, so MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res—
Mr Varghese : We would handle that in the context of the aid program.
Senator WONG: Okay. Can someone take me through that? I then want to do nation states and the interaction in relation to the fight against Ebola that we have had on a bilateral basis—in particular, the call from Sierra Leone and Liberia. Shall we start with the NGOs? Can you tell me who is handling those interactions?
Mr Exell : There have been, in the last four or five weeks, a range of contacts and, indeed, calls for finance, resources and other forms of assistance through to the department from a range of people both globally and domestically.
Senator WONG: Are you able to provide us with a list or perhaps just go through some of them? On notice, you can add to it if you need to for completeness?
Mr Exell : To give you a full list, I will have to take it on notice. We have had conversations with Australian NGOs—for example, the Australian Red Cross and Plan. There has also been communication from UN organisations, such as the WHO. Some of those have come to us through the mission in Geneva and some of those have come through the Department of Health, as the secretary mentioned, with the relationship with it that Health has. Some of it has come to us as we have participated in telecons and other meetings around this issue.
Senator WONG: And MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res?
Mr Exell : Yes.
Senator WONG: On notice, if you can give us a full list. You said in your evidence that there have been calls for both financial and other resources. What other resources have been requested?
Mr Exell : You would be aware that there has been a request for personnel and for equipment.
Senator WONG: Who has included those two components of assistance in their requests?
Mr Exell : I will have to take on notice the specific details of each of those that people have been requesting, but I would say broadly that it is requests for both those aspects from most people.
Senator WONG: From most people?
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator WONG: So via whatever mechanism, which might be Geneva, directly to DFAT or through the Department of Health. What other mechanisms might be used?
Mr Exell : E-mails, letters.
Senator WONG: Okay. How have those requests for additional assistance—and I will call it non-financial or practical assistance for ease of reference—
Mr Exell : Just to note that sometimes financial assistance is for practical assistance. It can pay for personnel and material.
Senator WONG: Sure. Can we call it 'practical assistance', just for reference? Is that alright? Those requests for practical assistance, how are they dealt with within the government? The post in Geneva receives them or one of your staff receives them via email. What has been the process for consideration of those requests over the last four or five weeks?
Mr Exell : Those requests would come in and we try to keep a broad track of the nature of those requests. We look at the information that is coming in from a range of sources—that is, both in country and from organisations like the World Health Organisation—about what is needed on the ground. We think about what is the best fit for those. We look at our comparative advantage, and issues about geography et cetera can't come into that. So there is a process of consideration about what is the best response for Australia to provide.
Senator WONG: Can we get some subjects involved in this? Who does this? If DFAT receives something, does it refer it to the IDC? Is there a brief to the minister? We have a public position from the government to date, and I noted Mr Varghese's comments about an ongoing review, so presumably a decision has been made not to provide practical assistance in the way that we have discussed.
Mr Varghese : Senator, that is not accurate.
CHAIR: Perhaps the secretary can explain his position.
Senator WONG: Well, Mr Varghese, that is an interesting intervention, and I am happy to come back to it. But I would first like to ask about the decision-making process.
Mr Varghese : Certainly. Mr Exell.
Mr Exell : You talked about how that information is coming in—
Senator WONG: I am asking about what the decision-making process within government is after various requests for assistance have been received from, inter-alia, the Red Cross, Plan Australia, the WHO and MSF—and we have not got to the nation states.
Mr Exell : Sorry, my previous answer was in regards to how they come in and how we consider that. As I said, information comes in, we draw it together and internal DFAT consultations that take place within the department that draws in the West African area, the humanitarian area, the consular area and all the areas within the department that need to work through those issues. We have been discussing these issues and requests within the IDC. Some of those options would draw on other resources.
Senator WONG: I always get nervous when officers say 'would'.
Senator FAULKNER: On that basis, you would be very nervous.
Senator WONG: It is inherently uncertain, isn't it? It may have happened; it may not have. We might have done it.
Mr Exell : The IDC has—
Senator WONG: Thank you.
Mr Exell : taken and considered some of those requests and discussed those issues. You are right: there is a process of advice to government, which is the ultimate decision maker.
CHAIR: Before you go on, Senator Faulkner or Senator Wong, Mr Varghese do you wish to clarify or expand on your response? He did take issue.
Mr Varghese : I just want to make this point: I think Senator Wong was suggesting that the government has decided not to provide what we are calling practical assistance. It is a gamut of assistance. I do not think that is accurate. The fact that we have not yet announced any decision on, for instance, sending medical teams is not the same as saying we have decided not to provide practical assistance. In all of this, we have to go through a range of requests; we have to make judgements about what the priorities are; we have to make judgements about what Australia might be in a position to do and where our particular value-add or expertise lies. That is something that we continue to work through. In the case of medical workers, there are obviously duty-of-care issues that need to be worked through, and we have been working through them.
Senator WONG: I would like to come back to that, Mr Varghese, because that is a very interesting comment. You are a very experienced public servant and diplomat, but certainly the public statements of the Prime Minister do not easily fall into the category of not yet decided.
Mr Varghese : I do not think you would find any statement by the Prime Minister or any senior member of the government which says, 'We have decided not to provide.'
Senator WONG: We might come back to that. I think my colleague has questions.
Senator FAULKNER: I simply want to ask a question in relation to the requests for assistance, because it is not clear to me. There have been a couple of examples so far: one was the World Health Organisation and another was a number of what I would describe as NGOs. What is not clear to me is whether there is a different approach depending on, if you like, the category of the organisation or group that is asking for assistance. In other words, if it is another member state of the United Nations or an organisation such as the World Health Organisation or, on the other hand, an NGO, is there any different type of consideration given because of, effectively, the nature of the organisation making the request?
Mr Exell : It is very hard to give a categorical answer to that.
Senator FAULKNER: In terms of your processes.
Mr Exell : Certainly some organisations, like the World Health Organisation, are in the middle of the response. So they have very good access to information and we look carefully at what they say.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, but does it have a different status? Say an individual NGO or a member state of the United Nations makes a direct request. Is a different process applied? There may not be. I just thought that they might be considered in different ways.
Mr McDonald : The requests we have had come in are, as has already been mentioned, the WHO, NGOs and from the UN itself, in terms of the UN trust fund that has been set up. So there are multiple requests coming in, and at that time we need to make a decision on where we think we can most effectively use any funding that is provided by the Australian government. Most recently, if we think about the $18 million that has been provided for Ebola from the Australian government, that has been distributed between the WHO, who received $3.5 million, NGOs, who have received $2.5 million and then the UN trust fund.
The trust fund requested that there be urgent funding in order to address the Ebola outbreak. There was a specific request from the Secretary-General. As a result of that, Australia provided that money, and we are one of two donors so far that has provided funding to that trust fund. That was recognised by the UN special envoy around Ebola. They said that the main thing with the UN trust fund is to get money into it quickly so they can distribute it quickly, particularly over the next four weeks. A judgement was made within the agency at that point that that was the most effective mechanism. So depending on how those requests come in, we need to make judgements.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. Have there been any government to government requests—other governments to the Australian government—about support or assistance of any nature in relation to this Ebola crisis?
Mr McDonald : Yes, there would have been. Mr Exell can provide that detail.
Senator FAULKNER: Perhaps, Mr Exell, if you wouldn’t mind, because we have heard about the World Health Organisation, the UN and a number of NGOs. I accept that it may not be an exhaustive list. I appreciate that. Would you mind just being precise about the question of government to government requests? I would appreciate that.
Mr McDonald : If I can, I should have said that the NGOs that have so far received funding are World Vision, Save the Children, Caritas and Plan International.
Senator FAULKNER: Again, thank you for that. When you say have 'received assistance' from the Australian government of the nature that you have described, so now we are going to ask about requests for—
Mr Exell : I think in the PM&C estimates hearing it was discussed that a specific request came from Sierra Leone and Liberia, from memory. So those were two.
Senator FAULKNER: What I want to do here is ask the lead agency. I am aware of that. My recollection is that it was the President of Sierra Leone.
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator FAULKNER: But now we have DFAT before us as the lead agency in relation to the international work. Listening very carefully to what Mr Varghese has told us about the international response on this issue, I think it is fair to describe DFAT as the lead agency in that regard. So if you could outline precisely for us which governments have made a government to government request. The President of Sierra Leone we know about. Liberia?
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator FAULKNER: Are there any others?
Mr Exell : In addition, the United Kingdom has made approaches to DFAT and the US has also made approaches to DFAT and to Australia.
Mr McDonald : If I could just add to that. We have provided $2 million of funding to the UK government as well.
Senator WONG: So it is Sierra Leone, Liberia, the UK and the US.
Senator FAULKNER: At this stage that is the complete list?
Mr Exell : To my understanding, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: For the completeness of the record, Mr MacDonald, you might just indicate what that was for.
Mr Exell : That was to fund in-country operations.
Senator FAULKNER: Sorry, I was not aware of that payment. It may have been in the public arena, I do not know. Could you just explain what that was for? Are you saying in relation to the United Kingdom that you have met the request that that government has made of you—perhaps not in full but you may have met it in part? I assume that is what you are saying. Again, for accuracy so we don't spend ages on this, you might just be clear on that.
Mr McDonald : Yes, we provided $2 million in response to a request, and it was to support delivery of frontline medical services in Sierra Leone. That is what it was for, and it was through the UK government.
Senator FAULKNER: So that request was a financial request. Did that financial request from the United Kingdom indicate a quantum or was it more of a broad request?
Mr McDonald : I think it was a broad request. We can check that.
Mr Exell : That is correct; it this was a broad request.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you.
CHAIR: Senator Faulkner, could you pause there for a moment, please? I will go to Senator Rhiannon.
Senator RHIANNON: To continue there, with Sierra Leone, Liberia, Britain, the United States and also the NGOs that have approached you about managing the Ebola crisis, which ones have asked for teams to be deployed into west Africa?
Mr Exell : I will have to take on notice the specific details of which organisation asked for what support. As I was saying before, the overall requests have come in for both financial support and other forms of assistance, such as personnel and material—for example, personal protective equipment.
Senator RHIANNON: I want to see if you have any information here now, considering the urgency of this. To take those four countries, have any of those asked for teams to be deployed—that is, for any personnel from Australia to go to west Africa? Has that been one of the requests?
Mr Exell : The United Kingdom's request included personnel as part of their overall operations in Sierra Leone and, indeed, funding. That was the nature of their request.
Senator FAULKNER: So it was split into parts was it—personnel and funding?
Mr Exell : Broadly, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: And we have responded with a $2 million grant with the funding request at this stage?
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator RHIANNON: Have Sierra Leone and Liberia requested personnel?
Mr Exell : I will have to take that on notice. I don't have a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister.
Senator RHIANNON: I noted that the Prime Minister on October 12, in speaking about this issue, said:
But I do want to stress it would be irresponsible of the Australian government to order our personnel into harm's way without all appropriate precautions being in place…
Could you outline what kind of precautions the Prime Minister is referring to here and does that go beyond the issue of medivacs?
Mr Exell : I think what the Prime Minister is covering is a broad set of issues that are around support to personnel who may be working in West Africa as part of the Ebola response. That includes how people would be deployed, where they would live, how they would get there, what security arrangements are around them, non-Ebola health care, food, accommodation and logistics. All of those normal things that you need to do when people are deploying overseas. In addition, then, to the issues around medical treatment—non-Ebola related health care—are provisions around if a person should be exposed to or contract Ebola—that is, how they may be treated or evacuated as necessary.
Senator RHIANNON: What steps is DFAT taking to put these appropriate precautions in place?
Mr Exell : For some time we have been working through what I would essentially describe as duty-of-care arrangements. We have been using the IDC, which I described earlier, to talk through the requirements and the issues and what we need to cover. We have, in particular, been working with partners who are talking about establishing in-country treatment facilities to get an understanding of what stage they are at, what the issues are around those facilities and whether Australians would have access to those and under what conditions. And, indeed, working through the issues around medical evacuations. Issues of access to flights and issues of a receiving country. There has been a lot of discussion around the distance, the geography, from Australia and the flying time required. We have been looking at a range of other options about closer locations.
Senator RHIANNON: How well advanced is it? Have you got that work 80 per cent done, or is just starting and you only have the framework and nothing has really been worked out? Can you give us an idea of progress, please.
Mr Exell : I would not say that it is just starting. We have been working very diligently since August with a range of people across the department and, indeed, across the government. But I am not able to give an estimate of where we are at. Those discussions are ongoing and we continue to work on them.
Senator RHIANNON: What about the Department of Defence? Are you working with them in regards to the logistics capacity? I would imagine that would come into it.
Mr Exell : Defence are part of the IDC. I cannot speak on behalf of their planning arrangements, but I am aware that they are doing planning themselves.
Senator RHIANNON: You are coordinating with them?
Mr Exell : Yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Overall, how much money has been earmarked for this deployment and for the preparation for the deployment?
Mr Exell : When you say 'earmarked', what do you mean?
Senator RHIANNON: How much money has been allocated? Some information about funding allocation.
Mr Varghese : I think the allocation of funds depends on whatever decisions the government takes, the nature of those decisions and what the nature of the deployment, if there is any, would be. We have funded $18 million up to now. I do not think we can put a figure on any subsequent activity until we know the details of it.
Mr McDonald : If I could add to that. We also, as you would be aware, fund UN agencies through core funding, which enables them to use that funding depending on the particular crisis. In this case, UNICEF and the World Food Programme are two examples. We also provide both core and bilateral funding to the WHO and funding to the UN CERF fund, which also allocates money according to the crisis. So there are multiple sources already in place and then we are adding to that. The bucket that we use for that is the humanitarian funding. As you would recall from previous discussions here, that bucket has increased by about 30 per cent this year. That is the funding source that would be used, depending on the needs going forward.
Mr Exell : I want to note, as Mr McDonald referred to before, $2.5 million has been used to support Australian non-government organisations. Some of that funding actually supports personnel in west Africa. I think there has been a characterisation that the only way that we can support personnel is to send them from Australia. A number of these NGOs are funding people from within west Africa, and that adds to the overall number of people. I just wanted to note that that is an equally important part of the response.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you expand on the discussions with the Department of Defence, because that would seem to be a critical part of medivacs and possibly also resources going there in the first place? Have there been discussions about the use of their aircraft, helicopters and land transport equipment on the ground? Are you at that level of detail yet in the preparations?
Mr Exell : My IDC discussions with Defence have principally focused on the issue of medical evacuation and the use of assets there. I could not comment on the broader use of military assets for the response in west Africa. That would be a question for Defence. But I am aware that they are doing planning, as Defence does, around the range of those options.
Senator RHIANNON: I am just trying to differentiate that. If I understand you correctly, you have had talks about evacuations. Have you had talks about the Department of Defence's involvement in getting us up to speed on the ground and the deployment at that stage? Have those discussions occurred?
Mr Exell : Not in detail through the IDC.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, can I come back to you on this one? Considering the enormity of this crisis, is the work of the overseas aid program being reassessed? What is the impact of the expanding crisis on DFAT's objectives of strengthening Australia's prosperity and security in the context of its national interests? Are those broader discussions occurring and ,if so, could you share some of the responses, please?
Mr Varghese : Our program is structured to try and be flexible in terms of responding to unforeseen humanitarian issues. We have already allocated $18 million from the program to deal with Ebola. It is possible that the government may want to do more. That is a question for the government to decide. Whatever it decides will be funded from within our humanitarian program.
Senator RHIANNON: In the course of these discussions, have you taken into account the World Bank's assessment? The World Bank is seeing it in a very serious way and judged that it will have a medium-term economic impact measured in tens of billions of dollars and that tens of thousands of lives will be lost if urgent action is not taken. Was that part of that briefing to help inform your discussions on this point?
Mr Varghese : I don't think there is any lack of clarity on the scale of this problem and the need to address it. The World Bank and other studies would only reinforce that judgement.
CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Rhiannon. Senator Wong.
Senator WONG: I may have missed some of the facts, and I apologise if I am reprising. We have requests from Sierra Leone, Liberia, the UK and the US. Could you summarise for me again the nature of each of those requests?
Mr Exell : I could not comment specifically on the letters from Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Senator WONG: Why is that?
Mr Exell : I do not have copies of them with me. They were to the Prime Minister.
Senator WONG: But surely DFAT has been provided with them.
Mr Varghese : We have seen copies of the correspondence from the President of Sierra Leone. As I recall the letters, they were very broadly framed in terms of the request.
Senator WONG: Mr Varghese, can I stop you? Is it not possible for these letters to be obtained?
Mr Varghese : Well, Senator, they are letters to the Prime Minister and I would have to seek—
Senator WONG: Presumably you saw them and gave advice on them, no?
Mr Varghese : We did see the letters. But as to whether the letters can be made available, I would have to seek advice from the Prime Minister's office.
Senator WONG: That is fine. But, what I am suggesting, is it not possible for you to at least to tell us what the requests were? Is there no one here who could recall that?
Mr Varghese : I was beginning to attempt to do that.
Senator WONG: You are doing one of those broad things. You said 'broad'. That is another word that makes me nervous.
CHAIR: Senator Wong, please allow him to expand.
Senator WONG: 'In general terms'.
Mr Varghese : Perhaps I could continue more narrowly.
Senator WONG: Yes, more narrowly; that would be outstanding.
Mr Varghese : My recollection of at least one of the letters was that it sought assistance not only with medical teams to help in the treatment of Ebola but also assistance with the broader public health system in the country.
Senator RHIANNON: Is that Sierra Leone or Liberia?
Mr Varghese : I would have to check my memory against Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Senator WONG: And the other?
Mr Varghese : I think they were both similar.
Senator WONG: Perhaps you could come back to us in the course of the hearing with any additional information after you have checked with the prime minister's office. But in broad terms you believe that it was both Sierra Leone and Liberia that probably asked both for medical teams as well as funds.
Mr Varghese : Well, assistance with their public health system.
Senator WONG: So this might be personnel or other assistance within the public health system?
Mr Varghese : With the building up of their public health system to be able to cope with medical emergencies. Our understanding is that the letters probably went to several countries, not just to Australia, obviously.
Senator WONG: The building up of public health systems. Do I infer from that that that is personnel and equipment?
Mr Varghese : I don't think that it went into that detail. That is them broadly framing it rather than me broadly framing it.
Senator WONG: What do you understand that to mean?
Mr Varghese : I understand that to mean assistance with strengthening the broader public health systems in those countries, given the stresses that have been placed on them through the Ebola crisis. So there is the challenge of dealing with Ebola, but it also means what that means for the capacity of your broader public health system.
Senator WONG: When you divert resources?
Mr Varghese : Exactly.
Senator WONG: Does that include personnel, equipment and medical supplies?
Mr Varghese : I don't recall the letter actually specifying that.
Senator WONG: Can we just deal first with those two letters? Do you know when they were received?
Mr Exell : I would have to take that on notice.
Senator WONG: So they were received by the Prime Minister, obviously. When did DFAT receive a copy?
Mr Varghese : I assume we would have received a copy pretty much around the same time.
Senator WONG: Who would have received it?
Mr Exell : It would have come through our parliamentary liaison area, I would think. That is the area that channels correspondence.
Mr Varghese : We will have to check on that.
Senator WONG: Thank you. So this is both of them. What was the decision or consideration process that the government undertook in relation to those two letters?
Mr Varghese : The process for these two requests, as with other requests, all essentially raise the same set of issues—that is, what is our capacity to assist and what conditions would we need to have in place before we can assist. Obviously, in relation to medical teams that goes to the sorts of issues that Mr Exell has already been discussing in relation to access to treatment facilities.
Senator WONG: Subject to the chairs indulgence, at some point I will ask you about that decision-making process more generally. But I am interested at this point in the letters from foreign governments to the Prime Minister making these requests for medical teams and assistance with their public health system. What happens to those? Do they get referred to the IDC?
Mr Exell : From memory, there was no formal consideration of those letters in the IDC.
Senator WONG: Okay. Did they go to cabinet or a committee of cabinet? I do not need to know which committee?
Mr Varghese : I don't think the letters themselves would have gone to a cabinet committee.
Senator WONG: Were the requests contained in those letters referred to the cabinet or a cabinet committee?
Mr Varghese : I think the facts of the requests would have been part of the broader discussion.
Senator WONG: I will come back to that. In answer to a question from Senator Rhiannon, you indicated that there had been a request from the United Kingdom. Is that right?
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator WONG: Just remind me. I apologise that I can't recall if this has been reported.
Mr Exell : I mentioned earlier that the request covered personnel into the broader Sierra Leone Ebola response and for funding, again to support the response in Sierra Leone.
Senator WONG: How was that request received?
Mr Exell : From memory that was a letter to the foreign minister.
Senator WONG: When was that received?
Mr Exell : At the end of September.
Senator WONG: From her counterpart?
Mr Exell : Actually, I think it came from the British High Commissioner to Australia.
Senator WONG: The UK high commissioner here in Australia?
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator WONG: Given that was to the foreign minister, tell me what happened as a result of that. Was there a meeting between the foreign minister and the high commissioner or between DFAT and the high commissioner?
Mr Exell : There have been a number of meetings between DFAT and the high commissioner. He then went overseas, so it has actually been the acting high commissioner. We have been in touch the office here in Canberra and, indeed, conversations have been occurring in the UK as well.
Senator WONG: Has this request also been the subject of cabinet consideration?
Mr Exell : As the same way that I think the secretary referred to before, it has been part of the consideration, yes.
Senator WONG: Has there been any further requests from the United Kingdom?
Mr Exell : No, that broadly covers it.
Senator WONG: Has the foreign minister met with her counterpart in relation to this request or with a representative from the UK government?
Mr Exell : The Foreign Minister, as I understand, had a conversation with David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, I think last weekend.
Senator WONG: What was the outcome of that conversation?
Mr Exell : I am not sure. I know that they discussed the issue of Ebola.
Senator WONG: And Mr Cameron maintains the British government position in relation to the request, or has the request been altered in some way?
Mr Exell : To my knowledge it has not been altered.
Mr Varghese : My understanding is that the UK is still interested in Australian assistance along those lines. I think the foreign minister also met, in the margins, with DfID—
Senator WONG: Sorry?
Mr Varghese : The UK Minister for International Development, who is the aid minister.
Senator WONG: I am not a foreign affairs guru. So I have no idea!
Senator FAULKNER: At least it is not Triffid.
Mr McDonald : Justine Greening is the minister's name.
Mr Varghese : That was in the margins of the New York meeting. So it would have been in that third week of September when everyone was in New York.
Senator WONG: Were there any further meetings between the foreign minister and representatives of the UK government about this?
Mr Varghese : Not that I can recall.
Senator WONG: Finally, the US. What was the US's request?
Mr Exell : There was an initial request for a liaison officer and then more recently the request from the US has expanded again to include personnel to support their efforts in Liberia. The request has been for further contributions into the UN system for financial resources.
Senator WONG: What is the nature of the request in relation to personnel to support the US efforts in Liberia?
Mr Exell : It has not been more specific than that. It has been personnel to support the efforts in Liberia.
Senator WONG: How was that communicated?
Mr Exell : I think that has been through meetings with our embassy in the US.
Senator FAULKNER: Does it go to the number of personnel?
Mr Exell : It has not gone to that detail.
Senator FAULKNER: Does it indicate whether some of those personnel might be Defence personnel?
Mr Exell : It has not been clear whether they are requests for civilian or military, but it has sort of covered both.
Senator RHIANNON: Did we make the inquiry as to whether it was civilian or military?
Mr Exell : We did make that inquiry. We have yet to get a clear answer.
Senator WONG: Can we just get some timeframes around this? You said 'more recently'. So the initial request is for a liaison officer and more recently it is for personnel to support their efforts in Liberia. Can you give me the approximate date of the second?
Mr Exell : The initial risk quest was towards the end of September. The more detailed request came around 1 October.
Senator WONG: So, three weeks ago.
Mr Exell : I would just like to check that date of the second request.
Senator WONG: If I ask what has happened with that, you are going to say that it is part of the general process, aren't you, Mr Varghese?
Mr Varghese : I wouldn't assume anything, Senator.
Senator WONG: What has happened with that request?
Mr Varghese : I think it is part of the general process.
Senator WONG: Thank you. Apparently, according to a briefing provided to the media by the Prime Minister's office, the Prime Minister spoke with President Obama last night. They discussed a number of issues—and we will obviously come back to Iraq at another point—including the Ebola epidemic. Was DFAT aware prior to the Prime Minister's office providing the statement to the media that this phone call had taken place?
Mr Varghese : We have not, or at least I have not, seen a record of that conversation yet.
Senator WONG: I was not asking about what was discussed. I was asking whether you were aware prior to this statement being released to the media of the fact of the phone call.
Mr Varghese : I had heard that a phone call was going to be made, but that was all that I heard.
Senator WONG: When did you hear that?
Mr Varghese : The morning that the phone call took place.
Senator WONG: So that would be yesterday morning.
Mr Varghese : Yesterday morning, yes.
Senator WONG: Did DFAT provide or were you asked to provide any briefing to PM&C for the Prime Minister's phone call?
Mr Exell : I did not receive a specific request. But we have been providing a lot of information and working closely with PM&C over the last three or four weeks. It does not necessarily mean that the information we provided—
Senator WONG: So you were not asked to provide anything specifically to this phone call?
Mr Exell : No.
Mr Varghese : We were not informed about the phone call in time enough to provide a briefing, nor were we requested to provide a briefing.
Senator WONG: I was not suggesting any fault on your part, Mr Varghese. I am trying to ascertain timeframes. Was the foreign minister present or her office, to your knowledge, involved in the telephone call?
Mr Varghese : I do not know, because I have not seen a record.
CHAIR: Before you proceed, Senator Wong, I just want to welcome Senator the Hon. Scott Ryan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education, who is continuing in the absence of the Attorney-General, who I am sure is going to be here. Senator Ryan, welcome.
Senator Ryan: Thank you, Senator Back.
Senator WONG: We are going along fine without him. It is much quicker. I appreciate that you have not seen a record of the conversation. Have you been orally briefed?
Mr Varghese : No.
Senator WONG: Has the foreign minister or her office, to your knowledge, been briefed?
Mr Varghese : I don't know.
Senator FAULKNER: How could this be, Mr Varghese? The thing that surprises me here is that the Prime Minister's office and the White House published details or readouts—whatever the technical term is—of the conversation. The world knows and DFAT doesn't. That does seem to be exceedingly odd. Is DFAT that out of the loop? I am very worried, Mr Varghese.
Mr Varghese : This is a discussion between two heads of government, and I expect that there will be a record of that discussion made available to DFAT.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, but the Prime Minister's office or the Prime Minister's department have made details public, haven't they?
Mr Varghese : I think the Prime Minister has referred to the telephone conversation.
Senator WONG: No, there is a public statement.
Senator FAULKNER: You are not even aware of that. I am terribly worried, Mr Varghese.
Mr Varghese : That is what I was referring to.
Senator FAULKNER: You appear to know even less than me. That is a real worry.
Senator WONG: He doesn't mean generally.
Senator FAULKNER: Only on this one matter.
CHAIR: Let's be clear there.
Senator FAULKNER: Only on this one matter, Chair. I would never suggest that. I know how erudite Mr Varghese is on every other matter. But the White House has also made public details of this conversation. I genuinely am surprised that we find ourselves in estimates with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and it appears officials are completely in the dark. But I should not be worried, should I?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am not sure if that is a question.
Senator FAULKNER: No, it wasn't really a question; it was a light-hearted comment in the very serious circumstance of Mr Varghese not knowing about the President's and the Prime Minister's conversation.
CHAIR: When you have finished this line of questioning, Senator Macdonald also has some questions in the Ebola area.
Senator FAULKNER: My question, Mr Varghese, is whether it is unprecedented that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade knows less about a conversation between the President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister of Australia, which both the Prime Minister and the President have made public, but Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade knows nothing about it. I think that that is unprecedented. Can you let me know if it is?
Mr Varghese : I think it a weighted question. A conversation took place. The Prime Minister and the White House issued a statement about that conversation. That is not unusual in either of our systems. I expect a record will be available in the not too distant future. I do not think that there is much to this, myself.
Senator FAULKNER: But it is a discussion between two heads of government about what is, what we all acknowledge, a very serious international crisis. It is obviously one in which you would expect a coordinated response between nations. I am surprised that DFAT doesn't know about it. I will not press the point. It does seem unprecedented and remarkable to me. But you are assuring me that that is not the case.
Mr Varghese : I am.
Senator FAULKNER: I am so relieved.
CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Faulkner. That is a good spot to move to Senator MacDonald and then I'll go to Senator Di Natale.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you. Mr Varghese, I'm really not interested in phone calls, who said what and whether you were present or not. I am interested in the big, broader issue of aid to countries who have crises. I understand the Ebola crisis is real and big. More broadly, how often is Australia approached for aid from various countries around the world who are suffering from various different sorts of diseases, over a period of time? I am trying to put into perspective where this crisis is compared to the Asian flu epidemic of a few years ago and various other epidemics that have been around. I am just trying to get into perspective what Australia is expected to contribute to Africa or other parts of the world, when clearly our focus is on our near neighbours in the Pacific and South-East Asia. Can you give me a bit of a broad brush on requests for aid, how often they happen and what the approach of the government of the day is to those sorts of things?
Mr Varghese : Certainly, Senator. Mr Exell might want to add to this. Regrettably, we live in a world with many disasters and many crises and therefore many calls on the resources of aid agencies. We try to do as best as we can within the limits of our own resources. As a matter of policy, I am sure you are aware that the government has shifted the focus of our aid program to give it a much sharper Indo-Pacific focus. Now, some 90 per cent of our aid expenditure is actually in the Indo-Pacific. That has meant that we have had to do less than we might otherwise have done in regions like Africa and Latin America. That is the policy background to dealing with this issue.
That said, we do have a humanitarian program which is global in scope. We need to prioritise within that what we are able to help with. We have made some judgements about what we can do on the Ebola front. We have been through this morning the breakdown of that $18 million that we allocated to the WHO trust fund to non-government organisation.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I know that there are some people who think that Australia should take the lead in, for example, climate change stuff, when we are less than 1.4 per cent of emissions. Other people think we should be leading the world in aid to various countries around the world, all of which are very deserving. To put it into perspective, whether you have this at the top of your head or even approximately, the total Australian budget GDP of the country or some other comparative, compared to Britain, who has asked us for something, compared to the United States, who has asked for something. Again, to get it in perspective, where does Australia rank with 20 million people and a fairly limited budget against the United States, Russia, China or Japan?
Mr Varghese : Mr McDonald and Mr Exell may be able to reply in more detail to that. Australia is a top 10 aid provider. In terms of the proportion of our aid budget to GDP, we do not have as high a proportion as, for instance, the United Kingdom. But we are still, at $5 billion, in global terms a reasonably significant aid provider. I do not think there is any expectation that Australia would lead the world in dealing with the Ebola outbreak. If you look at the response internationally, the United States and the United Kingdom are at the forefront in terms of the resources they are putting into this challenge. Understandably and entirely appropriately, Europe is also doing a substantial amount. That is as it should be, given where Europe and Africa sit.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: And a history of colonisation.
Mr Varghese : Their history, connections and the nature of their interests in the African continent.
Mr McDonald : If I could add to that. This year the humanitarian budget has been increased by about 30 per cent overall.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thirty per cent over what?
Mr McDonald : It was basically about $264 million last year and this year it is $338 million. So that is roughly a 30 per cent increase in our humanitarian expenditure overall for this financial year.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Sorry, can I just interrupt you. Again, for comparison, what was it the previous year?
Mr McDonald : The previous year it was $264 million and with a 30 per cent increase it is now $338 million.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: But I mean the year before that.
Mr McDonald : I would have to take that on notice.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Was it more or less, do you recall?
Mr McDonald : I would have to check. I am not 100 per cent. What also changed was what we called our emergency budget, which was previously $90 million and has now been increased to $120 million. When we are identifying how to expend funding on humanitarian, we have already spent $60 million this year on humanitarian expenditure in addition to the Ebola money. They have been spent on things like the Palestinian crisis, for example. They have also been spent in Somalia, for example. In doing that, we have a balance. With the $120 million for emergency funding over the year, we work on roughly a $10 million a month allocation. The reason for that is, as you know, that within our region we need to have sufficient funding from now until April-May to be able to respond to immediate cyclones or earthquakes—and this is something we experienced very much last year with the Philippine cyclone and the like. So there is always this balance about how we try to manage that. In addition, in Africa we also have a bilateral program of over $100 million in place. When you look at the whole of ODA for Africa, it is about $186 million overall. So it is still a substantial program of activity that is occurring in addition to the humanitarian expenditure we have in countries in Africa as well.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is all very useful and tends to put it all into perspective. We are a great country; we are a lucky country and we punch well above our weight in aid generally, I would imagine from what you are saying. Finally, the letter from Sierra Leone, which I understand you have not seen. Do you know if the approaches from the UK and the USA were solely to Australia? Would the Sierra Leone letter have gone to every country in the world, as I guess it would?
Mr Varghese : We have seen the letters from Sierra Leone and Liberia. My understanding is that they were addressed also to other countries, not just to Australia.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Senator Di Natale
Senator DI NATALE: I would also like to put this crisis in perspective. How many recent natural disasters, or indeed infectious disease outbreaks, has the UN indicated may result in 1.4 million people dying?
Mr Varghese : I am not in a position to answer that. I do not know if anyone else is, but I suspect it may be a rhetorical question?
Senator DI NATALE: No, it is not rhetorical at all. We have just had a discussion about where this outbreak sits next to a whole range of other natural disasters and our international aid effort. I think it is important to reflect on the impact of this outbreak. What I am asking you is, have there been any other natural disasters, or indeed outbreaks, where the UN has projected that, should it not be contained, we are looking at 1.4 million deaths?
Mr Varghese : I am not aware of any, but I am happy to take that on notice.
Mr Exell : We will check this, but my understanding is that the most recent comparison was the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I think the UN debated that. There was a similar passage of resolutions for that. That is a precedent, if you like, in the UN system.
Senator DI NATALE: How does our effort in Australia, in terms of the resources we have committed, compare to the resources we have committed over decades now to combating the transmission of HIV?
Mr Exell : I am not sure I could answer that, because we are in the middle of it. So it is not a comparison I can make at this time.
Senator DI NATALE: Would you say that we have committed the same level of resources up until this point that we committed to combating the transmission of HIV?
Mr Exell : I could not answer that, Senator.
Senator DI NATALE: Would it be a fair comment to say that, should 1.4 million people die from this Ebola outbreak, it would be unprecedented?
Mr Varghese : You are asking me for a comment on history over time across centuries—
Senator DI NATALE: No, the past decade. The past 10 years will do.
Mr Varghese : I am not in a position to answer that. I am not aware of anything in the past decade that comes to numbers like 1.4 million.
Senator DI NATALE: So you would say, in terms of responding, that our response should also be proportionate to the impact that this may have on the global community?
Mr Varghese : I think Australia is a country that seeks to do what it can in the face of these sorts of challenges.
Senator DI NATALE: Let's go to what we are doing. You will have to forgive me, because I was not present at the very start of this conversation. Can I talk to you about a request for support? Do I understand correctly that there has been a request for Australian support in the form of personnel by the UK and the US?
Mr Varghese : Yes.
Senator DI NATALE: During that discussion, was there any request made by the Australian government for assurances that, should we commit personnel, those personnel, should they require treatment, be treated in either the UK or the US?
Mr Varghese : We have been having discussions with the United States and with several European countries about what opportunities and processes would apply in the event that there were Australian healthcare workers deployed with the support, or under the auspices, of the Australian government. We are still working our way through those issues. They include what, if any, access those health workers might have to specialised facilities in country in West Africa. Because, as you know, the Brits and the Americans are establishing facilities specifically to deal with healthcare workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone. And also, what access there may be for Australian health workers to be evacuated in the event that the medical judgement was that an evacuation was required. In recent days, there have been some quite positive responses to those questions. We are continuing our discussion about how those duty of care type arrangements might work in the event that there were to be a deployment.
Senator DI NATALE: Let me ask the question very directly: have we made an explicit request that would involve assurances from either the UK or the US that should an Australian health worker require treatment, that that treatment would be given? I know we are working through processes. I know we are working through the issue and so on. I am just asking if we have made a very specific request that an Australian health worker would be treated either in country, and I will come to that in a moment but let's focus now in terms of evacuations. Have we made a specific request via the UK or the US?
Mr Varghese : The nature of our discussions is that, in the event that this were to happen, what would you be able to assure us you could do in relation to access to facilities and evacuations.
Senator WONG: In response to the question of the nature of our discussions, can we get a little more precision about the level of government at which such discussions are occurring government to government? Is it post to post, is it at DFAT officer level, your level, Mr Varghese, or is it at ministerial level?
Mr Varghese : These are discussions we are having with the United States and with several European countries. We are having—
Senator WONG: Who is the 'we'?
Mr Varghese : If I could seek to answer your question. We are pursuing those issues through discussions between posts and the relevant government. Some of these issues have been discussed by the foreign minister in the discussions that she has had with some of her counterparts. Some of these discussions have been held between the department here in Canberra and the diplomatic missions. There may well be other channels, and I will ask Mr Exell if we are using other channels as well.
Mr Exell : I would just note that, as the secretary said, the communications have been at the ministerial level, at heads of mission level and at officials level, both in Canberra and in the posts of the relevant countries themselves.
Senator FAULKNER: For the record, a couple of times we have heard 'several European countries'. Is there a reason that the names of those countries can't be provided? In other words, could we have the names of those countries?
Mr Varghese : I think we probably can give you the names of those countries.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you. Let's do it.
CHAIR: Good. Senator Di Natale.
Senator DI NATALE: I think we were about to hear who they were, were we?
CHAIR: Are you going to give us the list or is it on notice? The list is there. Thank you.
Senator FAULKNER: No, just read into the record. I assume that it is not going to be a massive number.
Mr Varghese : No, I think it is probably about half a dozen.
Senator FAULKNER: Even I would have predicted that. If the half a dozen or so names could be read into the record, that would be helpful, I am sure.
Mr Brown : The countries that we have approached to discuss evacuation and in-country treatment issues are as follows: the United States, the UK, France, Switzerland, Norway, Spain, Italy, Germany as well as the European Commission.
Senator DI NATALE: I will be very direct here: have any of those countries provided assurances that in the event an Australian needs treatment, that that treatment would be offered?
Mr Varghese : My understanding is that we have not received any blanket guarantees to that effect. But as I indicated earlier, in recent days some of our discussions—and here I will not identify the countries—have been much more positive about what access Australian health workers might have.
Senator DI NATALE: So, let us be clear. No-one is suggesting that we are going to get a signed contract between two countries, but what you are saying is that there have been assurances that in the event an Australian health worker needs treatment, that that treatment would be available in one or other of the countries that you are not prepared to name?
Mr Varghese : I think the assurances are still on a case-by-case basis.
Senator DI NATALE: They will always be on a case-by-case basis?
Mr Varghese : There are no blanket assurances.
Senator DI NATALE: But you are suggesting that there are countries who would be prepared to treat Australian health personnel in certain circumstances.
Mr Varghese : More recently, we have had indications that there might be access available. But the details of that access is something that we still have to work through.
Senator DI NATALE: How recently?
Mr Varghese : In the last four or five days.
Senator DI NATALE: Are we talking about evacuation or a we talking about in country?
Mr Varghese : Our discussions have included both access to in-country treatment and also access to evacuation.
Senator DI NATALE: Given that the ostensible reason for not committing personnel to west Africa given by the minister has been the inability to treat Australian health personnel because of the duration of the flight, will you be providing advice to the government that those circumstances have now changed?
Mr Varghese : I am not sure we are in a position to say that they have changed. All I am saying to you is that we have had some encouraging discussions.
Senator DI NATALE: Would you like to expand on what that means?
Mr Varghese : That means that, in relation to a level of assurance that we would require, the discussions we have had most recently have been much more positive. But are we at the stage now where we can categorically say that all of our concerns have been met? I do not think that we are.
Senator DI NATALE: What are those concerns?
Mr Varghese : Ultimately, we would need to have a level of assurance that Australian healthcare workers were going to have access to adequate facilities in country and if necessary evacuation.
Senator DI NATALE: What level of assurance?
Mr Varghese : What do you mean, what level of assurance?
Senator DI NATALE: Well, you have said to me that you would need to get 'a level of assurance'. I am asking you what level.
Mr Varghese : It would be at a government to government level.
Senator DI NATALE: Have those discussions taken place?
Mr Varghese : They are ongoing discussions.
Senator DI NATALE: If you are saying that you need to get government-to-government assurance, then why are we not having those discussions?
Mr Varghese : We are having those discussions. As I said, they are ongoing discussions; we are having them quite frequently, and in the last few days those discussions have been quite positive.
Senator DI NATALE: What does 'government to government' mean?
Mr Varghese : One government talking to another government.
Senator DI NATALE: What level of government? Are you talking minister to minister?
Mr Varghese : I just answered that question in relation to—
Senator DI NATALE: I am talking about this specific issue. To get the sort of level of assurance that you need, are you saying that we need to have those assurances met between—
Mr Varghese : Typically these issues are resolved at officials level before they are elevated to ministerial level.
CHAIR: I think that is a good spot for us to stop. Thank you. We will break for morning tea.
Proceedings suspended from 10:30 to 10:46
Senator DI NATALE: I want to be clear about the threshold that we are using at the moment. You said earlier that there have been no blanket guarantees. Are we seeking a blanket guarantee before we commit to a particular course of action?
Mr Varghese : I think what we are seeking is a level of comfort in what we can expect in the event that we have health workers who require treatment or evacuation. I would frame it in that way.
Senator DI NATALE: I think the level of comfort is important, because we have a situation where—I think it is now—13 health workers have been evacuated and we have a number of NGOs who are committing health personnel. They do not have blanket guarantees that their health personnel will be treated, and yet they are committing those people. All 13 of the people who have been either suspected or infected have received a medical evacuation. What is the level of comfort that you are seeking to achieve? A blanket guarantee, frankly, is impossible. It would not be given by anybody under any circumstances.
Mr Varghese : We would need to be sufficiently confident in the processes that come into play that, were a health worker who was sent there under the auspices of the Australian government to contract Ebola, those two options in particular would be available to that person.
Senator DI NATALE: What would give you that sufficient confidence?
Mr Varghese : An undertaking on the part of a government that is in a position to deliver on it would give us that confidence.
Senator DI NATALE: But you have said it needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. What are the things that need to happen—
Mr Varghese : If I could clarify something. I said, 'the other governments have been talking to us about providing such assurances but only on a case-by-case basis.' I did not say, 'We were requiring it on a case-by-case basis.' It is quite the contrary.
Senator DI NATALE: Okay. So let us go from making that leap—other governments are suggesting that they will provide assistance on a case-by-case basis. You have said that there are no blanket guarantees yet but what you are looking for is sufficient confidence and a level of comfort. What are the specific things that would give you a level of comfort or significant confidence before we are prepared to commit health personnel or honour the request of the US and the UK?
Mr Varghese : Ultimately we would want to be confident that if an evacuation were required—
Senator DI NATALE: What would give you that confidence?
Mr Varghese : Perhaps I could finish answering the question. We would need to have confidence that if evacuation were required it would be available.
Senator DI NATALE: What would give you that confidence?
Mr Varghese : An assurance to that effect.
Senator DI NATALE: Are you looking for a blanket assurance?
Mr Varghese : I think we are going around in circles.
Senator DI NATALE: We are not going around in circles because at the moment we are having a very serious debate about what it is that is stopping us from committing health personnel to combat the epidemic and indeed honouring a request from our partners in the UK and US. You are saying that you need to achieve a level of comfort and confidence. If the threshold is we need an absolute guarantee that under any circumstances we will be able to get treatment then we are creating a straw man here because that is just not possible.
CHAIR: Is that a comment or a question?
Senator DI NATALE: I am asking if that is what you are seeking—a blanket assurance?
Mr Varghese : If you are asking me if we are creating a straw man, then I would say that we are not.
Senator DI NATALE: Are we seeking a blanket assurance?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: For the 15th time!
Mr Varghese : I am struggling to find how to add to my response.
Senator DI NATALE: I am struggling to find a set of circumstances that would allow us to give you the comfort and confidence that you desire to allow us to honour those requests.
Mr Varghese : I have indicated what it is that we need to have confidence in—and that is access to facilities in country and access to evacuation in the event that it is required. That is the basis on which we are having discussions with other countries. If we are able to work our way through those issues and resolve them, I am sure that will become known. But I do not want to characterise our position as blanket guarantees or put a descriptor of that sort on it. I am indicating to you what it is that we are concerned about and what we are seeking from other governments.
Senator DI NATALE: I will go to a different issue.
CHAIR: I was going to flag that we can go back to Ebola when people are ready. Senator Fawcett does want to ask some questions again in aid policy. Do you want to conclude your questions in this area? Then I will go to Senator Fawcett without in any way stopping the discussion about Ebola if others want to come back to it.
Senator DI NATALE: Does Senator Fawcett have some time pressures?
Senator DI NATALE: I would have thought it would make more sense to round off the Ebola discussion.
CHAIR: I am sure you do, but we want some balance in the overall discussion. We are in outcome 1 on aid policy. Do you have a concluding question before we go to Senator Fawcett?
Senator WONG: Chair, we have a few more questions on Ebola. I would not anticipate, subject to what Mr Varghese says, that would be long.
CHAIR: Thank you very much.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Chair, I have questions about Ebola and I have questions about other things as well.
CHAIR: Thank you. Just in terms of balance, we will stay with—
Senator WONG: I should be clear that, in the interests of balance, we are prepared to put quite a lot of our Ebola questions on notice. Senator Macdonald might consider that as well.
CHAIR: Senator Di Natale, if you conclude then we will go to Senator Fawcett.
Senator DI NATALE: I am sure you are aware that the UK have decided that on the completion of the field hospitals being built in west Africa they will no longer evacuate their health workers—they will be treated in the field in those facilities. Are we having negotiations with the UK about getting access to those facilities should we commit personnel?
Mr Varghese : That is one of the components that we are talking to them about. I am not aware—and maybe my colleagues are—that the UK has completely shut the door on evacuation.
Senator DI NATALE: We had evidence from the Chief Medical Officer yesterday that they had a shifting policy and that, rather than evacuating, they would be treating their health personnel in the field.
Mr Varghese : I think the whole purpose of setting up the specialist facility in the field is to reduce the requirement for an evacuation—but you have gone further than that, Senator. You have said that they will not do evacuations.
Senator DI NATALE: I was reflecting on the evidence from yesterday, but I take your point that there may be some circumstances where evacuation continues to occur. Is the total dollar value $18 million?
Mr Varghese : That is correct.
Senator DI NATALE: The minister said that some of that money would be going to the Red Cross. How much has the Red Cross received?
Mr Varghese : Mr Exell might be able to answer that.
Senator DI NATALE: The health minister said that the Red Cross would be one of the beneficiaries of that $18 million. I would like to know how much the Red Cross has received.
Mr Varghese : I think we indicated earlier in our evidence that the NGOs that were funded from the $2.5 million allocated to NGOs out of the $18 million went to World Vision, Save the Children, Caritas and Plan. We did not mention the Red Cross.
Senator DI NATALE: On 8 October the health minister said:
There's $18 million … that we've provided to try and provide help to services like the Red Cross that are delivering services, delivering support on the ground in Africa.
Mr Varghese : I think 'like the Red Cross' does not mean we gave the money to the Red Cross.
Senator DI NATALE: Right. That is an interesting interpretation!
CHAIR: That is a good spot to finish, and it provides me, Minister, with the opportunity to welcome you—Senator the Hon. George Brandis, the Attorney-General. At the commencement of proceedings the committee expressed its profound regret at the circumstances that occurred in Ottawa over night. Before I go to other senators with regard to further questions in outcome 1, I wonder if you would be good enough to brief the committee on what you may have learnt in the context of the events in the Canadian parliament last evening.
Senator Brandis: Senator, what I will do is ask my office to bring up a briefing note that I read this morning so that I can be a little more precise than I would able to be if I briefed you extemporaneously. So if my office would not mind bringing that note to the committee room then perhaps after the next exchange of questioning by senators I will have that document and I will brief you then, if that is all right. I could say some general things but I think you would rather it with particularity.
CHAIR: Armed with information, Senator Wong, that you were good enough to provide in terms of Ebola, and knowing that you and Senator Macdonald both have some questions, I am going to propose that we go through to 11.15 on Ebola and then if there are further questions they might go on notice. Firstly, to you, Senator Wong, and then towards the end of that time, Senator Macdonald.
Senator WONG: I will try and be reasonably quick. Mr Varghese, we have spoken about the various requests that have been received basically over the time frame of late September to early October. Would that be reasonable?
Mr Varghese : Yes. We could probably give you the dates of those letters.
Senator WONG: Yes, if you could perhaps give us those that would be useful. Can I ask my questions and then maybe at the end you could do that. You have made reference to these having been worked through and the general process and then the matter being considered by cabinet or a cabinet committee. I want to understand that general process. I want to understand how these requests have been considered at officer level and then at ministerial level.
Mr Varghese : Colleagues may wish to add to this. We have a process which occurs within the portfolio and we have a process that occurs across government. Within the portfolio, we examine what are the options that the foreign minister may wish to consider in relation to what Australia can do in response to the Ebola crisis. Those go to options in relation to financial contributions and options in other areas, whether it is providing logistics support, or healthcare support, or wherever the spectrum takes you.
Senator WONG: Are you are able to—not now because you will have to consider it—give me the date on which the foreign minister was first briefed in those terms?
Mr Varghese : It is a dynamic process.
Senator WONG: No, a formal brief; a written brief. When was the first written brief to the foreign minister in those terms?
Mr Varghese : We can try and get you an answer quickly on that. Then you have the whole-of-government process. As Mr Exell has explained, an important part of that is the interdepartmental committee that is co-chaired by us and the Department of Health. That obviously looks at a broader range of issues, including issues that go beyond our portfolio in relation to how we would deal with an outbreak of Ebola domestically, what we might do in the event of a problem in the region and so on. Some of that IDC process would be reflected in information that is put to the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Some of it obviously would also find its way to ministers through briefings prepared by their own departments. That is broadly the way the system works.
Senator WONG: In the lengthy exchange with Senator Di Natale—and I am not going to re-traverse blanket guarantees and levels of comfort; I think that has been traversed sufficiently— you indicated that the government has made a decision about the parameters of the discussions that you are engaging in. Are you able to tell me the date on which that decision was made?
Mr Varghese : I am not trying to be unhelpful here. I am trying to understand what you mean by 'decision on the parameters'.
Senator WONG: You are approaching, as I understand it from your earlier evidence, various foreign governments about options, including evacuation and in-country medical support. Correct?
Mr Varghese : Correct.
Senator WONG: You and Senator Di Natale had a long discussion about the nature of what you are seeking in terms of level of comfort.
Mr Varghese : Right.
Senator WONG: Presumably you have not decided to go off and have those discussions without reference to a minister. Correct? I am just trying to get some clarity.
Mr Varghese : Thank you. I do now better understand the question.
Senator WONG: I am trying to get some clarity about the basis upon which you are approaching other governments, or responding to them, at various officer levels to try and make these arrangements. At which point is DFAT tasked with that?
Mr Varghese : Let me put it this way: I think once you get beyond the financial contributions—
Senator WONG: That is obviously where we are, Mr Varghese. That is in the context of all these questions.
CHAIR: Let the secretary finish.
Mr Varghese : I am happy to continue or not.
CHAIR: Continue your own response.
Mr Varghese : Once you get beyond the financial contributions you start getting into duty of care issues. The discussions that we are having with other governments are on how best we could give effect to duty of care requirements in the event that the government were to decide to go beyond where it is now. The parameters of duty of care are not scientifically defined. They go back to what—
Senator WONG: Because I am endeavouring to be fair in terms of the allocation of time, I will simply continue to ask questions if we are not able to resolve this. I am not asking about financial contribution. If there has not been a formal decision made, which I think is what you are referencing about duty of care, I am happy to leave that. You have been tasked with these discussions. Is that correct?
Mr Varghese : Yes.
Senator WONG: When were you tasked?
Mr Varghese : I will take advice on it. We have been having these discussions virtually from the beginning.
Mr Exell : Since August.
Senator WONG: Has the Foreign Minister task you with these discussions?
Mr Varghese : The discussions emerge from the briefings we do to the minister and the discussions we have with the minister.
Senator WONG: But DFAT does not go to other governments seeking to set in place these sorts of arrangements without essentially a ministerial imprimatur to go and explore this? That is whether or not the government has made a decision to do it, which I accepted it has not made. I am just trying to get a time frame around that.
Mr Varghese : As Mr Exell indicated, we started our discussions on these duty of care issues early. I think late August was what we said. It is a very simple proposition. If we were to do something like provide health workers, what would we do in the event that one of them contracted Ebola? That is the discussion we have had with the Foreign Minister. We meet with her regularly.
Senator WONG: How do you want to describe these discussions?
Mr Varghese : We have a weekly—
Senator WONG: No, when did these discussions in relation to the possibility of in-country medical attention or evacuation first commence with foreign governments? You are saying in August, correct?
Mr Varghese : I will ask Mr Exell.
Senator WONG: When these discussions were occurring, that this is what DFAT would be exploring at officer level, when was that first canvassed with the minister?
Mr Exell : If it helps, the initial announcement from Minister Bishop and Minister Dutton was on 24 August. That is when the government announced a $1 million contribution to the World Health Organization.
Senator WONG: With respect, that is not a response to my question. DFAT has been engaging in discussions and the secretary has had a long discussion with the committee about the nature of those. I just want to know when the minister was first briefed about the nature of these discussions.
Mr Varghese : Can I take the date on notice and get back to you?
Senator WONG: Sure, that is fine.
Mr Varghese : As I say, we meet with the minister regularly. We try to meet every week with her and the senior executive. An issue like Ebola would come up regularly at those weekly meetings.
Senator WONG: Yes, but we are not talking about briefings. We talking about diplomatic approaches. There is a distinction between the regular briefings a Foreign Minister or any minister might receive from their department, such as you being asked to make overtures or to have dialogue with other countries about the provision of medical assistance to Australian volunteers and so forth. That is what I am trying to understand. I appreciate that you have taken it on notice, but I do find it extraordinary that no-one can actually tell me when the government first asked you to go and do that.
CHAIR: Is that the question you have taken on notice?
Senator WONG: Okay, fine. In your introduction or in an earlier question, Mr Varghese, when you were asked about additional assistance by another senator, you made the point that any additional assistance—this is what I thought you said; I want to go back to it—would be provided from within the existing DFAT resources. Did I hear correctly you on that?
Mr Varghese : That is what I said.
Senator WONG: Is the context of that answer in terms of financial aid and, if determined, what we described as practical assistance?
Mr Varghese : Practical assistance suggests that what we have done up until now has no practical effect.
Senator WONG: I offered you a different term. I said I am happy to have a different term. It was simply shorthand.
Mr Varghese : I am never wanting to disagree with you. I did not take issue with it at the time. My expectation is that if the government chooses to go beyond where they are today, that would be funded from within the existing aid envelope.
Senator WONG: Would that include funding for personnel and—how did we describe it?—if you do not want me to use 'practical', was it personal and medical supplies and medical equipment?
Mr Varghese : To the extent that they are all ODAable, they would come from the existing aid envelope.
Senator WONG: Mr Wood, I think you and I had a long conversation a few estimates ago, which was most interesting. But just remind me, is there any uncommitted aid in the 2014-15 or 2015-16 budget years?
Mr Wood : As we have discussed previously, there are often components of the official development assistance budget that are uncommitted, and that is in the sense of having contracts in place. So we can have funding that may be allocated—
Senator WONG: That is right. I apologise, my memory on this is vague. Uncommitted was where there was a contract in place. Allocated was where there might be agreement, like a verbal agreement or a political agreement, but as yet contracts have not been signed. Is that it?
Mr Wood : Pretty much. We have provided information previously to questions on notice from you and Senator Dastyari which has given some indication as to what proportion of the aid budget is in those categories of being committed or contracted or allocated. Currently in the 2014-15 budget, we have expended about a quarter of the ODA budget—it is about 25 per cent. There is roughly about another 50 per cent that will be covered by contracts, so roughly about 75 per cent—
Senator WONG: is committed, which is contracts.
Mr Wood : Correct.
Senator WONG: No, that was 25 expended and 50 per cent committed.
Mr Wood : Correct.
Senator WONG: Then the remaining 25 would be allocated?
Mr Wood : Correct. So it could fall into a couple of categories. It could be into the category of the humanitarian budget, and as we have discussed previously there is a component within the humanitarian budget—the emergency fund—which is for those emergencies, or it could be in a category where it has been allocated to a program but the contracting process has not yet been finalised.
Senator WONG: What is the balance in the emergency fund?
Mr Wood : The balance in the emergency fund is $80 million from the original allocation of $120 million. As Senator Macdonald said previously, we try and have a roughly pro rata allocation. So we are four months through the year and we have spent roughly $40 million.
Senator WONG: What is the allocation for the emergency fund for the 2015-16 year?
Mr Wood : That would be decided by government through the budget process.
Senator WONG: It is not yet determined?
Mr Wood : That would be decided through the budgetary process.
Senator WONG: Historically, the source of funds for disaster funding—for want of a better term—would generally have been the emergency fund. Is that correct?
Mr Wood : To some extent. The allocations would be the emergency fund or the general humanitarian budget. The emergency fund is a component of the humanitarian budget. So it would be a combination of those.
Senator WONG: One last question, can you give me the nominal figure of the 25 per cent that remains allocated but not committed? How much is there?
Mr Wood : It would be about $1 billion. I could not be any more precise than that.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Mr Varghese, I will not waste the Senate's time or yours by asking you about what time or what date or what minute a decision was made or you got a telephone call from someone. I am interested in the Ebola issue, and I will have to put a lot of questions on notice because we are out of time. But just before we do finish, can you clarify for me this idea of not allowing Australians to go to places where Ebola is rife. Would that stop, for example, a doctor like Senator di Natale going as a private volunteer?
Mr Varghese : No, not at all. It is not that we are not allowing anyone to go. That is obviously an individual decision, and individuals are free to take it. It is just the different nature of the duty of care that is invoked if someone goes at the behest of or under the auspices of the Australian government, as opposed to someone going with a non-government organisation.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: So you are concerned about, for example, if the government directed the Army to go in and do something such that serving military people had no option. Is that the issue you are talking about?
Mr Varghese : That is a good example of where the duty of care would be different from the government's perspective to a volunteer going with Medecins Sans Frontieres or some other organisation.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: So well-meaning volunteers and people with skills like Senator Di Natale are free to go and do whatever they like?
Mr Varghese : Certainly.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: When they came back into the country—this may not be your area but Health's area—do we then stop them at the border and check them out?
Mr Varghese : It is an issue for the Department of Health. They have procedures for dealing with this.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am happy to put the rest of my questions on notice.
CHAIR: Before I go to the minister with an update on the situation in Ottawa, Senator Faulkner has one question in the IDC area.
Senator FAULKNER: I hope it is only one question. It was not clear to me, Mr Exell or Mr Varghese, whether the Department of Immigration and Border Protection was on the IDC.
Mr Exell : They have been.
Senator FAULKNER: They are on the IDC?
Mr Exell : Yes.
Senator FAULKNER: Obviously they are not a lead agency for either international or domestic government action in the broad.
Mr Exell : Correct.
Senator FAULKNER: I wanted to wait to ask this until you, Minister, were back at the table. I appreciate that you may not be aware of this. I understand you have been engaged in meetings this morning. But on my way into Parliament House this morning I heard something that concerned me. There was a radio story on the ABC this morning which was entitled—this is their terminology, not mine—'Scott Morrison pushing for Operation Sovereign Borders to take over response to virus'. So it related to internal government arrangements about the issue we have been canvassing in the community. Someone may care to comment on the substance of that or not, but my concern went to what appeared at face value to be a leak from the National Security Committee of cabinet. That is something which genuinely concerns me. If it is the case, Senator Brandis, I would hope it would be of very real concern to you. The AM program this morning quoted a minister as saying: 'It is annoying everyone on the National Security Committee because he is not across all the facts on Ebola.' The substance is of concern, but the issue I wanted to canvass with you directly, Minister, was what at face value appears to be, as I say, this leak and commentary about the work of the NSC. This is a concern. I wondered if you would be able to comment on this and, I hope, be able to assure the committee that the ABC in quoting a minister has got this wrong. First of all, you would acknowledge this matter is an issue of substance. The security of NSC meetings is critically important to the work of any government. I am sure you would acknowledge that, wouldn't you, Minister?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Chair, I raise a point of order. While this is fascinating and may well get another headline, it is hardly relevant to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Senator FAULKNER: The substance of this, for your information, Senator Macdonald, is the claim—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: You are talking about leaks from the—
Senator FAULKNER: No. If you would listen—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: While it is fascinating, it is not relevant here.
CHAIR: Colleagues, thank you. The question has been asked of the minister. I will ask the minister to respond to Senator Faulkner's question.
Senator FAULKNER: To assist the minister and the committee, this is in the context of a story on the radio this morning about how Operation Sovereign Borders and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection might effectively take over the Ebola virus responsibility.
Senator Brandis: Senator Faulkner, I am not familiar with the story, and it is not my practice to comment on unattributed remarks.
Senator FAULKNER: To follow that up, Minister—
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Chair, I take a point of order again. You indicated that, at quarter past 11, if everyone played the game and stopped asking questions, we could go on to the Canadian incident. Then Senator Fawcett, I understand, has some serious questions. It is now 20 past 11.
CHAIR: Think you, Senator Macdonald. I do appreciate you drawing my attention to that. Is there one last brief question you have, Senator Faulkner, before we go to the minister?
Senator FAULKNER: Yes. I ask the minister—and I appreciate he has been busy this morning; I totally acknowledge that and I do not expect him to comment on matters he is not aware of—if those with the responsibility for these issues in the government could draw his attention to them as my attention was drawn to them this morning. I will revisit that at a later stage. The issue I think is important and which I think the minister would acknowledge is important when he sees these reports is the substance of the matter as I described earlier in my questions. I would appreciate it if the minister could apprise himself of this, and I might address it later on.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Again, I raise a point of order. I have questions on foreign affairs that I want to ask today in this hearing. Quite frankly, while it is a fascinating topic, I do not think we should waste the time of the committee on matters that are clearly not on foreign affairs.
CHAIR: Minister, I ask you to give us the update we sought earlier on the scenario in Ottawa overnight.
Senator Brandis: I thank the committee for its expression of concern for our colleagues in the Canadian parliament. I apologise for my inability to be here at the commencement of the proceedings this morning, but, as has been understood, I was required to be at a meeting of senior ministers and security officials to discuss this very matter. It is an evolving issue, so the information I am about to give the committee is about two hours old.
At approximately 9.52 am local time in Ottawa, a single assailant opened fire at the Ottawa national memorial, fatally shooting a Canadian Armed Forces soldier. The gunman was then reported to be running into the parliament buildings, which are nearby. The Prime Minister, Mr Harper, about half an hour later, was reported by the Canadian media to be safe and to have been evacuated from the parliament building. A short while later, about 20 minutes after that, a male suspect was shot at the parliament building. Multiple shots were heard from the building. That matter was reported a few minutes later in the Canadian media. There was another report which has since been established to have been erroneous of another shooting at an Ottawa shopping centre. At 1.45 pm local time, an Ottawa Police Service statement was issued confirming that there were only two shooting locations—at the memorial and at parliament hill. The situation is ongoing.
CHAIR: Thank you, Minister.
Senator WONG: Mr Varghese, Senator Brandis indicated that the high commissioner and staff were originally in the cordoned off area but that the staff have now been allowed to leave. So he did inform us of their safety before you came.
Mr Varghese : Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you very much. We will take that note with regret.
Senator FAWCETT: Mr Varghese, since this committee last met for estimates in June the government has launched its new aid policy. There was quite an extensive period of consultation leading up to that launch, particularly around the performance framework. Can you talk to the committee about what plans there are to continue that consultation around the rollout and efficacy of that performance framework as it is implemented?
Mr McDonald : As you know, the policy was launched on 18 June. There are a number of key aspects to the policy. There is a rebalancing of the policy in terms of a focus on economic growth and removing people from poverty on a sustainable basis, including living standards. As part of that, there is a twin focus on the private sector and on human development or human capability.
Within that policy there are six priority areas that we have been focused on that have been elevated as part of the policy. One involves aid for trade and infrastructure. That is a key component of the policy. As you know, our aid for trade expenditure was quite low compared with OECD countries. Another is a focus on agriculture, fisheries and water, which is very important within our region for livelihood, food source and the like. There is a continuing focus on governance given the certainty that is required within countries for investment and the like from the private sector and also in terms of capability within countries to be able to provide services to their people.
Humanitarian and disaster risk preparation is another key plank. Within that, Australia has a reputation for doing well in relation to response, but there is a greater emphasis in the policy on preparedness and resilience, particularly within the region. There is also a focus on education and health. The reason for that is that for people to participate in, and to enhance, economic growth they need to have education, skills and a healthy community. Finally, there is the elevation of one of the key priorities of the foreign minister around empowerment of women and, in particular, economic empowerment of women. In that, there has been a key focus around leadership, violence against women and participation through all the systems. Underpinning all that, as you know, is a focus around the Indo-Pacific region and a new performance framework.
As part of the release of the policy, 10 strategic performance indicators were put out which have challenges in terms of what we need to achieve. Since then, we have been having ongoing consultation with countries about the development of new aid investment plans, which will be put in place from 1 July next year, in terms of their priorities, our priorities and, as part of that, what performance measures would be put in place at a program level to measure effectiveness. A key focus of the new policy is around the effectiveness of our expenditure.
In addition, in relation to particular performance targets, we are going through agreeing those. They also need to be in place by 1 July next year in terms of reporting. As part of the new policy, a new innovation hub has been announced by the minister. There is extensive consultation going on in relation to the establishment of that hub, particularly with the US and the UK and in relation to private, philanthropic and NGO sectors because within the innovation area, as you could imagine, there are good things that we are not aware of going on in other parts of the world that could equally apply within our region—so innovation in terms of ensuring we increase the effectiveness of the program. So the consultation in terms of the implementation of the policy is quite extensive both within the agency and outside the agency.
Senator FAWCETT: I am particularly interested in the strategy or the KPIs you are putting in place relating to the approach of using economic development as a tool to reduce poverty. What are you measuring there? Are you measuring the economic development? Are you measuring factors related to poverty reduction? What is your strategy to make sure we achieve the stated aim of the program?
Mr McDonald : Firstly we have the 10 performance indicators at the high level, which are about measuring that—for example, greater expenditure on aid for trade and on infrastructure, things upon which there is a real expenditure deficit within our region. There are measures to take that up to 20 per cent by 2020. It is currently 12½ per cent, so that would be a significant movement. For economic growth, the participation of women in the economy is a key performance indicator. As part of the new high-level performance benchmarks, that needs to increase not only in number but also in effectiveness. It is often talked about, but its effectiveness within the program is another measure. We have a number of measures at a high level and we are agreeing measures below that at a program level. We are underway with countries to measure in both an economic sense and a poverty reduction sense.
Senator FAWCETT: These measures are informed just on the basis of your consultation or is there an academic base to the link between economic development and productivity—the whole aid-for-trade rationale? I just want to understand where those measures have come from and what we are then putting in place—what longitudinal studies—to make sure that the approach we are taking is effective or, if needs be, adapted to be more effective.
Mr McDonald : On the importance of the economic growth aspect, as you know if you look back in history, for those who have been removed from poverty, such as China and India—economic growth is a key aspect of that. For us to ensure that occurs, some of the participation and productivity measures within the new policy are essential—so we are rebalancing to do that. Some 90 per cent of jobs are provided by the private sector and 60 per cent of investment is provided by the private sector. In addition, when you look at overall expenditure within a country, ODA dwarfs other sources, such as private investment or domestic sources of funding and the like. So we are focusing on things like domestic resource mobilisation as part of that measurement process we are going through. I will ask Mr Dawson to add to that.
Mr Dawson : As Mr McDonald indicated, the key performance indicators or the performance framework for the program were clearly set out by the minister at the policy launch in June. It is a framework which operates at three levels. It operates at the level of the program as a whole, where the 10 strategic performance targets have been set in place. They are elaborated in that framework. Below that, it operates at the level of the individual program—for example, country programs, regional programs and multilateral programs. Below that, at the third level, it operates at the level of individual aid investments. The assessment framework which is being applied operates at those three levels, with different measures and different reporting arrangements at each of those levels.
Senator FAWCETT: Is future funding going to be linked to the achievement of the performance indicators that have been identified?
Mr Dawson : The minister has made clear that she is interested in seeing a link between performance and funding. That link is going to be operationalised through the budget process initially. It is going to be operationalised as well at the level of individual aid investments. The government has set a standard that investments that are not providing value for money should be cancelled within one year, and it is provided as well at the overall program level.
Senator FAWCETT: The minister made the comment about wanting to see the private sector more engaged. What has been the uptake in the interest and what are the key areas that the government is looking to leverage off private sector investment in the countries of interest?
Mr Dawson : Other colleagues might have been more directly involved with that engagement and may wish to add to this, but there has been a substantial amount of work to identify methods of engagement with the private sector, and that work is now flowing through to the operations of the individual country programs and regional programs.
Mr McDonald : In my experience, the private sector is engaging very strongly, particularly in relation to The Innovation Hub. There is quite extensive interest both within Australia and outside Australia in relation to that, so the engagement has been high. The expertise and knowledge coming in through that process has been very valuable as well. I should have mentioned also that in relation to the performance benchmarks that were established, the 10 key ones at the top level, Brett Mason led an extensive consultation process that involved the private sector, NGOs, academia, philanthropic organisations and the like in terms of input into that. From memory, we had close to 50 submissions as part of that. Also, we had Jim Adams, who is the head of our Independent Evaluation Committee and is a former vice-president of the World Bank, sign off on those performance benchmarks as rigorous and effective at the high level. I should have mentioned that earlier.
Senator MILNE: I want to ask about the Prime Minister's trip to China in April this year, in which it was reported that he had a private meeting with the Chinese president in order to brief him, in part—presumably they raised lots of matters—on the search for MH370. I want to ask whether you can confirm that the Prime Minister did have that private meeting with the Chinese president on 11 April this year, how long that meeting went for, what time of the day it was and whether MH370 was discussed. Maybe you can start with that.
Mr Varghese : I will ask Peter Rowe to add something if there is anything to add. Yes, it is the case that the Prime Minister made a visit to China in April and did meet with President Xi Jinping. I do not know whether I would characterise the meeting as a private meeting; I think it was an official meeting. My understanding is that the Prime Minister did take the opportunity at that meeting to brief President Xi on developments in relation to MH370, which of course was an issue of very high interest to the Chinese leadership. I do not have the date of the meeting, but I am sure we can get that.
Mr Rowe : Offhand, I cannot remember what the actual date was. It was towards the end of the visit.
Senator MILNE: According to the reports it was 11 April. Can you confirm that that took place? Also, what time did that meeting take place? Were there any officials present at that meeting?
Mr Rowe : As the secretary said, it was not a private meeting so much as an official meeting—private in the sense that only relevant people would have been there on both sides, including the ambassador and various Prime Minister's advisers.
Senator MILNE: Could you provide a list of who was there in support of the Prime Minister on the Australian side of the meeting? Who prepared the brief for the Prime Minister for that meeting and the speech he made in China on 11 April?
Mr Varghese : Can I make one observation. I think questions relating to the Prime Minister's travel ought to be directed to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It is not our practice to release details of conversations between heads of government or, indeed, to release details of participants in discussions with other heads of government.
Senator MILNE: I can appreciate that, but I have asked the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet who provided the briefing to the Prime Minister in relation to the details of MH370 and they said that they did not. Somebody obviously did and I am trying to establish whether DFAT provided the briefing to the Prime Minister on the details of MH370 on the basis of which he then briefed President Xi Jinping.
Mr Varghese : I am happy to take on notice whether or not DFAT provided a separate briefing to the Prime Minister for that meeting on MH370.
Senator MILNE: Thank you—please establish for me whether it was DFAT who briefed the Prime Minister on the details. Would you be able to indicate whether that briefing was prepared in consultation with the chair or members of the joint coordinating group here in Australia, which was headed up by Angus Houston? I would like to know if he was consulted in the briefing. Also, I would like to know what critical detailed analysis of the information was conducted before the Prime Minister told the President of China, 'We've narrowed the search area and we're very confident the signals are from the black box.' Can anyone shed any light on how the Prime Minister came to make that statement in China?
Senator Brandis: Perhaps I can be of assistance. First of all, most of what you have asked is, as Mr Varghese has pointed out, best asked of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the extent to which it is a proper question. Secondly, much of the information that you have identified in your question would appear to me to go to the content of advice to ministers, in this case the Prime Minister, and, as you ought to know, is not allowable. We will take the question on notice and we will respond to that much of it as is (a) relevant and (b) permissible.
Senator MILNE: Surely, Minister, in China, a country where about 154 of the people who died in MH370 were citizens, the Prime Minister ought to have had a substantial reason for telling the Chinese President, 'We're confident the signals are from the black box.' I am trying to establish who provided the Prime Minister with that briefing and whether the joint task force had been consulted before he made that statement.
Senator Brandis: Your state of mind and the reasons you are asking the questions you are asking or making the statements you are making are really of no interest to me. I have told you we will take the question on notice and we will respond to that part of it that is (a) relevant to this committee and (b) permissible.
Senator MILNE: In relation to the issue of the ISIL terrorism that is going on in the Middle East, has the government met with officials from Kuwait or Qatar in relation to implementing strong anti-money-laundering or counterterrorism financing regimes? Have we actually met with officials from either of those countries in relation to that matter?
Mr Varghese : I do not know whether our ambassador for counterterrorism is in the room. If he is not, I will take the question on notice. We regularly discuss counterterrorism issues with governments across the world, including in the Middle East. As to whether we have had detailed discussions in relation specifically to the question you raise, I will see whether Mr Armitage is in a position to respond to that.
Mr Armitage : As the secretary said, we have had discussions with the countries in the region. In terms of the precise details in relation to Kuwait and Qatar, I would need to take that on notice. But our general representations to the countries in the region have obviously covered the question of support to ISIL in all its various forms. In implementing the UN resolutions, particularly 2170 and 2178, which impose obligations on member states to disrupt and prevent sources of funding to ISIL, we have obviously raised that with the countries in the region.
Senator MILNE: I can assume from your answer we have raised it with both Kuwait and Qatar?
Mr Armitage : I will need to check on both those countries.
Senator MILNE: Okay. Given that the United States has now sanctioned a number of Qatari and Kuwaiti nationals and NGOs in recent months for their role in providing cash and arms to terror groups associated with ISIL, has the Australian government done the same? Have we actually sanctioned any Qatari or Kuwaiti nationals or NGOs in relation to that? Are there any sanctions currently in place?
Mr Varghese : I think we would have to take that on notice. Obviously, if any of those are listed under the sanctions committee of the Security Council, we would, as we are obliged to, impose sanctions. Whether we have done so and if we have gone further than that I would have to take on notice.
Senator MILNE: Yes, if you would not mind. Also, can you tell me if it is under active consideration, or are you saying that it is a matter of course? It is just a matter of identifying them?
Mr Varghese : If it is a decision of the sanctions committee, we would do it as a matter of course. We would execute that position, as we are obliged to. We do have a capacity to impose additional sanctions, and that would depend on the evidentiary basis for it.
Senator MILNE: I guess what I am asking is: is there any active consideration of that? Is there any investigation into that?
Mr Varghese : I will have to take that on notice.
Senator MILNE: Okay. In relation to the same question, one of the other things that various countries are trying to do is choke off oil sales and sales of refined petroleum, because obviously that is where a lot of the money to those groups is coming from. Has Australia done anything in that regard—maybe notifying Australian businesses or importers of the need to take particular care to follow the source of these products and where they are coming from?
Mr Varghese : Again, we will have to take that on notice.
Senator MILNE: Okay. Thank you.
Senator McGRATH: What powers does the Minister for Foreign Affairs have to cancel or refuse to issue a passport?
Mr Varghese : I will get the head of our Passport Office to take you through the details, but the passports legislation does provide the foreign minister with the power to cancel passports. Typically that is done on the advice of security agencies. As you know, the proposed amendments to legislation also canvass the power of the foreign minister to suspend passports, not just to cancel them. Katrina Cooper, our senior legal adviser, may want to add to that.
Ms Cooper : That question goes to the Australian Passports Act. Under that act, the Attorney-General's Department or ASIO can request the Minister for Foreign Affairs to cancel or refuse to issue a passport to an individual where that authority suspects on reasonable grounds that the individual might prejudice the security of Australia or a foreign country.
Senator McGRATH: How many passports have been cancelled or been refused to have been issued?
Ms Cooper : I do not have that figure with me, but I am happy to take it on notice.
Senator Brandis: Since when, Senator?
Senator McGRATH: Since the last estimates hearing.
Senator Brandis: Since May?
Senator McGRATH: Yes. Can you tell me what is involved in chairing the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee?
Ms Cooper : I have some information on that. I will have to go and get another folder.
Mr Varghese : 'A lot of work' is the short answer.
Ms Cooper : I have some briefing generally on the sanctions committee. As you can imagine, my brief covers a lot of different issues. I look at the legal aspects. Did you want to understand the workings of the committee, which might not fall into my portfolio?
Senator McGRATH: My follow-up question was going to be: how many new individuals or entities known to be associated with ISIL or other al-Qaeda linked terrorist organisations were listed by the committee in September?
Ms Cooper : I think I would be better off taking that on notice so that I can make sure that I get you accurate information.
Senator McGRATH: Okay.
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do you have a feel? Is it a lot, a few, or do you have no feel at all?
Ms Cooper : I would rather take it on notice.
Senator McGRATH: I suspect I know the answer to this one, but how many terrorist listings has the government renewed in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolutions on combating terrorism?
Ms Cooper : In total? Are you talking about the whole range of sanctions, or just in relation to ISIL?
Senator McGRATH: The whole range.
Ms Cooper : It is a large number. I have a summary table here. Again, it might be better if I answer that on notice. I am not trying to avoid the question, but it is quite a complex summary of different sanctions—which ones are autonomous, which are UN sanctions and how we have implemented them. So I would like to give you an accurate breakdown.
Senator McGRATH: I suppose this is a broader question. What work is the government doing to expand our counter-terrorism cooperation with countries in our region?
Mr Armitage : We are continuing to work through multilateral bodies such as the UN and the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and also bilaterally and with regional bodies such as APEC and the EAS. In relation to South-East Asia, we are working with Indonesia and the Philippines, where we direct quite a bit of our capacity-building assistance. We are working on prison reform, on countering violent extremism and, in relation to the Philippines, on kidnap for ransom.
Senator McGRATH: Are there any countries that are not cooperating with us?
Mr Armitage : I would make the point that we are cooperating through those regional bodies with all the countries in the region, but obviously in some cases we are doing a lot more, such as in Indonesia and the Philippines. Then in South Asia, for instance, we are doing some work with Pakistan.
Senator Brandis: If I can add to that, of course, in addition to what happens at officials level there are also discussions at ministerial level as well, led by the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and other ministers, including my department. As recently as last week I had a meeting with the Attorney-General of New Zealand in which we discussed, among other things, that matter.
Senator McGRATH: In relation to Indonesia, you talked about prisons. Are you able to expand a bit more on what we are doing in terms of our cooperation with Indonesia?
Mr Armitage : Yes, I can. Perhaps I will come back to the issue of prisons, but in relation to foreign fighters we have conducted an initial workshop with Indonesia. There were five or six Indonesian agencies present, and we did that in conjunction with the Netherlands and the UK, and we have certainly been in discussions with Indonesia about what more we might do on the issue of foreign fighters. In relation to prisons, Australia and Indonesia are co-chairs of a detention and reintegration working group under the global forum. We had our first meeting in Bali and we will be doing a series of workshops there. Our program of reform in Indonesian prisons came to an end at the end of last year and we are currently developing some further activities in Indonesian prisons.
Senator McGRATH: I was reading in relation to the Maldives, a country I have a bit of a connection with, that 12 Maldivans, I think, have been caught up with ISIL or such. Are we doing anything in relation to cooperating with the Maldives on those issues?
Senator IAN MACDONALD: Should you declare an interest, Senator?
Senator McGRATH: Yes, I should declare an interest. I used to work for the opposition there.
Mr Armitage : I would need to take the question on notice, but I do not believe we are doing anything or have done anything bilaterally. It could well be that the Maldives has been a participant in some of the regional and multilateral activities that we support.
Senator McGRATH: What is Australia's role as president of the Financial Action Task Force?
Mr Varghese : I think that is an office held by another official, not from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Senator Brandis: That is supported by the Attorney-General's Department. In fact, the distinguished former Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, Mr Roger Wilkins, is the Australian chair of FATF.
Senator McGRATH: How many nations does Australia share a memorandum of understanding with to support information sharing on terrorist ideology?
Mr Armitage : We currently have 17 MOUs on counter-terrorism cooperation. That covers a whole range of cooperation. It may be in relation to countering violent and extremist ideology or it may be to do with law enforcement. It is a framework document and we have 17 of those.
Senator WONG: I am going to turn to the issue of the conversations in the lead-up to the deployment of the ADF to Iraq, which I canvassed—and I am sure you have been advised, Secretary—at the PM&C estimates. So, I will just flag that so that whichever officers you need to come to the table are ready. Also, just to give you a bit of time—it might expedite questions: is there any possibility that you have an update for question on notice No. 39 from the additional estimates—which was a lengthy discussion, and thank you for the information provided—that might form the basis of the aid questions later today? I just wanted to flag that. Thank you.
Mr Varghese, I asked some questions of Ms McCarthy, and I just wanted to get clear the sequence of events here and what I understand from that evidence and from Senator Abetz's response to me in a question without notice. I am referring to the Prime Minister's statement on 14 September; do you have that?
Mr Varghese : I do not have the statement in front of me.
Senator WONG: Well, I will put parts to you if you need them to answer. This is the public statement. In that the Prime Minister indicated that:
The Government’s decision responds to a formal request from the Government of the United States to contribute specific Australian Defence Force capabilities to the international coalition.
I understand from evidence that it was in fact a letter from the Secretary of Defence to the Minister for Defence. Is that correct?
Mr Varghese : That is also my understanding—from Secretary Hagel to Defence Minister Johnston.
Senator WONG: Yes; sorry—he is Secretary. And did you have a date on that?
Mr Varghese : 13 September.
Senator WONG: And I asked about the aspects of the letter to be released—I think that has been taken on notice. If you are able to answer, did that go to specific requests about what was being sought? Or was it a general request?
Mr Varghese : I would have to check the details, but I think it was more a general request than a specific request.
Senator WONG: When was DFAT advised about the receipt of the letter?
Mr Varghese : We would have seen the letter on receipt.
Senator WONG: There is that 'would' again!
Mr Varghese : I saw the letter as received—at the time when it was received.
Senator WONG: And there is a subsequent conversation with the President; is that correct—after the receipt of the letter, or prior to the receipt of the letter?
Mr Varghese : I would have to get the time lines clear in my head, but I think there was a subsequent conversation with the President. I am just trying to work out when that was. I do not have the details.
Senator WONG: The statement says. 'In recent days, I have discussed the situation with President Obama' et cetera, et cetera. Were you present for that discussion, or was a DFAT officer present?
Mr Varghese : No, and normally there would not be a DFAT officer present for that discussion.
Senator WONG: But you have seen a file note of that discussion?
Mr Varghese : I would have to check to confirm, but I think highly likely.
Senator WONG: Do you know which officers from which department, if any, were present to record, to take notes for, that discussion?
Mr Varghese : The normal practice with prime ministerial phone calls—and obviously some of these take place when the PM's travelling arrangements are a bit different—is that if there is time to do it there is a note taker from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator WONG: Did that occur on this occasion?
Mr Varghese : I would need to check
Senator WONG: Yes, if you could.
Mr Varghese : I think it is a question better directed to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator WONG: And I certainly can do that as well, but if you are able to cast any light, that would be useful. Ms McCarthy was not present.
Mr Varghese : That would not be unusual either.
Senator WONG: To not have the national security adviser present? Anyway. And you are going to check dates on that for me. Let us go to a discussion—and these may be out of sequence, but they are referenced in this order in the Prime Minister's statement—with the new Prime Minister of Iraq, Prime Minister al-Abadi. Do you know when that occurred?
Mr Varghese : 12 September was the date that the Prime Minister spoke with the new Prime Minister of Iraq.
Senator WONG: And presumably, as per what you describe as normal practice, there was not a DFAT officer involved in that conversation or taking notes for that?
Mr Varghese : No.
Senator WONG: Do you know when you received information about that phone call?
Mr Varghese : Again, I would have to check the details, but my expectation was probably the next day.
Senator WONG: As at that phone call, what did you understand to be the nature of the request from the Iraqi Prime Minister?
Mr Varghese : I think the background to that phone call is that the government of Iraq had requested, through the United Nations, assistance.
Senator WONG: Sure—there is the general request. That is not controversial.
Mr Varghese : We had then been discussing options for assistance with the United States, and that was formalised in Secretary Hagel's letter to Minister Johnston. The President and the Prime Minister had also discussed it, and I think the conversation with the Prime Minister of Iraq went along the lines that against all of that background this is what the Australian government was proposing to provide by way of assistance. And the Prime Minister of Iraq, as I recall, warmly welcomed that. And I think that is reflected in the statement the Prime Minister made.
Senator WONG: Which Prime Minister?
Mr Varghese : Our Prime Minister—the statement you referred to from 14 September.
Senator WONG: In terms of an invitation in a legal sense, was that in that conversation? Or subsequently in writing?
Mr Varghese : I think with the invitation—and I stand to be corrected by our legal adviser here—the head of authority flows from the government of Iraq's letter to the UN Security Council on 25 June requesting international assistance in combating ISIL. And then Iraq again wrote to the Security Council on 20 September asking the US to lead an international coalition against ISIL.
Senator FAULKNER: Do you mean by that—the point you made about the head of authority—that there is no direct written communication on a head-of-government basis as far as Australia is concerned? Or to Australia specifically as opposed to the UN? Is that the point you are making?
Mr Varghese : I think we have had exchanges of diplomatic notes with Iraq, and of course we had the telephone conversation between the two Prime Ministers. If there is some additional material, my colleagues might be able to—
Senator FAULKNER: And would a diplomatic note also include an outcome of a conversation, for example, between Prime Minister al-Abadi and Prime Minister Abbott? Would that be the way this would work?
Mr Varghese : I think given that the two Prime Ministers discussed Australian assistance and given that the Iraqi Prime Minister welcomed it, the subsequent exchange of notes would have gone to the details of that assistance and the processes that would be required in order to put them in place.
Senator Brandis: Senator Faulkner, I can tell you as well that there was in particular a diplomatic note of 4 October from the Iraqi government.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you. And are you able to speak broadly about the import or substance of that note? I appreciate your letting us know that, but is—
Senator Brandis: It confirmed the Iraqi government's consent to logistical and military assistance against ISIL.
Senator FAULKNER: Okay; so it is a confirmatory note.
Senator Brandis: And it followed the conversations to which the Secretary has referred. As well there was a conversation between Prime Minister al-Abadi and Minister Johnston on 22 September.
Senator FAULKNER: And that confirmatory note was from Iraq to Australia?
Senator Brandis: Yes.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes. Thank you.
Senator WONG: I have no experience in international law, but to use your phrase—I think you said 'the head of power', Mr Varghese—
Mr Varghese : I am a bush lawyer!
Senator WONG: Congratulations!
Senator FAULKNER: But a very good one, Mr Varghese!
Mr Varghese : I am sure!
Senator WONG: Can you step me through, then, the legal basis that is asserted, including with reference to the notes that the minister referred to.
Ms Cooper : The basis on which we are undertaking activities in Iraq is consent. The term of art that we use is 'invitation and consent'; I think you referred to that. In order for those conditions to be satisfied, there needs to be a very clear indication from the government which is receiving the international assistance; it is law around the use of force that they are welcoming in a country. So the various communications that have been spoken about are the letters from the Iraqi foreign minister, Dr al-Jaafari, to the UN Security Council on 20 September, the telephone—let me stick first with the general ones, and all of those go very much to that question of consent—
Senator WONG: Sorry, could you step us through the bases of—
Ms Cooper : Yes. I am sorry; I am trying to. What I am trying to say—
Senator WONG: Yes, I understand; you are going to do general and then specific.
Ms Cooper : Yes, exactly.
Senator WONG: I am fine with that, but could you do both sequentially.
Ms Cooper : But they both go to invitation and consent—
Senator WONG: I understood that too.
Ms Cooper : for Australia.
Senator WONG: I understood that too.
Ms Cooper : Okay. So they are relevant.
Senator WONG: I am just trying to ascertain each aspect of that, if that is possible.
Ms Cooper : Sure. So I think you now have the dates for those general—
Senator WONG: It is 25 June and 20 September.
Ms Cooper : 25 June, correct, and 20 September.
Senator WONG: These are the general letters from the Iraqi—
Ms Cooper : Correct.
Senator WONG: was it the ambassador or the foreign minister, to the UN Security Council?
Ms Cooper : It was the foreign minister, yes.
Senator WONG: Please go on.
Ms Cooper : Subsequent to those general invitations to the international community, there have been subsequent conversations between our Prime Minister and the Iraqi Prime Minister, and also a conversation referred to on 22 September—
Senator FAULKNER: Could you speak up a little?
Senator WONG: Yes, if you could—and, rather than saying 'conversations', could you iterate what you are referencing?
Ms Cooper : Okay. I am referencing the conversations between the Iraqi Prime Minister and members of the Australian government: the defence minister on 22 September; prior to that, the Prime Minister on 12 September; and again subsequent conversations with the Prime Minister on 25 September.
Senator WONG: Anything further?
Ms Cooper : And then there is the note—
Senator WONG: Which is?
Ms Cooper : that the Attorney referred to, on 4 October, which, I think, as Senator Faulkner characterised it, is a confirmatory note.
Senator WONG: So, in terms of a specific invitation, is it an cumulative thing?
Ms Cooper : Yes, it is. It is a contextual interpretation of the use-of-force law. There is not a requirement for a specific invitation as such.
Senator WONG: No, that is fine. I am just trying to understand. Is there a letter from the Iraqi PM to us or from an Iraqi minister to the Australian government as well, other than the confirmatory—
Ms Cooper : We usually do our communications through diplomatic notes, rather than letters.
Senator WONG: Sure. There is the confirmatory note on 4 October.
Ms Cooper : Correct.
Senator WONG: Is there a formal request for assistance, in writing, or are you saying the only one is the 4 October note of confirmation?
Ms Cooper : I was just checking the dates. There has been an exchange of notes around the issue. The 4 October—there was a note subsequent to that.
Senator WONG: You used the plural.
Ms Cooper : Yes, I did—an exchange of notes.
Senator WONG: On that date?
Ms Cooper : No, they have different dates.
Senator WONG: I am really just trying to get the sequence here. When you say 'an exchange of notes', can you just give us the dates for those?
Mr Innes-Brown : We had a third person note from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs dated 2 October, receipted on 4 October in Baghdad, and there was another note on Sunday, 19 October.
Senator FAULKNER: Just for the record—
Senator WONG: Third person note?
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, if you could explain that for the record, that would be useful.
Mr Innes-Brown : A third person note is a standard form of communicating, in a diplomatic sense, between countries. It is usually delivered between foreign ministries, conveying important information, requests and so on. It is the standard mechanism.
Senator FAULKNER: But in this case the third person note of 2 October was received by our post, is that right?
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, in Baghdad.
Senator FAULKNER: Can you give us a little more detail around the status of the one on 19 October?
Mr Innes-Brown : It was a third person note and it came from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to our embassy in Baghdad.
Senator Brandis: Senator Faulkner, can I summarise for you please, because we have gone a little bit out of the chronology. It might be helpful, based on the briefing note I have, provided by the department, if I summarise chronologically the various evidences of consent. There are eight. The first is the request by the government of Iraq to the UN Secretary-General on 25 June. The second is the conversation between Prime Minister al-Abadi and Prime Minister Abbott on 12 September. The third is a further request by the government of Iraq made at the Paris conference on peace and security in Iraq on 15 September. The next is Foreign Minister al-Jaafari's letter to the UN Security Council on 20 September.
Senator FAULKNER: Sorry, I do not think we have heard about—
Senator Brandis: Let me just take you through them all.
Senator FAULKNER: Could you just repeat the third? I assumed the third was the fourth. The third is new, I think.
Senator WONG: The Paris conference.
Senator Brandis: On 15 September there was a reiteration by the government of Iraq of its earlier request to the UN Secretary-General made at the Paris conference on peace and security in Iraq. The next is a request by Foreign Minister al-Jaafari to the UN Security Council on 20 September. The next is a conversation between Prime Minister al-Abadi and Defence Minister Johnston on 22 September—I believe that was in Baghdad. The next was a discussion between Prime Minister Abbott and Prime Minister al-Abadi in New York on 25 September. The next was the diplomatic note dated the 2nd but received on 4 October from the Iraqi government to the Australian government. The most recent is the diplomatic note, to which reference has just been made, of 19 October.
Senator FAULKNER: Thank you very much, Minister. It is helpful to have that presented in that way. It is very useful.
Senator WONG: As I said, I am not a lawyer, but as I understood the evidence from Ms Cooper—
Senator Brandis: You are a lawyer, Senator Wong.
Senator WONG: I am no longer a lawyer though—it is so long ago. I have certainly had no practice in international law.
CHAIR: You are misleading the Senate, surely!
Senator WONG: Sorry—I am misleading the Senate.
Senator Brandis: You should not be so hard on yourself, Senator Wong.
Senator WONG: Sometimes people might regard it as a better thing not to be. Ms Cooper talked about invitation and consent. You indicated eight pieces of evidence as to consent. Do I assume it is also invitation? Just to be clear, are those eight factual circumstances, correspondence, interactions—however one describes them; the things the Attorney has gone through—being relied on for both invitation and consent?
Ms Cooper : That is right. It is all part and parcel of the same principle.
Senator Brandis: I should stress that, although they are cumulative, they are not all essential elements of the conclusion that there was consent.
Senator WONG: Sure.
Senator Brandis: Any one of those communications would be sufficient to constitute consent, but the earliest communication, in effect, to the international community of 25 June is obviously of a more general or generic nature than the specific communications between the governments of Iraq and Australia.
Senator WONG: Sure. I appreciate that, in the evidence to which you refer, you are talking of both the general and the specific.
Senator FAULKNER: Minister, are you saying to us—this is layman's language or bush lawyer's language—that there is no tipping point; one of these occurrences happening is the point at which consent is given?
Senator Brandis: The view that was taken—within my department, actually—was: the earliest of the eight events. The appeal to the UN Security Council of 25 June for assistance was of itself a sufficient ground in public international law. But you will understand that, because of its general nature, naturally the Australian government wanted to engage in specific communication with Iraq. But, if the second to the eighth of the communications or episodes that I have identified had never taken place, the first would, in our view, have been enough.
Senator FAULKNER: And I suppose the critical importance of this, as I work through and try to understand this in its entirety, is because, prior to third-person note sent on the 2nd and prior to its receipt on the 4th—of course, it might even be a matter of a couple of weeks before then—a significant number of personnel had been deployed. Not only that, we have also deployed eight fighter jets, as we are all aware. So that, I assume, is also a critical element—that the government would satisfy itself about, if you like, the tipping point or about the legal framework before that had occurred. Is that a fair way of—
Senator Brandis: 'Tipping' point is your word, Senator.
Senator FAULKNER: It is my word and I should not use it. The government had satisfied itself that the legal framework is in place.
Senator Brandis: At all stages of the pre-deployment and the subsequent deployment, the government was satisfied that all appropriate legal steps had been taken.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Just changing tack, I have a couple of questions on reports of an Australian company, HDR Salva Resources Pty Ltd, being involved in the development of a rare earth minerals mine in North Korea. Is DFAT aware of these reports?
Ms Cooper : Yes, we are aware of reports. We have seen them, for example, on the ABC, of companies and their activities.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are Australians allowed to conduct business with the North Korean regime? Is it clear or is it a bit murky?
Ms Cooper : We have sanctions, but they are very specific sanctions, so determining whether a particular activity breaches Australian sanctions is considered on a case-by-case basis. We need to consider detailed information about the particular goods and services, the persons and the entities with whom they are dealing and the level of involvement with the activity. But generally speaking, mining operations in the DPRK per se by Australian companies would not be in breach of Australian sanctions and laws. But there may be situations where an Australian mining company has commercial dealings with DPRK persons or entities that are designated under Australian sanctions laws in conducting mining operations. So there may be, in some instances, a breach of sanctions.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Have you enough information on this particular circumstance to make a judgement? To put it another way, would you consider looking at this, investigating this on a case-by-case basis?
Ms Cooper : We take our sanctions obligations very seriously. We do assess any claims that come to our attention, however they come to our attention. Given the seriousness of that allegation, I would not want to go into specifics on this particular case, but—
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Would you confirm that you will investigate it?
Ms Cooper : We would definitely assess the claims. If it came to the point of an investigation, if you are talking about some kind of criminal investigation, that would be a matter for the AFP.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry, I will not be so specific with the word 'investigation'. I think the ABC has contacted you about this, but DFAT would not comment. At what stage do you have a preliminary assessment rather than an investigation, for example? Would that be something you would have an internal briefing on or—
Ms Cooper : Our general practice is to do an assessment when specific allegations of breaches are brought to our attention. If we are concerned that there may be a criminal matter then we refer it to the AFP.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you confirm that you have done an assessment on this particular issue?
Ms Cooper : Given the sensitivity of the matter and the seriousness of the allegations, I would prefer not to provide any further information on that specific matter. We are getting very close to public interest immunity questions there, I think.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Are there any restrictions imposed by the Australian government on Australians travelling to North Korea to conduct business?
Ms Cooper : There would not be any general restrictions.
Mr Rowe : I could perhaps answer that. No, there are no travel restrictions on Australians going to North Korea.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: Or on Australians being directors of companies operating in North Korea?
Mr Rowe : No, unless they were connected to a proscribed entity or individual.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is my understanding that this is a rare minerals deposit that is being mined. That includes gold and silver, which are proscribed under sanctions. But I suppose that relates directly to the operation rather than to an individual. Would that be the case?
Ms Cooper : In relation to the sanctions in DPRK, there are designated individuals and designated entities. It depends on with whom or, if it is an organisation, with what organisation individuals or companies are engaging with.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: But, if you did an assessment, you would not look at broad things like labour standards or slave labour in North Korea. Those sorts of things would not come into an assessment?
Ms Cooper : That does not come into our sanctions regime.
Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is just strictly on the basis of sanctions. Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you. We will break for lunch.
Proceedings suspended from 12:28 to 13:30
CHAIR: We will resume.
Senator McGRATH: How long did resolution 2166 take to draft and pass through the Security Council?
Mr Varghese : That is the Ebola resolution?
Senator McGRATH: No, to do with MH17.
Mr Varghese : I will ask Mr Merrill, who is the head of our UN Security Council task force.
Mr Merrill : Resolution 2166's inception was really the Prime Minister's announcement on the morning, Australia time, of the Australia's intention to seek UN Security Council action. From that point, we were able to draft up the text, get that to New York, commence with consultations with others and be in a position to have the Foreign Minister get to New York to essentially shepherded through the final phases of the negotiations on that text. That was all done in four days.
Senator McGRATH: How does that compare with other Security Council resolutions?
Mr Merrill : They are apples and oranges. It is fair to say that it is rare for resolutions to essentially be conceived, created out of nothing, shopped around through the council membership and other stakeholders and then put into blue in any time under a week. But this was a unique set of circumstances and the resolution itself was very defined around a specific set of actions and support for investigations. I would not say that there have not been other examples of resolutions adopted in short time frames, but they are not that common.
Senator McGRATH: Who did the minister meet with to ensure that the resolution passed unanimously?
Mr Merrill : I can say that the minister was meeting with the permanent representatives of the permanent five members of the Security Council. There were a number of other PRs who were involved. On the final phases of the negotiation of the resolution, I would say at that point we had expressions of support for the text that we were seeking to have adopted. There were some sticking points and they were resolved either plurilaterally or bilaterally. That would have involved consultations with the Dutch and the Malaysians in New York. At that stage, we also have the Dutch foreign minister there. It was also with the Russian PR representative and the PR of the Ukraine. The UK, who is nominally the penholder on issues on the Ukraine, were also involved in that.
Senator McGRATH: Finally on this area, can you just provide an update on Australia's work on the Security Council in relation to MH17 following resolution 2166?
Mr Merrill : We had purposely put into the resolution some provisions there around the need for the council to continue to remain engaged on the situation there and on efforts to conduct the investigation and to do the recovery—et cetera. We have been using consultations on the broader situation in the Eastern Ukraine to seek updates and to make points about the need for all states to continue to provide full corporation and proceed with the implementation of 2166. That is what we do. That is almost quotidian, if you like. That is stuff that we are doing as part of our regular engagement on the Ukraine. We stand ready at some point before the end of our council term to raise it again and to seek possibly a briefing from the UN on steps that the UN may be able to do as to further assistance to facilitate that investigation. It will be an ongoing process and we are still very much at that initial phase. The most important thing from our point of view was to establish full council backing for an international investigation led by the Dutch, to ensure that that process is underway and supported, and to make sure that the thoroughness of the process that the Dutch are undertaking is well understood.
Senator McGRATH: What assistance has the department provided to former prime ministers since the last estimates?
Mr Varghese : Can I take that on notice so that I can look at what details we have. In previous estimates, we have been through the process for providing assistance to former prime ministers and what is reasonable and what is not. I would just need to check—unless my colleague Mr Roach has the information at hand.
Mr Roach : At the last estimates we tabled a document. I will give you an update on our assistance since that period. We have provided support for one visit by Ms Gillard, two visits by Mr Rudd and two visits by Mr Howard.
Senator McGRATH: Has the department refused any requests for assistance?
Mr Roach : No, we have not.
Senator McGRATH: What assistance has the department provided to former foreign ministers since the last estimates?
Mr Roach : Noting that Mr Rudd falls into the category of being both a former prime minister and a former foreign minister, we have not had any request for support from former foreign ministers.
Senator McGRATH: In her book My Story, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was highly critical of Mr Carr's work ethic. On page 169 she wrote: 'After the 2010 election I never had a foreign minister I could rely on.' At page 171 she said: 'The workload overwhelmed him.' Also at page 171 she said: 'The other negative was Bob's struggle with the focused discipline required for foreign ministry work. It is one thing to chat knowledgeably and engagingly about world affairs at a dinner party; it is quite another to methodically pursue Australia's interests in carefully calibrated diplomatic exchanges.' Did Ms Gillard or a member of her staff ever raise with the department the issue of Mr Carr's work ethic?
Mr Varghese : Are you speaking about the period when Ms Gillard was Prime Minister?
Senator McGRATH: Yes.
Mr Varghese : I am not going to go into any conversations that I may or may not have been privy to under the previous government.
Senator McGRATH: Did you or a member of your department ever raise this matter with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet?
Mr Varghese : Again, it is not something I will go into.
Senator McGRATH: According to Ms Gillard, she tried to structure a role for Kevin Rudd so he could continue to work in the area of foreign affairs after Mr Carr's appointment. Notwithstanding your answer, can you share any information on that?
Mr Varghese : All of these questions go to actions or possible actions under the previous government, and the longstanding convention in this area is that public servants do not comment on or share information about decisions or actions taken by the previous government.
Senator DASTYARI: I want to put on the public record that I recently had a trip to Jordan and was given a tremendous amount of help and assistance by our Ambassador to Jordan, Heidi Venamore, and Marc Innes-Brown and the department. It was a private trip but I was given support and help to facilitate some meetings. I want to put on record my personal appreciation for the department going out of its way to provide assistance for a program when they did not really need to.
Mr Varghese : Thank you.
Senator DASTYARI: I know that the purchase of Australian submarines is not necessarily an area you are directly involved in, Mr Varghese, but there are foreign policy implications. I acknowledge that it is primarily a matter for the Department of Defence and Defence procurement, but I think it goes without saying that there are foreign policy implications. I do not think we can silo off Australia's foreign policy from this significant possible purchase. What is the level of involvement that you or DFAT have had in discussions about the purchase of Australian submarines?
Senator Brandis: No decision has been made by the government in relation to the future purchase of Australian submarines. As you quite properly allow, this is not primarily a question for this department. But, in any event, no decision has been made. I think it is a matter of public knowledge that the matter is under consideration—because the Australian submarine fleet's requirements were severely neglected by the previous government.
Senator DASTYARI: That is not something I agree with, but that is not the debate we should be having now.
Senator Brandis: Be that as it may, no decision has been made. Therefore I do not really think any officers can comment—or should be put in the position to comment—on a hypothetical.
Senator DASTYARI: I am not asking hypotheticals. The question I am asking—and I think it is quite a specific question; it is not a hypothetical one at all—is: has Mr Varghese or the department been involved in any discussions or conversations about the purchase of Australian submarines offshore?
Senator Brandis: If they were, that would fall into the category of advice to government.
Senator DASTYARI: No, I am not asking what the advice was. I am asking whether or not they have had conversations, or whether there have been discussions, formal or otherwise, on the subject of the purchasing of Japanese or other submarines.
Senator Brandis: Firstly, it is a hypothetical and, secondly, it is not a matter for this estimates committee.
CHAIR: Senator Dastyari, do you have a question in another area?
Senator DASTYARI: Mr Varghese, are you aware of comments from the German ambassador, Christopher Mueller—which were quoted in The Australian—stating that the German government stood ready to ensure any Australian submarine project, which could last decades, could succeed? And are you aware that other foreign ambassadors have come out and made remarks, both publicly and privately, about the capability of their nations to build Australian submarines?
Senator STERLE: That sounds like foreign affairs!
Senator DASTYARI: It sounds like foreign affairs to me when you have ambassadors out there saying—
Senator Brandis: Are you asking whether or not Mr Varghese has read an article in a newspaper?
Senator DASTYARI: I am asking whether he is aware of comments.
Senator Brandis: I suppose he can tell you whether or not he is aware of the article you are referring to.
Senator DASTYARI: Thank you for allowing Mr Varghese to answer a question, Senator Brandis! How kind of you!
Mr Varghese : I do recall that media report and those comments by the German ambassador. I do not recall any other comments by other ambassadors.
Senator DASTYARI: Has the German ambassador, or any other ambassador that you are aware of, had discussions with either DFAT or the Minister for Foreign Affairs regarding the purchase of submarines?
Mr Varghese : He has not had any discussions with me and I am not aware of whether he has had discussions with others. There would be nothing remarkable about the ambassador of a country having discussions about expertise or products or capability that their country possesses and wishes to market.
Senator DASTYARI: You are saying you are not aware—and you can take the question on notice; that is fine—whether there has been a formal approach to the department or the foreign minister regarding this matter from the German ambassador?
Mr Varghese : I am not aware, but I am happy to take that on notice.
Senator GALLACHER: There are 40 people in the room. Is there no one in the room who is aware of that?
Mr Varghese : I would have to check whether there is anyone in the room who is aware of it.
Senator DASTYARI: Has the department or the minister been involved with any foreign ambassador or foreign minister regarding the purchase of Australian submarines?
Mr Varghese : The department's discussions with the Japanese embassy would have included some discussions about the submarine issue.
Senator DASTYARI: You are saying that there have been formal discussions with the Japanese embassy? Correct?
Mr Varghese : You are using the word 'formal'. I am talking about discussions that are held in the to and fro of what the department does with our embassies.
Senator DASTYARI: Were they informal? Define them for me. I am not privy to these conversations. How do they work?
Senator Brandis: You are the one asking the questions. You have had an answer: there have been no formal discussions.
Senator DASTYARI: That is not what Mr Varghese said.
Senator Brandis: It is in the nature of the work of diplomats to talk to each other.
Senator DASTYARI: Are you saying there have been no formal discussions with the department of foreign affairs regarding the purchase of submarines?
Mr Varghese : It is no secret that the interest of the Australian government in the possibility of acquiring Japanese submarines is something that has been discussed between the two countries at the highest levels. Those discussions would, from time to time, include discussions between our embassy in Tokyo and officials of the Japanese government, including officials in the Gaimusho, the Japanese foreign ministry, and from time to time they would include discussions between the embassy of Japan and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Senator DASTYARI: Have been any discussions that you are aware of with other embassies and other foreign ministers aside from the Japanese embassy and foreign ministry?
Mr Varghese : On submarines, I assume?
Senator DASTYARI: On the purchasing of particular submarines, yes.
Mr Varghese : I am not aware of any other bilateral discussions on submarines with other governments.
Senator DASTYARI: The only government you are aware of us having a conversation with about the purchase of submarines is the Japanese government?
Senator Brandis: About the possible purchase of submarines.
Senator DASTYARI: The possible purchase.
Senator Brandis: As I am at pains to point out to you, no decision has been made by the government.
Senator DASTYARI: You are saying that there have been no conversations with the American embassy or the American ambassador regarding Australia's possible purchasing of submarines? I remember there was a lot in the media for a long period about us leasing American submarines at one point.
Mr Varghese : That is not what I said. My understanding of your question is whether there had been discussions about the purchase of submarines from other countries—for example, Germany or other countries.
Senator DASTYARI: Sweden, France or others who have come out.
Mr Varghese : I am not aware of any recent discussions with regard to the possible purchasing of other submarines. We talk to the Americans about defence and strategic acquisitions issues all the time.
Senator DASTYARI: The defence minister was in Japan—I have it here in my notes—a week or two ago. Is that correct? Is that your understanding?
Mr Varghese : He was there recently.
Senator DASTYARI: In the past fortnight. He had other things to do as well, but it is no secret that part of the reason he was in Japan was to continue discussions about a possible purchase of Japanese submarines, noting that no decision has yet been made, Minister. But part of the reason he was there was that there were discussions being held as part of a broader dialogue about the Australia-Japan relationship as it amounts to the procurement of military equipment, including submarines. Is that fair?
Mr Varghese : We do not procure much military equipment from Japan.
Senator DASTYARI: No—they are not in a position to sell it to us. What involvement did your department have with that trip? Did someone from the department of foreign affairs accompany the minister, or was it just at the embassy—at that end they gave him a briefing? Can you run through what the involvement of the department would have been.
Mr Varghese : There would not have been a departmental officer accompanying Senator Johnston. It would be very unusual for a departmental officer to accompany another minister on a visit. To the best of my knowledge there was no departmental officer. Clearly a visit by the defence minister to Japan would very closely involve the embassy and the ambassador and DFAT officers at the post, as well as, of course, the defence attache and the defence attache's office in Tokyo.
Senator DASTYARI: There have been, that we are aware of, three occasions this year where the head of DMO—this is from the head of DMO's own evidence—visited Japan with the purpose of having discussions regarding the possible purchase of submarines. Were they ever accompanied by someone from the department of foreign affairs?
Mr Varghese : I would have to double-check but I doubt that they would have been accompanied. I stand to be corrected but it is unlikely.
Senator DASTYARI: And your involvement would more likely have been at the other end—the Australian embassy in Japan would have facilitated meetings and whatnot?
Mr Varghese : As embassies do for visits by government officials.
Senator DASTYARI: When it comes to defence procurement, and especially defence procurement of the size we are talking about, involving submarines, are there foreign policy implications when governments make these types of decisions?
Mr Varghese : There will be foreign policy angles to acquisition decisions of that scale, clearly.
Senator DASTYARI: I would not mind getting your opinion on some comments made recently by the South Australian Minister for Defence Industries, Mr Martin Hamilton-Smith—
CHAIR: We do not need an opinion, Senator.
Senator DASTYARI: You can put the factual position on whether or not you agree with his statements,
CHAIR: No, Senator Dastyari—direct a question to the secretary, and I am sure the minister will allow him to answer. Could you perhaps rephrase the question.
Senator DASTYARI: 'We must the carefully consider how the purchase of a submarine from overseas, particularly a Japanese submarine, might impact on this relationship in terms of trade, investment and jobs'—he was referring to the Australia-China relationship as it impacts on South Australia.
CHAIR: Is that a statement or a question?
Senator DASTYARI: That is a statement. My question is, is that a view that is shared by the department of foreign affairs?
Mr Varghese : I am not commenting on the merits or otherwise of the view of a state government minister. I do not think it is appropriate for me to do that.
Senator DASTYARI: What impact could this decision have on our relationship?
Mr Varghese : It is a hypothetical. There is no decision about submarine acquisitions and I do not think there is much to be gained by speculating about possible implications or possible reactions—
Senator DASTYARI: But you admit there will be implications?
Mr Varghese : No, I am not saying that at all—
Senator DASTYARI: You are saying there will be no implications?
CHAIR: For heaven's sake, Senator Dastyari, please ask questions that can be answered.
Senator Brandis: Senator Dastyari, this is the trap you make for yourself when you disregard my counsel not to ask hypothetical questions. You are now asking for an officer to express an opinion on a hypothetical on a hypothetical.
Senator DASTYARI: What I am asking the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—and I do not think this is an unreasonable question—is that, while there is a live discussion going on in this country about the possible purchase of overseas submarines and the foreign policy implications of that, while going down this path, senators, the government and others are able to have a full awareness of the consequences of those decisions should they be made. I do not think that is an unreasonable question, Senator.
Senator Brandis: I do not think it is even a comprehensible question, Senator. What do you mean by the 'foreign policy implications'?
Senator DASTYARI: I am asking the secretary whether or not he believes the foreign policy implications as described by Minister Hamilton-Smith risked the potential of hurting our relationship with China.
Senator Brandis: The secretary has told you that he has no intention of commenting on views that you quote from a state minister.
Senator DASTYARI: I am asking him a question.
CHAIR: If I can just clarify for our colleagues: the estimates process is one in which questions are asked to the minister and then the minister either responds to them or delegates others to answer them.
Senator DASTYARI: Minister, how about I ask you the question.
Senator Brandis: You may ask me the question. In fact, I will take all the questions on this topic, Senator Dastyari.
Senator DASTYARI: Minister, is there a concern or an awareness within the government that a decision of this size as to where and how we purchase our submarines risks foreign policy implications and certainly has potential consequences for our relationships with other nations in Asia and, in particular, China?
Senator Brandis: The government has under consideration, as is publicly known, the replacement of the Collins class submarines. No decision has yet been made but the matter has been under consideration, and in the course of that consideration all relevant matters will be taken into account.
Senator DASTYARI: Mr Varghese, there was an answer to a question on notice No. 57 regarding the PM's visit in April. Mr Shearer accompanied DMO head Warren King and a larger delegation to Japan on 19 and 20 May. I do not know if you have a copy of your answer to question on notice 57?
Mr Varghese : I think someone is trying to retrieve it.
Senator DASTYARI: Do you have any awareness of the purpose of that delegation?
Mr Varghese : My question No. 57 relates to the charter of aircraft by ministers. So I think I had better find the one that you are referring to.
Senator Brandis: Senator Dastyari, Mr Shearer is the Prime Minister's national security adviser. He is a member of the Prime Minister's staff, and questions about the travel arrangements of members of the Prime Minister's staff would, I should have thought, be asked of either the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or perhaps the Department of Finance and Administration.
Senator DASTYARI: Senator Brandis, two points: firstly, I will get a copy of the answer and table it, and then we can come back to it after you have had an opportunity to read it; secondly, I know you are doing everything you can to stop me asking questions.
Senator Brandis: No, no.
Senator DASTYARI: When I have asked a question—
Senator Brandis: No, I am encouraging you to ask relevant questions.
Senator DASTYARI: When I have asked a question on notice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and they have responded by asking questions on the response that the department itself has provided to a question on notice that was asked through this process, I do not think it is an illegitimate question.
Senator Brandis: Senator Dastyari, that is a matter for the chair, ultimately. I am not trying to stop the witness answering questions. As your colleague Senator Faulkner can tell you, before the luncheon adjournment we had a most fruitful exchange in which a lot of relevant and important public information was elicited, without complaint from the government. I am not trying to stop you asking questions. Your questions have to be relevant to this department, and they have to be proper questions.
Senator FAULKNER: You make the point that the travel of a member of the Prime Minister's staff is not a matter for DFAT. I totally accept that. If there were issues relating to the engagement of that official with matters that pertained to, and were involved with, the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, that is properly a matter that could be canvassed.
Senator Brandis: That is not the question that was asked.
Senator FAULKNER: It may not have been. I do not want to predict at this stage where Senator Dastyari might go with his questioning, neither would you, of course, Senator Brandis.
Senator Brandis: Senator Dastyari's questions, if I may say so, Senator Faulkner, are a little less focused than your questions are, because you are very famous for the focus of your questions in this arena. Senator Dastyari's questions are a little more serpentine than yours, so it is hard to know where he is heading.
Senator FAULKNER: His questions may be a great deal more clever than mine. It is just that I am a lot older than Senator Dastyari, and I am more used to the response of witnesses at the table over many years.
CHAIR: Senator Dastyari, it is probably a good time pause and to ask you to pause, and we will definitely come back to you when we have the answer. In the meantime I will go to Senator Wright.
Senator WRIGHT: Good afternoon. On a slightly different tack, I am going to ask some questions about international reproductive surrogacy and, in particular, two cases that have come to light from India and Thailand. I am going to start off by asking about what role the department has in terms of overseeing surrogacy arrangements entered into by Australians, both in South-East Asia and in India in case they are different, or it might be that there is one response that will actually cover both scenarios.
Mr Varghese : Senator, let me start an answer to that and my colleagues may want to add. The main role the department has flows from its responsibility for the issuing of passports. To secure an Australian passport, clearly, you need to be an Australian citizen. The work of our posts in surrogacy matters is to establish descent for the purposes of citizenship, and that is a task undertaken by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Once established whether there is sufficient evidentiary basis for the issuing of an Australian passport that is the responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. That would be the case, obviously, in both India and South-East Asia. How does an Australian go about bringing back a child to Australia born through surrogacy? The predominant requirement there would be for the parent to obtain a passport for the baby, and go through the steps that are necessary to establish descent.
Mr Varghese : That would be one component of it. The country from which the commissioning parents are coming would have their own requirements for approvals of departing the country with a child born from surrogacy.
Senator WRIGHT: When you say 'commissioning parents', you mean the Australians in this case?
Mr Varghese : Correct.
Senator WRIGHT: So that I understand what you are saying, they would need to make arrangements with the country of departure where the baby born to allow for the child to leave.
Mr Varghese : And the country of departure would have their own rules. Those rules are not the same in every country, and they would need to comply with those rules.
Senator WRIGHT: How many children born through surrogacy arrangements have been brought back to Australia from South-East Asia in the past 12 months?
Mr Varghese : Unless my colleagues have an answer, we will take it on notice.
Senator WRIGHT: I suppose that question assumes that you would know, as a department, that these children have been born through surrogacy arrangements. I am wondering how you would necessarily know that. Do you have a system where you would know that, or is it just that you are being requested to provide or authorise passports for babies? I am trying to work out what arrangements you have in terms of keeping track of these sorts of arrangements and of children who might be coming back into Australia as a result of surrogacy arrangements.
Mr Varghese : We would only know about these cases when they are drawn to our attention, usually by the commissioning parents for the purposes of seeking an Australian passport.
Senator WRIGHT: That is what I am thinking—it really relies on the commissioning parent to notify the department that that is the reason they are seeking the passport. To what extent would they need to inform the department that it was a surrogacy arrangement when they are seeking a passport? Would it be required?
Mr Varghese : If they want to establish citizenship by descent then obviously they would need to explain what the circumstances of the birth were, and then we would need to go through whatever procedures we require in order to establish citizenship by descent. As I understand it, with surrogacy cases that involves a DNA test.
Senator WRIGHT: I am just imagining a scenario—and I do not know whether this is realistic at all—where you could have an Australian couple who end up being overseas, having a child or saying that they have had a child between them, not by a surrogacy arrangement, and seeking a passport for that child. Is it feasible that they could be seeking a passport for a child that is the result of a surrogacy arrangement, but they do not tell the truth about that and say it is their own child? Is that possible?
Mr Varghese : They would need to produce the birth certificate of the child. The birth certificate would contain some information from which you could draw some conclusions.
Senator WRIGHT: So it is probably fair to say then that, given the requirement to have a passport for a child entering Australia, the department would be likely to know of all the surrogacy cases that have occurred?
Mr Varghese : With the surrogacy cases that have occurred with the intention of the child coming to Australia, I think it is a reasonable assumption, because they could only do so, as you say, with an Australian passport.
Senator WRIGHT: You have taken on notice the question I asked about the number of children brought back from South-East Asia. Could I also ask you to take on notice a similar question regarding passports issued for children born through surrogacy in South, Central and West Asia. In terms of answering those questions on notice, could I ask for a country-by-country breakdown for both of those questions.
Mr Varghese : Could I clarify: you want South-East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia—
Senator WRIGHT: And West Asia.
Mr Varghese : By which you mean the Middle East?
Senator WRIGHT: It is a good question, isn't it? Perhaps not, then—perhaps we will just say South-East, South and Central Asia, thank you.
Mr Varghese : Okay.
Senator WRIGHT: Do you have available for me today the number of Australian passports issued for children born through surrogacy in India in the last 12 months?
Mr Varghese : I do not. Maybe we could take that on notice, as well.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. I would like to take you to the specific cases that have come to light. We will start with the case of baby Gammy. I am presuming you are aware that this is the male child born to a Thai surrogate mother but allegedly rejected by his Australian parents when they found out that he had Down syndrome. Has the department had any involvement in that case?
Mr Varghese : Yes, I am sure we have. I will ask Mr Brown if he could take us through what the department's involvement has been.
CHAIR: No, not Mr Brown.
Mr Varghese : No? Sorry—Kathy Klugman.
Ms Klugman : I am the First Assistant Secretary, South-East Asia Mainland and Regional Division. Just to explain, that includes Thailand. Sorry, Senator—could you repeat your question.
Senator WRIGHT: I am asking if the department has had any involvement in the baby Gammy case, and what was the nature of the involvement.
Ms Klugman : The department's involvement in the case was principally through a consular and a passports lens. Obviously, we have had some involvement since that case came to light in discussions with the Thai government on their stated intention to ban commercial surrogacy and the fact that they have developed some draft legislation to make good that ban. It is unclear at this stage when the legislation will be considered by the Thai National Legislative Assembly, which was only recently reconvened.
Our involvement beyond that has included a concern for the circumstances of the other Australians who might be in the middle of existing surrogacy arrangements in Thailand. We have had a number of conversations with the Thai government with the welfare of those Australians in mind. Secretary Varghese raised this set of issues with senior officials in Bangkok when he visited for senior officials talks on 29 August. The minister herself used her recent interactions in Thailand and with the Thai acting Foreign Minister when they were together in Burma recently again to urge Thai authorities to adopt a flexible approach to exit requirements where they cover individuals who are in the middle of surrogacy arrangements and in advance of any legislative changes that might be produced by the Thai parliament. In fact, we are pleased to see that the Thai authorities have been dealing with the issues very much in a very pragmatic and quite a sensitive way.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you for that. I understand that the Australian couple applied for a passport and were granted a passport for baby Gammy's twin sister, Pippa, who I understand is in the care of the couple in Australia. Is that the case? Was a passport issued to that child?
Mr Varghese : That is correct.
Senator WRIGHT: To what extent was there any screening of the Australian couple before that passport was issued?
Mr Varghese : We have very clear requirements based in legislation on what you have to do before you can issue a passport. Those requirements would have been followed in this case. Of course, the passport was being issued not to the commissioning parents but to the child.
Senator WRIGHT: I am interested in what the clear requirements are. It seems to me from what you have already said that they are essentially: the descent of the child, their entitlement to be issued a passport to be a citizen of Australia—
Mr Varghese : That is probably the most important of the requirements.
Senator WRIGHT: Yes. So it would seem to me that there is no requirement legislatively before issuing a passport in that way for the department to consider the welfare of the child or the circumstances in which it is coming to live in Australia.
Mr Varghese : No. Citizenship by descent is a right, so once you can establish descent the matter resolves itself.
Senator WRIGHT: I will come back to the Indian case in a minute. Are there any checks that the department generally would do on people when it becomes apparent to the department that this is a child who is born of surrogacy arrangements? Are there any checks that the department would generally do on people seeking to bring children born through surrogacy back to Australia? I am asking that because of the information that has come to light in terms of the other matter I was going to refer to today—the Indian child where it subsequently transpired that the father of the child had been convicted of child sex offences. Are there any checks that the department carries out, apart from the standard requirements for issuing a passport?
Mr Varghese : Our role is restricted to the issuing of a passport. That role is governed by the legislative framework. The checks we do are to ensure that we comply with the legislative framework.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. I actually need to correct myself. I have just, I think, said something—
Mr Varghese : It was the other case.
Senator WRIGHT: that was not accurate and I do not want that to stand, so I apologise for that. In fact, my understanding is that it was not the Indian case; it was actually the Thai case, where it has since emerged that the Australian father of the baby, Gammy, was a sex offender with 22 child sex convictions. I hope that that stands clearly on the record. Is it possible that the department could have ascertained that sort of information before approving the passport for the child?
Mr Varghese : The commissioning parent was not requesting a passport. The application for a passport was for the child that was born through a surrogacy arrangement. As I said, our involvement in this matter and our obligations relate to whether or not the legislative requirements for the issuing of the passport had been met. Those legislative requirements essentially turn on establishing proof of descent. They do not involve an investigation into the circumstances of the birth.
Senator WRIGHT: You say the commissioning parent was not asking for the passport, so essentially it is the child, the baby itself, that is asking for the passport?
Mr Varghese : The commissioning parent obviously is asking for a passport for the child.
Senator WRIGHT: On behalf of.
Mr Varghese : Yes.
Senator WRIGHT: So the right to the passport resides with the child, not the commissioning parent?
Mr Varghese : Correct.
Senator WRIGHT: Given what has come to light, which I think concerns many people in Australia and, no doubt, people in the department as well, is the department reviewing any of its processes in light of that case or is there really no scope for reviewing those processes given the legislative requirements and the regime that is in existence at the moment?
Mr Varghese : I do not think there is a basis for us to review our processes because the processes we have in place are the processes relating to the issuing of the passport, and I do not think anyone has suggested that there is a gap in the way that is being handled. The broader question, of course, is a much more complicated one and, ultimately, they are questions for governments in terms of legislation. In this area, of course, state governments have the responsibility, not the federal government—by which I mean in the area of surrogacy. So that is not something that is up to the department.
Senator WRIGHT: I now want to go to the 2012 case, where the twins were born to the surrogate mother in India but I understand their Australian parents only brought one baby home. It has been reported and alleged that the decision not to bring home one of the children was based on the child's sex. Does the department have any information about that case and that particular allegation?
Mr Varghese : Here again—and colleagues may be able to add to this—as I understand it, the commissioning parents sought a passport for one of the children and we went through the processes that I have already described to issue that passport. That was what the application related to.
Senator WRIGHT: At the time that the passport for the child that was brought to Australia was issued or granted, was the department aware that there was another twin?
Mr Varghese : I will ask Mr Hutchesson to answer that.
Mr Hutchesson : The answer to that question is yes, we were aware that there was another child.
Senator WRIGHT: What involvement did the department have in that scenario with the commissioning parents applying on behalf of one of the twins for a passport but not the other?
Mr Hutchesson : The role of the department, particularly the high commission, was precisely as outlined by the secretary. In the case of the child for whom the commissioning parents were seeking a passport, the appropriate procedures were pursued and, in fact, that did result in citizenship been awarded and a passport being granted to that one child.
In the case of the other child, for which the commissioning parents had not sought citizenship, that was not a matter in which the Australian government had a role. India became responsible for the welfare of that child, and adoption arrangements became a matter for the Indian legal system. In fact, we understand that the child was formally adopted and does have Indian citizenship now.
Senator WRIGHT: One report cited the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Judge Bryant, as saying that she was told that the high commission had delayed granting the 'visa'—that is the phrase that was used; it may have been the passport, I am not sure—while they tried to persuade the commissioning parents to take both children. Is that true?
Mr Hutchesson : Certainly there was consultation between the high commission and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra and, in turn, with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. But the clear advice to the high commission was that the one child in question for which citizenship and a passport were being sought was entitled to that, according to the due process, and once that matter was resolved the passport was conferred. I do not think there was any inordinate delay. It was just a matter of working through the appropriate process.
Senator WRIGHT: There may not have been inordinate delay, but I am interested. Perhaps my question was not specific enough. When I asked what involvement the department had, you did not mention that the high commission had been involved in that way. When I ask about the department, would you understand that not to include actions by, say, an ambassador or a high commissioner? Do I need to be more specific when I ask my questions?
Mr Hutchesson : Of course, the commissioning parents went to the high commission and that was the front line, as it were, of the Australian government presence. Advice was then sought from relevant agencies back in Canberra.
Senator WRIGHT: I am just interested that, when I asked what involvement the department had, you did not mention that particular aspect of it, whereas in fact that is involvement, isn't it? If there was some kind of negotiation going on to encourage the parents to take both children—which I personally would think is probably laudable, but that is only my opinion—that is involvement.
Mr Hutchesson : There were certainly DFAT officials in Delhi that were involved in this matter. Whether there was any discussion to seek to determine the course of action that the commissioning parents might wish to take, I am really not sure.
Senator WRIGHT: Can you find that out? That is really what I am asking about. There is a report from the Chief Justice of the Family Court saying that she was told that the high commission had delayed granting the 'visa'—the word that is used there—while they tried to persuade the parents to take both children. I am sure you can ascertain yes or no to that.
Mr Hutchesson : I would have to take that on notice.
Senator WRIGHT: Thank you. It would be good if you would do that. It has also been alleged that there was a concern that a senior federal politician was advocating on behalf of the Australian parents. Is that true?
Mr Hutchesson : The high commission staff had no contact with any Australian member of parliament on this matter.
Senator WRIGHT: That may be the case. I am not asking whether the high commission staff had contact with someone. I am asking whether there was advocacy with the department—and I will use that term generally, whether it is the high commission or the department of foreign affairs—and whether there was advocacy by a senior federal politician on behalf of the Australian parents.
Mr Hutchesson : I do not believe so. I am not aware of any such advocacy.
Senator WRIGHT: Could you make inquiries then?
Mr Hutchesson : I will make inquiries. I do not believe that there was any such advocacy.
Senator WRIGHT: When was the child's passport actually issued—the male child who was brought home?
Mr Varghese : I think we might have to take that on notice. My notes do not have a date, or not one that I can readily see anyway.
Senator WRIGHT: I am running out of time, so I am going to ask you to take on notice whether there has been any correspondence with the Indian government in relation to this case, subsequent to the decision to issue the one passport. It has been stated several times that India became responsible for the welfare of the other child and adoption arrangements became a matter for its legal system. I understand that there is an argument that these are issues that are within the province of state and territory governments, but there are obvious international elements to these issues. The final question I would have then is: are there aspects which would make it difficult for state or territory governments to manage, given the interplay between international relations in this case? I think there is probably concern in the Australian public that we need to work out how to deal with this sort of issue. These two cases caused a lot of concern. To what extent are state and territory governments able to manage these, or to what extent is there a necessity for an Australian Commonwealth focus?
Mr Brown : I do not think it is really appropriate for us, as officials, to postulate a view on whether or not there should be a federal approach on these issues. As the secretary and Mr Hutchesson have said, our responsibilities are really quite discrete in this entire issue. Just to be clear, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection is the agency responsible for making citizenship decisions. Once commissioning parents apply for citizenship and that is granted, then our role through the passports function is to provide the commissioning parents with a passport for the child born through a surrogacy arrangement. Our key determining factor in making that judgement is whether the surrogate mother has consented to the arrangement, and that is something where we apply due diligence very rigorously. I certainly take your point that this is an area where there is tremendous community interest, but our role, as I am trying to outline, is really at the end of the process. The whole issue of law enforcement and how state and territory governments deal with this is something which I will not comment on.
Senator WRIGHT: Can I ask you to take on notice just what are those processes to establish due diligence and to establish that the surrogate mother is consenting?
Mr Brown : It is written consent.
CHAIR: Secretary and Minister, are you happy if we take some questions now about Indonesia?
Senator McEWEN: I want to ask a few questions about the Prime Minister's attendance at the inauguration of the new Indonesian President. Was there a formal invitation to Prime Minister Abbott from the Indonesian President or from the Indonesian government to attend the inauguration?
Mr Varghese : My understanding is that Indonesian practice for presidential inaugurations is not to issue formal invitations. So I do not think there were any formal invitations issued. But some regional leaders and others indicated an interest in attending the inauguration, and that was not just accommodated but welcomed by the incoming Indonesian administration.
Senator McEWEN: You said you understand that it is the usual practice in Indonesia that formal invitations are not issued. Do you know that that was the case?
Mr Varghese : That is right. There was no formal invitation extended.
Senator McEWEN: Was that the case when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was made president?
Mr Varghese : That is correct. It was the same case there and then Prime Minister Howard attended the inauguration, but not in response to a formal invitation.
Senator McEWEN: Who would have initiated the request to attend the inauguration from this end?
Mr Varghese : It is a case of other countries indicating an interest in attending.
Senator McEWEN: Did DFAT do that on behalf of the Prime Minister?
Mr Varghese : It would have been handled through our ambassador in Jakarta, but it would have been the Prime Minister who had expressed an interest in attending.
Senator GALLACHER: I am an absolute novice at this, but for an inauguration ceremony are you saying that no-one gets an invitation? No-one from ASEAN, Asia or America?
Mr Varghese : I will ask Mr Cox whether ASEAN is in a different position, but the inauguration of a new president is essentially a domestic event in the eyes of the Indonesians. As I said, other regional leaders expressed an interest in attending as they did at the time of President Yudhoyono's inauguration.
Senator GALLACHER: You don't get an invitation—they just leave seats at the front of the queue for when you arrive.
Mr Varghese : They know you are coming. It is not a question of musical chairs.
Senator McEWEN: Somebody in the PMO would have asked on behalf of the Prime Minister for the ambassador to advise the Indonesian government that Prime Minister Abbott wished to attend.
Mr Varghese : That is correct.
Senator McEWEN: Do you know whether formal invitations were sent out to any other world leaders, like ASEAN leaders?
Mr Cox : As the Secretary says, our understanding is that this is a domestic event and that invitations are not issued to any foreign leaders.
Senator DASTYARI: Mr Cox, are you saying we could all have gone? I am being facetious.
Mr Cox : They are not issued to any foreign leaders. Foreign leaders ask if they can attend and it is then facilitated.
Senator McEWEN: Is that Indonesian protocol for any big event or just for inaugurations?
Mr Varghese : It just depends on the event. As I say, they primarily see the inauguration as a domestic affair.
Senator McEWEN: On departing Australia for Indonesia via Papua New Guinea last weekend, did the Prime Minister have a scheduled meeting with president-elect Joko Widodo?
Mr Varghese : Senator, I think you should direct questions about the Prime Minister's program and travel to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator McEWEN: But DFAT would have had to organise it through your high commissioner or ambassador.
Mr Varghese : Certainly the arrangements for the visit would have been handled by our mission in Jakarta, and my understanding is that the Prime Minister did meet with President Jokowi while he was in Jakarta for the inauguration.
Senator McEWEN: Do you know whether the Prime Minister asked for that meeting or whether it was offered?
Mr Varghese : Normally in these situations there is a dialogue between the embassy and the host government about the arrangements for the visit, and in the course of that they would have flagged whether a bilateral meeting was possible.
Senator McEWEN: Who would have flagged it—the Indonesians?
Mr Varghese : We probably would initially have flagged it, but, as in all dialogues, it could be taken forward by either party.
Senator McEWEN: Do you know how long the meeting went for?
Mr Varghese : I do not know; I was not there. I assume that there would have been others present but I do not know for sure. Sometimes meetings are held on a four-eyes basis. If there were others present, I assume that the ambassador would have been one, but there was no Canberra based departmental person travelling with the Prime Minister.
Senator McEWEN: Are you able to find out whether the ambassador was present, and/or which other Australia officials were in attendance, if there were any?
Mr Varghese : We already discussed earlier today that normal practice is not to reveal all the attendees at meetings. But I will take on notice your question about whether the ambassador was present.
Senator McEWEN: And any other Australian officials?
Mr Varghese : Subject to the observation that our normal practice is not to reveal all of the participants.
Senator McEWEN: Would you have any information about what was discussed at that meeting?
Mr Varghese : I have not yet seen a record of the meeting, so I would only have the remarks that the Prime Minister has subsequently made.
Senator McEWEN: Are you expecting to get a record of that meeting?
Mr Varghese : Yes.
Senator McEWEN: When will that become available?
Mr Varghese : The record is something prepared by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator McEWEN: Was DFAT asked to provide any briefings or material for the Prime Minister for that meeting?
Mr Varghese : Normally, briefing for the Prime Minister is handled by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. As you would expect, we have a substantial input into PM&C's briefing process, but they produce the brief.
Senator McEWEN: Did they ask you for assistance in preparing the brief?
Mr Varghese : They always ask us for assistance in preparing briefs for prime ministerial travel.
Senator McEWEN: What kinds of issues did they ask for briefing information about from DFAT?
Mr Varghese : We would provide briefing on what we would see as the major issues in the bilateral relationship. Of course in this case it is a meeting with a brand-new Indonesian president, so we would take that into account in finalising our briefing input to PM&C. Obviously, with the G20 meeting coming up soon that would be one item that we would focus on.
Senator McEWEN: It would be, but was it?
Senator DASTYARI: Good question.
Senator Brandis: The witness has said that he has not seen the record of the meeting, he said that he was not there, he said that he would have expected it to be—and you ask, 'Was it?' What more can he do if he has not yet seen the minutes of the meeting?
Senator McEWEN: I am talking about the front-end preparation for the meeting. I am asking Mr Varghese: what kinds of issues was DFAT asked to provide briefing material on for the Prime Minister's meeting with the president-elect of Indonesia?
Mr Varghese : We provide briefing on what we consider to be the major bilateral issues, or issues that are likely to be raised.
Senator McEWEN: What were those major issues? You said the G20, so I assume that was in there.
Mr Varghese : I am not going to go into the details of briefing prepared for the Prime Minister. I do not think that is appropriate at all.
Senator McEWEN: Was information provided to PM&C about issues of border protection?
Senator Brandis: I will take these questions now, Senator McEwen. You should know, and I am sure that you do know, that officials should not be asked to provide information concerning advice to ministers—and that includes, of course, the Prime Minister.
Senator McEWEN: Mr Varghese, you said that DFAT would provide information about issues relevant to both countries for such a meeting. Would information about border protection and the interplay between Indonesia and Australia about asylum seekers be one of those issues?
Senator Brandis: The same answer as I just gave to your last question.
Senator McEWEN: So we are happy to say that we provided information about the G20 but we are not prepared to talk about anything else?
Senator Brandis: It is not a question of us not being prepared to. It is not a proper question.
Senator McEWEN: I have not asked for an opinion.
Senator Brandis: You have asked for the details of advice to ministers, and that is not provided.
Senator McEWEN: It was not actually advice to ministers, was it? It was information provided to the department for PM&C, for the purposes of preparing a brief—
Senator Brandis: Which would disclose advice to ministers.
Senator McEWEN: I take it you were not at that meeting, Mr Varghese.
Mr Varghese : No.
Senator Brandis: He has already told you he was not at the meeting, Senator.
Senator McEWEN: You said you are expecting a written report about the meeting.
Senator Brandis: He has already told you that.
Senator McEWEN: Yes. Have you received any verbal feedback about that meeting?
Mr Varghese : I have only seen the comments that the Prime Minister made subsequent to the meeting.
Senator McEWEN: Have you had any discussions with the foreign minister about what was discussed at that meeting?
Senator Brandis: Conversations between officials and ministers are not proper questions.
Senator McEWEN: Regarding the report that you anticipate receiving, who will the report come from?
Mr Varghese : It is a record of conversation which is normally prepared by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator McEWEN: There must be an official there to prepare that report, correct?
Mr Varghese : There would have been a departmental PM&C official.
Senator McEWEN: Do we know who that would have been?
Senator Brandis: He has already told you, Senator McEwen, it is not the practice of the department to identify the names of officials present at meetings of this kind.
Senator McEWEN: Would the Prime Minister take their chief of staff to a meeting like that?
Senator Brandis: The same answer, Senator McEwen: it is not the practice to identify those who accompany the Prime Minister to meetings of this kind.
Senator McEWEN: We often see pictures of the chief of staff with the Prime Minister at meetings with foreign dignitaries. Was he at this meeting?
Senator Brandis: Do you have a question, Senator?
Senator McEWEN: I just asked a question.
Senator Brandis: The answer is the same as the answer I gave to the last question.
Senator McEWEN: You are not going to tell us whether she was there or not?
Senator Brandis: It is not the practice to identify those who accompany the Prime Minister to meetings of this kind.
CHAIR: Senator McEwen, could I seek your indulgence for a moment. Senator Heffernan has—
Senator McEWEN: Can I just finish this? I have only two more questions.
Senator McEWEN: Are you able to tell me: without giving their names, were the people who accompanied the Prime Minister to this meeting officials of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or officials of DFAT?
Mr Varghese : There were no departmental officials from Canberra travelling with the Prime Minister.
Senator McEWEN: So not from DFAT.
Senator Brandis: That is not what he said.
Senator McEWEN: Not from DFAT Canberra staff, but you cannot say whether or not there were PM&C staff from Canberra at that meeting.
Mr Varghese : Depending on the size of the meeting, I would expect that it would have included officials from the Prime Minister's department, a representation from the embassy and members of the Prime Minister's office.
Senator McEWEN: Normal practice would be that in a meeting like that there would be officers from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, prime ministerial staff and the ambassador. That would be normal practice, so we would anticipate that those people would have been at that meeting, yes?
Senator Brandis: That is an inference you might draw, but the question you have asked the officer is whether that is normal practice.
Senator McEWEN: Mr Varghese, just to go back, when were you anticipating getting the report of the meeting and who—
Mr Varghese : I can only tell you I will get it when it is ready. I do not control the work habits of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator Brandis: So there is no misunderstanding here, what Mr Varghese was describing before is the routine whereby a note or record of the meeting is routinely prepared by a PM&C note taker and routinely circulated to DFAT.
Senator McEWEN: Would there normally be a Canberra official from DFAT at a meeting like that?
Mr Varghese : It varies according to the nature of the meeting.
Senator McEWEN: Who chooses? Who decides whether a Canberra based DFAT official is going to attend a meeting between our Prime Minister and the President-elect of Indonesia?
Mr Varghese : Decisions of that nature are ultimately made by the Prime Minister's office.
CHAIR: Thanks, Senator McEwen. Senator Heffernan.
Senator HEFFERNAN: How are you all? How are you, Mr Varghese? Are you having a nice afternoon with the minister?
Mr Varghese : Very well, thank you, Senator Heffernan.
Senator Brandis: Good afternoon to you, Senator Heffernan.
Senator HEFFERNAN: I just want some plain language stuff. You, I presume, know who Group Captain Hunt is?
Mr Varghese : I am sorry; no, I do not.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Good. It might be better you do not. There is a former defence attache in Jakarta—does that ring a bell?—who was charged on child sex offences. I have raised this at previous estimates.
Mr Varghese : I do recall you raising it previously.
Senator HEFFERNAN: I would like to know what actions were taken against the attache immediately after he was arrested in Darwin on his return to duty in the Australian embassy in Jakarta. He was actually charged with 12 child sex offences. There were no defects with the facts of the case on which the 13 charges were laid. I want to know what DFAT did about it.
Mr Varghese : Senator, let me—
Senator HEFFERNAN: The charges were dropped, despite the fact that there were no defects in the case. We can go into private session if you want to. But I just want to let you know we mean business about this subculture. The charges were dropped because the AFP who searched the attache's embassy house—I do not know whether the embassy house was based inside the embassy or whether the AFP were based at the embassy or came in from outside; I would like to know the answer to that question. Do you know the answer to that question?
Mr Varghese : Our embassy does not include any residential accommodation.
Senator HEFFERNAN: No, but the AFP people who searched the person's house—were they sent from Australia?
Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Could you take it on notice?
Mr Varghese : Yes.
Senator HEFFERNAN: I would like to know what arrangements were made with the Indonesian authorities prior to the search of the house over in Jakarta; for the purposes of search—you can take these on notice if you like—was the attache's house deemed to be on Australian or Indonesian territory, and, if so, who gave the advice; and did the Indonesians agree with the assessment that was made before the place was searched? My understanding was that the DPP had to drop all child sex charges against this particular person earlier this year after the AFP admitted it had misled his wife and searched their embassy residence—or their embassy associated residence, not necessarily within the embassy grounds—without a search warrant. You know nothing about that? I do not expect you to.
Mr Varghese : No, Senator, and—
Senator HEFFERNAN: Would there be an officer in the room that would?
Mr Varghese : No, I do not think so—
Senator HEFFERNAN: But are you aware of the case?
Mr Varghese : I am aware of the case only in very broad terms and, to the extent that your questions go to the investigation and the twists and turns, if I can put it that way, of the investigation, I think it would be more appropriately addressed to the Australian Federal Police. But, to the extent that it raises questions that are squarely the responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I am very happy to take those on notice.
Senator HEFFERNAN: If you could take it on notice. I have been at this a long time—
CHAIR: Do you have another question, Senator Heffernan? The secretary has taken your question on notice.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Given the circumstances, where the evidence base was against him, the AFP have made a flawed searched because of no warrant, allegedly, and the charges have been dropped—that does not alter the behaviour of the person. Where is the person now? Is he still attached to an embassy somewhere, free to go about his business? Do we know where this character is now?
Mr Varghese : Let me take that on notice. If he is in a position that DFAT has some responsibility for, then we will be able to respond.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Good on you. Current media reports state that a 71-year-old Australian man has been charged with various child sex offences involving an Australian embassy girl. Are you aware of those reports?
Mr Varghese : I am aware of that.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Can you confirm that it is an embassy, and where the embassy is?
Mr Varghese : I do not think I can go beyond what is already on the public record in relation to this case. Obviously we are aware of the matter, but given that it is an ongoing court case I do not think it would be appropriate for me to add anything further.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Just for the benefit of Australians, what does that actually mean—'involving an Australian embassy girl'? Does that mean this child's parents were embassy staff?
Mr Varghese : Again I am not trying to avoid answering a question, but I do not think I should go into any details of the case.
Senator HEFFERNAN: You may prefer to have a private briefing. In terms of the code of conduct overseas, what action has DFAT taken in each of these current child sex abuse cases to date, and what further actions are planned?
Mr Varghese : In relation to the case that is currently before the courts, we would wait for those legal proceedings to be concluded before we took any further action under our own code of conduct.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Under the same code, since the 1997 inquiry on paedophilia in DFAT how many cases of sexual abuse have arisen in DFAT? You can take that on notice.
Mr Varghese : I will take that on notice.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Also on notice, how many were overseas, how many involved child sexual abuse, how many were reported to the AFP, and what results followed?
Mr Varghese : Okay.
Senator HEFFERNAN: What action did DFAT take against each accused staffer involved? How many were charged under the Criminal Code or the public service code, and how many were convicted? And how many remain in DFAT today?
I will come to where I got to in the last estimates—and I am sorry to burden you with this, Mr Varghese. I realise you have a lot of responsibility and all human endeavour has some failure. I am going back to Mr Scoble now. There is a long history of this subculture, which is unfortunate—it applies to the churches—and now we have the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We have 50 years—
CHAIR: Your question please, Senator Heffernan?
Senator HEFFERNAN: Given that DFAT has an institutional problem, will you be making a submission to the royal commission?
Mr Varghese : I take issue with your characterisation of an institutional problem, but I do not think that is an issue to debate now.
Senator HEFFERNAN: There is a problem. It is a wide-based problem, I accept that.
Mr Varghese : I would make this point. The department's tolerance for any activity which relates to the exploitation of children or to illegal actions is zero. That is not something that we will tolerate, and where we see evidence of it we will act.
Senator HEFFERNAN: I guess with modern communications and transport—it is a very difficult problem. Has the minister cancelled the Australian passports of recently convicted paedophiles Robert Hughes and Rolf Harris?
Mr Varghese : I am not in a position to answer that. I do not know if anyone in the room is, but can I take that on notice?
Senator HEFFERNAN: You can. Likewise can the minister confirm that the Australian passport of convicted paedophile and former Australian diplomat Robert Scoble is still cancelled? If not, when was it reissued? Where and under which foreign minister? Has Mr Scoble travelled overseas with it, and since when and where to?
Mr Varghese : I will take those on notice.
Senator HEFFERNAN: Has the foreign minister recommended to her colleague Mr Morrison that he place convicted paedophiles Scoble, Hughes and Harris on the MAL prohibited travel list, and that their Australian citizenship and honours be revoked after their child sex convictions?
Mr Varghese : Again I will take that on notice.
Senator FAWCETT: Earlier this year I had the privilege to travel with this committee to Vanuatu looking at some of our overseas aid and tourism projects. I note that since then, in fact in September, the minister announced a new partnership between Australia and Carnival Cruises for Vanuatu. Could you give us a bit more detail on that please?
Mr Varghese : I am sure someone will be in a position to do that. I think that was at the margins of the SIDS conference, was it not?
Ms Rawson : Yes, there is a MoU between our department and Carnival, which has a particular focus on Vanuatu. At the SIDS conference on 1 September, the Foreign Minister launched an economic impact study of cruise tourism in Vanuatu, which was jointly funded by the Australian aid program, Carnival Australia and the International Finance Corporation. That study found that cruise companies, their passengers and crews spent $34.6 million in Vanuatu in 2013. It also identified some investment opportunities to increase the economic benefits of cruise tourism in Vanuatu.
Mr McDonald : I was at the event where that occurred. There was a very good panel session with the Foreign Minister, the World Bank and the private sector. It talked about not only the local training of the workforce in Vanuatu but also the use of products such as coffee and the like from within Vanuatu. So it showed the benefit of the partnership for all contributors to it and, more importantly, to people within Vanuatu itself.
Senator FAWCETT: Did the study go to the issue of sustainability of those benefits to the community? One of the things we were talking about before in terms of the new approach to foreign aid was to get economic development sustainable, to lift people out of poverty. Did the study look at that aspect at all?
Mr McDonald : Yes it did. The World Bank study was done and that evidence underpinned the sustainability and the economic growth that was occurring through that partnership so there is actually evidence to take forward the partnership to a greater extent not only within Vanuatu but within other island countries in the Pacific.
Senator FAWCETT: Could you talk a little bit more about what the partnership actually involves in terms of cash and also in kind support.
Ms Rawson : The MoU with Carnival Australia basically commits the department and Carnival to work together on a range of issues we have mentioned in tourism. I stand to be corrected on this but the MoU itself does not provide for a particular level of funding; it provides the framework for cooperation. When there are opportunities to work together and perhaps contribute jointly to particular activities then those will be negotiated separately. So, as I say, I do not think there is a figure set aside for it but as opportunities are developed in cooperation then various sources of funding will be determined at that point.
Senator FAWCETT: Were the results of the study particular in their effect on Vanuatu or is this a model that we can look at partnering with other commercial firms in other Pacific nations?
Ms Rawson : I think this study was particular to Vanuatu but I am sure that lessons learned from that would be applicable to other parts of the Pacific as well and perhaps more broadly.
Mr McDonald : That is true. In fact, a part of the discussion was around the application of it more broadly. One of things with these partnerships is having an evidence base to take things forward and that is what this study did; it was the first set of data that showed the partnership actually had a benefit that could be applied more broadly.
Senator FAWCETT: So is there a longitudinal follow-on study that will look at mapping the benefits that will flow in the next year, two years or 10 years?
Mr McDonald : We might take that on notice but I think there was discussion about being able to see what had actually changed over a period of time.
Senator FAWCETT: You mentioned the SIDS conference, which I understand is a UN conference. Was Australia involved in supporting the running of that?
Mr McDonald : Yes we were, in attending it. Samoa did a fantastic job in putting on the conference and in leading the conference; it went extremely well. These are held once very 10 years and this was the first one in our region, the Pacific. There was a large contingent of people. Both the Foreign Minister and the parliamentary secretary attended from Australia and both were involved in a number of presentations and meetings with leaders across the Pacific and elsewhere. The conference feedback from all involved was very positive.
Senator FAWCETT: You mentioned a large contingent. How many nations from around the world would have participated in that?
Mr McDonald : That is a good question; I will have to take that on notice unless Ms Rawson has a brief on that—but it was a large number. One of the issues with it was accommodation. A ship was brought to Samoa for accommodation support from New Zealand and Australia provided financial support to the conference as well. We can take that on notice and provide that to you as well.
Senator FAWCETT: Among the things that were discussed at the conference, one of the issues that was raised continually in Vanuatu —and I have seen it in other Pacific nations—was the issue of women becoming involved in leadership positions whether that be in public life or in the private sector. Was that a topic for discussion at the conference? Specifically, what programs is Australia funding in the Pacific area to look at empowering women?
Mr McDonald : It certainly was a discussion and there were a number of panel discussions. For example, Australia is working in partnership with UNDP within that region around women's empowerment. There was a focus on the empowerment of women, violence against women and women's participation as a part of that conference. It had a very obvious focus in the conference. I do not know if Ms Rawson has any more detail on it.
Ms Rawson : The only point I would make would be to reinforce what Mr McDonald has said. There is, as you would know, a very strong commitment from the minister and in the aid program to gender equality. In the Pacific in particular there is the 10-year program—Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development—that is now entering into its third year. There has been a strong focus in the work that is done under that program already in expanding women's economic opportunities, improving their representation in parliament and in business, effective leadership and reducing violence against women. So there are a number of programs that are being pursued at a regional level and there are also activities that are being undertaken at a bilateral level in all the regional countries.
Senator FAWCETT: What about the interface with the private sector? A part of the focus of our new aid program is leveraging off private sector work. Does this agenda flow through to things like the MoU with the cruise company?
Ms Rawson : Certainly gender is an aspect, I think, of that MoU with Carnival. We will certainly be looking for the opportunities in these program as in others to partner with the private sector. I think there are already programs that are being done. I am not sure whether it is Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development specifically. For example, there has been in Papua New Guinea work done on business women's coalitions that are trying to empower women in a business context.
Mr McDonald : Two of the 10 high-level strategic benchmarks we were discussing earlier this morning go directly to the private sector and to empowering women. All of our new investments need to explore innovative ways of engaging the private sector as part of that new aid investment plan I was talking about. Eighty per cent of our investments more broadly need to effectively address women's issues as part of that. It has always been included with the difference being the effectiveness within the investment so that it is really mainstreamed into the work we are doing. So that is both an increase in number of investments and also an increase in the effectiveness of that intervention for women.
Senator FAWCETT: How many partnerships do we have with the private sector throughout the Pacific?
Ms Rawson : As well as the MoU with Carnival, there is also an MoU that was recently signed with Westpac on 8 September. The minister signed it and the objectives of it are to, in broad terms, improve access to finance. Gender will feature strongly through that both on the financial inclusion side and on the participation of women.
Senator FAWCETT: Are there reporting structures in place such that on an annual basis you will be able to report back to the committee about the uptake of programs with Westpac, for example, so we get a sense of how effective they are in rolling them out and how they are being accepted by people in the region?
Ms Rawson : There will be reporting on the performance of the aid program in the broad and there will be reporting on Pacific programs both at the regional level and in each country in which we are working.
Mr McDonald : The other thing to add is as part of the innovation hub that the minister announced, one of the key focuses of that is being able to engage the private sector particularly within the Pacific—what sorts of mechanisms can we put up for engaging with the private sector to bring ideas on how to engage with the private sector there? In a lot of cases, some of the lessons that are learned elsewhere on their applicability or application into the Pacific, for example in Africa, have been put in place by the private sector. So you will see that evolve over the next 12 months and we would certainly be reporting on that.
CHAIR: Is Singapore still included as one of the small island developing states? It was when I was at the UN last year. It has the second highest per capita income in the world, so I could not understand why it was there.
Ms Rawson : It was, but I do not know whether it still is.
Senator WONG: I have one follow-up question on the Iraq legal framework—I just had an opportunity in the break to have a look at the PM&C Hansard. And then I was proposing to ask a couple of questions of the CFO in relation to that question on notice update.
In the Prime Minister and Cabinet estimates, I was asking about the legal framework. As I understand it, the legal framework work was being conducted jointly by the Department of Defence, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Attorney-General's Department. Is that correct?
Ms Cooper : Yes, that is correct.
Senator WONG: Was there a particular lead agency?
Ms Cooper : I think as Senator Johnston said—
Senator WONG: I do not know. I was not with Senator Johnston; I was with Prime Minister and Cabinet, sorry.
Ms Cooper : In terms of the legal arrangements, it is a collaborative arrangement between Defence, the Attorney-General's Department and Foreign Affairs but ADF deployments sit with Defence.
Senator WONG: Sure. I apologise. I was obviously in a different committee, not Defence, and Dr McCarthy indicated:
… the foreign minister announced … that Iraq and Australia have reached agreement on a legal framework. There is administrative and logistical work still to be done in coming days in relation to that.
Can you cast any more light on that?
Ms Cooper : I cannot really add anything to what has already been said by the foreign minister.
Senator WONG: What does it mean?
Ms Cooper : It means that there is a legal arrangement in place between the two countries but before a deployment would take place there would be other things that would need to be done, other administrative arrangements.
Senator WONG: So the legal framework is in place. What more needs to be done?
Senator Brandis: That is a question for the defence minister.
Senator WONG: That is fine. I thought it was a joint effort.
Senator Brandis: This is my recollection from my own involvement; the officer's evidence is right. The preparation and documentation of the legal framework was a collaborative effort between DFAT legal, Defence legal and the Attorney-General's Department, in particular the Office of International Law within Attorney-General's, but giving effect to the deployment is really entirely a Defence issue.
Senator WONG: But I am not actually asking about that. That I agree with; I absolutely concede that. I understood the evidence to be something different to that—that there was still detail to be sorted out—as opposed to implementation matters.
Ms Cooper : In relation to the legal framework—
Senator WONG: That is all in relation to the legal framework.
Ms Cooper : that has been settled.
Senator WONG: So no further negotiation on any aspect of it?
Ms Cooper : That is correct.
Senator WONG: But in order to give effect to it there are things that the defence minister, Defence portfolio and CDF have to engage in?
Senator Brandis: That may be a matter for Defence.
Senator WONG: I am not going to get into the detail of it; I am trying to get some sense of—
Senator FAULKNER: Just on that, what you said earlier about the three agencies I think is, as far as I understand, absolutely accurate. It certainly is reinforced by a few questions I had asked at Defence estimates yesterday when that was made clear. However, I did try to press the issue of which was the lead agency in the establishment of the legal framework, and that clearly was not Defence. I was left with the broad impression—and I think that was the evidence that was presented—that there was not a lead agency.
Senator Brandis: I think that is right. Certainly, from my own involvement in this as the Attorney, my sense is, as the officer has said, that this was a collaborative effort across the lawyers in three departments and it would not be accurate to characterise one as being the lead agency for the purpose of looking at the legal issues.
Senator FAULKNER: I then asked the obvious question: if there was a concern or a problem—and obviously that is a hypothetical issue; I am not suggesting there is one—where would a person with a concern or a complaint be expected to go?
Senator Brandis: I think it would all depend on the particular facts. I think it is hard to approach this as a hypothetical.
Senator FAULKNER: I think Defence finally acknowledged that it would probably got to Defence.
Senator Brandis: Well perhaps that is right, but it would depend on the circumstances.
Ms Cooper : If I may, that is the usual way we prepare legal advice on a range of these kind of international issues that touch on the responsibilities of all three portfolios and, as Senator Brandis has said, which would be the particular lead agency would very much depend on which particular aspect of the legal matter was being raised. There are aspects that touch on different portfolios.
Senator FAULKNER: I do understand that. I suppose the issue comes to the actual decision-making process. Is it fair to describe it as a collective decision-making process? You have got no agency at the end of the day in government basically carrying the can.
Senator Brandis: I do not think that is right and I think, if I may say so, with respect, that even the word 'decision' is perhaps not the best chosen word. What we are talking about is legal advice, and the preparation and settlement of the appropriate legal instruments. Neither of those are decisions—
Senator FAULKNER: Determining the adequacy—
Senator Brandis: That is a matter of legal advice, and legal advice came from the specialist lawyers in DFAT, the specialist lawyers in Defence and from the Office of International Law within the Attorney-General's department. That advice was provided through the relevant ministers ultimately to the National Security Committee of cabinet.
Senator FAULKNER: I do not think this is a major point, but within government on an issue like this there are three agencies involved—and I understand the different roles they have and the importance of them all being engaged. Let us say, hypothetically, that the legal framework was adequate and satisfactory from the point of view of Australia. That would rest, I assume, with the NSC; that would be perfectly reasonable. Ministers obviously step up to the plate with that responsibility, but I would assume there would not be three sets of advice; there would be one. It is a minor point, but I still find it mildly perplexing, at the end of the day, knowing which agency is effectively briefing NSC and so forth. I acknowledge that the world does not hang on it, but I do find it a little perplexing. I said yesterday I was slightly perplexed about the process.
Senator Brandis: The question you raise, Senator, may theoretically or hypothetically be important if there were a difference of view between the legal advisers from the three relevant departments; but in fact there was not.
Senator FAULKNER: I accept that.
Mr Varghese : Chair, since we have come back to the Iraq issue, can I correct a small point in my testimony before lunch?
CHAIR: Yes, of course.
Mr Varghese : The date of the letter from Secretary Hagel to the Australian defence minister was not dated 13 September; it was 12 September. I just put that on the record.
Senator FAULKNER: That appears in Senator Brandis 's chronology, too.
Mr Varghese : That is right.
Senator WONG: I was actually going to, but we had moved on. Senator Brandis's eight grounds of consent did not include that letter.
Senator Brandis: I am sorry, I did not hear that.
Senator WONG: Your eight—I have written here, but with shorthand—'evidences', which is poor English—
Senator Brandis: I think that was my word.
Senator WONG: of consent do not include the correspondence from Secretary Hagel.
Senator Brandis: I am referring to the briefing note I have from the department, but I think the officer might be able to shed more light on.
Senator WONG: I was taking my notes down quickly and they might be an error, but they are: request to the UN on 25 June; conversation between the two prime ministers on 12 September; the Paris conference and the letter from what I have written as Jaafari, which would be the foreign minister, on 20 September, which I think is another UN correspondence.
Senator Brandis: I think I can shed some light on the issue. What we were discussing was the evidences of the consent of the government of Iraq, and each of the eight communications—whether conversations or diplomatic notes, or requests by the Iraqi government to the United Nations—were requests emanating from the Iraqi government. We were not talking about the discussions between the United States government and the Australian government.
Senator WONG: I am not actually making a criticism; I was making the point that that was not one of the things relied on for the purposes of the legal head of power, as I think the secretary called it, of intention and consent—Secretary Hagel's letter. That was the only point I was clarifying.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, but this is nevertheless consistent with the point that the minister makes. Clearly, because of its nature, it does not appear in the sequential chronology of communications from the government of Iraq.
Senator Brandis: And it reinforces the point that the purpose of Australia's deployment is to come to the assistance of the government of Iraq, not for any other purpose, as part of a multinational force led by the United States. It is for the sake of the Iraqis and at their request and with their consent that we are making this deployment.
Senator WONG: I want to wrap this up, and I do not propose to ask details, which I appreciate are operational details, which are for Defence. Can you tell me if this is a reasonable summary. The legal framework negotiations are completed, correct?
Ms Cooper : Correct.
Senator WONG: So there is no more legal framework negotiation required?
Ms Cooper : Correct.
Senator WONG: Any administrative or logistical work would be a matter for the Department of Defence?
Ms Cooper : There may be some administrative or logistical work that would sit with other agencies.
Senator WONG: What would sit with you, if anything?
Mr Varghese : Some of the work may require the embassy in Baghdad to be involved, to the extent that they go to the implementation of the legal framework.
Senator WONG: Mr Wood, were you able to get anything updated or are you going to have to take that on notice?
Mr Wood : If I could recap and hopefully give you some other information. As you will recall, at additional estimates we had question No. 39 and we provided the table of committed expenditure. At the June budget estimates we received a question in writing from Senator Rhiannon. The reference is 159. That referred back to question No. 39 from the previous additional estimates. Senator Rhiannon requested, 'May I please have an updated summary for all country and regional programs.' We provided a slightly simplified update for committed expenditure as for July. That did show the high level of the increases in committed expenditure across those country programs. We did provide an update for the June estimates focused on that committed expenditure and we provided a definition of 'committed expenses'.
Senator WONG: Thank you. Can you provide me with anything now or are you going to take it on notice?
Mr Wood : I have checked with the team and I can follow up at the break if we have a further update. The information provided to the question on notice was for July 2014.
Senator WONG: Which is question on notice 159 from Senator Rhiannon, which updates my question from additional estimates?
Mr Wood : Correct.
Senator WONG: I can come back to it if you think that, in the break, you might be up to give me something more recent. We will do that.
Senator McGRATH: I want to return to the Maldives.
Senator Brandis: Noting your not unimportant role in Maldivian history, Senator.
Senator McGRATH: Is the government aware of the deteriorating political situation in the Maldives, with reports of government crackdowns on freedom of speech, including a missing journalist, crackdowns on democratic expression, violence against elected officials and the rise of religious extremism?
Mr Hutchesson : Senator Conroy, as you will know from your own background, there have been concerns about the democratic process in the Maldives since early 2012. There were, in fact, presidential elections that took place in late 2013. They were delayed, but they did eventually take place, and then there were legislative assembly elections earlier this year—all of which resulted in the previous governing party no longer being in a position of power.
Yes, we are concerned at the democratic climate in the Maldives. I think it is fair to say that the opportunity for civil society to express views, and the opportunity for the expression of free democratic will, is not where we would like to see it. We do see quite a bit of prominent involvement by the judiciary—particularly the Supreme Court—in striking at the election commission. That is played out ahead of the presidential elections, the legislative elections, and there is an issue at the moment where the Supreme Court is confronting the Maldives human rights commission. Yes, there are issues there, without a doubt.
Senator McGRATH: Has the Australian government communicated to the government of the Maldives its concerns about the deteriorating situation in the country?
Mr Hutchesson : The Australian High Commission in Colombo, which is accredited to the Maldives, has certainly raised, over a period of time, concerns especially about the role of the Supreme Court. In the run-up to the presidential elections and the legislative assembly elections, our high commissioner had cause to raise with the Maldivian authorities our wish to emphasise the importance of a genuinely free and democratic process to take place. We do make these concerns known. We also make it clear to the Maldivians that the commission of national inquiry outcomes which emerged from the events of 2012 and the recommendations of the Commonwealth observer group which observed the legislative assembly elections earlier made a number of recommendations to strengthen the democracy of the Maldives. We say to the Maldivians that these are recommendations that we think they should be following.
Senator McGRATH: What response has the government received from the government of the Maldives?
Mr Hutchesson : I think it is fair to say that our concerns have been noted.
Senator McGRATH: Is there anything else we can do—I do not want to say 'put pressure on'—to communicate or to encourage the government of the Maldives to listen to the concerns of the Australian government, and I think the broader Australian community, because I know that the Canadian foreign minister has been quite strong—
Mr Hutchesson : It is an ongoing dialogue. In fact, I was hoping to hear this morning from our high commissioner in Colombo, who has been instructed to make another round of representations to the Maldives in relation to this latest issue relating to the Maldives human rights council. There is ongoing engagement on this set of issues, among other issues on which we engage the Maldives. It is not all about human rights and democratisation.
Senator McGRATH: There is a big issue with the judiciary in the Maldives. Is there anything in particular that you think the Australian government can do in terms of helping educate the judiciary there in relation to what their role should be in a democratic society?
Mr Hutchesson : We have a very small aid program with the Maldives. It is not configured to engage in capacity building in that particular area. It is not something that we are looking at at present.
CHAIR: We will break now and we will resume at 3.45 pm.
Proceedings suspended from 15:29 to 15:45
Senator RHIANNON: In the foreign aid budget, what percentage and what dollar amount is allocated to non-government organisations?
Mr McDonald : I need the CFO for that answer.
Senator RHIANNON: I will keep going, then. In previous Senate estimates, former Foreign Minister Bob Carr spoke about four allegations of the mistreatment of Tamils that have been investigated. Are you aware if there have been further allegations apart from those four?
Mr Varghese : I might ask the Ambassador for People Smuggling if he could respond to that.
Mr Hutchesson : Senator Carr, as he was then, did refer to four sets of allegations of mistreatment of Tamils returned to Sri Lanka. We are now aware of eight allegations, including the initial four.
Senator RHIANNON: Eight in total?
Mr Hutchesson : Eight in total.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you detail these allegations?
Mr Hutchesson : The information on these matters came to us from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. None of the allegations were, apart from one back in 2009, made to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It is the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that has followed up where appropriate on these allegations. I should say that it has proved very difficult to do so in many cases because many of the allegations are made anonymously or by third parties. In all cases so far in which it has been possible to chase things down, the immigration department has concluded that the allegations are in fact not substantiated. Seeking details on each case would be better directed to Immigration and Border Protection Command.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that the latest four cases are not substantiated or only some of them are?
Mr Hutchesson : The follow-up that DIBP has been doing has reached the conclusion that they are not substantiated. That is my understanding.
Senator RHIANNON: All four?
Mr Hutchesson : That is my understanding, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you need to take it on notice? When you say it is your understanding, do you need to confirm that?
Mr Hutchesson : Either unsubstantiated or no further action could be taken.
Senator RHIANNON: For the four?
Mr Hutchesson : For the four, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Unsubstantiated or no further action to be taken. When were you first notified about those four cases?
Mr Hutchesson : In the preparation for this Senate estimates hearing.
Senator RHIANNON: So you mean within the last month?
Mr Hutchesson : Within the last couple of weeks, I would say.
Senator RHIANNON: That is when you first heard about it?
Mr Hutchesson : That is when DFAT first heard about it, yes.
Senator RHIANNON: Did you only hear about it because you were preparing for questions you might be asked?
Mr Hutchesson : Correct.
Senator RHIANNON: There is no process for you to have been alerted previously or when the department of immigration first heard about it?
Mr Hutchesson : We would have liked to have known earlier.
Senator RHIANNON: Why weren't you informed earlier?
Mr Hutchesson : You would have to direct that question to DIBP.
Senator RHIANNON: You found out within the last two weeks. You are now saying that they are not substantiated or that no further action is required. How did you reach that conclusion in two weeks?
Mr Hutchesson : This was a conclusion reached by DIBP, which has been the agency pursuing these matters.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware whether any representative of the Australian government spoke with any complainant?
Mr Hutchesson : On how each set of allegations was pursued or investigated, I really think DIPB is the agency that has the details.
Senator RHIANNON: I am just trying to understand whether, after you were given those reports in the last two weeks, you made any inquiries—or did you just accept what was given to you?
Mr Hutchesson : We have not made any follow-up inquiries. I reiterate that, in many of these instances, the allegations have come anonymously, which obviously makes it very difficult to follow them up.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that you have no responsibility for following these cases up?
Mr Hutchesson : The Australian government has no authority in Sri Lanka—no standing to pursue these matters on the ground in Sri Lanka.
Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate that, but considering that these people have come here and then been sent back—and DFAT, I understand, has had some role in sending them back—would there not be some follow-through that you have some responsibility for? It seems to be a grey area, but in grey areas surely departments have to work out where their responsibility lies?
Mr Hutchesson : There is no authority to follow up and there is no regular monitoring. There is no monitoring of returnees.
Senator RHIANNON: In previous estimates hearings, Senator Brandis, you confirmed that the Australian government was abandoning the internationally accepted description of East Jerusalem as 'occupied' because the term is 'judgemental'. Since then, Australia's ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, has told Israeli media outlets that the entire West Bank should not be referred to as 'occupied'. This includes Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah and all parts of the Golan Heights. Is Australia's official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Senator Brandis: I have not seen Mr Sharma's comments.
Senator RHIANNON: I will just repeat the question. Is Australia's official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Senator Brandis: This matter was raised by you at the last estimates and I have nothing to add to what I said on that occasion.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, is Australia's official position that the West Bank is not occupied?
Senator Brandis: Senator Rhiannon, I am taking these questions and I have nothing to add to what I said at the last estimates.
Senator RHIANNON: I understand that I can also ask the department.
Senator Brandis: No, you cannot—only with my consent.
Senator RHIANNON: You can stop a senator asking questions—is that what you are saying?
Senator Brandis: You can ask any questions you like—of me. Where appropriate, and as a matter of my judgement, I will invite the officials to respond. Given the sensitivity of this matter, I will take the questions. The answer to your question is that I have nothing to add.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering your earlier response and the way you keep reiterating that, why has Australia gone against the positions held by the former Howard government, the United States, many Security Council and United Nations resolutions and even the Supreme Court of Israel, all of which have recognised that the West Bank is occupied by Israel?
Senator Brandis: I do not take at face value your premises to questions without inspecting the relevant statements carefully for myself. Allowing for that, I have nothing to add to what has already been said.
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that you are not aware of the position of the former Howard government right across to the Supreme Court of Israel? You are well versed in this subject, so it sounds as if you are refusing to answer. It is not my statement. I am just repeating what is recorded from the decisions of those bodies.
Senator Brandis: You have, for example, made a reference to a decision of the Supreme Court of Israel. I would read for myself the reasons for judgement of the judges of that court rather than accept at face value your brief paraphrase of the decision, but, in any event, I have nothing to add to what has already been said.
Senator RHIANNON: The Ambassador of the General Delegation of Palestine to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Izzat Abdulhadi, has strongly condemned Australia's refusal to acknowledge the occupation of the West Bank. He has stated in the media that he is seeking a meeting with the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, to discuss the matter. Has the meeting being granted?
Senator Brandis: I have nothing to add to what has already been said on this subject.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you inform the committee what has already been said on this subject?
Senator Brandis: No, because it is recorded in the Hansard and I am not going to waste the time of colleagues by reading to you what you can read for yourself in the Hansard.
Senator RHIANNON: This is simply about a request for a meeting. Surely, you can inform the committee of that.
Senator Brandis: I will take that question on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Has any apology been offered by Australia to the Palestinians for the offence that the decision not to acknowledge the occupation of the West Bank may have caused?
Senator Brandis: I am not going to pursue this matter with you. You may wish to pursue it with me, but I have no intention of pursuing it with you. I have nothing to add to what has already been said.
Senator RHIANNON: On 8 July this year, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge into the Gaza Strip. Israel's occupation killed over 2,000 Palestinians and, according to the United Nations, at least 75 per cent of the dead are civilians, many of them children. Several countries and leaders condemned Israel's ground offensive in Gaza. Those that did not oppose the incursion, including the United States, actually criticised Israel's military targeting of schools and hospitals and places of worship. Did the Australian foreign minister or the Prime Minister make any statements condemning or criticising or even commenting on Israel throughout the seven weeks of this war on Gaza?
Mr Varghese : The foreign minister noted that she was deeply troubled by the killing of Palestinian civilians on a number of occasions, including in a statement of 5 September. She also noted that, while Israel obviously had a right to defend itself from the attacks of Hamas and other militants, it needed to take all necessary steps to avoid civilian casualties. Ms Bishop specifically called for a full investigation into the indefensible shelling of three UN schools, all of which were sheltering civilians. The Australian government has repeatedly called for both sides to respect international humanitarian law and to ensure the safety of innocent people. Of course, we have also contributed humanitarian assistance to Gaza amounting to $15 million in July and August. Sorry, that should have been 5 August rather than 5 September.
Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the assistance that is being provided, considering that much of the destruction that occurred as a result of the Israeli bombing and invasion involved aid projects, including some Australian projects, do you have a list of the Australian projects that were damaged during these military operations and details of how the Australian government is now responding? Is it assisting in rebuilding and reallocating funding?
Mr Varghese : I think Mr Innes-Brown can respond to that.
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, there was some damage to projects that Australia was funding. Australia was funding two Australian NGOs working in Gaza. They have a range of projects, but there was damage during the conflict to things such as greenhouses, irrigation pipes, crops, livestock and fishing boats. We also give money to UNRWA. We provide core funding for them and they run schools there, and there was obviously damage to schools as well. We also fund UNICEF and there was damage to some of their facilities. So there was damage.
Senator RHIANNON: Do you have a monetary value for the NGO projects funded by Australia that have been damaged?
Mr Innes-Brown : We have just received one. World Vision has estimated that the value of assets they lost in the communities in which they were working was worth around $1.8 million. The second NGO was Union Aid Abroad, APHEDA. They estimated damage was around $1.4 million.
Senator RHIANNON: What is the response from the Australian government when that happens? When we have decided to fund a project, it has been funded, the money has been allocated, the project has been built and then it is destroyed. What then happens?
Mr Innes-Brown : As you noted, we have given up funding—we announced $15 million in emergency funding for Gaza during the conflict. Of that, $1 million went to each of these NGOs to make good on the damage that had been done. Separately to that—this was in addition to program funding they had already received. They also received payments in May, I am advised, as part of their normal projects. They have been able to reallocate or reprioritise the money they received which they had not spent for making good some of the damage that was done and also to take for the recovery. That is the advice I have.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, was the Australian foreign minister or the Prime Minister in contact with the Israeli foreign minister or Prime Minister and the Palestinian leaders during the period of the war?
Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice as to what the nature of the contact at that level was. I think there was contact between foreign ministers, but I would have to take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Please provide advice about contact with both Israel and Palestine.
Mr Varghese : I can recall contact with the Israeli foreign minister. I would have to check on Palestine.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.
Senator WONG: Thank you. Mr Wood, how are we going?
Mr Wood : I was just checking with the team at the break. They are still working on it. So maybe the time might beat us—the team are working on it.
Senator WONG: I will ask my first round of questions and then we might come back to it if and when you are able to table. I am conscious there is a fair bit to get through. I am interested in how any change to the projects or agreements which are within the committed expense category—how are they altered?
Mr Wood : I will talk in general terms and may need assistance from some of the other program managers. Within the agreement, there may be clauses around rescheduling of payments or activities and then there will be consultation with the partner and client organisations to revise some of those projects or payment schedules.
Senator WONG: How are those recorded internally? Say you have a range of things you need to do and there may well be provisions under a particular project agreement which enable rescheduling. How is that then recorded centrally? What do you get?
Mr Wood : There may be a contract, a variation or a revision to the spending proposal. There are new definitions now under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act so there may be a revision to those approvals. Then there would be updated estimates entered into our financial management information system.
Senator WONG: So you would need some documentary basis for you to update the estimates in your financial system?
Mr Wood : Correct. We use a system that is called AidWorks.
Senator WONG: AidWorks.
Mr Wood : AidWorks.
Senator WONG: This is like to CMBS, only smaller.
Mr Wood : Correct. And cheaper.
Senator WONG: I am sorry?
Mr Wood : And cheaper.
Senator WONG: You do not have quite as much money to track. To enter a change of expenditure into AidWorks, you would need some documentary evidence. Do you have a standard form or do you have a range of different types of documents which trigger, for the purposes of all the various obligations you have under the—what did we end up calling it—PMPA?
Mr Wood : The Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act. Yes, we do. The Aid Contracting Division may have a bit more information on this. Mr Dawson will come up and try to help us with that.
Senator WONG: Thank you. So they give you something?
Mr Wood : It is entered by officers, so we have several hundred users who have access.
Senator WONG: So they access it?
Mr Wood : The contract division can have advice on contracts, but then there are users at posts and in divisions who have day-to-day involvement with the projects.
Mr McDonald : As you can imagine, there are a lot of contracts.
Senator WONG: Yes. It is surprising to have that many people entering data into the system. Anyway, I am sure you have dealt with all of those risks. But I do not want all the data; I am just trying to work out what happens if there is a change to the committed expense. You have given me aggregate figures—and we are going to update those. Who is able to change an entry that would then ultimately be reflected in the aggregate change for committed expense and what documentary trail is required in order to do that?
Mr Dawson : As Mr Wood indicated, the entry into the aid management system, Aid Works, is done by each individual officer who is the responsible officer for the activity in question. For example, if an activity is rescheduled they will reschedule the sequence of payments in the Aid Works and that then gets reflected and aggregated in terms of the overall position of the department.
Senator WONG: Presumably, you have a probity process there. You do not just have officers being able to change what is budgeted for?
Mr Wood : There is training and there is guidance. I would expect that there are sign-offs or approvals. Obviously there has to be something in order for them to process that in the system.
Senator WONG: So what is the approval process for that?
Mr Dawson : First of all, there is the financial approval. If the financial approval has been given for an activity—
Senator WONG: Do you need financial approval to reschedule or lessen expenditure?
Mr Dawson : Yes.
Senator WONG: And how is that generated?
Mr Dawson : It is generated in a paper based system.
Senator WONG: Is that a form? Give me some detail on the process.
Mr Dawson : Typically it is a minute with a recommendation.
Senator WONG: From the responsible officer to someone more senior?
Mr Dawson : To someone who has the financial delegation for that expenditure.
Senator WONG: Under the PGPA Act or, previously, the FMA Act.
Mr Dawson : Yes.
Senator WONG: How many delegations are there? How many people have a delegation that enables a change to committed expenditure?
Mr Wood : Delegations are provided in the department for levels of positions. Those delegations have monetary values. We could on notice provide you with that information. An SES Band 1 officer will have a higher monetary delegation than an EL2 officer.
Senator WONG: I know that they are done by monetary value but do we have a number of people who have a delegation, pursuant to the PGPA Act, to change committed expenditure in the aid budget?
Mr Wood : We would have to take that on notice. As I said, it is based on levels.
Senator WONG: Are we talking about five, 10—300?
Mr Wood : It would certainly be more than five. For example, we would have more EL2s than that. It would certainly be in the dozens.
Senator WONG: So for any change to a committed expenditure there would have to be a financial approval minute?
Mr Dawson : Yes, a financial approval minute or a contracting minute.
Senator WONG: There would have to be financial approval minute, correct?
Mr Dawson : That is right. There is a paper trail which shows the approval of the appropriate delegate for the expenditure.
Senator WONG: The contracting approval would be for the generation of a contract, correct?
Mr Dawson : At different stages of the contracting process.
Senator WONG: I am interested in variations to contract law or cessation of contract. Would that be a financial approval minute or a contracting minute?
Mr Dawson : It is also a financial approval minute; it is a different type of financial approval.
Senator WONG: For every adjustment to a particular project, you would need to have a financial approval minute?
Mr Dawson : That is correct, yes.
Senator WONG: What information is included on those minutes?
Mr Dawson : The information about the nature of the project, how the activities would have been changed, the phasing of the funding over a period of years.
Senator WONG: That is very useful, and I may have some follow-ups once I see your data. Shall we do that? Minister, as a matter of courtesy, I do have more aid questions but I do want to re-traverse an issue that occurred when Senator McEwen was asking questions in relation to the bilateral with President Widodo. I would press again attendance at that meeting. For members' information, I have taken advice from the clerk and I have also had a look at the statement that the chair reads out at the beginning of a hearing. I do not believe there are any grounds to refuse to disclose to the Senate people who are being paid by the taxpayer who attended a meeting between the Prime Minister and the President of Indonesia.
Senator Brandis: My recollection of the evidence of the secretary was that he was unaware of who attended, but that in any event it was not the practice of this department to name the identity of staff or officials who attend meetings of that kind. That was the secretary's evidence. What I think we will do for you, Senator, is take the question on notice and I will ask the official to have a conversation with his minister to consider that practice, its application on this occasion, and in light of the Senate's standing orders and the rulings and practices of this committee.
Senator WONG: I would appreciate that, Minister, and thank you for agreeing to do that.
Senator Brandis: I am not, by the way, acknowledging that the answer will not be that we do not disclose this material. But, in view of the point you take, I think the reasonable course of action is to proceed as I have indicated.
Senator WONG: Right. Thank you, Senator Brandis, I appreciate that. A few points that might be of use: we have had a look back through evidence of various estimates and, very interestingly, this may not have been a bilateral, but Senator Faulkner even got details of who attended a meeting, which included Mrs Howard. The Prime Minister's personal secretary, Mr Varghese, when he was head of ONA, provided details of DFAT officers attending meetings. Just on a very quick search of Hansard, there is a question from Senator Edwards regarding who was involved in accompanying Senator Carr on trips and meetings, and that information was provided. Also, because I think this is something that the opposition will press in the chamber, if there is a refusal to answer, we would ask you to outline a public interest immunity claim as per the standing orders.
Senator Brandis: It may not be a public interest immunity claim, but in any event the device of taking the question on notice will give us the opportunity to look at it and to reflect carefully upon it.
Senator WONG: Sure, you are entitled to do that.
Senator FAULKNER: I rarely disagree with Mr Varghese, but I am not aware of the precedent that he has mentioned previously—if that is a fair reflection of it. I was not here when Senator McEwen asked her question. Can I ask a different question, which I think may have been answered, just to clarify it for the record. I ask the secretary, through the minister, if there were officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade present or not? I am not asking their names, I am merely asking if there were officials—
Senator Brandis: Mr Varghese's answer, as I recall, was that he did not know who was present at the meeting, but he would have expected—in the ordinary course of events of a meeting of that kind—there would likely have been.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. Thank you, minister. In the intervening time since that question was asked, have you been able to shed any light on that at this stage?
Mr Varghese : I do not have any further information on attendance.
Senator FAULKNER: You expect that it is likely that DFAT officials were there.
Mr Varghese : I expect it is likely that the ambassador was there.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes.
Senator McEWEN: I think Mr Varghese agrees that there were officials the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at that meeting.
Mr Varghese : That is right.
Senator FAULKNER: This is a process question. If the ambassador was there, obviously a meeting like that would normally generate a cable or series of cables. I think that is fair, isn't it? That is my understanding, but please correct me if I am wrong.
Mr Varghese : Normally with the prime ministerial visit there would be a cable sent at the end of the visit, which covered the main points. As we discussed earlier today, normally a record of conversation of a prime ministerial level discussion is produced.
Senator FAULKNER: Was a cable sent or were cables sent in relation to this meeting?
Mr Varghese : In relation to the visit or just the specific meeting?
Senator FAULKNER: In relation to the visit, first of all.
Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice.
Senator FAULKNER: I thought I would know that, because it is obviously a very important visit. That is, the inauguration of the Indonesian president and the first the meeting between our head of government and the new Indonesian head of government. I am a little surprised at that. No-one can help me?
Senator Brandis: Mr Varghese has given you some guidance when he said that ordinarily that would be done. He is not personally familiar with the particularly cable, but he said that ordinarily that would be done.
Senator FAULKNER: I indicated that I understood that I had that level of knowledge that ordinarily it would be done before I asked the question.
Senator Brandis: I am sure if Mr Varghese had any reason to believe that the ordinary practice was not observed on this occasion, he would have said so.
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, of course he would. I was just asking for more definitive advice, if it is possible. It does not appear that it is, but let me just check: can anyone confirm in relation to the Prime Minister's very recent visit to the inauguration of the new Indonesian president whether there was a cable or cables sent about that visit? Can anyone assist me with that?
Mr Cox : As I said, I have not seen a cable at this stage. The visit only happened on Monday.
Senator FAULKNER: You have not seen a cable.
Mr Cox : No.
Senator FAULKNER: That means that there might be a cable that you have not seen or there has not yet been a cable sent.
Mr Cox : It happened on Monday.
Senator FAULKNER: It is Thursday today, isn't it?
Mr Varghese : Can we take on notice whether a cable has been sent?
Senator FAULKNER: Of course, if you are unable to answer my question. I was just hoping that by this stage someone might have been able to answer my question. The second thing you mentioned was not just cable but also that there are normally other records taken when two heads of government meet. I think that is fair to say, isn't it?
Mr Varghese : That is correct.
Senator FAULKNER: Could you just explain to the committee what might be your expectation? That is, in addition to a cable there would be a record of conversation or however you care to describe it in a more formal way to the committee. Would that ordinarily be the case?
Mr Varghese : Ordinarily there would be a record of conversation which would be, as I indicated, compiled by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator FAULKNER: I appreciate that. Thank you, very much, for that. In this case, can we confirm whether or not there was a record of conversation.
Mr Varghese : I have not seen a record of conversation. Normally, records of conversation do take a little bit longer.
Senator FAULKNER: Than a cable?
Mr Varghese : A cable would be done on the visit as a whole. Records of conversation tend normally to take longer to be drafted, cleared and circulated.
Senator FAULKNER: So at this stage we do not know whether there is a cable, we do not know whether there is a record of conversation and we do not know whether any DFAT staff attended, but possibly the ambassador did and you would expect they did. We do not know a lot this stage, on the Thursday after the meeting took place. Do we know whether any DFAT staff—Canberra based or otherwise—were invited to attend the meeting between the President and the Prime Minister? Can you assist me with that?
Mr Varghese : Since I do not know who attended the meeting, I cannot—
Senator FAULKNER: I did not ask that. Let us be very clear—I was trying to be precise, but, of course, I am so often imprecise I probably got it wrong—I was asking about invitations, not attendance.
Mr Varghese : I am not aware of—
Senator FAULKNER: You do not know about invitations either. Would there be anyone else at the table—
Senator Brandis: We will take that on notice.
Senator FAULKNER: Fine, unless there is someone else who could assist us, who might have more knowledge even than Mr Varghese, which would not be that difficult in this instance.
Senator Brandis: We will take it on notice. The meeting happened three days ago. The secretary said that ordinarily a cable would have been prepared though he has not seen it. He has said that ordinarily a record of conversation would have been taken by PM&C note takers—
Senator FAULKNER: But he has not seen that.
Senator Brandis: but he has not seen that yet.
Senator FAULKNER: And no-one else has.
Senator Brandis: But there is no reason to believe that the ordinary procedures were not observed.
Senator FAULKNER: And ordinarily someone from DFAT would attend the meeting, but we cannot confirm or otherwise whether that is the case—
Senator Brandis: He has already said that he thought the ambassador did attend.
Senator FAULKNER: and we cannot confirm whether or not anyone else was invited to attend. I think I have just about got the message that I am not going to get an answer to these questions.
Senator Brandis: No, that is not right. I think you are trying to make bricks without straw.
Senator FAULKNER: That has never been my practice.
Senator Brandis: Mr Varghese has told you that he does not know for certain of something, but he has told you what the ordinary procedure is, and had he any reason to believe the ordinary procedure were not observed he would, as you have acknowledged, have told you that.
Senator WONG: My recollection is that, particularly for very important meetings like this, you would have a reasonably short turnaround on a cable. Are you surprised that there has been nothing back, yet?
Mr Cox : As the secretary said, cables are drafted, then they have to be cleared and often they will be sent down to Canberra for clearance by relevant people. That process can take a few days.
Senator FAULKNER: Clearly it has taken a few days!
Senator WONG: Has a cable been sent to Canberra for clearance?
Mr Cox : Yes, often that will be the case.
Senator WONG: No, has a cable in relation to this visit—
Mr Cox : I am not aware; you would have to ask the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator WONG: Let me finish, please.
Mr Varghese : You would have to ask the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Senator WONG: Can I finish, please?
Mr Cox : I beg your pardon?
Senator WONG: If I could finish the question.
CHAIR: Senator Wong has not finished the question.
Senator WONG: If it is the wrong department, that is fine. To your knowledge, has a draft of a cable or a cable been sent for clearance to Canberra?
Mr Cox : I don't have that knowledge.
Senator WONG: Thank you. You do not have to look very far, whether on the television, the Prime Minister's Twitter account, media people's Twitter accounts or other online media to see quite a lot of photographs and footage of bilateral meetings in which officers and/or the Prime Minister's chief of staff or other staff members are present. I could probably find quite a few for you. It would seem very odd if the department and the minister maintained a position that 'we do not say who is in meetings' when the media and the public get footage of it. So I make that point. The second—
Senator Brandis: Senator Wong, we have taken the question on notice.
Senator WONG: Yes. I am assisting in the consideration. The second point I make, Minister, is: just to be clear, you said it may not be a public interest immunity claim; it may be some other basis. Under the Cormann order, there is no other basis. One either provides the information or provides an explanation of the ground under the PII claim. There is no third way. I just want to make that clear because obviously it is important that, even if we do not agree on where you get to in your decision, we are clear about the process.
Senator Brandis: There are a variety of practices observed or accepted by this estimates committee.
Senator WONG: Well, no; the order is clear.
Senator Brandis: Indeed, but there is also an accretion of factors and precedent in applying the terms of the order, as you are aware, Senator.
Senator WONG: There are different grounds in the PII claim; that is true.
Senator Brandis: But, in any event, I do not know how I could have been more explicit in saying: we will take the question on notice and we will consider the matter.
Senator WONG: Thank you. Chair, obviously it would be useful if this could be resolved before this committee reports.
Senator FAULKNER: And you were explicit—and I thank you for that, Minister. You, however, were not informative. However, as you say, the question has been taken. I am not expecting you to know the answers to these questions, Minister, of course. You are the Attorney-General; you were not there. You represent the Minister for Foreign Affairs at this committee. All that is fine. I had just hoped that the officials, given the effluxion of time since the meeting, would have had a little more information, or any information, about some of these matters.
CHAIR: Senator Wong, in continuation?
Senator WONG: Advice as to ODA eligibility—when Finance, as they do on occasion, seek advice about ODA eligibility, who is responsible for providing that? Is that your section?
Unidentified speaker: No, that is not.
Senator WONG: Is that yours, Mr Wood?
Mr Wood : Yes, it is an area within the budget branch of the department. We have an area that deals with statistics and reporting to the OECD Development Assistance Committee.
Senator WONG: So you seek to apply OECD guidelines?
Mr Wood : Correct. The acronym is the OECD DAC. They are statistical reporting directives, I think.
Senator WONG: My recollection is there might be actual expenditure and then you determine what of that is ODA eligible, but there would also be advice about what activities government might be contemplating that could be ODA eligible. Are you involved in the second aspect of that as well?
Mr Wood : In the past, we have provided advice through the budget process around the ODA eligibility of expenditure because ultimately we have to report that expenditure—
Senator WONG: Correct, yes.
Mr Wood : to the OECD.
Senator WONG: Yes, because you are the ones that have to essentially verify it with the OECD, so you want to make sure the internal decision-making processes line up with what your reporting standards will be.
Mr Wood : Correct. And, as you would expect, often it can be subject to review or audit, so we have to check.
Senator WONG: Okay. So in terms of potential future expenditure—possible expenditure—you could be involved in giving advice about whether something would comply with the OECD guidelines?
Mr Wood : We would potentially be asked to provide advice; correct.
Senator WONG: Have you been asked to provide any advice in relation to the ODA eligibility of any activities being conducted in Iraq?
Mr Wood : I have not personally, no.
Senator WONG: Has DFAT?
Mr Wood : I would have to take that on notice.
Mr Varghese : No, Senator, I am not aware of anything we are proposing to do in Iraq which would raise the question of whether it could come under an ODA eligibility clause.
Mr McDonald : We have provided some humanitarian assistance to Iraq.
Senator WONG: Sorry, we cannot hear you.
Mr McDonald : In relation to Iraq, I was saying, in terms of ODA eligibility I am aware we have provided some funding for humanitarian—
Senator FAULKNER: Yes, I think that is what Senator Wong is driving at, Mr McDonald and Mr Varghese—
Senator WONG: Yes.
Senator FAULKNER: whether there is any definitional issue there.
Mr McDonald : It is for humanitarian assistance.
Senator FAULKNER: So it is not ODA?
Mr McDonald : It is ODA.
Senator FAULKNER: That is what I was—
Mr McDonald : Sorry, it—
Senator WONG: Let's start again. Mr Varghese assumed I was asking something. I probably should have been a little more precise. I meant the whole gamut of our assistance and activity, not just deployment of military personnel.
Mr Varghese : Sorry, my mistake. I thought you were asking about possible grey areas.
Senator WONG: We can come to that. Shall we start with the non-grey areas and be clear about that?
Mr Varghese : We can take you through what we currently fund from the ODA budget that is relevant to Iraq.
Senator WONG: That is a good idea. Let's do that.
Mr Innes-Brown : Since June, we have given $17 million in humanitarian assistance.
Senator WONG: Since 30 June?
Mr Innes-Brown : No, since June. There was an announcement of $5 million on 19 June, then another announcement of $2 million in September and an announcement of $10 million yesterday.
Senator WONG: Anything further?
Mr Innes-Brown : That is the recent humanitarian assistance. The development program finished last financial year.
Senator WONG: Is it $27 million in total or $17 million in total?
Mr Innes-Brown : $17 million.
Senator WONG: So it was $10 million plus—
Mr Innes-Brown : $5 million plus $2 million.
Senator WONG: Is it correct to say that that is the total of our humanitarian assistance to date? Is that right?
Mr Innes-Brown : In this calendar year, yes.
Senator WONG: Which is ODA eligible?
Mr McDonald : Yes.
Senator WONG: That was presumably funded out of the funds which are accounted for in aid work
Mr Wood : Correct, yes. It will be recorded in our financial assistance. It came from money that was originally appropriated to DFAT.
Senator WONG: Which country or regional program did it come from? Or did it come from what you described as the emergency fund?
Mr McDonald : I will check if all of it came from the emergency fund, but certainly the $10 million announced yesterday has come from the emergency fund.
Senator WONG: When you gave me an $80 million balance, did that reflect the additional money announced yesterday?
Mr McDonald : Yes, it did.
Senator WONG: Is there any other expenditure or prospective expenditure about which you have been asked to consider the possibility of ODA eligibility in relation to our activities in Iraq?
Mr McDonald : We are just clarifying that the figure we gave you of $10 million out of the emergency fund for this financial year is correct. My figures say it is.
Senator WONG: And the other $7 million?
Mr Innes-Brown : The $5 million in June I am pretty sure was from the emergency fund. I am just not sure about the $2 million we announced in September.
Senator FAULKNER: Is the significance of where it comes from that it does not mean a change of priorities if you are drawing it from the emergency fund as opposed to some other funding option in the department because there is no effective opportunity for supplementation of DFAT's budget? Have I got that right in the broad?
Mr McDonald : Yes, you have. The emergency fund is set up each year. This year it is $120 million. It is done on the basis that there will be crises that arise during the year. We do not know what they are, and we estimate around $10 million a month for that. That is just an estimate. In this case, given the Iraq conflict that emerged, that emergency fund was used to provide some of that funding for this year.
Senator FAULKNER: And because that is prior to the end of the last financial year, if there are any funds left over—and I assume that from time to time obviously there would be—
Senator WONG: They try to make sure there aren't!
Senator FAULKNER: Yes.
Mr McDonald : That was a former minister speaking, I think!
Senator FAULKNER: The finance minister of course would know all about this. I would just work on broader principles from a non-finance minister's background. Do any unused funds in the emergency fund roll over, or do they get grabbed by the finance minister?
Mr McDonald : No, they do not. The $7 million came from last year's emergency fund and $10 million from this year's emergency fund. There are usually always more humanitarian needs than we can fund through the year. The important thing is that we have particular times of the year when there is likely to be more draw on that emergency fund. If you think about last year, the Philippines in November pulled $40 million out of the emergency fund. When we get towards the end of the financial year, and if we have not had cyclones, earthquakes et cetera in our region, there is more capacity to meet some of the other humanitarian—
Senator FAULKNER: So was the 2013-14 emergency fund fully expended?
Mr McDonald : It was, yes.
Senator FAULKNER: And it became fully expended with that partial expenditure in Iraq; is that the general picture?
Mr McDonald : Yes. The Iraq expenditure—the $7 million—would have contributed to last year's emergency fund expenditure, using that funding.
Senator FAULKNER: And exhausting the emergency fund, effectively?
Mr McDonald : Yes. We will always exhaust it because the needs are greater than the funding.
Senator FAULKNER: Or because you have to give it back to the Minister for Finance if you do not?
CHAIR: That is no emergency!
Senator FAULKNER: No, it is standard operating procedure.
Mr McDonald : We have not been in that position recently.
Senator FAULKNER: The last question was mildly tongue in cheek.
Senator WONG: In terms of our previous discussion about—what did we describe it as?—a financial approval minute, which is the basis on which there would be a variation to contracts, no financial approval minute was required in order to fund this expenditure; is that correct?
Mr McDonald : Yes, there would have been a submission to the minister to approve out of the emergency fund.
Senator WONG: I will rephrase the question. Was there any movement from any other program in order to fund this expenditure?
Mr McDonald : No, the $10 million came from the emergency fund.
Senator FAULKNER: Can I ask one general question, just so I am clear. The whole Iraq mission is defined as humanitarian, isn't it? I am right to say that? That is my understanding, but is that correct? Or it has been defined as humanitarian?
Mr Varghese : I think that, in explaining what we are doing in Iraq, the Prime Minister has highlighted the humanitarian dimensions of the mission.
Senator FAULKNER: My statement then would not be a fair or accurate statement—to say the whole mission was humanitarian in that sense? This is not a criticism, but that is the terminology that has been used, isn't it?
Senator Brandis: It is. The expression that I and others have used is that it is a humanitarian mission with a military element.
Senator FAULKNER: So from the perspective of DFAT there is a definition within that about humanitarian elements which are ODA-able—for want of a better coined word, which we tend to use from time to time. Is that a fair statement?
Mr McDonald : The humanitarian expenditure within our department for things like food and shelter and those sorts of things is ODA-eligible and is part of our humanitarian budget within the agency. It is ODA-eligible support, humanitarian support, that we provide.
Senator FAULKNER: Senator Brandis has used that more refined definition or refined language. To use his words, military elements obviously are of a different nature and are treated differently and, of course, effectively are matters not for DFAT but for the Department of Defence. Would that be right?
Mr Varghese : That is correct. The funding of the military element would not call on the aid budget.
Senator WONG: Apart from the direct financial assistance we have been describing, is there any other expenditure that is likely to be ODA-eligible?
Mr Varghese : Only if we make further humanitarian contributions.
Senator WONG: We do not have DFAT staff on the ground providing assistance in the way that Mr McDonald flagged could be ODA-eligible. Is that right?
Mr McDonald : What I was talking about is where we might engage a humanitarian agency, for example.
Senator WONG: Correct. That is not the case here.
Mr McDonald : In relation to the actual expenditure of the $10 million, we can detail what that was actually for and who it was provided to to administer on our behalf. Mr Innes-Brown would have that detail.
Mr Innes-Brown : The $10 million went to a number of different recipients.
Senator WONG: Would you prefer to perhaps table a document at a later stage? I am happy for you to read it out, but I am not—
Mr Innes-Brown : I can give you the press release from yesterday, if you want. I can quickly tell you that it was UNHCR, the World Food Program and Plan International Australia. They were the three recipients.
Senator WONG: Okay.
CHAIR: Excellent. Can we pause it there? Before I go to Senator Fawcett, Secretary, we have inquired of our colleagues and it appears now that there will not be questions for officers of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, so you are free to release them if you would like to.
Mr Varghese : I think they were scheduled after the dinner break.
CHAIR: They were indeed. The second point is that the officers of the Department of Trade portfolio should be ready to come on straight after dinner, at 7.30 pm rather than at 7.45 pm.
Mr Varghese : So we would have exhausted the non-Trade questions by the dinner break?
CHAIR: Absolutely. That is the intention. We will have exhausted the non-Trade questions by the dinner break.
Senator FAWCETT: Could I move to multilateral policy and specifically to UNSC resolution 2166. Clearly there is a lot of interest in the investigation into that, particularly the recent media—I think it was a German report—that perhaps it was a stolen Ukrainian missile rather than a Russian missile. Could you give us an update on both the UN resolution in terms of where it is at and what effect it has had, and on the foreign minister's interaction with President Putin recently, so we know where that is at?
Mr Merrill : I think in part I addressed this question in relation to the implementation of UNSCR 2166 earlier.
Senator FAWCETT: I apologise if I was out of the room.
Mr Merrill : The critical issue for us at the moment is still around issues of physical access to the site, the security situation there. We are using the resolution now—which is binding on all parties, obviously— to continue to underline the commitments that particularly parties in the region have to assist with the Dutch-led international investigation. Resolution 2166 put beyond question the legitimacy and, in a sense, the authority of that investigation to proceed. There are those, including on the council in particular, who are attempting to draw that into question and, in a sense, I would say, muddy the waters to some extent.
My colleague can fill you in a little on how we are working with the Dutch and other parties in relation to the progress on the international investigation, which is still very much in the air-crash phase, but I will say that, for the remainder of our term and then beyond that, we are giving serious thought to how we will continue to keep the council focused on the need to support progress towards our ultimate objective, which is accountability and some process there, and that involves a criminal investigation and attempt to establish responsibility. But we are still very much in an early stage there. We are also, as I mentioned earlier, looking at how we can invoke or invite the UN to be of assistance in facilitating that. So it is going to be a long-run thing. I will not put time lines on that, but, as to the council resolution, we are certainly working with the Dutch—and, as you know, the Malaysians will be coming onto the council next year. You can expect that there will be continuing council focus on progress in that investigative process.
Senator FAWCETT: I am happy to go to Mr Brown. I do not ask you to repeat things the committee has heard before, though; I can always look it up in Hansard. If there are new things you wish to add to the question, please proceed.
Mr Brown : There were two investigation processes. The first is under ICAO under the Chicago convention, and you would have noticed that the Dutch Safety Board released its interim report into the crash on 9 September. The board's final report is expected mid-next year. That report was prepared under the provisions of annex 13 to the Chicago convention. It found that the aircraft had been penetrated by a number of high-energy objects, but it did not attribute blame or liability for the incident. That is consistent with the nature of the Chicago convention processes. ICAO has also established a task force on risks to civil aviation arising from conflict zones.
The second strand of the investigative process is a criminal investigation, which is being handled under the auspices of a joint investigation team which comprises representatives from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine. It is led by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service—they are managing that process—and on the Australian side it is led by the AFP. The Attorney-General's Department is the lead in this area.
CHAIR: Is there no Malaysian representation?
Mr Brown : I was just about to say that Malaysia is a participant in the joint investigation team, but it is not a formal party. As is standard practice for criminal investigations of this nature, all the parties to the investigation process have agreed to a non-disclosure agreement. That is important to avoid jeopardising the investigation or prejudicing any of the proceedings. The investigation is obviously complex. Mr Merrill has already indicated that there are significant difficulties we have faced over the last two months in gaining access to the site, and those difficulties have yet to be resolved. There is no time frame yet for completion of the investigation.
Senator, I believe you also mentioned the reports from the German media suggesting that the missile used may have been seized from the Ukrainian military by separatists. The only thing I would say in relation to those reports is that investigations are ongoing. I think our assessment, from an Australian government point of view, is that there are clear indications that Russian-backed separatists were responsible for obtaining and firing the missile.
Senator FAWCETT: The other question I had was around the foreign minister's recent interaction with Mr Putin. I assume that she is essentially looking to get 2166 implemented. Were the agreements reached and are you able to disclose any of those? I assume they are in line with 2166 in terms of access.
Mr Brown : The minister, Ms Bishop's, interaction with the Russian President was very much an opportunity from our point of view to emphasise the importance Australia attaches to full access to the crash site consistent with UN Resolution 2166. That has been our watchword from the time that the resolution was passed. As you are aware the crash site has been unstable for some time, despite ceasefire agreements. There have still been a number of military activities in the region. With the Russians and with other parties, we have continued to emphasise that, both for the families of the victims and for the credibility of any investigation process, full compliance with the provisions of the resolution is imperative. I am sure the minister would have conveyed those messages to Mr Putin.
Senator FAWCETT: You mentioned that there were a couple of countries perhaps dragging their feet on this. Is it a fair assumption that, given the amount of lobbying the Minister for Foreign Affairs did to get the resolution through in the first place, the bulk of the Security Council are still proactively supporting the implementation?
Mr Merrill : I think the fact that the resolution was adopted unanimously in itself was no small feat. But I think the bigger issue continues to be around claims and counterclaims—the so-called narrative and counternarrative—about who is responsible for ongoing aggression in the area. That leads then to questions about who is actually responsible for creating, in a sense, impediments to access to the site. I think there is certainly one council member who is adamant that they do not have responsibility and have no ability to exercise influence over groups who are creating that sort of impediment there. I think it is a fair assumption that the vast majority of council members share our view that we do not agree that that is in fact the case.
That said, I think that, the longer that this drags on, there will be some challenges around maintaining council focus on this, but we are working overtime. As I mentioned, we are looking well beyond the end of our council term, and with other partners, to ensure that the council can continue to remind all parties of their responsibilities under 2166. But I would say categorically that one of our closest partners in all of this is the Ukraine government—and the assistance that they are providing and attempting to provide.
Senator FAWCETT: Could I move on to the Indian Ocean Rim Association?
CHAIR: Just before you do: you raised the issue of the Security Council resolution secretary. In acknowledging the excellent work that Ms Bishop did, I also would like to place on record the excellence of the work done by your ambassador Gary Quinlan and the senior staff in our mission in New York. I had the privilege, as you know, of working with them last year during the General Assembly, and I think the effort of getting a Security Council resolution up in a 72-hour period was in no small measure due to the excellence of their work as well as that of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Mr Varghese : Thank you, Chair. I appreciate that and I will pass that on.
Senator FAWCETT: Secretary, you would be aware that under the leadership of Senator Eggleston, the former chair, this committee looked at the Indian Ocean and Australia's role in the Indian Ocean—its security and trade implications. There was quite a deal of discussion about the Indian Ocean Rim Association. We have raised that in estimates several times since that inquiry. I understand that the Council of Ministers meeting was in Perth recently. Are you able to update us on any of the key outcomes from that Council of Ministers meeting?
Mr Hutchesson : Yes, that is quite correct. Foreign Minister Bishop chaired the annual IORA Council of Ministers meeting in Perth on 9 October. The meeting, apart from the usual communique, also issued an IORA Economic Declaration which highlighted a commitment by member states to liberalise trade and investment around the region to look to reduce barriers to trade and investment. There was quite a focus, including in the economic declaration, on the growing relevance and importance to member states of the blue economy, which has many dimensions of course—think of marine based economic activity, whether it be fisheries, coastal tourism or extractive industries in a maritime sense—and clearly for a number of the smaller island countries this is very important.
So, there was that economic declaration. Also a search and rescue MOU on cooperation in the Indian Ocean region was adopted. A number of member states were able to sign on to that MOU in Perth. A number were not, because they had not yet completed their domestic approval processes, but we have strong indications of support from many countries, so we do expect that more countries will come onboard shortly. In that same vein, Ms Bishop announced that Australia would be providing $2.6 million to build the capacity of Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and the Maldives for search and rescue purposes. She also announced in the same context of economic diplomacy a blue economy, focus on business, and the establishment of an Australia-IORA economic diplomacy fund, which is intended to be drawn on by Australian agencies wanting to partner with Indian Ocean or IORA member countries in capacity building activities across the suite of IORA's six pillars of focus. They are maritime security and safety, trade and investment facilitation, fisheries, disaster risk management, academic and science and technological cooperation, and tourism and cultural cooperation.
Senator FAWCETT: Perhaps you could just confirm the amount that was being spent on those three nations.
Mr Hutchesson : $2.6 million.
Senator FAWCETT: Is that particularly around the training of individuals? Or is it infrastructure? Communications systems equipment? What is the nature of that?
Mr Hutchesson : I would need to take that on notice. I am not sure that the detail of precisely how it is going to be applied in building capacity has been determined yet. I think there is still some design work that needs to take place there.
Mr McDonald : Another key outcome from that meeting was UAE's nomination, and Saudi Arabia, I think, as vice-chair. So, there is quite a lot of interest in IORA from the countries. Next year Indonesia takes over as chair, followed by South Africa. There is quite a pipeline of vice-chairs and chairs, and that demonstrates the interest and reinvigoration of that IORA group. And as Mr Hutchesson outlined, the interest in the issues and the outcomes from the meeting were very positive.
Senator FAWCETT: Given Australia's expertise in offshore search and rescue, as provided by various private-sector companies here, has there been any effort to engage the private sector in our leadership of the association for this year? And particularly as we look at this opportunity to develop the capacity, is the private sector going to be involved in that at all in terms of using them to provide the opportunities in these other nations?
Mr Hutchesson : I think at the Perth meeting it was not so much private sector engagement in relation to search and rescue, although it may well be—and I would need to defer to AMSA on this, because they are the ones that will be leading the unfolding and implementation of that $2.6 million capacity building effort. There may be scope for private sector engagement there, but that would really be a matter to direct to them. But there was a stream of activity built in, in parallel to the official IORA program in Perth, to look to engage the Indian Ocean business community, and that was the first time this had taken place in the IORA context. So, there was a series of events that were sponsored variously by Austrade, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Western Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Western Australian Department of State Development. It was a modest start, I think it would be fair to say. But it was a start, and it is really the first manifestation we have had or the first effort we have really made to look to use IORA to energise the networking and development of a bit of an Indian Ocean business community.
Senator FAWCETT: I am assuming, coming back to the search and rescue, that if there were a focus on equipment it would predominantly be in the air environment, but there may also be a surface response. As we look to design and deliver new Pacific patrol boats, as we look at our new offshore combatant requirements, is there any whole-of-government work, across departments, to look at how we can engage opportunities for industry who may be supplying our domestic defence needs to also supply into this foreign affairs related initiative?
Mr Hutchesson : There is not a mechanism for that at this stage, but I think as we are now looking to encourage a greater business component there should be opportunities to look to build those sorts of networks.
Senator FAWCETT: I will look forward to asking you at the next estimates how you have gone with that.
Mr McDonald : There is just one other thing from the meeting that I think is worth mentioning, and that was a panel on women empowerment. There was a breakfast sponsored by ACCI in WA, I think it was. It had representation from Indonesia, India and Australia as well as ACCI itself, and it was a good discussion around women empowerment. The contribution and the attendance at that briefing from both the private sector and the public sector was very strong, and the discussion within the panel and the interest within the room was very positive as well.
Senator GALLACHER: I listened very carefully to the exchange between Senator Brandis and others, and Senator Faulkner and Senator Wong, and I am going to ask a couple of questions along the same lines, but I am not interested in the content of discussions or who was there; I am just interested in a bit of process. There have been a number of prime ministerial visits to China, the US and Canada. I am just interested in what was described there about the normal process. There would be a cable after the meeting, and there would be a follow-up communication with the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Can you take us through the China trip? What was the process that happened there? Was there a DFAT involvement? I am just interested in the normal process.
Mr Varghese : Responsibility for the Prime Minister's overseas travel rests with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I will start with that caveat. Questions of detail are probably better addressed to them. Clearly any prime ministerial visit also closely involves the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in particular our missions overseas. In the case of the visit to China, in addition to the Prime Minister's bilateral program—in other words, in addition to his meetings with the leadership of the government of China—there was also a very substantial trade delegation component, a group of CEOs who accompanied the Prime Minister. In fact it was the group of CEOs who accompanied the Prime Minister through his North-East Asia trip. But in addition that, there was a very large business delegation that was led by Andrew Robb, the Minister for Trade and Investment. The trade delegations, the business delegations, are organised essentially by Austrade rather than by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But obviously our embassies are involved in the entire program, including the business delegation. As I recall, the Prime Minister's visit to China in April covered more than just Beijing. There was Australia Week in Shanghai, which included a number of substantial business events. The Prime Minister also attended the Boao Forum, which is, as you know, an annual forum where a number of leaders from around the world participate. He also had discussions with Premier Li Keqiang in Sanya before heading off to the Boao Forum. So, that is broadly the situation with regard to China.
Senator GALLACHER: All of this has been very educational for me, but I am a simple person. There is a forthcoming delegation to Japan and Korea which was postponed because of the hosts' occupation with ministerial visits. Do I take it that a minister's visit is totally in sync with the Department of Foreign Affairs, but for the Prime Minister it is entirely up him with what he does?
Mr Varghese : For a Prime Minister's visit, ultimately the program is a matter for the Prime Minister's office and the Prime Minister.
Senator GALLACHER: They can choose whether or not to have the ambassador or foreign affairs involved?
Mr Varghese : The question of participation and the composition of delegations is a matter for the Prime Minister's office.
Senator GALLACHER: Has it always been the way? Obviously, there are different prime ministers and some would choose to be more involved with DFAT and some would choose to be less involved. Are we able to characterise where we are at the moment?
Mr Varghese : You are correct that different prime ministers have had different approaches. Obviously, all prime ministerial visits have involved the very close involvement of our posts and, for a number of preparatory purposes, the department. For instance, we have had prime ministers who have travelled without any business delegation. But Prime Minister Abbott puts a very high store on taking a CEOs delegation with him where he thinks it is appropriate. He has done that now on most of his visits.
Senator GALLACHER: I was at a subcommittee—the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—in Melbourne the other day and heard about the super delegations led by the Victorian government. Obviously, they are very valuable exercise, but what they do for defence, foreign affairs and trade? You would have clear needs to brief the Prime Minister and his advisers. If he has got 100 people with him, who have all got their own private aeroplanes and god knows what else, does put the cat amongst the pigeons—so to speak—in terms of how successful these delegations are? That is not in terms of the trade issue, but in terms of the long-term relationships between countries. There is only 24 hours in every day.
Mr Varghese : From my perspective, as the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, where trade and investment are a very big part of our portfolio priorities, the model of the prime ministerial visit accompanied by a business delegation is very welcome. That is because it does enable us to address the economic, trade and investment relationship in a way that it might not otherwise be addressed. I should say that the business participants obviously pay their own way. They do not travel with the Prime Minister on the Prime Minister's plane nor do they participate in everything the Prime Minister does, but typically in the course of a program there will be some events where the Prime Minister gets the opportunity to mingle with the business delegation and some events where the business delegation will participate in an element of the Prime Minister's program.
For instance, at the state dinners that were given in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing, amongst the guests were some members of the Prime Minister's business delegation. It is many more moving parts in the course of visit, but I think it is worth doing and has a good impact. You might want to pursue some of these issues with Austrade this evening, because they have the responsibility for organising the business delegations.
Senator GALLACHER: I am sure Senator Wong will be taking that up. I am getting towards the point where, given that this is the way that this Prime Minister and his office have decided to go, it really adds a robust negotiation around who attends what and who gets time with whom. The size of the egos in the delegation are probably a bit enhanced by some of these spectacularly successful businesspeople. But there was a media report that said that you personally were deeply unhappy at being excluded from a state dinner in China. Is that an accurate summation of the event?
Mr Varghese : I was involved in the Prime Minister's North-east Asia trip. I did not attend the Beijing leg of it. I was in Tokyo, Seoul and Sanya but not in Shanghai and Beijing.
Senator Brandis: I should also point out to you that it is not just businesspeople who were accompanying the Prime Minister on the North-east Asia visit. He was certainly accompanied by a lot of leading figures of Australian business, but he was also accompanied by cultural leaders like Li Cunxin, Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet. He was accompanied by a number of vice-chancellors and other educational leaders. So the virtue of bringing a delegation of Australian leaders with the Prime Minister on these visits is not merely to establish or reinforce and enhance commercial and trade links but also educational and cultural links as well.
Senator GALLACHER: I fully accept that and think it is an immensely valuable proposition. What I am trying to explore here is whether the 24/7, 365-days-a-year work of defence, foreign affairs and trade is competing against an equally valuable group of people for time to brief the Prime Minister in these circumstances. If the delegation is only there for a matter of hours or days, that is a pretty testing situation. I am just wondering whether the PMO is making decisions which are in the best interests of Australia's long-term diplomatic presence in some areas. I am just wondering if there is any tension in that area.
Mr Varghese : I think up to now it has worked well. I think the outcomes of the visit support the model that the Prime Minister is seeking to use in his travels.
Senator GALLACHER: So, to be very blunt, if the PMO makes a decision to include the person that Senator Brandis referred to—Andrew Forrest—at a meeting that can only have three people and you or your ambassador is excluded, that is no issue?
Mr Varghese : Typically the meetings that the Prime Minister has with his counterparts or with senior members of the governments tend not to include business delegations. The business delegations participate in separate events or where they come together with the official program would be in a larger event like a state dinner or a reception. So I do not think there is that sort of trade-off involved in attending meetings, because the business delegation would not be at the government-to-government meetings.
Senator GALLACHER: But ultimately there is a set amount of hours in the day and there is tension or competition for those spots. You are saying that has been managed well by the PMO's office?
Mr Varghese : I think the mix in the Prime Minister's programs has proved to be effective across government-to-government business promotion, investment promotion and the broader public diplomacy when we do something like Australia Week in Shanghai, which, as the Attorney has just indicated, also has a significant cultural element to it as well.
Senator GALLACHER: So it would be completely wrong to characterise DFAT's role as being one of less importance than in previous prime ministerial operations, for want of a better word.
Mr Varghese : Different prime ministers have had different approaches. I do not think you are comparing it against one single thing. It all depends on which period you are looking at.
Senator GALLACHER: Do you provide more or less support for this Prime Minister and his office than for the last one?
Mr Varghese : The department continues to provide extensive support for the Prime Minister's travel.
Senator GALLACHER: Would it be normal for the Prime Minister to meet behind closed doors with three prime ministers without someone from your department, an ambassador or you, being there?
Mr Varghese : Normally our ambassador would be present at meetings with the other head of government. It would be relatively unusual for an ambassador not to be present. Sometimes leaders do meet in what is called a four-eyes format, which means just the two of them, and in that case they would not be accompanied by any officials. But, even where the numbers are small, it would usually include the ambassador.
Senator GALLACHER: On recent trips, has Prime Minister Abbott spent time behind closed doors with Prime Minister Modi of India without someone from DFAT present?
Mr Varghese : Our high commissioner would have been there.
Senator GALLACHER: So that is not correct. You had the high commissioner in the room.
Mr Varghese : Yes, my understanding is that the high commissioner was present at the meeting with Prime Minister Modi.
Senator GALLACHER: Was there a four-eyes meeting?
Mr Varghese : I would need to check. There may have been.
Senator GALLACHER: So it is quite common that the high commissioner could be there for a while and then they would have a bit of time.
Mr Varghese : Sometimes leaders may sit down for 10 or 15 minutes, have a private four-eyes conversation and then join a larger group. That is not unheard of in the way these things happen. I do not know whether that was the case in Delhi; I would have to check.
Senator GALLACHER: Would it be the same answer for Prime Minister Abe? How much time did Prime Minister Abbott spent behind closed doors with Prime Minister Abe?
Mr Varghese : Again, even where they were meetings with a very small number of people, it would have included the ambassador, in most cases.
Senator GALLACHER: And Canada, Prime Minister Harper? Our line of questioning in this brief is, basically, that there appears to be a style of leadership that is probably very valuable—we have lots of trade people, lots of cultural people—but is that putting pressure on DFAT's organisation and role? Is the way that the government is going causing you to have less time to brief on the proper diplomatic processes that are going through? I have probably asked that question twice now, but it is a continual theme. If there are more people, more competition for his time, necessarily something has to give somewhere.
Mr Varghese : Obviously, a program that has more components to it—in other words, a program that has additional business components to it—is going to be a more complicated program to manage and, since it is our posts that manage the programs, that means more pressure on them. But my sense, looking at all of these visits, is that the posts have been able to handle that. As I have said, the outcomes of the visit have been very successful in advancing Australia's interests.
Senator McGRATH: I would like to go to the Middle East. What is the status of the ceasefire between Israel and the terrorist organisation Hamas?
Mr Innes-Brown : It is still in operation. It continues. There was a conference recently in Cairo where a significant amount of money was pledged to rebuild Gaza. They are working through, as I understand it, some of the arrangements for allowing the entry of building materials and so on into Gaza for the reconstruction. We have given some money for a monitoring mechanism for that. At this stage, the ceasefire is still in operation.
Senator McGRATH: How much money have we put in?
Mr Innes-Brown : There is a monitoring mechanism. We have given $120,000 to get that up and running. It was a UN initiative to give confidence that the materials that are going to flow back into Gaza for reconstruction will be used for appropriate purposes and not be diverted to other activities.
Senator McGRATH: For the last six months, does the Australian government have an estimate of how many rockets or missiles have been fired from Gaza into Israel and what the effect has been on Israeli citizens?
Mr Innes-Brown : I do not have the exact number to hand, but I think it was well over 2,000, which obviously had a significant impact on the safety and mental wellbeing of the people of Israel.
Senator McGRATH: What is our current travel advice for Gaza and also the state of Israel?
Mr Brown : I am just looking it up on the Smartraveller website. The reception is not good in here.
Senator McGRATH: Maybe we can come back to that. Can you outline the steps taken by the government to assist foreign nationals to leave Gaza during the crisis? Are we aware of how many Australians left Gaza during the recent period?
Mr Brown : I will deal first with the issue of the travel advice. I think you asked explicitly about Gaza.
Senator McGRATH: Gaza and the state of Israel.
Mr Brown : For Israel overall, the current rating is 'exercise a high degree of caution'. For Gaza, it is 'do not travel', which is our highest alert. For the sake of completeness, the West Bank has a rating of 'reconsider your need to travel'. For areas within a five-kilometre radius of the border with Gaza, it is also 'reconsider your need to travel'. We did assist a number of Australians to depart Gaza. I may, however, have to take on notice the question about the specific numbers.
Senator McGRATH: Could you, please.
Mr Brown : I am happy to.
Senator McGRATH: How much assistance will Australia provide to the Palestinian territories in 2014-15 and how does that compare to previous years?
Mr Innes-Brown : The amount of program funding for this year is $56.5 million. It is a three per cent increase on last year, which was $54.8 million.
Senator McGRATH: I would like to move on to Afghanistan. I was wondering if you could update the committee on the current security situation in Afghanistan?
Mr Hutchesson : The security situation in Afghanistan has very much improved over the past decade. Afghanistan is no longer such a ready haven for the terrorist groups. I think the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces is notably improved. They are much more capable and experienced in dealing with the insurgency. Those are all pluses. There is a government of national unity now in Afghanistan after a challenging electoral process.
Senator McGRATH: How significant do you think that election was?
Mr Hutchesson : It was a very significant election. It is the first democratic transition of power that Afghanistan has seen. There will be challenges. There are certainly challenges ahead. I would not want to understate those at all. The security environment is still delicate and there are parts of the country where the writ of the government is barely visible. But, looked at across the board, from the perspectives of government capacity, economic development, security capability, social indicators and so on, there is a somewhat encouraging picture to look at.
Senator McGRATH: Did we provide any support to the election?
Mr Hutchesson : Yes, we did.
Senator McGRATH: What sorts of support did we provide?
Mr Hutchesson : We have provided $22 million over a four-year period—2011 to 2015. That has been provided primarily through the UN and civil society organisations. In the context of the presidential elections that took place earlier this year, we had 11 embassy staff registered as observers and supported 13 non-Australian observers for the audit of the vote that took place after the election.
Senator McGRATH: I take it our contribution was welcomed?
Mr Hutchesson : Certainly.
Senator McGRATH: What other assistance are we providing?
Mr Hutchesson : At the moment, there is of the order of 400 ADF personnel in Afghanistan continuing to train and advise the Afghan National Security Forces. We have a significant aid program in Afghanistan that goes to the sustainment or the further development of the Afghan National Security Forces. Then Prime Minister Gillard, at the Chicago conference in 2012, committed Australia to provide $100 million for each year from 2015 through until 2017 to strengthen the Afghan National Security Forces. Part of that money comes from ODA and part of it comes from the Department of Defence. In addition we have a bilateral aid program. We are working through the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to provide significant amounts of money. Since 2003, $333 million has been provided and there will be about $40 million going through that trust fund this year as part of a total Australian aid program to Afghanistan this year in the order of $134 million. So it is quite a significant contribution of personnel and development assistance.
Senator McGRATH: Are we seeing many exchanges in terms of Afghanis coming to Australia to study or to observe our civil institutions and things like that? Numbers of—
Mr Hutchesson : Not so much. In fact, Afghanistan is not currently participating in the Australia Awards scheme, so we do not have that scholarship mechanism available. There are delegations from time to time that do visit.
Senator McGRATH: When you say that they are not participating, is that a decision by the government of Afghanistan or is it just that we have a limited budget here and that we choose—
Mr Hutchesson : It is a matter of priorities, to some extent. It is also a matter of ensuring the integrity of the program.
Senator McGRATH: Thank you, I am done. My last area, in terms of seat-swapping, will be about Japan. What were the outcomes of the Japan-Australia 2+2 Foreign and Defence Ministerial Consultations held earlier this year?
Mr Varghese : While Mr Rowe is consulting his notes, maybe I could offer a couple of thoughts. As you know, the 2+2 meeting is an opportunity to review and advance the relationship across the board, incorporating as it does both the defence and strategic agenda, as well as the foreign policy agenda.
It was an opportunity for us to hear from the Japanese government about its strategic policy and, in particular, the interest in Japan in playing a more active, constructive role in the security affairs of the region. That is reflected in the priorities of the Abe government, including the debate that is now occurring in Japan on collective self-defence.
It was an opportunity, again, on the defence side, to look at areas where we could cooperate further, including discussions on submarines and also the interaction between the Japan Self-Defence Forces and the Australian Defence Force. It was an opportunity on the foreign policy side to review regional and international developments, to discuss what more we can do together—in particular, in relation to the building up of regional institutions, particularly the East Asia Summit, which both governments accord a very high priority.
As you would expect, we also discussed areas of concern in the region, including the South China Sea and the East China Sea. As allies of the United States, it was an opportunity also to discuss the broader geopolitical direction of the region against the backdrop of the US pivot.
Again, reflecting the nature of our relationship, we now have a very extensive agenda when it comes to global cooperation in the United Nations and elsewhere, including in areas where Japan has taken a particularly strong position, such as nonproliferation and disarmament. Those were some of the major outcomes. Mr Rowe may want to add to it.
Mr Rowe : I do not have anything to add to that.
Senator McGRATH: How would you describe our relationship with Japan?
Mr Varghese : It is a very close relationship, a very broadbased relationship. It is a relationship which, in the postwar period, developed from a trade and investment relationship. That continues to be a very important element, but it has now become very much a comprehensive relationship, embracing not just trade and investment but a closeness in the political dialogue. I think we see a number of strategic issues from a similar perspective. We also now have a people-to-people relationship which, again, is broad and deep. We see Japan as a very important bilateral partner. We see it as a very important partner in the region in terms of sharing a number of views about the way in which the region ought to evolve and how the region should be dealing with the economic and strategic challenges it is facing. We also have a certain like-mindedness with Japan when it comes to the global multilateral agenda. In addition to that, we are both reasonably significant players when it comes to development assistance. So we are always looking for opportunities to cooperate more on the development assistance side.
Senator McGRATH: You would be aware of recent comments made by the Leader of the Opposition where he attempted to link the debate about Japanese submarines with Japan's war record. Are you aware of any complaints made by the Japanese embassy to Mr Shorten on this matter?
Mr Varghese : No, I am not aware of any discussions between the embassy and Mr Shorten.
Senator McGRATH: Was the issue raised with the department by the embassy of Japan?
Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge, but I will check with Mr Rowe.
Mr Rowe : Not to my knowledge—no formal discussions.
Senator McGRATH: Thank you.
ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Gallacher ): Just before I go to Senator Dastyari for a couple of minutes, can I just revisit some ground. We do know that there were meetings with Prime Minister Modi, Prime Minister Abe and Prime Minister Harper. Could I just ask for confirmation of who attended those meetings, particularly DFAT attendees, high commissioner or ambassador, PMO or others?
Mr Varghese : I think, Acting Chair, that that goes to the question that the Attorney indicated we would take on notice, which is whether we would depart from past practice in the provision of that sort of detail.
ACTING CHAIR: That is fine. It is there if it is dealt with in accordance with that. Finally, there is an article which appeared on the Crikey website, on 10 June, which said:
A DFAT source says Varghese was deeply unhappy at being excluded by Credlin from a state dinner, hosted by Chinese president Xi Jinping, during the Prime Minister’s trip to China in April, and returned home early.
Is that accurate?
Mr Varghese : I do not want to get into a commentary on a commentary. I would rather not enter into that discussion.
Senator DASTYARI: I only have a few minutes and some very quick questions, but is Mr Innes-Brown still here? They are questions relating to his area. Acting Chair, I acknowledge the way the program has been jumping around a bit today. I appreciate the indulgence. It is hard to work out where different things fit into the program at this point.
Mr Innes-Brown, I want to talk about the role that Australia has been playing in highlighting some of the human rights abuses in Iran. I think it is fair to say that this country has a proud history of using its role as a middle power to highlight pain and suffering and using the diplomatic tools that it has at its disposal to put pressure on different regimes, including in how they treat their own people. Would you give the committee a brief update on recent steps taken by the Australian government and the role that we can play as a nation in highlighting some of the abuses in places like Iran and other places in the region.
Mr Innes-Brown : The Australian government remains deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Iran. With the advent of the Rouhani government, President Rouhani promised to implement reforms. In practice, unfortunately, we are still yet to see much change on the ground, and I can explain a bit about why that is a little later. The Australian government has been very forthright in raising its concerns about the human rights situation, as I said, both bilaterally in Tehran and in Canberra and also in the UN General Assembly Third Committee and in the Human Rights Council. Some of the issues that we have raised concerns about over the time include continued use of the death penalty, sometimes against minors, torture, the denial of a free trial, discrimination against women and girls, and the persecution and ill treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, including Arab-Iranians, Baha'is, Christians, dervishes and Sufis. We are also concerned about the intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, political activists and journalists. We have expressed concern about the situation of prisoners of conscience and we have also expressed concern about restrictions on civil and political rights.
As I said, we have been raising these issues in appropriate fora. Bilaterally, our embassy on 1 September this year raised general human rights issues with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the situation of minorities and the situation of the desecration of a cemetery by a group in Shiraz. The new Iranian ambassador to Canberra made a call on me in August and, in his introductory call, I underlined to him the importance that the Australian government and the Australian community attach to human rights issues in Iran. Also, in multilateral fora, most recently on 16 September 2014, Australia delivered a statement in the UN Human Rights Council and again noted some of the concerns about the human rights situation that I sketched out a minute ago. So I can assure you that it is an issue on our agenda and it will continue to be.
Senator DASTYARI: How do you define the status of the Australian-Iranian relationship at the moment? We end up with some of these countries like Iran in a kind of semi-limbo. Of course we have diplomatic relations, but, obviously they are tested. How do you describe where the relationship is?
Mr Innes-Brown : As you said, we do have diplomatic relations. We do maintain channels of communication. There are important issues that we need to talk about, including in recent times, of course, the issue of ISIL in the Middle East and the situation in Iraq, which is of keen interest to the Iranian authorities. There are other issues like Afghanistan, where we have shared interests in talking about things. Also, an important bilateral issue is the issue of people-smuggling. Our two governments definitely do not have a close relationship. We have many significant differences and we make those clear and discuss them, including on Iran's nuclear program and on human rights issues, as I said. However, we also believe that it is important, as I said, to keep open channels of communication so that we can resolve issues to our own interest.
Senator DASTYARI: Are you effectively saying that while the Australian government has a relationship with the Iranian government, we use the relationship we have to highlight, where appropriate and where we can, human rights abuses and violations and that the gulf between the rhetoric from the Iranian leadership and the reality of what happens on the ground is actually what holds us back from having a better relationship?
Mr Innes-Brown : There are a range of issues we are deeply concerned about. One of them is the Iranian nuclear program and the threat that poses to international security. It is not simply that issue; there are a range.
Senator DASTYARI: It seems to be that there is a positive process going on at the moment between the Iranians and the Americans. I only know what I read in the papers about this and I would not want you to divulge any sensitive information, but is that something that we think has any chance of success?
Mr Varghese : I think the fact that they are still talking is a positive and some elements of those discussions do seem to be making progress. I think it is a bit premature to make a call as to whether they will get there within the deadline that they have set for themselves. We certainly hope that they do because this is a very big issue, not only for us bilaterally with Iran but for how Iran positions itself in the international community. I think we are watching this closely but I think it would be a brave person who would make a call at the moment as to whether it is going to succeed or not.
Senator DASTYARI: Do you think it is a positive thing that while we engage with Iran we have had bipartisan cross-government support in holding the Iranian regime to account, where possible, on things like human rights abuses? I acknowledge that the current foreign minister has been quite outspoken on issues like the treatment of women in places like Iran and that I have always had very strong views on the way in which the Iranian government treats political prisoners. That is a question that you can take as a comment.
Senator WILLIAMS: On the issue of Iraq, I want to take you to Camp Liberty and Camp Ashraf. Are you familiar with that situation?
Mr Innes-Brown : Yes.
Senator WILLIAMS: They are still listed as a terrorist organisation as far as Australia goes?
Mr Innes-Brown : That is correct.
Senator WILLIAMS: They have been de-listed in places like France and America. Is that the situation?
Mr Innes-Brown : That is correct.
Senator WILLIAMS: Do we do any monitoring of the care of those people in those camps? They are shifted from camp to camp. I get a lot of complaints about the treatment of those people, bombings and deaths and so on. Could you give me a brief update on those 3000 or so people who fled from Iran many years ago to camp Liberty in Iraq?
Mr Innes-Brown : Our embassy in Baghdad quite regularly touches base with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq about their situation, and they have done so in recent weeks.
Senator DASTYARI: You have been to the camp, haven't you?
Mr Innes-Brown : No, I haven't.
Senator DASTYARI: I thought you might have been while you were ambassador.
Mr Innes-Brown : No. They were at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad, during my period; but we never went to that particular site. We had no particular need to at that particular time.
Senator WILLIAMS: If other countries have delisted them as a terrorist group or a threat, why has Australia retained that? You have obviously got a reason for it.
Mr Innes-Brown : There is reason. The minister has assessed that they meet the criteria. In different jurisdictions there are different tests and different circumstances. It is not as simple as comparing one country directly to another. We have got our own processes here and we believe that they still meet the criteria, so they are still listed.
Senator McEWEN: I just wanted to do organisation and staffing, if I could. Can I have an update to our question on notice No. 401, which was about SES-band redundancies. I think that question on notice, as of 30 June, was that there were 13 out of 16 SES-band redundancies that were premerger AusAID staff. Has that changed?
Mr Varghese : As of 1 October, which are the latest figures that I have, there are 16 SES-level officers who have taken the equivalent of the voluntary redundancy. It is called an 'incentive to retire' in the case of the SES.
Senator McEWEN: And 13 of them were premerger AusAID staff?
Mr Varghese : Of those, 13 were premerger AusAID staff and three were premerger DFAT staff.
Senator McEWEN: Was there any attempt on the part of the department to incentivise the voluntary redundancies? What did you call them?
Mr Varghese : Incentives to retire.
Senator McEWEN: Were there any of those from the DFAT group, so that you did not have this imbalance between DFAT and pre-AusAID staff?
Mr Varghese : The way this works is that officers approach us and express an interest in being eligible for an incentive to retire at the SES level. In the case of non-SES officers, we invite expressions of interest for a voluntary redundancy. So the profile of those who end up taking an incentive to retire really reflects those who have come to broach whether it is something we would offer them.
Senator McEWEN: Are you concerned at all that there is clearly an imbalance? Out of 16 senior officers who have retired, 13 of them came from the AusAID area of your department. What are you doing to retain the skills that those officers had and what are you doing to redress the imbalance?
Mr Varghese : One of the consequences of merging AusAID with DFAT is that we have had to reduce staff. In the 2014-15 budget that staff reduction will be of the order of around 500. I think it is probably inevitable that we will see more of that staff reduction impacting on what were previously AusAID positions than on premerger DFAT positions. The reason I say that is that AusAID, when it came to DFAT in November of last year, was an organisation which was staffed up to deliver an $8 billion program. Its successor in DFAT is now delivering a $5 billion program. The combined consequence of a reduction in the aid program and the necessity to reduce the aggregate staff of the merged department by 500 inevitably, in my view, would mean that we will see more former AusAID colleagues go through this process than former pre-merger DFAT colleagues.
Senator McEWEN: In the responses to many questions on notice from budget estimates there is a referral to the four-year strategic workforce plan that was still being developed as of June. Is that finished now?
Mr Fisher : That remains a work in progress. We started work on that in the middle of this year, going out to all parts of the organisation seeking views on workforce requirements. We are now moving through that process. It is a long process, and a process which will be ongoing, so it will not really conclude. It is a process that we will keep moving on with, because we need to make sure that the skills are right for the tasks government is asking us to do.
Senator McEWEN: So it is a plan with no end date?
Mr Fisher : We will develop that plan—that is correct, but we will continue to refine it and continue to do workforce planning to recruit and retain the skills we need.
Senator McEWEN: Are further redundancies being offered while the plan is in development?
Mr Fisher : We have had three rounds of redundancies, and those remain open in that we have not completed the redundancy process. We have indicated to staff that we have come much closer to reaching the target of reductions in terms of overall staff numbers, so the number of redundancies will reduce from now on.
Senator McEWEN: Isn't it a bit weird to be developing a plan and offering redundancies at the same time? In my experience you normally develop the plan and then, on the basis of that, you offer redundancies.
Mr Varghese : We have to get to our target of 500 fewer staff by the end of this financial year, and the only way we will get to that target is by utilising voluntary redundancies. Some proportion of it will be delivered by natural attrition—people leaving the department who are not replaced—but we cannot get there without voluntary redundancies. There is no point in pursuing a workforce planning document if you do not have the right base figures in it.
ACTING CHAIR: I accept what you have said about AusAID and Austrade, but if you have ever been on a delegation and have then been briefed by an Austrade person or an AusAID person, you got almost quite different people. That is my perception, anyway—it might be only mine. If AusAID is over-represented in the number of SES bands that go, will you still be able to deliver the same service? Will you still be able to do the same job? It seemed to me that Austrade people did one thing and AusAID people did another.
Mr Varghese : The backgrounds of colleagues who came in from AusAID, in some cases, certainly were different. In some cases there was a lot of commonality between the skills base of former AusAID colleagues and the skills base that we had in the pre-merger DFAT. The short answer to your question is: yes, I think we can deliver what the government requires us to deliver—and bear in mind that what the government requires us to deliver is $3 billion less than what AusAID was staffed up for.
Senator McEWEN: Have there been any further staff morale surveys since budget estimates?
Mr Varghese : I think the last relevant staff survey would have been part of the broader APS staff survey. I will try to get the details for you.
Senator McEWEN: That is all right. You can take that on notice, Mr Varghese.
Mr Varghese : The broad picture is largely unchanged and that means that we still do have issues that we have to address in relation in particular to former AusAID colleagues feeling that they are part of the new operation and a valued part of the new operation. As I said at the last estimates committee, this is going to take time for us to deal with. What we do have now in greater abundance than we had when we last met in estimates is a level of certainty about structure and numbers. As we have discussed earlier, some component of the morale issues that we faced post merger, I think, very understandably reflected a large element of uncertainty about what kind of job people will be doing, whether they will have a job and if it is a job will it be one that reflected their particular skills base.
We are making progress with that. We have met our deadline of the new structure being in place by 30 June. We have settled on our integration model. We know what our numbers are and we have allocated revised numbers across the department and at overseas posts. We are travelling well in terms of structure. I think there is more work for us to do in terms of aligning culture and structure.
Senator McEWEN: Do you have any plans to do future staff morale surveys?
Mr Varghese : Yes. We will continue to do what we call 'pulse' surveys. I think the next one is due in November-December.
Senator McEWEN: That will be completed in time for us to follow-up at supplementary estimates in February?
Mr Varghese : I am not sure whether by then we will have analysed results, but certainly if we do we will share them with you.
Senator McEWEN: Thank you. It was expected that the spend on the integration of AusAID and the department's IT was going to be $850,000. That is still the correct amount?
Mr Varghese : Could you let me know what you are basing the $850,000 on?
Senator McEWEN: No, I cannot because it is not in my notes!
Mr Varghese : It is not a figure that is familiar to me. I will check and see.
Senator McEWEN: Perhaps you could take it on notice then.
Mr Varghese : Unless Mr Spackman is able to enlighten us.
Mr Spackman : I am unfamiliar as to where that figure comes from. That is certainly not a figure that we have been working to or I have quoted.
Mr Varghese : It sounds very cheap if it is true.
Mr Spackman : It does.
Senator McEWEN: Perhaps we will follow that up later. I turn now to the status of enterprise bargaining in DFAT. In June you were still looking for approval for a position to take to your employees—is that right?
Mr Varghese : That is right and that is essentially where we still are. We have obviously begun the formal process. We have had a period of consultation. We are now into the formal bargaining process but we have not yet put a proposal on the table. We are still working on what the proposal will be and we need to get the relevant approval of the Public Service Commission and the government before we can do that. So we are not quite there yet.
Senator McEWEN: So you have not got a position to go forward. When was bargaining supposed to start? September—and that was delayed; is that right?
Mr Fisher : We began conducting meetings with bargaining representatives on 23 September after releasing a notice of employee representational rights on 4 September.
Senator McEWEN: Have you any indication when you will get the approval necessary to go forward with a position?
Mr Fisher : No, we do not have an indication of that yet.
Senator McEWEN: Do the staff of the department get retrospectivity if you start bargaining late?
Mr Varghese : I think the start date of any new agreement with salary increases would be part of the negotiation.
Senator McEWEN: So the retrospectivity will be part of the negotiation; it is not guaranteed?
Mr Varghese : I think the whole question of a start date, whether it is retrospective or prospective, is part of the negotiation.
Senator RHIANNON: Mr Varghese, considering Sri Lankan media has reported that the son of the Sri Lankan President, Mr Rajapaksa, has been involved in people smuggling, has the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka provided a briefing on this to the minister or to DFAT?
Mr Varghese : I think Mr Hutchesson may be able to address that.
Mr Hutchesson : The answer is no.
Senator RHIANNON: Have you received any information from any sources about this issue?
Mr Hutchesson : I have not seen any information on the son of the president being involved in people smuggling.
Senator RHIANNON: So you were not aware of this until I raised it just now?
Mr Hutchesson : I was not aware of it until you raised it—that is quite right. I have not seen that media report.
Senator RHIANNON: Considering the government's stated commitment in assisting the Sri Lankan government to recognise human rights, has the Australian government taken up with the Sri Lankan government the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows torture and other human rights violations by government forces?
Mr Hutchesson : The Australian government has a regular ongoing dialogue with the government of Sri Lanka on human rights issues. The government takes all allegations of human rights abuses and international crime seriously. This was very much part of our discussion, in fact, just a couple of weeks ago in Perth in a meeting between Ms Bishop and the Sri Lankan external affairs minister. The issue of reconciliation was raised, as it often is.
Senator RHIANNON: My question was not about abuses. The question was about the Prevention of Terrorism Act in Sri Lanka which allows torture and human rights violations. That is what the question was about. Has that been raised?
Mr Hutchesson : You say that the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows torture. It is the case that in Sri Lanka the Sri Lankan constitution and other laws prohibit torture. Sri Lanka has ratified the UN convention against torture. So I am not quite sure exactly what you mean when you say, 'The Prevention of Terrorism Act allows torture.'
Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that it is your understanding that the Prevention of Terrorism Act does not allow human rights violations and so it is not an issue that you have had to take up with the Sri Lankan government?
Mr Hutchesson : The Prevention of Terrorism Act in and of itself is not a regular feature of our dialogue with the Sri Lankan government on human rights issues, but we certainly do engage with the Sri Lankan government regularly on human rights issues.
Senator RHIANNON: But, again, the question was specifically about that act. Is it correct to say (1) that you have not taken up the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the government and (2) that is because you do not see that it allows violations of human rights?
Mr Hutchesson : On the first question, whether as part of our broader human rights engagements with Sri Lanka we may or may not have pursued the Prevention of Terrorism Act, that is something that I would like to take on notice. The second point, as I understand it, is that the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows torture. Again, I do not believe that is the case. It certainly would not allow it explicitly. But, again, I am happy to—
Senator RHIANNON: Can you take that on notice?
Mr Hutchesson : Yes, I am happy to do so.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. And thank you for explaining that there is regular and ongoing dialogue with Sri Lankan authorities on human rights issues. Considering that acts of gender based violence committed by Sri Lankan state forces, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, have been documented extensively both during and after the conflict in Sri Lanka, is the Australian government working with the Sri Lankan government to eradicate the systemic sexual and gender based violence that the Sri Lankan military have engaged in?
Mr Hutchesson : I will take that question on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Just to help my understanding: in your earlier response you spoke of regular, ongoing dialogue with Sri Lanka on human rights issues. Can you expand on what that means? Is that just a matter of asking them what they are doing, or is there follow-through in investigating where there could be human rights abuses? How proactive is it? Could you explain what that process is, please?
Mr Hutchesson : There is regular interaction at ministerial level. Our High Commission in Sri Lanka engages on a regular basis with different parts of the Sri Lankan system on different matters of interest and concern. This could relate to the workings of the commission on disappearances; it could relate to the decision taken by the Sri Lankan government earlier this year to prescribe, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1373, a number of Tamil individuals and diaspora groups; and it goes to a discussion on the tightened regulation of NGO activity and the implications that might have for the operation of civil society in the human rights space. So, there is a range of issues that we do pursue with Sri Lanka.
In terms of investigating: I think that would not be a characterisation that I would use of the nature of the engagement that we have.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for clarifying that, but just a little more: if, within the course of the discussions, a problem is identified—for example, with NGOs or anything else—would the follow-through then be at the next meeting? You would have this human rights dialogue there where you would then seek to understand where the government is and if they have responded to any feedback?
Mr Hutchesson : If there is an ongoing issue, that would remain part of our ongoing suite of issues that we would raise as appropriate.
Senator RHIANNON: So it is dialogue. Thank you. We touched on this before, and I just want to return to it: issues about monitoring asylum seekers who Australia has returned to Sri Lanka. Does the Australian government conduct any monitoring of the people forcibly returned to Sri Lanka?
Mr Hutchesson : In Sri Lanka, no.
Senator RHIANNON: I understood that DFAT had previously said UNHCR would handle the monitoring in Sri Lanka of returnees. Was that not the case previously?
Mr Hutchesson : I am not quite sure that 'monitoring' is the right term but UNHCR does 'track' to some extent the experience of some returnees. But these are not, to my knowledge, specifically returnees from Australia. These are Tamils returning to the north and east of Sri Lanka, having been away from the country. So I am not aware that that necessarily goes to the cohort that may have been returned from Australia.
Senator RHIANNON: Is it an arrangement that DFAT previously had, or may still have, with UNHCR or are you talking about something that is quite separate?
Mr Hutchesson : I am not aware of a current or previous formal arrangement, but I am happy to take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Could you also take on notice the process that returnees to Sri Lanka who feel they are at risk should go through in order to seek protection or to notify Australian authorities of their situation once they have been returned? Could you explain that process, please? Will you take that on notice?
Mr Hutchesson : I will take that on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. When I travelled to Sri Lanka in 2012 I visited in the north the office of the newspaper Uthayan and they showed me some bullet holes in the walls and where the printing press had been burnt and other things. I heard that the Australian High Commissioner has reported to DFAT on these attacks.
Mr Hutchesson : That is correct.
Senator RHIANNON: Was that as a result of a visit to the premises?
Mr Hutchesson : I would have to take on notice whether the High Commissioner had actually visited the premises but certainly the incident involving that particular media facility has been reported through diplomatic means.
Senator RHIANNON: I now want to move on to issues to do with global health programs.
Senator McEWEN: Senator Rhiannon, just while we are finding someone to answer those questions for you, the mysterious $800,000 was in DFAT's answer to QON 409. It was the amount that had been spent on consultancies for IT integration to date. So perhaps you could take on notice, Mr Varghese, whether that amount is still the same or whether or not it has increased.
Mr Varghese : I am happy to do that.
Senator RHIANNON: What decision has been made concerning funding for GAVI, the global health program's vaccines alliance, for this year and next year?
Mr McDonald : Next year there is a new replenishment and no decision has yet been taken in that regard. In relation to funding this year, Ms Walsh should be able to tell you the amount that has been paid.
Ms Walsh : Senator, you will be aware that replenishments to GAVI are done over a multi-year agenda. The amount allocated in the current replenishment period, which takes us from 2011 to 2015, is $200 million.
Senator RHIANNON: Has the department been tracking funding commitments made by other governments to GAVI in the lead-up to the replenishment conference on 27 January 2016 in Berlin?
Ms Walsh : Yes, we have—although most countries are yet to announce their replenishment amounts, which is quite normal this far out from a replenishment event.
Senator RHIANNON: Can you provide any details, particularly on the increases to previous commitments?
Ms Walsh : Not specifically, but I can take it on notice and check whether we have confirmed announcements from ministers or appropriate representatives of government.
Senator RHIANNON: If you have them you are able to provide them?
Ms Walsh : If the government in question has made that publicly available I am happy to pass that on.
Mr McDonald : And most of it is done at the replenishment event itself. That is where most of the donors will make their announcements.
Senator RHIANNON: What is the time frame for a decision being made concerning Australia's pledge at the Berlin conference?
Ms Walsh : That is up to the Foreign Minister.
Senator RHIANNON: So we just have to wait until the minister makes the announcement. How far out from the conference is that usually done?
Ms Walsh : Again, that is entirely up to the minister.
Senator RHIANNON: I will move on to the Pacific now. How much Australian funding has been contributed to the survey and registration of land for individual land ownership or title in the Pacific?
Mr McDonald : I think we will need to take that on notice.
Ms Rawson : I do not have that level of detail with me so I will take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I am interested in where land titles across the Pacific are held. Are they actually lodged somewhere?
Ms Rawson : Each country has its own system of land titles so there is not a land title system that is common to the region. It will depend upon the arrangements in each country.
Senator RHIANNON: So even though you have got a fairly common system across the Pacific, there is no one collection of data? It is held within each country?
Ms Rawson : There are different land systems in each of the countries where assistance is provided. It is not to ensure a common system across the Pacific but to help countries to either develop, improve on or restructure their own land systems.
Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate that you will have to take this on notice but, so I can understand how this is working, is the funding that we are putting in then linked with funding from the World Bank or with any bilateral or multilateral programs?
Ms Rawson : I am really not sure which actual activity you are referring to so I cannot provide any detail about whether it is linked to broader programs. Often in working on activities, the lands systems or elsewhere, we will be linked up with other multilateral or bilateral donor parties. In this case I just cannot provide that information but I will take it on notice.
Senator RHIANNON: If you could also take on notice: do we have just one project? If so, what is the name of it? Are there many projects? Who are the partners? What are our funding commitments? What funding commitments are coming from other countries?
Senator RHIANNON: Will the Australian government be providing assistance or funding to support an updated population census in Bougainville? You can take that on notice.
Ms Rawson : I am not familiar with work on the census so I will take that on notice.
ACTING CHAIR: My next couple of questions relate to the footprint we have around the world, particularly Jakarta and Bangkok, where we have new facilities. It was very disconcerting for the chair of the public works committee to step out on the site in Asia with a copy of the plan that had been approved by the public works committee to find that you were building to another plan. And then on closer questioning, we were advised that the proposal put to the public works committee was a 'concept', which was quite extraordinary. Having said that, I accept the need for tremendous levels of security provided by the appropriate advice that you get and that people need to live in reasonable facilities. We are talking about expenditure of over $400 million in Jakarta. Once in the parliament's history, the public works committee was allowed overseas. We stepped out onto a site and the plan that we were given to approve was not the plan that was being built to. My question to the Overseas Property Office or more particularly to the minister or the department is: who scrutinises these projects and ticks them off to be sent for scrutiny to the public works committee?
Mr Nixon : In respect of the project you are referring to in Bangkok, what was presented as evidence to the parliamentary committee when the project was referred was a concept plan. What is being constructed is a building that is entirely consistent with the evidence that was presented to the committee. The building is of the same basic size, function, amenity and structure. There is no significant change or variation between what was presented at the public works committee hearing and what is now being delivered on the ground.
ACTING CHAIR: I would accept that you have had the courtesy to inform the committee in the appropriate way of the change in footprint—because I can tell you that the chair of the committee was not impressed, with a copy of the plan, to find that it was being built in a different way. I do not want to delay the five minutes that I have here. My next question goes to: how does the public works committee get satisfaction that there is an appropriate competitive tension in this process? We have a competing security agenda and we have a status agenda where Australia must, as a pre-eminent citizen of Asia, for argument's sake, have an appropriate building. But how do we actually get some competitive tension for the taxpayers' investment when it would appear that the Overseas Property Office constructs a dwelling of whatever it likes, divides up the cost and invoices the respective departments who inhabit it? How do you, as DFAT, know you are getting a good deal on your lease or your contribution to this process?
Mr Nixon : There was a very rigorous procurement process which was undertaken prior to the engagement of a head works contractor. That procurement process involved two parts: initial expressions of interest and then a shortlisting to parties that were invited to submit within the request for tender stage. There were four competitive tenders that were submitted. The process was overseen by the Australian Government Solicitor. We are satisfied that we have delivered an outcome that represents the best value for money in accordance with the essential requirements and evaluation criteria that were specified in the approach to market and the request for tender documentation.
ACTING CHAIR: My question remains: if it took you four-plus years to secure legal tenure of the land, and that was a moving dollar amount—I think it eventually cost $47 million—and then you have the security concerns arising out of the incident quite a number of years ago, are you telling me that we just need to accept that what you do is so transparent, open and clear that when we step out on the site and find it has been built in a different way you just expect us to accept that? The chair was not given an answer with respect to where is the evidence of competitive tension in this expenditure of $400 million, or $200-plus in Bangkok.
Mr Nixon : I can only repeat that there was a competitive tender process that was conducted. There were considerations other than simply price as part of that evaluation criteria.
ACTING CHAIR: Absolutely; I said that.
Mr Nixon : In each instance we were in the fortunate position where the tender that we accepted, at completion of the tender evaluation, was not only rated first on technical merit but was also the lowest price. So, as I said, I am more than satisfied that we had—
ACTING CHAIR: In the two minutes that I have left what I would like you to explain is: once this building is built to the satisfactory processes, how does the office of overseas property recover that cost?
Mr Nixon : The Overseas Property Office owns the physical asset, so the government has an asset on its books for the money that is being expended. It physically owns the land and owns the buildings that are upon that land.
ACTING CHAIR: You do not regularly lease it out to the tenants?
Mr Nixon : We enter into memorandums of understanding with attached agencies.
ACTING CHAIR: They pay you some money, I take it?
Mr Nixon : They pay a market value rent proportionate to the amount of space that they occupy. They also directly contribute their fit-out component.
ACTING CHAIR: The market value of Jakarta—what is it compared against? Is it compared against the investment in the building, and that drives the contribution?
Mr Nixon : No, we are not basing the rent that the attached agencies pay on the basis of an economic return that is required to be generated. There is an independent evaluation that is done by Savills, an international property firm of valuers. They undertake a market assessment and they issue a rent certificate. So there is the transparency for each attached agency to recognise that they are paying a market value rent.
ACTING CHAIR: Thank you for that. I would like to know, perhaps on notice, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade component of rent, for want of a better word, for the new Jakarta facility so that we know how much has been paid.
Mr Varghese : We will take that on notice.
ACTING CHAIR: With that, we will suspend for the dinner break.
Proceedings suspended from 18:30 to 19:30
ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Gallacher ): This evening the committee will examine the supplementary budget estimates for the Trade portfolio in the following order: DFAT trade programs, followed by EFIC, Austrade and Tourism Australia from 10.30 pm. The committee has set Friday, 12 December 2014 as the date by which answers to questions on notice are to be returned. The committee has also decided that senators should provide their written questions on notice to the secretariat by close of business on Friday, 31 October 2014. I welcome Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann, representing the Minister for Trade, and welcome back Mr Peter Varghese, AO, the secretary, and officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I also welcome Mr Bruce Gosper, the Chief Executive Officer of Austrade, Mr Andrew Hunter, Managing Director and CEO, Export, Finance and Insurance Corporation, and Mr John O'Sullivan, Managing Director, Tourism Australia, and officers from these agencies. Welcome, Minister, and would you like to make an opening statement?
Senator Cormann: No.
ACTING CHAIR: Just before we go to questions, we have had a document on Senate estimates reporting, 23 October, tabled. Is that okay to be circulated?
Senator WONG: It is the document I requested earlier; thank you.
ACTING CHAIR: We will go to Senator Wong.
Senator WONG: As a matter of housekeeping, I assume Tourism Australia would be available if we happen to get there earlier. Are they here?
Mr Varghese : They are not here at the moment, but we can get that message—
Senator WONG: If we get through some of these things more quickly we might get to them at about 10.
Mr Varghese : Sam tells me they were planning to come here at 8.30.
Senator WONG: That should be fine. Can I go first to the Korean free trade agreement. I do not intend to ask much on it. I am just asking about the ratification process in Korea. First, I understand that the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy has completed an economic impact study. Does the department have an English translation of that, or can it be provided on notice?
Ms Adams : I do not know whether we have a translation of the economic impact analysis. I will have to take it on notice.
Senator WONG: Do you want to just check that?
Ms Adams : Certainly.
Senator WONG: I think on the last occasion, Ms Adams, we had a discussion about what had to happen at the Korean end for ratification. I do not profess to have retained all of that in my head. Was there a National Assembly committee process required as part of that?
Ms Adams : That is correct. The Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee is the committee that has—
Senator WONG: It is called 'unification'—
Ms Adams : Yes. It has primary responsibility and it is currently considering the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
Senator WONG: When did it come in?
Ms Adams : It was submitted on 16 September.
Senator WONG: To them?
Ms Adams : That is correct; to the Assembly. The committee is the relevant committee—
Senator WONG: Do they have a reporting date?
Ms Adams : No, there is not a set reporting date. The hope and expectation is that that will be completed soon.
Senator WONG: Can I just get some clarity around time frames? What has to happen before the end of the year in order for the agreement to come into force?
Ms Adams : From the Korean side, once the committee concludes its consideration it submits then to the full National Assembly, the plenary, for a vote. That is expected to be very soon after the committee concludes its work.
Senator WONG: So it goes to the whole National Assembly for a vote.
Ms Adams : That is correct. That will conclude the Korean domestic processes.
Senator WONG: Is that it? They only have consideration and then parliamentary vote, essentially, and that is it?
Ms Adams : That is correct.
Senator WONG: No other executive action?
Ms Adams : Not that I am aware of. That is the key action that is required. There might be some more steps that Mr Brodrick is going to correct me on.
Mr Brodrick : We understand that following the vote in the National Assembly, Korea needs to amend two regulations, two subregulations and one administrative note, but these are not legislative instruments, in essence. They can be amended by the ministries without being referred to the National Assembly.
Senator WONG: There is no problem in terms of the sitting pattern of the National Assembly for our time frame?
Mr Brodrick : No, it is sitting at the moment.
Senator WONG: Is it your judgement that the agreement will come into effect this year?
Ms Adams : That is certainly, as you know, what we are working for. That is still the commitment that both governments have. That is what we expect to happen. I should say, of course, that we can never pre-empt the workings of the legislature, but that is what everybody is working for.
Senator WONG: As to the politics in Korea of the FTA—I have seen various different reports in the press—is there a significant opposition to the agreement from any particular party or parties that it might be useful to be aware of?
Ms Adams : Can I just say in answer to that—
Senator WONG: I am happy if you rely on public statements.
Ms Adams : I was going to make the point that a few weeks ago the Minister for Trade and Investment, Mr Robb, was in Seoul. We met many of the relevant committees and chairmen of the various committees of interest in the National Assembly and had very positive reports from them about the reception that the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement enjoyed amongst the Assembly. So from their point of view—and that was people from various parties—they told us that, while there were some agriculture issues in terms of further market opening for Korea and an expectation of further competition from Australian exports, overall there was a very positive reception for the Australia-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
Senator WONG: Can I move on to the China FTA? The Chinese embassy confirmed in an interview, I think this week—all the days merge into one at the moment—and gave the number of chapters which had been agreed and the number which were outstanding. Are you able to tell us where we are in terms of the extent of agreement and how much is left outstanding?
Ms Adams : On the China FTA, of course we are in a very intensive phase and people in Beijing are still this week negotiating—as we speak. On the number of chapters, I saw that media report. I am not sure it tallies exactly with our—
Senator WONG: This is the article by Mr Callick I am referencing.
Ms Adams : Yes, that is correct. It is hard to say whether sometimes chapters are concluded if they are linked with other chapters and so on. We tend to not analyse it in that sense. The major market access issues are still under negotiation. A lot of issues are still under negotiation. I do not know if the number of chapters concluded is a very meaningful measure.
Senator WONG: So who is in China at the moment—representatives from which portfolios?
Ms Adams : I think the ones there at the moment are from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Agriculture.
Senator WONG: If there were any FIRB issues, are they handled by Treasury? Is Treasury part of the negotiating team for that, or do you have carriage of that?
Ms Adams : Treasury, as you know, has policy responsibility, and sometimes they participate in the negotiations. Sometimes DFAT carries the responsibility. DFAT always takes the lead negotiating responsibility.
Senator WONG: So at the moment it is DFAT officials and agriculture.
Ms Adams : That is right.
Senator WONG: And how long will they be there?
Ms Adams : Some of them have been there for quite awhile. It depends on the groups. I think some are coming back on the weekend and then some are going back again quite soon.
Senator WONG: Which areas are going back?
Ms Adams : It depends on which ones we are still working on.
Senator WONG: That is why I am asking you which areas.
Ms Adams : Clearly the market access people will continue to work—
Senator WONG: What do you mean when you say market access people?
Ms Adams : I mean goods and services teams.
Senator WONG: What deadline are you working to?
Ms Adams : I think it is no secret that we are working to have the agreement concluded at the time of the exchange of presidential and leaders visits around the summits and the bilateral visit.
Senator WONG: To your understanding, has that been the deadline since the change of government?
Ms Adams : Not so much a deadline as a shared objective for a logical time to bring a set of difficult negotiations to conclusion.
Senator WONG: Okay. Even the Minister for Agriculture does not agree with that.
Senator Cormann: You are not inviting the officer to make political comment?
Senator WONG: No, of course not. I would not do that.
Senator Cormann: It looked as if you were.
Senator WONG: I was grinning at her! I will put some questions on notice. Can you tell me now what meetings have been held in the past month, where and who attended and then tell me on notice what the approximate cost is? I am happy to come back to it later in the hearing if someone wants to.
Ms Adams : There have been a lot of meetings. I could not reliably tell you all of the meetings in the last weeks, but the main negotiating teams on services issues and goods issues have been in Beijing for the last week or so.
Senator WONG: Can you briefly tell me what the treaty implementation process is in China?
Ms Adams : I must admit we are focused on the content of the negotiation at this point.
Senator WONG: Okay. Maybe you could take that on notice or someone could come back to me.
Ms Adams : Sure.
Senator WONG: When is the text likely to be released?
Ms Adams : Probably at the time of signing.
Senator WONG: You indicated to me in a question on notice that you have not commissioned nor undertaken modelling in relation to the China FTA. Is that right?
Ms Adams : That is correct.
Senator WONG: Is the government aware of the recommendation of the Productivity Commission that such modelling be undertaken in relation to preferential trade agreements?
Ms Adams : Yes.
Senator WONG: And the government has made an active decision to disregard those recommendations?
Ms Adams : I am not sure if they made an active decision with regard to the Productivity Commissions recommendations as such.
Senator WONG: Okay. I am very interested in the various reports of the tariff on coal. When did DFAT become aware of China's decision, either pending or implemented, to impose new tariffs on coal imports?
Ms Adams : We had no advance notice, so we became aware the same day that it was publicly announced.
Senator WONG: Did we have negotiating teams on the FTA in Beijing at the time it was announced?
Ms Adams : Not on the goods side. There may have been some services.
Senator WONG: Who is the lead ministry in China on the FTA?
Ms Adams : MOFCOM—the Ministry of Commerce.
Senator WONG: Which is also the same ministry which imposed the coal tariffs, yes? My recollection is that it was a MOFCOM announcement.
Ms Adams : I cannot recall if it was MOFCOM or Ministry of Finance.
Senator WONG: It might be finance. Okay, so no-one in DFAT had any advance notice.
Ms Adams : No, we had no advance notice.
Senator WONG: To your knowledge, had the possibility of it been raised with the minister prior to announcement?
Ms Adams : No. The coal tariffs had been suspended, if you like, by the Chinese government for some years. They had been previously applied and then were unilaterally suspended from about 2008, so the reimposition of those tariffs was not something we had been advised about in advance.
Senator WONG: Would it be correct to say it was not something you were anticipating?
Ms Adams : No, we were not anticipating it, although of course there has been a lot of media and economic commentary about the difficulties that the Chinese coal sector has been facing. It is a very large industry in China, and the prices have been very low. They have been unprofitable and shedding labour for a long time, so the stresses of that domestic industry were well known.
Senator WONG: I do not need too long a technical explanation, but China was able to do this because these tariffs existed prior to or were preserved upon entry to the WTO? They unilaterally suspended them but under WTO rules could reintroduce them. Is that a simplified explanation?
Ms Adams : That is correct. Those levels are the bindings in the WTO, so they are entitled under—
Senator WONG: The what?
Ms Adams : It is called the bound level.
Senator WONG: Oh, the bound level. Yes, I have read that. To your knowledge, did the post have any advance warning of this?
Ms Adams : No.
Senator WONG: There was some commentary in the Australian media. The Financial Review on 5 August had an article entitled 'China's creeping threat to Australian coal'. It was a discussion which included reference to the possibility being raised in China for more restrictions on imports of high-sulfur coal and an increase in import tariffs. Did anyone in DFAT look at that? Were you aware of that article when it first came out? Did it ring any bells or raise any alarms for anybody?
Ms Adams : I think the Australian export companies as well as economic observers have seen that, as I said, there has been a lot of pressure on the coal industry in China. We knew about the new standards that were recently applied. So there was a lot of consolidation and action going on in that area. It is not as if it was a totally stable environment.
Senator WONG: I appreciate that. So there was some feedback from companies that reflected concern that there might be a movement on tariffs?
Ms Adams : No.
Senator WONG: Okay. I will go back to the article. I recall reading it. I assume that someone in the department read it. Were you asked or was there any briefing provided to the minister's office in relation to the issues raised in the article?
Ms Adams : We do not do briefings on every bit of speculation that is in the media about what might be happening in China.
Senator WONG: With respect, this actually raised the risk of a tariff on coal. I just wondered if, as a result of that, there was any discussion within government about that risk, particularly given the proximity and the intensity of the FTA negotiations.
Ms Adams : In the FTA negotiations we have been seeking to have the tariffs bound in the free trade agreement at zero.
Senator WONG: That makes sense.
Ms Adams : So, despite the fact that the tariffs were not currently being applied by China, nevertheless they have been part of the FTA discussions in any case.
Senator WONG: I will come to that, but is it your evidence—you may wish to take it on notice—that the discussion in TheFinancial Review in early August about the possibility of a coal tariff did not prompt any particular briefing to the minister and nor was any sought?
Mr Rowe : I would say that was right.
Senator WONG: Thank you. Let's go to the point you raised, Ms Adams, which was that you are seeking in the FTA to set the bound level at zero. Tell me if this is a reasonable assumption. I assume that that would be a best-practice negotiating position. You would start with trying to remove whatever wriggle room the other party has in an FTA.
Ms Adams : That is exactly right.
Senator WONG: Particularly for one of our largest exports.
Ms Adams : The basic starting point of the free trade agreement is to eliminate and bind at zero all tariffs possible.
Senator WONG: So would it be correct to say that was an early demand?
Ms Adams : We seek elimination of all tariffs, yes.
Senator WONG: There are a number of different propositions which have been canvassed and which obviously have caused some concern in the business community but also more generally. There was one government source reported as suggesting that the abolition of tariffs on coal within 12 months was a likely option: 'They could just say they would review it in 12 months.' Is the government's position for a 12-month review?
Ms Adams : The government's position is that we seek to eliminate the tariffs on our exports as far as possible in the FTA.
Senator Cormann: Self-evidently we want to lock in zero tariffs.
Senator WONG: With respect, you have just had a tariff imposed. I think we all want to eliminate tariffs—
Senator Cormann: Self-evidently the government obviously would like to lock in zero tariffs wherever we can as soon as possible.
Senator WONG: Can you explain to me why you have a government source flagging the option of a 12-month review? You are the one in government.
Senator Cormann: I obviously do not know what source you are referring to. If you can give me a name I might be able to assist you.
Senator WONG: It is an anonymous source because it is TheAustralian Financial Reviewon 21 October. I am sure you are not suggesting that they would have made it up?
Senator Cormann: They might have, I do not know.
Senator WONG: That is ridiculous, Senator Cormann.
Senator Cormann: Unless there is a name it is very hard for me to verify that the article is accurate—
Senator WONG: I cannot help it if your colleagues background the media anonymously. Is a 12-month review a live option, Ms Adams?
Ms Adams : I am not sure what review would be talked about.
Senator WONG: A review of the coal tariffs that China has put in place in 12 months. Is that a live option for the FTA?
Senator Cormann: No. What is a live option for the government is our desire to have zero tariffs as soon as possible.
Senator WONG: That is a policy position both parties shared in government. What I am asking is—
Senator Cormann: Exactly.
Senator WONG: We have reporting in a respected newspaper that a government source is flagging a possibility of a review in 12 months, rather than removal, and I am asking if that remains?
Senator Cormann: I have just officially put the position of the government. I am not going to provide a running commentary on anonymous sources.
Senator WONG: Have you secured a zero tariff agreement as part of the FTA?
Ms Adams : The market access negotiations are not yet concluded. I do not count anything as secured until it is all secured.
Senator WONG: Very sensible. Can someone explain to me why it is that the same paper also reported, on the basis of a government source, the following day that a deal had been secured for zero tariffs as part of the FTA—
Senator Cormann: Can we just establish some ground rules here? We are not going to be providing running commentary on any anonymous sources. As far as the government is concerned, anything that is said by an anonymous source has got no status whatsoever. I have explained to you very clearly the policy position of the government. The policy position is that we will continue to pursue our objective to achieve zero per cent tariff on call as soon as possible.
Senator WONG: It is not correct to say the government does not recognise anonymous sources. You are full of anonymous sources on this issue. In fact, the coal industry on this issue has had government backgrounding, whether authorised or not, of the media over a number of days—in fact, briefing out to the media completely different positions. If you want to clear this up, you could do that now.
Senator Cormann: I could not have been more black and white. You can make a political point as much as you like.
Senator WONG: Have you secured—
Senator Cormann: I am not going to conduct, on behalf of the Minister for Trade, negotiations with China through Senate estimates. With the greatest of respect Senator Wong, I know that you are a very important person in the Australian Senate—
Senator WONG: Blimey.
Senator Cormann: but I am not going to conduct, on behalf of Minister Robb, negotiations with China through you.
Senator WONG: I would not expect you to. What I would expect—
Senator Cormann: Thank you. That is the point that I am making.
Senator WONG: What I would expect is you to clarify the government's position—
Senator Cormann: I have clarified the government's position.
Senator WONG: clarify the government's position as circumstance where government sources have backgrounded the media with two different versions of what the government's position is. You have ruled out one and I appreciate that. I am now asking you whether or not the exclusive given, on this occasion to the Australian, to Mr Sid Maher and Scott Murdoch that:
Australia has secured a deal with China for zero tariffs on coal exports as part of the two nations' free-trade negotiations.
Senator Cormann: Senator Wong, you can go round and round in circles as much as you like. I will repeat my answer, and that is that I will not make comment on whatever commentary you choose to quote that relies on anonymous sources. What I can confirm for you is that the government's clear objective is to achieve zero per cent tariff in relation to coal exports into China as soon as possible.
Senator WONG: I think the difficulty with that sort of high-handed approach is this: that your government chose to put these matters into the public arena, not by state—
Senator Cormann: That is your assertion.
Senator WONG: Well, you know and I know that when The Australian writes:
The Australian understands that Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, had already secured a deal—
et cetera you know and I know what has happened: they have been backgrounded.
Senator Cormann: I do not know what you know—
Senator WONG: Authorised—
Senator Cormann: but I certainly do not know.
Senator WONG: Let me finish! If your government were serious about conducting these negotiations appropriately, rather than simply backgrounding selected journos you might actually be upfront with the market.
Senator Cormann: I do not know what you know. I know what I know, and what I know is that the government's objective is to achieve a zero per cent tariff in relation to coal exports from Australia to China as soon as possible. I could not have been more emphatic, more black-and-white or clearer if I had tried.
Senator WONG: That is fine. On notice, I ask anyone whether the Minister for Trade and Investment, or anyone from the minister's office, had any conversations with Mr Sid Maher and Mr Scott Murdoch, resulting in the article of 22 October 2014? And, if so, what was the nature of those conversations? Further, were any documents provided to The Australian and, if so, could they be provided? I do not see why Senate estimates should be given less information, with all due respect to The Australian, than a couple of selected journos to get out a story because you had a bad story in TheFinancial Review.