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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 105

Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (2:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Foreign Affairs representing the Minister for Defence in this place. Can the foreign affairs minister confirm that the Defence Signals Directorate intercepted and reported on communications by Australians, including by journalists or members of parliament, to or from the MV Tampa during August and September 2001?

Mr DOWNER (Minister for Foreign Affairs) —I thank the honourable member for his question. As the honourable member knows, Senator Hill, the Minister for Defence, issued a statement last night, and in that statement and in comments I and others have made we have pointed out that it is a longstanding practice, not just of this government but of successive Australian governments, not to comment on matters of intelligence and security.

Opposition members—Oh!

Mr DOWNER —As I said, it is a longstanding practice, and when the Leader of the Opposition was a minister it was a practice that was observed by his government as well. However, Senator Hill did point out that in this particular case it was important to reassure the Australian public that the allegations in the media, the allegations made by the Leader of the Opposition, lack substance. In particular, neither the communications of the MUA, nor of the ITF, were the subject of DSD targeting or reporting.

Much has been made of the fact, and the minister in his statement too has made it clear, that the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Mr Blick, produces an annual report every year and constantly monitors DSD's operations to ensure that they comply with the appropriate guidelines on the privacy of Australians and, if there is any breach of that privacy, that breach is referred to in the report to the parliament of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security. Senator Hill made it clear yesterday that around the period being referred to in the Daily Telegraph article there was an inadvertent error made—

Opposition members—Oh!

Mr DOWNER —There was indeed an inadvertent error made by DSD, and this had been referred back to the Inspector-General by Senator Hill, and the Inspector-General has had another look at this matter. These intelligence matters are matters that obviously need to be protected in the national interest but, because of the Leader of the Opposition's interest in this issue, the government would be happy, privately, to brief the Leader of the Opposition about that inadvertent error. I think when the Leader of the Opposition finds out what the inadvertent error is he will realise that this is an insubstantial error and he will realise that the kind of fear campaign that he has been developing about DSD and its role, based on rather a long period in opposition and out of government, I suspect, is little short of irresponsible. Trying to whip up feeling like that, if I may say so, against the fundamental intelligence agency of this country is irresponsible. It served Labor governments as an organisation extremely well, as the former Leader of the Opposition knows only too well. It served your governments extremely well, and it serves us well. It is not an organisation which is a tool of politics or political power.

Mr Crean —If I could take a point of order that goes to relevance—

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat. There is nothing that is not relevant to the question in the minister's current response.

Mr Crean —The minister is not responding—

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition will resume his seat. I will act if the minister sways from the question.

Mr DOWNER —Mr Speaker, I have answered the question. I have said that you can have a private briefing on an inadvertent error, and you will find out from that private briefing that you are embarrassing yourself going down this path.

The SPEAKER —The minister will address his remarks through the chair.

Mr DOWNER —In conclusion, let me say that this is a government that does use its intelligence agencies to support our national interests and protect our borders, and on that point we make no apology. We are a government which will not wind back the operation of our intelligence agencies in so far as they support our national interests in protecting our borders and our security, and it will not be missed by many Australians that the Labor Party wishes to undermine the credibility of the DSD.