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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21727

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (2:03 PM) —My question is to the Attorney-General. Would the Attorney-General update the House on action taken relating to the detention and removal of Willie Brigitte? Has the Attorney-General received any advice on whether this matter has highlighted any difficulties with the current legislative regime?

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) —I thank the honourable member for Blair for his question. I can confirm that Mr Willie Brigitte was taken into immigration detention on 9 October and was returned to France on 17 October. He was questioned by authorities in Australia before his return and, in relation to the questioning that occurred, he was largely uncooperative. I have seen some claims that this demonstrates some flawed liaison between French and Australian authorities. I want to say firstly that I think this demonstrates very close and effective working relationships between Australia and France.

The point in time at which France first advised us that Mr Brigitte was of interest to them was on 22 September. We subsequently received on 7 October some more pressing advice of their concern about the nature of his presence in Australia, and we were able to deal with the matter within two days. The fact is that the first advice from France was largely of a routine nature, but the expectation that other countries are going to put onto their alert systems, and advise us of, the names of every person who may be the subject of an incidental inquiry by an intelligence agency would, I think, fly in the face of any sensible arrangements that Australia or other countries would be prepared to put in place. If you were going to have arrangements of that sort, they would have to be genuinely reciprocal.

The opposition is arguing at the moment that Australia ought to enter into arrangements with other countries through which the name of any person who is the subject of any inquiry by an intelligence agency is added to a list and circulated to other liaison countries. I suspect that if I ask the opposition for a bill to permit us to advise authorities of any Australian citizen who is the subject of an ASIO inquiry in Australia, simply because somebody reported to an agency that there might be something of interest that they should look at, they would object very vigorously. If you want to test how the opposition would respond to the proposition which they are, in effect, putting here today, you only have to look at the nature of the cooperation that has been offered from the opposition in relation to more substantial issues. The fact is that they have asserted—through the media, I have to say—that the new ASIO powers might have been able to be used in relation to questioning Mr Brigitte before he left Australia. The fact is that they have conveniently overlooked the terms of the bill—

Honourable members interjecting

Mr RUDDOCK —of the act; I stand corrected—that require the Attorney to be reasonably satisfied in relation to any requests that a person is going to be able to offer substantial assistance with regard to a suspected terrorist activity in Australia. That is the nature of the test. The advice that I have received from the competent agencies is that it is a moot point whether we would have been able to satisfy that test.

The SPEAKER —The member for Gellibrand!

Mr RUDDOCK —The further point I will make is that, in relation to the assessments that were being made about Mr Brigitte, our agencies quite properly formed the view that, with the power available to the French authorities under French legislation—which enable them to detain him for questioning for perhaps up to two years, with the approval of a judge—and the fact that they had access to more relevant information about his activities, it was preferable that the questioning be undertaken by the French authorities. It was on that basis that he was removed from Australia, and the effort to test the powers that were included in the ASIO legislation was not undertaken in this particular instance.

The only other point I make is that it has become quite clear that if you look at the nature of the powers that we have and the nature of the powers that the French have—and I am not necessarily saying it should be the French standard that should be used, but if you look at it as a question of degree—they have substantially wider powers than our agency has available to it. In relation to the way in which the compromise emerged, it is quite clear that there are other difficulties already apparent in the legislation that we have, and they were of surprise to me. One is that, if you are dealing with people whom you could detain for questioning only for three periods of eight hours and you have to use an interpreter, you effectively have half as much time to pursue your questioning.

Mr RUDDOCK —The member laughs, but I think that is a significant defect in the nature of the legislation. The legislation, as it is presently drafted, does not permit an organisation to seek to have a person detained because it is believed that he is likely to leave the country. There are other provisions I have read which people might argue could take you to that view, but there is no specific, explicit provision that if a person is likely to leave Australia we would be able to detain them. People say, `Why did you vote for it?' We wanted to get legislation that would enable us to question people of concern about potential terrorist activity in Australia and we had to make compromises in order to get it in place. It is not just second best; it is third and fourth best if you start to look at the range of issues that are emerging where we could have done far better.

Mr Crean —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. In the last answer the minister referred to advice he had received that indicated that it was a moot point as to whether the existing powers were sufficient. I ask the minister to table that advice.

Mr RUDDOCK —It is not the practice to table advice from security organisations but, as the Leader of the Opposition knows, the government regularly makes senior officers available to brief the opposition on these matters—

Mr RUDDOCK —and they do.

The SPEAKER —The Attorney-General will resume his seat. The Leader of the Opposition is aware that the interjections were quite inappropriate, and that is why I would ask him to resume his seat. The Attorney-General had not completed his answer. He is invited to do so.

Mr Crean —It wasn't a question.

The SPEAKER —I do not wish to be defied by the Leader of the Opposition. The Attorney-General had not completed his statement to the House about the appropriateness of tabling the resolution. I was inviting him to do so.

Mr RUDDOCK —I made it abundantly clear that advice from agencies is not tabled. In relation to those matters, the Leader of the Opposition is able to access briefings. He has been briefed on this matter. If he required further briefings on the specific issue—

The SPEAKER —I have already spoken to the Leader of the Opposition about his obligations. The Attorney-General has the call.

Mr RUDDOCK —If he required further briefings on this matter in particular he could ask for them.