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Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
22/05/2017
Estimates
PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET PORTFOLIO
Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security

Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security

[22:34]

CHAIR: I welcome the Hon. Margaret Stone, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, and the Assistant Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, Mr Jake Blight. Ms Stone, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Ms Stone : No, thank you.

Senator KITCHING: Thank you, Ms Stone and Mr Blight. I am pleased to see in the portfolio budget statements, on page 255 in table 2.1.1, that your average staffing level is expected to increase from 14 in 2016-17 to 17 in 2017-18. Is that correct?

Ms Stone : Yes, it is, although two of that number are secondees we have been able to co-opt pending clearances for some of the people to whom we have offered positions.

Senator KITCHING: Where are they seconded from or going to be seconded from?

Ms Stone : From intelligence agencies.

Senator KITCHING: In February, Senator McAllister asked about the staffing profile at that time and you and Mr Blight explained there was a total of 16 people and that included some part-time staff.

Ms Stone : That is right.

Senator KITCHING: Could you outline the current staffing profile for us, and is that mix expected to change? For example, will some of the staff be part time?

Ms Stone : Let me address numbers first of all. The number of 17 persons includes me and Mr Blight, and I do not expect the numbers to change until we get more money. That is all we can afford.

Senator KITCHING: Are some of the staff part time?

Ms Stone : Yes. I think four members are part time.

Senator KITCHING: You said before that there are two secondees who are being co-opted pending clearances. Are there any other staff currently awaiting completion of a security clearance?

Ms Stone : There are three persons to whom we have made offers subject to their getting the security clearances. We would expect one of those—this is a statement of optimism—to get their clearance in the next few months, maybe six months. One we would not expect to get clearance for about another year.

Senator KITCHING: Sorry—it will take six months for one person to get a clearance?

Ms Stone : It will be longer than six months because the offer was made in December last year, I think, and the clearance application went in very shortly after that.

Senator KITCHING: So it will be about a year?

Mr Blight : The average clearance time is about 18 to 20 months. One of the people in clearance is one of an express track—that is six to eight months. That person applied and was offered a position in December. We hope to have them in July-August.

Senator KITCHING: I want to turn to the budget measures—Portfolio Budget Statements 2017-18 Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, pages 247 to 265. Can you confirm that there are no specific budget measures affecting the office?

Ms Stone : What do you mean by specific budget measures?

Senator KITCHING: Were there any new policy proposals or other submissions made by the office into the budget process, or did you consider making any proposals?

Mr Blight : Not in this budget, no. There are no NPPs, nor is there any efficiency dividend. We are exempt from the efficiency dividend.

Senator KITCHING: Would you confirm the budget for the office for 2017-18.

Mr Blight : The departmental appropriation is $3.157 million.

Senator KITCHING: Does this represent an increase or decrease or no change from 2016-17?

Mr Blight : 2016-17 was $3.118 million, so there is a very small change, but that is not an NPP; that is usual adjustments.

Senator KITCHING: Would you outline the trajectory for the budget over the forward estimates.

Mr Blight : As it says in the PBS, it is a fairly stable trajectory, and those changes do not incorporate any particular policy measures.

Senator KITCHING: Are you able to advise if there are any monitoring processes that are in place to ensure efficiency of expenditure? You have said that there is no efficiency dividend. Is there anything else?

Ms Stone : The vast majority of our expenditure goes on salaries, so there is very little room to manoeuvre there.

Senator KITCHING: And you have no target areas for savings?

Mr Blight : No. As Margaret Stone said, almost all our costs are staffing. We receive some resources free of charge. We reside in the PM&C building. Some of our information technology is provided by Defence. Staffing is the vast majority of our budget.

Senator KITCHING: I will move to the forward work program. As outlined on page 251 of the 2017-18 portfolio budget statements for the Prime Minister and Cabinet portfolio, your role combines a mix of:

… proactive inspections; formal inquiries either 'own motion', as a response to complaints or at the request of the Prime Minister.

To what extent can you plan your workload over the coming year?

Ms Stone : The area that we do not have control of is complaints. Not all complaints are investigated. Some require only a small amount of investigation. Some can be quite lengthy in the area of what we call 'contacts', where a claim is put forward as a complaint but is not one that could or should be investigated—for instance, it might be a claim that does not have even superficial credibility, or it is not within our jurisdiction, such as a complaint about the Federal Police. Nevertheless there are complainants who, for a variety of reasons, are not comfortable expecting that, and sometimes they can be quite persistent to the extent of multiple phone calls and emails and can actually soak up quite a lot of time. We do get complaints from people who clearly have psychological problems and we do our best with those. So complaints wax and wane.

Inquiries that we have had, apart from those directed or requested by the Prime Minister—and we have not had one of those in the last couple of years—have been in response to a problem that we think requires more investigation or 'own motion' inquiries that are almost in the way of maintenance. In this year we have done an inquiry into the independence of ONA and DIO in making their assessments. Those inquiries were not for cause but because that is an important area that we should look at every now and then. They were an 'own motion' not because we had found something was wrong, but because we thought it was a prudent thing to do. So inquiries can take a lot of time. Then inspections are the sort of daily work of the office. We have to cut our cloth to suit our budget, if I can mix metaphors. Could we do more? Yes. Should we do more? We cannot do more on our present budget. Would we like to do more? Yes, of course, we would.

CHAIR: Senator Kitching, can I just clarify how many more questions you have?

Senator KITCHING: I have three.

CHAIR: I am going to have to move the call off you, because we have 16 minutes to go through two agencies.

Senator KITCHING: That is fine. I can put them on notice.

CHAIR: That will be very helpful. Senator Xenophon.

Senator XENOPHON: I will be under five minutes. I will put a number of questions on notice, given the time. I will just go to the issue of acts outside Australia. In your answers to questions on notice you state:

The IGIS may not inquire into a matter relating to an Australian government agency that occurred outside Australia, or before the commencement of the IGIS Act … without the approval of the Prime Minister, or the responsible Minister …

Noting that ASIS operations would presumably always occur outside Australia—

Ms Stone : I am sorry; you are going a little fast. I am having trouble following you.

Senator XENOPHON: All right. I will make haste slowly! You have said previously IGIS may not inquire into a matter relating to an Australian agency that occurred outside Australia. Noting that ASIS operations would presumably always occur outside of Australia, are you suggesting that the operations of ASIS are beyond your purview?

Mr Blight : It might be helpful to highlight that, while some aspects of ASIS's operations occur outside Australia, their planning and control management occurs inside Australia and we regard that as entirely within our jurisdiction. It is probably worth noting that we do a lot of work on ASIS's activities outside Australia and have never encountered any resistance at all from ASIS in us continuing with that work.

Senator XENOPHON: So if ASIS were to conduct signals interception operations of a signal which originated overseas but was received at a receiving station inside Australia or at an Australian Embassy or on an Australian warship, submarine or aircraft—which are considered to be the sovereign territory of Australia—would that bring it within the purview of IGIS?

Mr Blight : Yes. As I said, even if it was entirely outside Australia, there would be aspects of the operation connected to Australia and we would regard that as within our jurisdiction anyway. But, without any doubt, something that had one end in Australia would clearly be within our jurisdiction.

Senator XENOPHON: And that would apply to Australian territories such as Christmas Island or Cocos Islands?

Mr Blight : 'Australia' has its ordinary geographic meaning in accordance with the Acts Interpretation Act.

Senator XENOPHON: So if data hacking of an overseas computer were to take place but it was probed from a computer inside Australia, would that be considered to be an operation that took place inside Australia for the purpose of your role?

Mr Blight : If such an action occurred, if it was controlled or undertaken at least in part from within Australia then it would clearly be within our jurisdiction.

Senator XENOPHON: Finally on this—and I will put a whole stack of questions on notice—if the receiving station or probing computer were an Australian satellite, or a satellite that the Australian government has booked space on, is that within your purview?

Mr Blight : Again, if there were any aspect that was clearly under the control of an Australian intelligence agency then that would bring it within our jurisdiction.