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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


CHAIR: I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon. Marise Payne, and Ms Frances Adamson, Secretary, and officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Minister, I understand you have an opening statement?

Senator Payne: I do. Thank you very much, Chair. Good morning, colleagues. Good morning, officials. Chair, we come to this budget estimates hearing in 2020 in what has been obviously a very difficult year for the world, and indeed reports daily show us that that continues to be the case. It's been a difficult year for Australia and for our close neighbours, for our partners and for our allies. In fact, it's not possible to single out anyone who has not had a difficult year, and many are still dealing with the extreme impacts of COVID-19. I want to acknowledge and thank all those involved in responses here and around the world, from governments and their frontline workers to businesses, NGOs, communities and families. It's also been a year of great loss, and I offer my sympathies and those of the Australian government to all who have lost loved ones through the experiences of 2020.

The pandemic has also exacerbated many strategic challenges, created difficulties for Australians overseas, placed strain on the economies of many of our regional friends and neighbours and exposed the fragility of some global supply chains, to name just a few effects. Our response has required a steady focus on our long-term foreign policy goals.

The government led by the Prime Minister continue to deepen our relationships across the Indo-Pacific, to help shape our region, to uphold rules and freedoms and to keep our region secure and prosperous. We're aligning our efforts with partners on shared interests—our region's health and economic recovery from COVID-19; countering disinformation; critical minerals and technology; maritime security; and the development of quality infrastructure. With the support of my department and our visit partners, in extraordinary circumstances for foreign ministers around the world, I had a very productive and successful AUSMIN consultation in July in Washington and very productive Quad ministerial meetings in Tokyo this month with my counterparts from Japan, India and the United States. Our relationship with the world's most populace democracy, India, is thriving, even in the context of everything we are dealing with, as exemplified by the comprehensive strategic partnership that our Prime Minister signed in June. We finalised a review of our engagements with multilateral organisations. We've worked with partners, including particularly the European Union, to secure support for an international inquiry to examine the global response to COVID-19. We've introduced important legislation to ensure that agreements with foreign governments are consistent with our foreign policy and in Australia's national interest. We've responded quickly—and we've needed to.

Through our development pivot, Partnerships for Recovery, we've directed nearly a quarter of our development budget towards programs that address immediate needs created by COVID-19 and which our partner governments have identified as their priorities. We were decisive in changing our travel advice in the early period of the pandemic, culminating in the advice on 17 March that Australians overseas who wanted to return should do so as soon as possible and the advice on 18 March that Australians not travel overseas. Since then, almost 400,000 Australians have returned. The department has applied considerable resources to our consular work and succeeded in helping about 30,000 Australians to return on over 357 flights, including nearly 10,000 people on 66 government facilitated flights. We helped more than 6,500 passengers from 51 cruise ships around the world and many others via facilitated commercial flights from countries ranging from South Africa and Peru to Nepal and the Philippines. These included sweeper flights that picked up Australians from cities and towns well outside international transport hubs in many countries. We worked with other governments to secure seats for Australians on flights that they arranged and continue to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic does not mean that other priorities and challenges we face have diminished—far from it. They still demand and receive our attention and our focus. Our foreign policy never presumes that we are bystanders in the rapid developments the world is undergoing. It will continue to have our national interest at its heart. That means making Australia safe in the world, enhancing our standard of living, giving our people choices and strengthening our freedoms. That, Chair, is my and my government's ongoing commitment. In the face of COVID-19, Australia has endeavoured in all of these areas to make the way for Australia and for Australians that promotes and focuses on our national interest.

CHAIR: All the best with that. Well said, Minister. Secretary, I understand you have an opening statement as well.

Ms Adamson : Thank you, Chair, for the opportunity to provide an opening statement. Since our last appearance before this committee, the context in which the department operates has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are facing a world characterised by sharpened major-power strategic competition, global economic recession and disrupted supply chains. Nations have turned inwards, protectionism has risen and divisions have sharpened. The competition for power and influence in our region has intensified.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade remains integral to Australia's task of supporting a regional order where independent sovereign states are resilient to coercion. Through our bilateral, regional, global and multilateral work we act to uphold and promote human rights, universal access to safe and effective vaccines, rules based trade and global cooperation free from coercion. Where states disagree or are in dispute, Australia believes international law should be the basis for resolution. Even in crisis mode, these principles remain fundamental to our work.

You will hear over the next couple of days that the department's central role in the delivery of government priorities has never been more important. A strong and effective foreign service is vital to navigating Australia's course through our changed world and prosecuting our interests at home and in our neighbourhood.

We have never before operated at the speed and scale demanded of us this year. Our consular effort in Canberra and at posts has been immense. DFAT staff overseas have provided non-stop services to Australians in need throughout the pandemic. Our staff have worked tirelessly, living and working under lockdown conditions for many months, often without their families close by and with some falling ill with COVID-19. I acknowledge that our response has sometimes fallen short, but I am extremely proud of our overseas network and the department as a whole.

The department has been and will continue to be on the front line of the Australian government's response to COVID-19, supporting Australians at home and abroad, supporting Australia's economy and Australian businesses and supporting our Pacific neighbours and our Indo-Pacific neighbours. Our top priority continues to be helping Australians overseas in what is the largest consular operation in our history. Since March, we have supported around 30,000 Australians and permanent residents to return on 357 flights—66 of which have been facilitated by the government. We continue to work on options to bring home as many Australians as we can. A DFAT-led taskforce is solely focused on this effort. In the past week, the department has facilitated two commercial flights that have brought home 344 Australians from London and New Delhi, prioritising the most vulnerable. More flights will follow. Our colleagues in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet are working with states and territories to safely lift quarantine capacity, with details settled by national cabinet. This will enable DFAT to help more Australians return home. We continue to provide advice, information and support so that Australians who remain overseas can decide what's right for them.

In addition, the department is also supporting Australians at home. We are focused on the central role we play in Australia's economic recovery, including restarting our Pacific Labour Mobility Program and helping alleviate persistent workforce shortages in key sectors of the Australian economy. We are working in close partnership with our Indo-Pacific neighbours through our transformed development program Partnerships for Recovery to support the region's health security, economic recovery and stability.

We remain focused on delivering as effectively and efficiently as possible and ensuring our resources and efforts are concentrated on the government's highest priorities. Vital new funding in this year's budget will support our focus on Australia's economic recovery and the security of Australians and Australia. Thank you. Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Secretary. We have your opening statement. It is just being circulated. We will now move to questions, Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: Thank you, Chair. I don't know if the department's been advised from the Labor Party's perspective, but I would just indicate that we don't propose to ask any questions on the Development Assistance Program today. We will do those tomorrow. I don't know if crossbench senators have been advised, but that may give you some opportunity to reduce the number of people who have to be up here.

Senator Payne: If the committee had advised, I wasn't aware of that. I appreciate you providing that information. What we might do is talk to crossbench senators—

Senator WONG: That's why I raised it early.

Senator Payne: and see whether that's a delineation that works for them. Chair, I'd appreciate the committee's with that. We will do that through my office as well. But it's not really appropriate to do it through my office; it's more for the committee.

Senator WONG: Yes. Well, from our perspective, we can give you that undertaking.

Senator Payne: And that's helpful.

Senator WONG: I can't speak for the crossbench; that is up to Senator Abetz. I understood that Senator Kitching was going to try and make contact, but may not have made contact this morning to indicate that we won't need the officers engaged in the development outcome—

CHAIR: Until tomorrow.

Senator WONG: Correct.

CHAIR: But foreign affairs, I think, has been a moving feast through all the programs.

Senator WONG: Sure.

CHAIR: As I understand it, all officials will be available all day today and through until we hit trade tomorrow.

Senator WONG: Well, that's a matter for you, Chair. If we can get an indication from the crossbench that it would be on tomorrow and they can have time—

CHAIR: Of course.

Senator WONG: But that's up to them. That will enable some officers to leave. Can I start by asking the minister if she could give an update in relation to the very distressing events in Qatar, please?

Senator Payne: Indeed, the issues which have been discussed in relation to this matter are very concerning and very distressing, and the Australian government has been quite clear about that. There is a series of meetings continuing in Qatar, I understand, Senator, as late as yesterday in relation to this. Australia is not the only country affected. So other missions are also engaged in Qatar in meetings with the government, obviously, with the airline and with the airport. We are awaiting, as I indicated publicly, the report that we have been advised will be provided by the Qatari government. That is not yet with us. So I don't have a significant amount of information to add to that which was made public earlier in the week.

Senator WONG: I have a few questions. Do we have an estimate of how many women, Australian and others, were subjected to this invasive—

Senator Payne: We know about the flight that has been referred to publicly—which, as I recall, was 18 people. We know about that. We don't have details of all of the flights which were impacted on that particular day. I would not necessarily expect to have all of that information.

Senator WONG: So we know of 18. How many Australians have been affected that we know about?

Senator Payne: Eighteen.

Senator WONG: So there are women of other citizenship who were also affected?

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator WONG: And are you able to tell us whether or not it was only the flight to Sydney, or were there other flights that we affected?

Senator Payne: There were 10 aircraft.

Senator WONG: When did you become aware of that?

Senator Payne: Yesterday.

Senator WONG: How did you become aware of that?

Senator Payne: Through advice from our post in Doha.

Senator WONG: So 10 aircraft were affected. So obviously they were to different destinations?

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator WONG: Obviously the government was aware of this before it became public. When you became aware, what action was taken at that point?

Senator Payne: We became aware when the matter was raised with Australia on arrival of the flight here.

Senator WONG: Could you remind me of the date of that, Minister?

Senator Payne: The flight left Doha on 2 October. I think we became aware on 4 October, actually. I understand the process by which that occurred was at two levels: one an advice to DFAT and one a report to the Australian Federal Police.

Senator WONG: Can you tell me the origin of the first—the advice to DFAT? Was that one of the passengers concerned or was that post?

Senator Payne: I will ask Dr Macdonald to address that.

Dr Macdonald : It was from an email from one of the affected women.

Senator WONG: On 4 October?

Dr Macdonald : It was sort of overnight—on 3 and 4 October. There were time difference issues with the emails, but, yes.

Senator WONG: And the report to—did you say the AFP? What was the second?

Senator Payne: The Australian Federal Police.

Senator WONG: Was that from an individual as well—a passenger?

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator WONG: More than one?

Senator Payne: I wouldn't want to comment on the details.

Senator WONG: I'm not asking for any names.

Senator Payne: I'm not sure.

Senator WONG: At your level or more senior, what action was taken by the government as a consequence of the report on 3-4 October?

Senator Payne: Dr Macdonald spoke with the ambassador. We spoke with Qatari authorities and sought further information and raised our very serious concerns about the treatment of the women. We were advised that the Qataris were investigating and would provide a report. As I said at the beginning of your questions, we do not have the report. I am conscious of the fact that limits us somewhat in terms of the details we have from the Qatari system about—

Senator WONG: Sure. I'm asking about what we did, though.

Senator Payne: I understand that.

Senator WONG: Dr Macdonald, you spoke to our ambassador in Qatar?

Senator Payne: I meant to the Qatari ambassador here.

Senator WONG: Who spoke to—

Senator Payne: Dr Macdonald.

Senator WONG: When did you do that?

Dr Macdonald : On 6 October.

Senator WONG: Was any contact made by the minister? Did you make any contact with your counterpart in Qatar?

Senator Payne: Not directly. We worked through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and through the Qatari foreign ministry.

Senator Wong: Did you actually talk to any counterparts before this matter became public?

Senator Payne: No; I did not speak to the Qatari foreign minister. I advised the head of mission in Doha that we would await the report, because we had been given a commitment from the Qatari government that would be provided to us. The Australian Federal Police, who had taken the report from those who had raised the issues with them, were pursuing matters from their aspect as well.

Ms Adamson : Could I just add that, as you would expect, there was intensive engagement from the very first moment we knew about this, through our charge d'affaires in Doha. On 4 October, there were multiple engagements with the airline, the airport and the ministry of foreign affairs, including through diplomatic notes and other means.

Senator WONG: I understand that. Minister, when did you actually speak to the foreign minister?

Senator Payne: I have said I will speak to the foreign minister on receipt of the report.

Senator WONG: So you actually haven't spoken to the foreign minister of Qatar about their—

Senator PAYNE: Not directly—no.

Senator WONG: Why not?

Senator PAYNE: Because I wanted to see the report.

Senator WONG: But surely we know enough to both raise our deep concerns and express—

Senator PAYNE: Which we have done.

Senator WONG: May I finish? And express, at the most senior levels of government, the importance of the report being finalised promptly.

Senator Payne: Which we have done.

Senator WONG: No; you haven't spoken to the foreign minister.

Senator Payne: However, there has been extensive engagement through this process—as both Dr Macdonald and the secretary have pointed out, and I have indicated—right across the system to ensure, through all of the processes available to us, that we receive the report as soon as possible. I do want to see the report. We asked again overnight yesterday, given the time differences, for that.

Ms Adamson : That included, overnight yesterday, as the minister says, given the time differences, a meeting between our ambassador and the Qatari foreign minister, at which the minister's points were again made clear. I should say also that, from the Qatari side, there is a very strong determination to report as quickly as possible—

Senator WONG: Is there?

Senator Payne: Yes; there is.

Ms Adamson : and a reaction to this incident which I think matches our own, in terms of level of distress, abhorrence and a deep questioning of how this could have happened.

Senator WONG: I understand the importance of getting the report. I understand, Minister, why you would want to ensure that you have the report as soon as possible, before perhaps working out what other steps need to be taken. But I don't understand why, given what has happened to Australian citizens, our objection to that and our concern about that was not registered by you to your counterpart at the earliest possible opportunity.

Senator Payne: It was registered, directly through the head of mission, through the ambassador here—with whom I have also spoken again this week—through the engagement with the airways, the engagement with the airport, and a number of other officials—

Senator WONG: Ministers have a different role and place in our system. Wasn't it the least you could do to pick up the phone and speak to your counterpart when you heard about this?

Senator Payne: I had indicated, through officials, through the Qatari system, our concerns and indicated that I wished to see the report as soon as possible so that I could understand what the Qatari system was saying about these events. They are very well aware of the issues that are of concern to us—and not just to us. As I said, there are other nationals involved.

Senator WONG: But don't you think that's what Australians and those women concerned and their families would expect of our foreign minister?

Senator Payne: I think that they would expect us to get the best possible information we are able to from the Qatari system, to make it very clear to the Qatari system—or any country, but in this case Qatar—our concerns in relation to this matter and also to work with officials here in Australia, as we have done, to ensure that the women involved were provided with support that was necessary for them. It is actually even more difficult when we understand, of course, that those women, ultimately, were heading straight for a quarantine period as well. We have been working with the Australian Federal Police—

Senator WONG: I understand that officers have done a great deal of work—and I have seen that the posts have done a great of work. I'm actually asking what you have done.

Senator Payne: And I've responded and said that I indicated that my wish was to see the report from Qatar. I expressed my views through the discussions with the ambassador here and through the head of mission in Qatar and indicated that my priority was to receive the report so that I could deal with that directly, and instructed, through my office and through the department, the head of mission in Doha to engage in acquiring that report as soon as it is ready to be made available.

Senator WONG: So, as yet, you have not spoken to the foreign minister. You first spoke with the ambassador after the report became public?

Senator Payne: I did, Senator, but the First Assistant Secretary, Dr Macdonald, spoke with the ambassador in the first instance.

Senator WONG: Minister, did you think about speaking directly to the ambassador yourself? Did you think about speaking to the foreign minister yourself?

Senator Payne: I was dealing with the department from Tokyo at the time. I asked the department to take up these calls in the first instance, both through the head of mission and through the First Assistant Secretary, to provide me with advice on all of these issues, to ensure that the report was made available to Australia as soon as possible, and to register, of course, our very serious concerns—the concerns that I stated this week. Senator, one of the reasons that this has been dealt with, I think, very carefully is because it's obviously an intensely personal matter as well for those who were affected.

Senator WONG: Yes. I agree that it is intensely personal. But that is not an answer to a decision that you have made to not engage with your counterpart before this became public, to register at the highest levels of our government that this sort of conduct towards Australian citizens—this sort of conduct generally, but certainly towards Australian citizens—we do not regard as acceptable.

Senator Payne: It is very clear that we do not regard this as acceptable.

Senator WONG: If that's the case, why did you not make it clear?

Senator Payne: Senator, it is very clear that this is not acceptable.

Senator WONG: You do agree that there are levels of response when you are dealing with incidents, issues in relationships, and there are legitimate, pragmatic decisions made where you might want something dealt with by post, you might want something dealt with at Dr Macdonald's level or you might want something dealt with at the secretary's level. There are degrees of escalation. Did you not regard this as something where, at least privately—before we get into this process of waiting for the report—you could have expressed, from our government to the Qatar government, that we do not regard this as acceptable?

Senator Payne: I asked to see the report to get a very clear understanding of events as they had occurred and from the Qatari perspective. I asked officials both at the head of mission level—the charge' in the first instance when the head of mission was not available—and through the First Assistant Secretary, for all of those actions to be pursued, and also to ensure through DFAT, through the appropriate health systems in Australia and through the Australian Federal Police that support was provided to the women who have been quarantined here in Australia.

Senator WONG: I'll come back to the support. Dr Macdonald, you said that you met with the Qatari ambassador on 6 October.

Dr Macdonald : I spoke with him.

Senator WONG: You spoke with him on the phone?

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: And, Minister, you spoke for the first time with the Qatari ambassador—

Senator Payne: This week.

Senator WONG: Again, can I ask why you chose not to engage with the ambassador prior to this becoming public?

Senator Payne: Because there had been significant contact made with the Qatari system, both with the ambassador here and with the system in Doha, through officials at senior levels—at Dr Macdonald's level and through the head of mission in Doha—in an effort to obtain the report as soon as possible, as I said on Monday, I think.

Senator WONG: Have you obtained any commitments as to the time frame for the receipt of the report?

Senator Payne: I understand, Senator, very soon. The information from the Qatari government is: 'We hope in the coming days.' And I said earlier this week that I hope to receive it this week, which would accord with that time line.

Senator WONG: I assume this flight was at night, given the time frame for departure in Doha.

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: Was there any attempt made by any of the women to contact our post in Doha?

Dr Macdonald : It doesn't seem so. They checked their records and had no—

Senator WONG: Obviously they would have been closed. Is there available a public after-hours contact or do you contact back in Australia and then it's referred back?

Ms Adamson : The emergency number routes back here, and we've got 24-hour-a-day coverage here.

Senator WONG: And there was no contact?

Dr Macdonald : No; not through here or directly through the embassy in Doha.

Senator WONG: I want to give you the opportunity to respond to this. There was a media report that there was a DFAT officer who was amongst the Australians taken off the plane—and I'm not going to ask for any names—and the report was that she was not searched. I wonder what you can tell us in response to what has been raised publicly, Secretary.

Ms Adamson : I will choose my words carefully.

Senator WONG: I asked a very open question.

Ms Adamson : I know, and I will answer it thoughtfully. I am aware of the media reports. My understanding—but I would like to check this, and we can do that.

Senator WONG: Sure.

Ms Adamson : Everyone will understand that the nature of the most unfortunate event that triggered this action—and I'm trying to find the right words for this—meant that the women who were being searched, by definition, needed to be of child-bearing age. My understanding—but I will need to check this—is that women who were not of child-bearing age were not searched, and my understanding is that that included our staff member.

Senator WONG: Did the staff member concerned report the matter when she arrived back in Australia or prior to that?

Ms Adamson : Beforehand.

Senator WONG: Before?

Ms Adamson : Yes.

Senator WONG: In Doha?

Ms Adamson : I'd need to check that. I received a message, as Dr Macdonald said, overnight, if you like—latish in the evening—on the 3rd. I was alerted to it because of the impact in the first instance on our staff member. That was a message to me. At the same time I was made aware that it was a broader incident affecting more people.

Senator WONG: Okay. I didn't understand that from your evidence, Dr Macdonald. You said that DFAT was made aware by way of email overnight.

Ms Adamson : This is the difference between Dr Macdonald's role and mine—

Senator WONG: No, I'm not—I'm trying to clarify it. I assume that that was from non-DFAT passengers?

Dr Macdonald : No.

Senator WONG: Right.

Dr Macdonald : We were made aware from an email from one of the affected women.

Senator WONG: From the DFAT officer?

Dr Macdonald : That was an email that we received, yes, and then from—

Senator WONG: So that was—what?

Dr Macdonald : Yes, that was the email that we received directly—

Senator WONG: That was the first email. So the first email was from a DFAT official who was on the flight—

Ms Adamson : Affected.

Senator WONG: Sorry? Who was affected but not searched?

Ms Adamson : That's my understanding, and I will confirm it—

Senator WONG: And the first that you became aware of it was overnight on the 3rd?

Ms Adamson : Late in the evening on the 3rd.

Senator WONG: What did you do as a result of that?

Ms Adamson : Our system mobilised around the broader incident, if you like, and the women affected—wanting to get information. It sounded incredible. That was my initial reaction.

Senator WONG: As in 'unbelievable'?

Ms Adamson : As in, 'How can this have happened?'

Senator WONG: Not—

Ms Adamson : No, no, no.

Senator WONG: I was being careful for you.

Ms Adamson : So am I.

Senator WONG: I understand.

Ms Adamson : I was incredulous that it could have happened.

Senator WONG: Yes, it is. So it was overnight on the 3rd and then the 4th. Was our post alerted on the 4th?

Dr Macdonald : I think over that same period.

Senator WONG: What did the post do?

Dr Macdonald : It was immediately in touch with DFAT in Canberra, including the CEC, the Consular Emergency Centre, and checking their own records about whether they had any information about this having been brought to the attention, in a consular sense—

Senator WONG: When did the post first raise this with the Qatari authorities?

Dr Macdonald : On the 4th.

Ms Adamson : That was done through multiple channels to the chief of Protocol, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to Qatar Airways. It was an instant response, with a lot of engagement with the department in the course of the 4th—a Sunday, as I recall—including on the part of our charge d'affaires, and liaison with other counterparts, heads of mission, of other countries affected.

Senator WONG: Is the DFAT officer a senior officer?

Ms Adamson : I don't know.

Senator WONG: You don't know who it is?

Ms Adamson : No, I don't know. We respect the privacy of our officers. I do not know who—

Senator WONG: Was the individual on official travel?

Ms Adamson : That is my understanding, but I will confirm that for you. But you did say that you were mindful of the privacy of the officer—

Senator WONG: Yes, but I'm also mindful, if they were on official travel, what you would have expected them to do.

Ms Adamson : I will need to check whether they were transiting. I need more information on that. But they alerted us—

Senator WONG: I know nothing about this other than what's on the public record, but I would say this: what would your expectations be of a DFAT officer on a plane where Australian women were taken off? Would you expect them to raise concerns with authorities, with the crew?

Ms Adamson : That would depend. I'd need to know more. I'd need to know where they were. I think we need to understand that although we now know what happened they did not.

Senator WONG: It's possible they didn't know. That might well be the case.

Ms Adamson : They were asked to leave a plane, with no explanation given. I think that it's an easy thing to say now. I don't think that it was at all easy at the time.

Senator WONG: No, I don't think it's easy. I'm asking you what your expectations are; that's all. But I accept what you say. At this stage, you haven't engaged with this officer?

Ms Adamson : I have not, personally—

Senator WONG: That's fine.

Ms Adamson : But, as I said, I will check what additional details, if any, I can provide.

Senator WONG: So you were aware of the officer being on board before the public report on the Monday, this public report that I'm referring to?

Ms Adamson : Yes.

Senator WONG: And were you, Minister?

Senator Payne: I'm not sure exactly when I was advised of that. But I was ultimately made aware, yes.

Senator WONG: We know that 18 Australian women were searched?

Dr Macdonald : I think that it might be 18 who were on that flight. I'll just have to double-check how many of those were Australian.

Senator WONG: Sorry, I misunderstood an answer earlier. I thought that the 18 were the Australian citizens.

Dr Macdonald : I'll double check, but of course—

Senator WONG: And then there were citizens of other nationalities as well who were subjected to this appalling procedure?

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: Do we know how many?

Dr Macdonald : No, I don't.

Senator WONG: And we now are aware, overnight, of there being ten planes?

Dr Macdonald : Yes, so just as of last night, that some other flights were affected.

Senator WONG: How did we become aware of that?

Senator Payne: Through meetings in Doha.

Senator WONG: Have we asked that question before?

Dr Macdonald : Yes, our post, in their engagements with the Qatari authorities, have asked a number of questions about the details of what had happened. The undertaking was for the investigation to be concluded and the report provided.

Senator WONG: Is DFAT the lead agency in responding to this?

Dr Macdonald : DFAT is the lead in terms of the engagement with the Qatari authorities. But domestic agencies have been those dealing directly with the affected women from that flight. The women made their complaint in the first instance to the AFP on arrival in Sydney, and it's the AFP in conjunction with NSW Police who have been in direct contact with the women about what had occurred.

Senator WONG: Has DFAT engaged with any or all of the women who were subjected to this appalling event?

Dr Macdonald : No, not directly. All of that direct contact has been through the AFP.

Ms Adamson : We obviously provide consular services to Australians overseas. Once they return home, support services that may need to be required or may need to be provided are provided by domestic agencies.

Senator WONG: Yes. I want to check whether or not we've confirmed that they have been provided.

Ms Adamson : Yes.

Senator WONG: This is support services. I appreciate you don't provide those sorts of personal services.

Dr Macdonald : We confirmed on 4 October, directly, as soon as we became aware and as we were starting to understand the enormity of what seemed to have happened, that appropriate medical care and/or mental health support was available to the women and the AFP.

Senator WONG: With whom did you confirm?

Dr Macdonald : With the AFP, who were, in turn, liaising with NSW Police and with NSW Health.

Senator WONG: But not all the women would be from New South Wales?

Dr Macdonald : There was quarantine. So it was while they were in quarantine arrangements.

Senator WONG: Of course. We understand that personal support to the women concerned is being provided through New South Wales authorities liaising with the AFP. Are all interviews being conducted by the AFP?

Dr Macdonald : So we understand. I'm not familiar with the exact technical meaning of the term 'investigation', but in terms of the follow-up actions and the contacts—

Senator WONG: So DFAT is not really the lead agency in relation to dealing with these women.

Dr Macdonald : That's right.

Senator WONG: You're the lead agency in dealing with—

Ms Adamson : Offshore.

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: But as yet we don't have a report?

Ms Adamson : As you know, Senator, a report has been foreshadowed. Again, yesterday—overnight our time—the Qatari foreign minister emphasised to our ambassador their intention to provide that as soon as possible, including obviously being very clear about the foreign minister's expectations as she has outlined them.

Senator WONG: Did we request a report, or was this offered up?

Senator Payne: I'm happy to be corrected by Dr Macdonald, but my understanding is that it was indicated to us that an investigation would take place, as you would expect and that a report would be forthcoming from that investigation. There was an indication made at that time that the report would be provided to Australia, which is what I had sought.

Senator WONG: So they essentially indicated to you without any request.

Senator Payne: That's correct.

Senator WONG: Well, not to you, but to DFAT.

Senator Payne: Yes.

Dr Macdonald : Through a formal diplomatic note on 5 October we did request full and detailed information about the incident and what Qatari authorities were doing in response to it.

Senator WONG: Minister, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, obviously in quite a bit of detail, that 'Foreign Minister Payne first called Qatar's ambassador to Australia on 6 October to raise her concern about the incident. She phoned the ambassador again on Monday afternoon telling him that Qatari authorities need to complete their investigation urgently.' Did you or your office background Mr Galloway?

Senator Payne: Not that I'm aware of. The beginning of that, as have I said, Dr Macdonald spoke to the ambassador.

Senator WONG: So it's not correct. If someone told him that you called on the sixth, that's not correct?

Senator Payne: No, that's not correct, and it's not what I said.

Senator WONG: Well, you've said that you didn't brief him. Is that right?

Senator Payne: That's right.

Senator WONG: Do you know if anyone in your office briefed him?

Senator Payne: Not that I'm aware of.

Senator WONG: Given both the number of women on the plane that we were aware of a couple of week ago, but also now that overnight we've become aware of ten others, I am interested to know—

Senator Payne: From other flights.

Senator WONG: Other flights, which we assume would obviously have citizens other than Australians on them—

Senator Payne: Yes indeed.

Senator WONG: That's logical.

Senator Payne: Certainly.

Senator WONG: What engagement has DFAT or the government had had with any other countries in relation to treatment of their citizens in Doha on this night?

Senator Payne: I'll ask Dr Macdonald to answer that, but I am aware, as I think I said in my response to your earlier questions, that other missions are engaging with Australia in Doha on this matter. I'm not sure it's for us to identify those countries.

Senator WONG: We're not identifying women. I'm asking what you're doing diplomatically. Something has occurred which I think we all regard as unacceptable.

Senator Payne: I understand that.

Senator WONG: I'm trying to work out if we're working with others who also regard it as unacceptable and if so, how we're doing that.

Senator Payne: I'm saying that we are, but I would say to the officials, I'm not sure that I want to identify those other countries on the record here.

Senator WONG: What is the basis of that concern? We're not asking for names.

Senator Payne: I would expect that they would wish to handle this matter for their citizens the way that they wish to, as opposed to—

Senator WONG: We're not naming anybody, but okay. Are there any other countries with whom we are working to express our concerns about treatment of citizens in these events?

Dr Macdonald : Yes, through our embassy in Doha.

Senator WONG: How many other countries?

Dr Macdonald : I'm not sure of the exact number.

Senator WONG: Do you know which ones?

Dr Macdonald : I know a couple of them, but given the very small number of women who were on the flight, there are concerns that identifying the countries would also affect their privacy.

Senator WONG: But that is women on the flight which our citizens were on?

Dr Macdonald : That's right, the flight to Sydney.

Senator WONG: So two or three other countries?

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: Have we coordinated with them in terms of our diplomatic representations and the need for a report?

Dr Macdonald : Yes, in Doha.

Senator WONG: In Doha, but not at minister level or here in Canberra?

Dr Macdonald : No, because the locus of the activity is really in Doha in terms of the direct contact with the Qatari authorities. We're being kept very well informed, through our ambassador, about exactly what's been going on and who they're dealing with.

Senator WONG: Prior to us being aware of 10 other flights, we weren't aware of any other countries whose citizens were affected?

Dr Macdonald : It's still not—

Senator Payne: That's why we're waiting for the report, because it's not clear.

Senator WONG: We could wait a long time, couldn't we?

Senator Payne: No, there is—

Senator WONG: Actually being a little bit forward-leaning and seeing whether there are any other countries affected and could we work with them to express our strong views to the Qatari authorities that this is unacceptable.

Senator Payne: Which we are doing.

Senator WONG: And that the report needs to be provided forthwith.

Senator Payne: Which we are doing, as Dr Macdonald said.

Senator WONG: You're not doing it. We've got the post doing it. No-one in Canberra is doing anything with any other country—is that right?

Senator Payne: Because the work is being done in Qatar, which is what I would expect.

Ms Adamson : I can assure you and the committee that there is a very strong like-minded view about this. Other countries affected absolutely share Australia's views on this—

Senator WONG: So, what are we doing with them?

Ms Adamson : and the strength of Australia's views, and I can assure you that we are working very closely with them. They, in turn, of course, are working with their capitals. But the nature of the incident and the desire to have a full report means that words are being chosen carefully in public at the moment.

Senator WONG: Well, yes, but it has been a few weeks since the government was advised and it's now become an incident of a great deal of public focus and a great deal of public criticism. It would have been better, would it not, for the report to have been made available before this became public?

Ms Adamson : Senator, as you know, we work with partners. We encourage them to move as quickly as they can, but it's important that this is a thorough investigation. And, at an international aviation hub, you can just imagine night-time flights leaving in all sorts of directions, action being taken, confusion, getting the facts on this and being able to use them—and also within the system, because this is not, by any standard, normal behaviour, and the Qataris recognise that, are appalled by that, do not want it to happen again and are working with us and other partners to try to work through it, very much in the interests—

Senator WONG: There's a whole heap of responses that I could make. Let's just focus on this. At this stage, you didn't know until overnight that there were other planes that might have been subjected to the search?

Ms Adamson : We were aware.

Senator WONG: Be very careful.

Ms Adamson : I will be careful.

Senator WONG: I don't want to breach any confidences, but you were not aware. If you were aware, then I have another series of questions. I understood the evidence to be that you were not aware until last night that there were other planes that might have been subjected to the search.

Ms Adamson : That's not correct. What Dr Macdonald said is we became aware yesterday that there were 10 other flights affected. On the night in question, we thought there had been others. We didn't know how many, and it was only yesterday that the number, 10, was given to us, although our ambassador has been very active with a range of counterparts.

Senator WONG: Maybe you should have a private discussion.

Ms Adamson : That's correct, isn't it?

Dr Macdonald : It seemed so unlikely that it was only this flight that was affected, but we had no actual information about what other flights might have been affected until the information overnight.

Senator WONG: The actual situation is that you were aware that there were other flights likely to have been affected on the night, but it was only overnight that you became aware that the number of flights affected was 10. Is that correct?

Dr Macdonald : I would say that we were aware that it was likely that other flights could have been affected, but we didn't know any of those specific details. That's why we're seeking the report.

Senator WONG: Did we ask?

Senator Payne: That's part of the report process.

Senator WONG: No—did we ask? The report does not prevent Australians making representations, and the other flights are relevant to our work with partners. I'm asking: did we ask, after we became aware of the incident, whether other flights had been affected?

Dr Macdonald : We asked for all of the full and detailed information about what might have happened to understand what was going on.

Senator WONG: I asked you a very specific question, Dr Macdonald.

Dr Macdonald : I'll have to check on that very specific question—if it was asked—

Senator WONG: So, you don't know if we asked if other flights were affected?

Dr Macdonald : I don't want to say anything misleading, so I'll have to check,

CHAIR: That's been taken on notice.

Senator WONG: Okay. Do you not think that was relevant to (a) finding out whether there were other Australians who might have been affected on other flights, and (b) working out which other countries we could work with?

Dr Macdonald : That's what our post is doing in terms of working with other countries they already know about in relation to the flight that landed in Sydney.

Senator WONG: Could I go back to DFAT being advised by the women who were subjected to this upon return to Australia. You've indicated to me that there was one email, which you believed to be from the DFAT officer, which was received overnight on the 3rd or 4th? Correct?

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: Was there any other contact from any other women before or after the flight arrived?

Dr Macdonald : With DFAT?

Senator WONG: Yes.

Dr Macdonald : Not that I'm aware of, at all.

Senator WONG: Are you sure?

Dr Macdonald : I can double-check, but not that I'm aware of.

Senator WONG: You're saying no women contacted DFAT after the flight landed, other than the officer?

Dr Macdonald : They contacted the AFP, who were at the airport on arrival to facilitate the quarantine.

Senator WONG: Who is 'they'?

Dr Macdonald : Some of the affected women.

Senator WONG: As a consequence of that AFP report, a report to the AFP from those women—

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: Did the AFP then communicate that with DFAT?

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: And how did that happen?

Dr Macdonald : I'm not sure if it was by email. I think it was by email on that Sunday.

Senator WONG: This was when you started to engage diplomatically? That was the prompt for it or it was contemporaneous or it was thereabouts?

Dr Macdonald : Yes.

Senator WONG: After the AFP advised of the Australian women making the complaint, did any DFAT officer engage with any of the women?

Dr Macdonald : Not directly.

Senator Payne: I think Dr Macdonald answered your question on that before, Senator. The contact with the women in Australia, onshore—

Senator WONG: I'm thinking about the question I ask next.

Senator Payne: has been undertaken through the AFP as part of the report process to them, and the investigating process. We, as I understand it—and I'm again happy to be corrected—have been in contact with the AFP in relation to that. Of course, Health in New South Wales, where the quarantine is occurring, is providing the appropriate contact there.

Senator WONG: Dr Macdonald or Secretary, is it your evidence that the department provided no advice to any of the women after their arrival in Australia?

Dr Macdonald : Not directly. We were in constant contact with the AFP, including the AFP through our post in Doha, about what they had ascertained generally, obviously protecting the privacy of their inquiries and the privacy of the women involved.

Senator WONG: Was any advice provided by DFAT to the AFP or to the individuals that the incident should not be made public?

Dr Macdonald : I don't recall. I don't think so.

Ms Adamson : Absolutely not to my knowledge. Could I go back, though, to our staff member, choosing my words very carefully, because obviously this is a very distressing matter. I can confirm that the DFAT staff member was transiting on return to Australia but was not on official duty. Like other passengers, she was shocked at what happened. She was not a senior member of staff.

Senator WONG: Minister, do you have any knowledge as to how this incident became public?

Senator Payne: I'm trying to recall. I understand there was another passenger on the flight who may have made it public, but I don't have any information with me in relation to that. We have been, as we've given evidence, focused on dealing with the issues in Qatar.

Senator WONG: Sure. I was just checking whether you or your office had any awareness about—

Senator Payne: That's my recollection.

Senator WONG: I was asking whether you or your office had any knowledge of how it became public.

Senator Payne: No; only to the extent that I believe there was a passenger on the flight who may have a media background and was part of making it public. In fact, I should not speculate, because that's what I'm doing. I'm trying to remember—

Senator WONG: I've asked the question. That's fine. When was the Prime Minister advised of these events?

Senator Payne: The Prime Minister's office would have been advised through my office at the time the reports were being received.

Senator WONG: I always get nervous with conditionals—'would have been'. Are you able to tell me when the Prime Minister's office was advised?

Senator Payne: I will take the specific on notice, but I'm confident that it was at the time that reports were being received in my office.

Senator WONG: Which was the 5th?

Senator Payne: Around the 5th, yes.

Senator WONG: Have you had any discussion with the Prime Minister about this, and, if so, when?

Senator Payne: Not directly. I came back to Canberra on Monday, from quarantine, so that has been a fairly limiting—

Senator WONG: But you can make a phone call.

Senator Payne: Yes, of course, but I'm just saying that I haven't seen the Prime Minister.

Senator WONG: Have you had any direct discussion with the Prime Minister by phone or by—

Senator Payne: I don't go into my conversations with the Prime Minister, as you know.

Senator WONG: I'm not asking—I'm just asking whether you'd spoken to him about it.

Senator Payne: I don't recall that I have had a specific conversation with the Prime Minister.

Senator WONG: So he's not been asked to make any representations, or we have not sought any public representations from the Prime Minister?

Senator Payne: No. We've indicated that we have sought from the Qatari government the report that we've referred to at some length this morning.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, this is—

Senator WONG: Sorry, because it is such a sensitive matter, I'm thinking about how to phrase a question! I apologise.

CHAIR: I was going to say that this is a sensitive issue.

Senator WONG: Sure.

CHAIR: Normally I would give the Labor Party the first hour or so—

Senator WONG: Sure. Thank you.

CHAIR: I don't want to break—

Senator WONG: I won't—

CHAIR: How much longer—

Senator WONG: I'm happy to—I might come back to it. As I said, I want to be careful about how I ask questions.

CHAIR: Of course.

Senator WONG: If you need to go to another senator for a short period, I'm happy for that to happen.

CHAIR: I had overlooked my good friend and colleague Senator Van yesterday, somewhat. I was going to call him now for some questioning until morning tea, if that is agreeable, but I don't want to break your questioning—

Senator WONG: No, you're being very reasonable. When is morning tea?

CHAIR: It's at 10.30.

Senator WONG: You're going to give him half an hour?

CHAIR: I am.

Senator WONG: That's very generous.

CHAIR: If he needs that.

Senator WONG: Goodness me! Do I come back after morning tea? Is that the deal, otherwise I'll keep going?

Senator VAN: It might not take me that long.

CHAIR: Senator Van, I'm sure you won't take the full half-hour, so it's over to you.

Senator WONG: No, don't take the first full half-hour.

Senator VAN: I doubt that I will. It depends on the brevity of answers from the department, but I know how succinct they are. Let's go with it. My first questions are about the bilateral relationship with India—

Ms Adamson : If you wouldn't mind just holding for a few seconds. My colleague who is responsible for our relationship with India is on the way down.

Senator VAN: So you're aware, I will be asking questions around India, Indonesia, the Pacific and, if I have time, the multilateral audit.

Ms Adamson : My colleague James Wiblin is ready to answer your questions on India.

Senator VAN: Thank you very much, Secretary. I note that the new Australia-India comprehensive strategic partnership was signed between Prime Ministers Modi and Morrison in June. Could you tell us how that has elevated Australia's relationship with the most populous democracy?

Mr Wiblin : Thank you for the question. The agreement to elevate the partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership has cemented India at the front rank of our partners in delivering on our Indo-Pacific strategy. We are committing to working together across the broad range of issues between the two countries. It's demonstrated that our relationship has never been so important, in particular under the pressure caused by COVID-19. With the elevation, the comprehensive strategic partnership was underpinned by a series of other memoranda of understanding as well as other agreements. These covered defence, critical minerals, cyber and technology, and maritime as well as other areas such as skills and governance. From this, we are continuing to work very closely to enact these various agreements. In the budget, the Australian government dedicated an extra $62 million towards these programs to elevate the relationship and deepen the relationship.

Senator VAN: Thank you very much for that. Given that [inaudible] Can you hear me okay?

Mr Wiblin : Yes, can I hear you, Senator.

Senator VAN: Sorry, I was reading your face. That's all I can see from here. Forgive me. India has had the second-highest number of COVID infections and like many countries is facing a severe economic downturn. What does it say about the strength of the bilateral relationship that Australia and India are prioritising diplomatic resources and efforts on increased cooperation in the context of the pandemic?

Mr Wiblin : It underlines the importance of India to Australia and Australia to India in achieving our Indo-Pacific objectives. Undoubtedly India has been very affected by COVID. As you said, it has the second-largest number of cases. It acted very quickly early on to address these cases and subsequently will have some quite significant economic affects from this. But, regardless, India's trajectory is very positive. We see great value in the economic relationship going forward, but also the commonalities between our views on the Indo-Pacific—for an open and prosperous and stable region—are such that the importance of deepening the relationship has taken on even more importance.

Ms Adamson : Could I add briefly to that, because you make an important point about the number of cases that India is dealing with, as the world's second most populous nation. Not only have we seen a very strong desire on the part of India to engage bilaterally with us—and the foreign minister can speak to that, if she wishes to as well—but we've also seen a very noticeable engagement by India in its own immediate region, including through the provision of development assistance and through very regular dialogue, consultation and cooperation with a range of Indo-Pacific partners, mostly like-minded democracies like Australia, but not solely. We've also seen India advancing cooperation through the Quad.

Whichever way you look at it, India is very much engaged in its own region, as we are. This was very evident in the virtual summit between the leaders, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Morrison. I had the pleasure of being in the room with Prime Minister Morrison for that. There was a very clear commitment to a peaceful, prosperous Indo-Pacific region—and I referred to this in my opening statement—where differences and disputes are settled in accordance with international law. India has always had a strong commitment to what their senior leaders, my counterparts and the foreign minister's counterparts, call the 'character of the region'. I just wanted to put it in that slightly broader context.

Senator VAN: I appreciate that very much, Ms Adamson. What key areas of cooperation does the CSP and its associated MOUs cover?

Mr Wiblin : As mentioned, the intent of the CSP is extremely broad. The idea is it's comprehensive. It covers everything from defence, strategic, security and cyber, through to people-to-people links and the economy as well. As I said, we have a joint statement on maritime cooperation, looking at how Australia and India can work together in the region on maritime domain awareness, on maritime security and on the blue economy and the environment. We have a framework arrangement on cyber and critical technologies, which again sees where Australia and India can work on these very new and very important issues to do with cyber and critical, including working within the region together. We are have critical minerals—an emerging focus; an emerging important—where, again, there is a lot of potential for cooperation and mutually beneficial work.

Senator VAN: Can you place on record how much the government will spend to implement and progress the CSP?

Mr Wiblin : In the budget papers there was $62.2 million allocated to the government to progress the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Senator VAN: My last question on this line is: what other countries have secured 2+2 foreign and defence meetings with India?

Mr Wiblin : If you'll just excuse me—

CHAIR: If you need to take it on notice, you can.

Mr Wiblin : I will have to come back on that. I just have to find it.

Ms Adamson : From my knowledge, Senator, it's the United States and Russia. Anyway, we are in very good company—with less than a handful. It's not something that India typically does and it will be a real asset as we develop our relationship further to the absolute top rank, as Mr Wiblin has said.

Senator VAN: I now want to turn to Indonesia.

CHAIR: We can no longer hear you, Senator Van. There was some static that we heard before you went off air. We can still see you, but not hear you.

Ms Adamson : He did say that he wanted to ask questions about Indonesia. I'm not sure if my lip-reading is very good! We can talk about Indonesia.

CHAIR: I'm sorry, Senator Van, but we can't hear you. We might need to come back.

Senator VAN: Is that any better?

CHAIR: That's a lot better. We can now see and hear you—we've got the double!

Senator VAN: I don't know what changed in that short space of time. My question about Indonesia goes to: how has Australia assisted Indonesia as it combats the health, economic and social impacts of COVID-19?

Mr Connor : We've had extensive contact with Indonesia over the past months. Indeed, one could say it was rather serendipitous when, as you would recall, the visit of the President of Indonesia, President Jokowi, took place in February. At that visit, COVID was hitting us all. There were extensive discussions at the time between President Jokowi and the Prime Minister on the issue and what may be happening to all of us, even though those were early days.

Indonesia's been quite severely hit by COVID. It's a difficult country to deal with, it being the largest archipelagic state in the world. There are a number of problems that it's been dealing with from the early part of the onset of the pandemic in Indonesia. We assisted them in the first instance with the provision of PPE and respirators. There have been a couple of consignments of those going to Indonesia. We've also been very focused on helping Indonesia deal with the systemic problems caused in Indonesia. I think if you go to the DFAT website now you'll see on that website the Indonesia COVID-19 Development Response Plan, which has a rather detailed outline of all activities that Australia has been undertaking in connection with Indonesia.

Like all the countries of South-East Asia, the department has from that period been pivoting its development assistance program to deal entirely with COVID matters. We took early action to scale up our humanitarian and economic response plans. We've got a very long-standing cooperative program with Indonesia called the Prospera program, under which Australian officials and other experts give advice to Indonesia on economic matters. It involves the positioning within the Indonesian government of Australian and Indonesian advisers, in some cases giving direct economic advice to ministers. That program, in particular, swung around to dealing with COVID response efforts and handling what the Indonesian government would do to respond to that issue. We were very lucky, also, that we had just concluded our Australia-Indonesia Partnership in Disaster Risk Management with BNPB, in its new role in handling the response. We've provided $21 million in new initiatives to support Indonesia's immediate health plans through the Red Cross, the WHO and UNICEF. Basically, as I said before, the entire program has been swung around to reorient to help Indonesia. Whatever we do these days in any of the programs we deal with, it all has a COVID aspect.

Senator VAN: I have a question for the minister, if I may. Minister, have you spoken to your counterpart, Foreign Minister Marsudi, during this crisis?

Senator Payne: Yes. Minister Marsudi and I have been in regular contact—all virtually, of course, given the current circumstances—by video conference and teleconference. The other thing that we were able to do, particularly in the early part of the pandemic, was to do some work together as female foreign ministers in the region, as part of some of the initiatives around the engagement on the impact on women in developing countries in particular, particularly the health and education impacts. We have also done some work in the context of women, peace and security—UN Security Council resolution 1325. The anniversary of that coming is up this year.

Then, in the bilateral context as well, on a number of occasions, there were early discussions around supplies for Indonesia in the context of both PPE and medical equipment, and the challenges that Indonesia has been dealing with, particularly with increasing transmission in recent months. There were also a couple of other less formal and more personal matters, including her joy at having her grandson stuck with her in Jakarta because he wasn't able to go back to Singapore because there were no flights!

Senator VAN: Thank you, minister. You may or may not be able to answer this, but do you know if there's been much contact between Prime Minister Morrison and President Jokowi?

Senator Payne: There have been a couple of direct phone calls between the Prime Minister and the President, in particular. I think that Mr Connor referred to the IA-CEPA and it's coming into being. That was an important step, which was marked in discussions. There were also discussions around the regional response, particularly, and the work that Australia has done in terms of the pivot of our engagement to focus on COVID response and recovery in the region as well.

Ms Adamson : I would perhaps just add that its natural in this committee, obviously, to focus on contacts between foreign ministers—and, of course, leader level engagement is very important. But I should also note that, across the board, there has been very strong engagement by Australian ministers with their Indonesian counterparts on a wide range of matters going to Indonesia's health response, economic response and the regional response, just because we are neighbours and we have a lot that we need to talk about.

In terms of pursuing our broader interests in South-East Asia, the relationship with Indonesia, of course, is vital. From my perspective, it's been very well tended across the board at officials level and ministerial level during this period, and I would expect that to continue to be the case when actual visits can resume—and I'm sure they will. But we have been making effective use of this period when it's not been possible.

Senator VAN: Thank you very much, Madam Secretary. Just in the interests of time, I might go to the multilateral audit rather than the Pacific.

Dr Lee : I'm happy to talk about the multilateral audit.

Senator VAN: Thank you, Mr Lee. Last October, the Prime Minister commissioned DFAT to undertake an audit of our multilateral engagement. In light of the stressors that COVID is imposing on the international system, how timely and important was this audit?

Dr Lee : It was extremely timely. The audit we conducted had already been conducting from the time that the Prime Minister announced it and it was concluded earlier this year. I think the most important findings of the audit were the vital interests that multilateral organisations provide to Australia, both to our economic prosperity and our security, and their role in dealing with the global challenges, and obviously COVID-19 has been a very significant global challenge. We've got many interests across the multilateral system, from international peace and security to international law, environment, health and pandemics. But what the audit really focused on, which we identified as important, was the role of UN specialised agencies and technical agencies, recognising that the world is dealing with many global challenges, including many emerging issues. Regarding the UN specialised agencies and other technical agencies—not all in the United Nations, like the International Standards Organisation—we identified that they played an extremely important role in dealing with those global challenges and those emerging issues.

Within the context of the audit, we identified that we would continue our multilateral engagement broadly, but we also needed to put more effort into having an awareness of what was occurring in those agencies. Many of those agencies we have dealt with at a technical level. Many of them are dealt with by other Australian government agencies or industry representatives. The challenge for us going forward is how we increase our awareness and coordination across government to make sure that our national interests are being pursued across those agencies. The World Health Organization is, of course, one of the UN specialised agencies and has a key role in responding to COVID-19. It was very timely and very relevant to look not just at the role that the World Health Organization had been playing but also at the full range of UN specialised agencies in dealing with the range of global challenges and emerging issues that we're encountering at the moment.

Senator VAN: Thank you very much. You mentioned that we're working across government to increase participation in those multilateral bodies. I assume you meant DFAT is leading that. Is a more strategic approach being taken in that work?

Dr Lee : Very much. We are continuing a strategic approach. Obviously, with shifts in global power as well, we have to make sure that Australian interests and values are supported with those shifts in global powers. That requires a strategic understanding of the shifts in global power. We have to not only work across Australian government agencies but also work with other countries that are like-minded on these issues to protect the rules, norms, standards and values that have served us well until now and which we think continue to be important. It's certainly very strategic in terms of having an understanding of those global shifts, and not just internally within our own government but working with other governments as well.

Senator VAN: Thank you. How would you say COVID-19 is impacting the way in which those multilateral institutions operate? And how is Australia adapting and responding to those challenges with regard to virtual negotiations, discussions and the way we protect, in advance, Australia's national interests?

Dr Lee : It's certainly been very challenging. There's no consistent method of operation across the different international institutions and organisations. It's dependent on the organisation to some degree and it's dependent on where they are located and what sorts of COVID measures have been introduced in the specific location. I would say that most institutions are operating to a very busy schedule, and that has kept our posts, particularly in the multilateral context, in New York, Geneva and other places, very busy. Most organisations are now operating under a combination of hybrid and in-person meetings within the UN itself throughout. They have continued to negotiate resolutions. They were doing that via silence procedures. Now they have gone back to more regular in-person meetings as well. Voting on certain resolutions has been challenging. That hasn't always been able to be done in person, so our embassies are continuing to try and make sure that the business of these institutions continues and continues in a way that allows us to negotiate and allows us to have impact.

Senator VAN: Thank you very much, Dr Lee. Thank you very much, Chair. I will leave it there.

CHAIR: Senator Fawcett, I understand you have a few questions. Would a few minutes now be appropriate?

Senator FAWCETT: Yes—only a couple of brief ones. Our engagement in the region about PPE and the support for nations was mentioned. You'd be aware there was a period during the COVID crisis when the supply chains, both of finished product but also of precursors, like spunbond, became quite critical, and there was quite an investment by both the government and the private sector to stand up Australian manufacturing capability. For that to be sustainable, there need to be contracts for them to sell their product into the future, otherwise we will see a degradation in their capability as international supply chains start up again. I'm wondering what DFAT is doing in terms of cooperating with the health department to aggregate government demand for things like PPE so that Australian industry has the opportunity to have quality and be cost-competitive, because of the volumes that can be procured across the federal health department for the national stockpile, DFAT's requirements for aid or cooperation with other nations, and the needs of other departments, such as Defence and state health departments. Is there any cooperation between DFAT and the health department or industry around aggregating that demand?

Ms Adamson : Let me start off on that question. You always have a deep interest in these sorts of things. I will do my best to satisfy it. If one of my colleagues has greater knowledge, I encourage them to come to the table. We work very closely with the—

CHAIR: I'm not noticing a rush.

Ms Adamson : No. I don't have eyes in the back of my head, but I can't feel it either! I will answer it. We've worked very closely, obviously, from the outset with the Department of Health. You're absolutely right, Senator. In the early phases, the need was really for us to be able to acquire PPE or components of PPE as we were ramping up our own domestic manufacturing capability. I recall that some of our heads of mission in very far-flung places were sent out in search of meltblown fibre and all sorts of things. That was an earlier phase of this. You point to the role and the government's focus on developing Australian manufacturing. That's part of it, of course.

Another part of it has been the work that we have done on supply chain resilience. That is something that the foreign minister has been quite active in herself. Resilient supply chains are very much on the agenda for any meeting between foreign ministers these days. The Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment may want to speak to that more when it comes time for him to give his evidence, because what we are also alert to at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are the opportunities to diversify our export markets and also build scale when it comes to manufacturing capability. Of course, we do so with a very strong belief in free markets and competitiveness, and we need to be able to ensure that we are competitive in the supply of whatever product it is if we're looking at a global market. That will inevitably, I suspect, mean niche markets, where we go up against mass-scale manufacturing of more broadly available products. It's going to be harder for us to be competitive. But we are working with not only the Department of Health but the department of industry when it comes to those opportunities. The broader market-opening role that DFAT has, including through negotiation of FTAs, sits at the back of all of that when you look at what might be needed. There are some very good Australian companies out there who are swiftly pivoting to produce products of a kind that you've described. I've met a number of them in my regular strategic dialogues with business, four of which I've held during the COVID period.

Senator FAWCETT: I completely accept your answer. The feedback I'm getting from industry, though, is that there are only a few that are producing things like P2 and P3 respirators, which are critical components to keeping health workforces healthy and able to treat patients as they need support. Health has given them contracts for the immediate period to replenish the stockpile, but that alone won't get them to the point of being price competitive, but they're saying that the aggregated demand would be price competitive. Has that been considered to look at how different levels of government and different federal departments can aggregate demand—obviously not across all areas but in the critical areas where the experience of COVID has shown us they are essential to keeping our health system functioning effectively?

Ms Adamson : Could I suggest—and I will take it on notice—that particular question is probably better answered by my Austrade colleagues. I think they'll be here tomorrow night. I know they have been engaged in this. Whether they would actually use the term 'aggregating demand', I'm not sure, but for us, very genuinely, part of the value of estimates is listening to what you tell us about what companies or constituents you're in touch with are saying.

Senator FAWCETT: Austrade are very good about our trade. What I'm talking about is your procurement. Where do you procure things like P2 masks from in order to dispatch them to countries in the region that we are seeking to engage with and support? And are you coordinating your procurement requirements with people such as those at Health?

Ms Adamson : The answer to that is absolutely yes, and we've been doing that from day one. If it took me a long time to understand that was the nub of your question, I apologise.

Senator Payne: It's been a complementary process in recent months to do that between agencies, including industry and the work that Karen Andrews is leading in manufacturing in particular. So, across Karen Andrews' portfolio, across Minister Hunt's portfolio and across this portfolio, there's been a lot of work to bring that together. I don't know whether this was referred to in Defence estimates, but we saw the work that ADF did in terms of helping lines change in manufacturing businesses in Australia in the first couple of months as well. That's all been holistically addressed, particularly through the COVID-19 taskforce and through the cabinet process, with ministers and senior officials.

Senator FAWCETT: Thanks, Minister. Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Fawcett.

Proceedings suspended from 10:33 to 10:48

CHAIR: The committee is resumed and we will go to Senator Rice.

Senator RICE: I want to cover the issue of Australians stranded overseas and then move to Julian Assange and hopefully get to China—just to give you warning of the relevant officials needed to answer my questions. So I will start off with Australians stranded overseas. We had the Prime Minister's media release on 16 October about additional flights to bring Australians home. When did DFAT start working on those plans?

Dr Webster : So the question was, when did we start working on the caps?

Senator RICE: No; on the plans for the additional flights to bring Australians home.

Dr Webster : We've always had contingency plans in place to work on the facilitated flights, and we waited until the Prime Minister was ready to announce that we could undertake those flights in mid-October.

Senator RICE: When did you first recommend that those additional flights be organised?

Dr Webster : Following the introduction of the caps, we were asked on a number of occasions to contribute to briefing around what we could do in order to bring Australians home. All of the plans were contingent on the quarantine availability in Australia. We recommended a range of scenarios, but they were all contingent, obviously, on where they could be received.

Senator RICE: Can you tell me when you first recommended additional flights?

Dr Webster : I wouldn't say that we were necessarily recommending those flights. We were saying that those were the options in order to bring Australians home. But they were contingent upon quarantine capacity in Australia.

Senator RICE: Could you take on notice when you put those options to the minister?

Dr Webster : Certainly.

Senator RICE: What was the process? Were you making the recommendations through an interdepartmental process or was it to the foreign minister?

Dr Webster : It is through the minister to government.

Senator Payne: Senator, I think that Dr Webster could also inform the committee about the role of the taskforces that exist across government of which DFAT is a member that are part of these discussions on an ongoing basis and have been for quite some time.

Dr Webster : That's right, Minister. There's a range of taskforces or interdepartmental committees across government. That includes DFAT, the Australian Border Force, Health, Infrastructure and Home Affairs. We all work together in order to bring to government the sorts of recommendations that would lead to things such as facilitated commercial flights.

Ms Adamson : Senator, can I just add as well—because both the minister and I in our opening statements referred to the 66 government assisted commercial flights—that we've been doing this throughout the COVID period. Dr Webster's point was that, once the Prime Minister spoke in the way he did, that then gave us an opportunity to bring further options to government. But we've been doing the facilitated flights throughout the COVID period, and we've always been at the ready, as I said, to do what we can to bring Australians home.

Senator RICE: So, as I read it, you've basically been recommending the option of additional flights for quite some time, but it wasn't until the Prime Minister was ready to announce them that they actually happened?

Ms Adamson : Actually, Senator, it's not quite that we've been recommending—because we've been doing it and our other partners across government have been aware that we have always been able to do that. You keep using the term that it is our recommendation. I don't think that that is the characterisation that I would use. Our job has been, whatever flight capability there has been—linked, obviously, once caps were introduced, to the availability of quarantine places—to take advantage of all of that, whether it was small numbers focused on vulnerable Australians on commercial flights, or whether it was looking at a wide range of options, and there are a number of them.

Senator RICE: Okay. I'll move on, due to time. Obviously you've had a very strong focus on and awareness of the need to be getting Australians to come home, particularly vulnerable Australians. Who is organising who gets on these flights?

Senator Payne: Which flights in particular? Can you just clarify that?

Senator RICE: The additional flights that have now been organised.

Dr Webster : DFAT is responsible for organising who gets on those additional flights.

Senator RICE: How are you allocating people to the places?

Dr Webster : The focus is very much on our most vulnerable cohort. We have a range of ways in which we identify vulnerable Australians. One is through our complex consular case load in our case management system, and we're able to identify where those people are and what needs they might have. They might be medical needs. They may be mental health needs or they may be financial needs. We then work with our posts to identify—

Senator RICE: Are all of those people identified through your consular case load as being vulnerable going to be able to be accommodated on these extra flights, or are you still going to have to make some very difficult decisions as to who gets priority?

Dr Webster : That's right. There are a range of different pathways for Australians to return. We seek to use all of those and we try, where possible, to prioritise the most vulnerable. The facilitated commercial flights that we organise are the best or the easiest way to allocate seats to vulnerable Australians. We also have thousands of Australians returning under the caps—some 5,575 Australians a week. We have less capacity there to identify vulnerable Australians for those flights, but we are working closely through our regional consular officers to identify space and capacity under the caps and to identify vulnerable people for those flights. The second avenue we have is through some of the jurisdictions offering to take a cohort of Australians above the cap, and that's where we might be able to put an additional number of vulnerable Australians onto scheduled commercial flights to other destinations.

Senator RICE: How many in that category are we looking at?

Dr Webster : How many in the category of above the caps?

Senator RICE: Yes.

Dr Webster : The Prime Minister announced just on Friday that we had agreement from the ACT to take 150 additional passengers above the cap every 16 to 18 days. The Northern Territory, as you know, has agreed to the 500 passengers per 16 to 18 days. Queensland has agreed to 150 arrivals per week into Queensland, following the Queensland state election. South Australia has agreed to 100 arrivals every 14 to 16 days into Adelaide. Western Australia has agreed to 140 per week into Perth. All of that creates additional capacity above the caps that we can then use to prioritise vulnerable Australians.

Senator RICE: Is it your expectation that all of the vulnerable Australians that you know of—that your consulates and posts have been talking to you about—will be able to be home in the near future?

Dr Webster : We're trying as hard as we can to get as many of them home as possible by Christmas. Some of these people are in very remote parts of the world. I can't promise you that each and every single one of them will get home, but the capacity that has opened up and that the Prime Minister announced last Friday would bring home an additional 4,800 Australians before Christmas. We're very hopeful that we can bring home a very good number before Christmas.

Senator RICE: But it is likely that there will still be considerable numbers of Australians, including vulnerable Australians, who will be stranded?

Dr Webster : There is an ongoing effort here, and some—

Senator RICE: Yes, but can we cut to the chase, because I'm short on time. What you are telling me is that there will be Australians, including vulnerable Australians, who will still be stranded overseas at Christmas time?

Dr Webster : We will do our very best to get as many of them home as possible.

Senator RICE: I'll read that as a yes. I want to move on to Julian Assange. What communications have the minister and/or DFAT had with the US this year to raise concerns about Julian Assange's case?

Mr Wilcock : Speaking for DFAT, I would need to take that on advice. Speaking for the minister, I'm aware that Julian Assange has come up in conversation, but I should leave that to the minister.

Senator RICE: Okay. Minister?

Senator Payne: We have raised the situation of Mr Assange with both Foreign Secretary Raab and Secretary of State Pompeo. Our High Commissioner to the UK is engaged on this matter with the UK government, with the governor of Her Majesty's Prison Belmarsh, with senior officials and with the Secretary of State for Justice in relation to Mr Assange's situation, particularly to assure ourselves as to the conditions under which he is being held. In relation to the Secretary of State, I have indicated Australia's views in terms of the importance of appropriate legal process. I did that recently in person in Washington in July.

Senator RICE: In terms of the department, could you take on notice the detailed list of when this matter was raised in 2020.

Mr Wilcock : Yes.

Senator Payne: We will also provide you with details of our offers in relation to consular assistance for Mr Assange as well.

Senator RICE: That would be good. Thank you. Minister—and the department—I assume that you were aware of comments by the US Secretary of State Pompeo in April 2017, stating that Mr Assange wouldn't be protected by any US [inaudible]?

Senator Payne: I'm sorry; I didn't hear the end of your question.

Senator RICE: That Mr Assange would not be protected by any US first amendment rights.

Senator Payne: I'm aware that comments have been made by a number of officials, frankly. I don't have that specific one if front of me, but I'm familiar with the issue you raise.

Senator RICE: There was a speech by Secretary of State Pompeo in April of that year, saying that he would not be protected by US freedoms. Are you aware that this was confirmed by US prosecutors in evidence before the hearing?

Senator Payne: I'm not specifically aware. Officials may have further comment to make in relation to the hearing. I have received briefings on the hearing process as they have occurred. I don't have that particular matter in front of mind, but Mr Wilcock may have more he wishes to add.

Mr Wilcock : No, I'm not specifically aware either.

Senator RICE: It's very serious. You haven't raised that with the US government—the breach of his rights in the US?

Senator Payne: I've indicated to you the broad nature of my most recent conversation with Secretary Pompeo on this matter.

Senator RICE: What response did you get from Secretary Pompeo in your discussion?

Senator Payne: Secretary Pompeo listened to me with courtesy and acknowledged my point, as I would expect.

Senator RICE: Thank you. I'd like to confirm the public reporting about Julian Assange's recent trial—that Australia House reserved three seats at the trial but then didn't attend?

Mr Wilcock : We're aware of those reports. I can confirm to you that a representative of the Australian High Commission was present at each day of the recent hearing.

Senator RICE: So those reports are incorrect then?

Senator Payne: That's correct. They are incorrect.

Mr Wilcock : A single representative—one per day—was present at each day of the extradition hearing.

Senator RICE: But the other two weren't used, which then prevented others from monitoring the trial.

Mr Wilcock : I'm not aware that it prevented others from attending the trial, but I can confirm that the Australian High Commission was represented by an officer on each day of the hearing.

Senator RICE: The reporting was that those three seats weren't used. You're telling me that one person was there, and it appears that the other two seats probably weren't used, which—again, the reporting was that this prevented others from attending the trial in person [inaudible] videoconferencing.

Mr Wilcock : I'm aware of those reports. I can confirm we were represented by one person each day. I am not aware of what took place with the two seats referred to in the media reports.

Senator RICE: Could you follow that up for me?

Mr Wilcock : I can take that on notice, yes.

Senator RICE: Was there anyone in Australia monitoring proceedings? Or was that left to London?

Mr Wilcock : As a matter of course, officials in consular division follow those proceedings, challenging though it is in real time because of the time difference and reporting delays. But we received faithfully every day an account of the day's proceedings by the time we reported for business the following morning.

Senator RICE: Minister, how often were you being briefed on the trial?

Senator Payne: Regularly.

Senator RICE: Daily?

Senator Payne: I would take it on notice to confirm whether it was every day, but certainly it was regularly throughout the process. That probably amounted to daily, yes.

Senator RICE: When was DFAT made aware of the new third and replacement indictment that was issued by the US Department of Justice?

Mr Wilcock : We were of course aware of the indictment. I would need to take on notice when precisely we became aware of the—to which indictment are you referring? The subsequent—

Senator RICE: The third. The latest one. Basically a new indictment. There was a press release about it on 24 June.

Mr Wilcock : Yes.

Senator RICE: Was the department aware of it before then? Or were you aware of it by via press release?

Mr Wilcock : I'm aware of two sets of indictments. The first is under the US Espionage Act, and the subsequent indictment relating to cyberintrusion. I would need to get back to you on when precisely we became aware of those indictments. It would have been at the time, if not immediately after those indictments.

Senator RICE: I am told that that third indictment was after all the deadlines had been set by the court for submission of documents, well after the defence had submitted all of its arguments, and that it wasn't properly served to the court until 16 August. Was DFAT aware that Mr Assange would need to be rearrested on the new indictment, and that this would take place prior to the [inaudible] September hearing commencing?

Mr Wilcock : I would need to take that on notice.

Senator RICE: Did reports by Australian officials from Mr Assange [inaudible] that Mr Assange had extremely limited contact with his lawyers and no face-to-face meetings in the six months preceding the hearing?

Mr Wilcock : On the second point you raise, on face-to-face meetings, we are aware of challenges in the UK prison system, as we have been confronting challenges around the world, on access to prisoners for consular business during the pandemic. As I understand it, that's equally true of Belmarsh Prison, where Mr Assange is held. Can I ask you to repeat the first part, because the transmission broke up.

Senator RICE: It was basically related to, not just face-to-face meetings, but in general that he had extremely limited contact with his lawyers in the six months proceeding the hearing.

Mr Wilcock : I think that rightly is a question for Mr Assange's lawyers. We are aware that Mr Assange does have contact with his lawyers, including obviously very recently in the course of the extradition hearing. I can confirm that we, through the Australian High Commission, have advocated that Mr Assange should have predictable and regular access to his lawyers. But on the frequency I would refer you to Mr Assange's lawyers.

Senator RICE: What I'm wanting to know is whether you, the department, informed the minister that that was the situation; whether your officials knew that was the case and then informed DFAT and the minister about Mr Assange's very limited contact with his lawyers.

Mr Wilcock : I can check the record on that for you and come back to you, ideally today.

Senator Payne: If I may make it very clear, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in pursuit of its consular obligations, has written to Mr Assange on 16 occasions offering consular assistance, from 25 June and in July, August, October and November 2019; in January twice, in March twice, in April, in May twice, in June twice, in July and in September this year. None of those communications have received a response from Mr Assange or from his legal team. We continue to raise, as DFAT officials have done, as Mr Wilcock has indicated, as I indicated, our interests and any concerns in relation to matters concerning Mr Assange with both the UK government and the governor of the prison. On 13 June 2019 Mr Assange withdrew consent for us to consult with Belmarsh Prison about his personal circumstances, his health and welfare in prison. We're obliged to respect that request. This material has been placed on the record before, if I remember correctly, by the head of the consular and crisis division at the previous estimates. As I said, High Commissioner Brandis continues to seek and receive assurances in relation to Mr Assange's conditions of detention, including access to a full prison regime of medical support, including on legal access, noting, as Mr Wilcock has said, the issues around COVID-19 that have been taken in the UK prison system.

Senator RICE: Thank you, Minister. As you know and I know, Mr Assange has his reasons as to why he's refusing consular assistance.

Senator Payne: You may, Senator.

Senator RICE: I will move on. Have you or the department received reports from Mr [inaudible] referring to Mr Assange's physical and mental health, including testimony from medical professionals that he is at very high risk of suicide and has drafted farewell letters and drawn up a will?

Mr Wilcock : We're aware, as you would be, of the public reports on this in the course of Mr Assange's extradition hearing. You would know, as we do, that there were a number of witnesses who spoke about Mr Assange's health and welfare. The withdrawal of consent by Mr Assange for us to access information about his health and welfare and advocate for it restricts the way in which we can deal with the UK authorities on these matters. But when we receive or see reports in the media about Mr Assange's health and welfare, we do reach out to the UK authorities, including recently to Belmarsh Prison, to ask in general terms about their protocols relating to, for example, COVID-19 or mental health. They reply in general terms.

Senator RICE: I want to return to the issues in the US. Have you been informed, either by Australia House or elsewhere, that Australian lawyer Jennifer Robinson testified that she witnessed an offer of a pardon deal by President Trump in exchange for revealing the source of the 2016 election publications, a deal that Assange refused; and after he refused that, that was when he was indicted by the administration?

Mr Wilcock : I would need to take that on notice. I'm very happy to speak to the consular dimensions of our interests in Mr Assange's case.

Senator RICE: What I want to know, again just briefly, is whether you are aware, whether you have been informed of that testimony?

Mr Wilcock : I personally am not aware, no.

CHAIR: Senator Wong has a quick supplementary.

Senator WONG: If you're not aware—I understand that that report is public. Is there no-one in the department who can answer Senator Rice's question, rather than just saying, 'I don't know about it'? There's been a public allegation; it's been referred to; is there no-one who can respond to the senator?

CHAIR: By the sound of it, no.

Mr Wilcock : I'm not aware, no.

Senator RICE: I'm able to table that testimony if that's possible, obviously remotely. I can email to it the secretariat. Were you informed from the hearing of the testimony by employees of the Spanish company UC Global, who explained that they were engaged by US intelligence to spy upon the privileged legal meetings between Assange and his legal team, including Australian citizens Jennifer Robinson and [inaudible]?

Mr Wilcock : We're aware of those reports. But those are legal matters for the parties directly involved.

Senator RICE: So you were informed of them. Minister, were you informed of those?

Senator Payne: By way of public reporting.

Senator RICE: So not officially through Australia House to DFAT, through to you? Was it reported to you—either DFAT or you, Minister—that these employees testified that they were privy to discussions and plans by US intelligence agencies relating to the kidnapping or poisoning of Julian Assange?

Senator Payne: By way of public report, as I said.

Senator RICE: So no formal reporting to you? Isn't this of some concern, that Julian Assange is an Australian citizen, who they're reporting that there are discussions about kidnapping him and poisoning him, and there is no formal briefing of you about that?

Senator Payne: Senator, I would not discuss intelligence matters in this context in any case. However, this is a matter before the court, a continuing matter before the court. You are asking a number of questions to which the officials have provided—

Senator RICE: I'm not asking you to breach any confidences or anything that's before the court. All I want to know is whether you were briefed on these issues?

Senator Payne: I have said I wouldn't discuss the nature of those sorts of briefs.

Senator RICE: But whether you were briefed on these very serious issues? That's a pretty straightforward—

Senator Payne: I don't have anything to add.

Senator RICE: I'm also able to table that testimony. I'll get that emailed to the secretariat as well.

CHAIR: If you could, and then we will check it out before tabling.

Senator RICE: Is DFAT aware that there are more than 160 current and former world leaders, including 13 former heads of state, seven current and former Australian parliamentarians, including myself, who wrote to the UK Prime Minister, the secretary of state, the Home Secretary and secretary of justice outlining legal and legislative reasons against Mr Assange's extradition?

Mr Wilcock : I'm aware of that correspondence, yes, in general terms.

Senator RICE: Is it given any sense of importance or significance? Again, I can provide a copy for tabling, basically if you need to be more aware of the level of activity and concern, including by heads and state and 160 members of parliament around the world advocating for Julian Assange because of the deficiencies of the Australian government?

Mr Wilcock : Thank you, Senator. Yes, I'm aware of that correspondence and respectful of course of the public interest and public prominence of this case. For me and for DFAT, Mr Assange is a consular client—a prominent consular client, yes, but nonetheless. We continue to offer him, as we offer to Australians in need overseas, consular assistance to the fullest of our capacity.

Senator RICE: But you're not publicly advocating to stop his extradition to the US. That is what so many people around the world would like to see the Australian government do.

Mr Wilcock : That process is currently before a UK court, and I won't comment or be seen to prejudge the outcome of that process. What I can say is that we're focused on the health and welfare of Mr Assange to the best of our ability and respecting, of course, Mr Assange's preferences.

Senator RICE: His preference is not to be extradited to the United States. If you're focused on his health and wellbeing, I think putting a stop to that would be the absolute number one thing, with any concern about his health and wellbeing. Thank you, Chair.

Mr Wilcock : Thank you, Senator Rice. We will take that as a concluding comment.

Senator WONG: First I want to go to the call between Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Johnson. I'm going to provide you with a copy—we can table it or I can simply provide it and ask questions on it, Chair—the copy of the official readout from the United Kingdom and a copy of the readout which has been distributed to journalists from the Prime Minister's office.

CHAIR: Minister, are you aware—

Senator WONG: She wouldn't be aware. I'm providing you with them now. They are all on—

CHAIR: We can have a look.

Senator WONG: Whilst the committee is committee the tabling of those, I'm going to just ask some questions about the process by which readouts from the Prime Minister's conversation were prepared. How were they prepared? I'll start that again. The UK issue a readout or a public statement on their website. Tell me, on this occasion, who prepared this readout, which was provided to journalists, from the Australian side?

Senator Payne: That is this one you're referring to?

Senator WONG: Yes. The small font.

Senator Payne: That would have been produced between PM and C and the Prime Minister's office. That would be my—

Senator WONG: Perhaps you can take notice whether PM and C had any involvement in the production of it, or whether it was only produced in the Prime Minister's office. If you could take that on notice—

Senator Payne: I will take it on notice.

Senator WONG: I would appreciate it if we could come back to that after lunch, if possible. It would normally be the case, would it not, Secretary, that—I think I've asked you for readouts before and you have told me I wasn't allowed to have them.

Ms Adamson : That doesn't sound like me, Senator.

Senator WONG: It sounds like you occasionally! You do it politely.

Senator Payne: The Secretary is very helpful!

Senator WONG: You are helpful, but only to a point!

Ms Adamson : The content of readouts or the process by which readouts are conveyed to—

Senator WONG: No, no. Are readouts made public generally?

Ms Adamson : It depends very much on the nature of the call and the agreement between leaders. Often leaders and, indeed, ministers will agree that they will provide readouts. Some of our partners do on a very regular basis; some not so.

Senator WONG: It is not the practice of this Australian government, the Morrison government, to provide readouts of leaders' calls as matter of course, is it?

Ms Adamson : Not as a matter of course. However, I would say that where we are dealing with another party—the Japanese being one, for example, who regularly do it—we would often do something, if you like, to match that or as a counterpart piece.

Senator WONG: I would ask you on notice—you might have to liaise with P—to provide me with all the public readouts of leaders' calls that the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, has engaged in this year?

Ms Adamson : That is really a question for PM and C.

Senator WONG: I am sure you can make sure that they provide it. I'm asking you on notice.

Senator Payne: We will take it on notice.

Senator WONG: Thank you. But please don't give me something back saying, 'This is a matter for PM and C.' People can pick up a phone and ask them to provide it and refer it to the department—okay? They have already been—

Ms Adamson : We will do that.

Senator WONG: Thank you. We had them last week. And you'll tell me whether or not PM and C had any involvement or any note-takers, any involvement in preparing the readout? Did you know this had been provided to journalists, Minister?

Senator Payne: Yes, I was aware that information would be provided in response, if for no other reason, in response to media.

Senator WONG: So as a result of the media this morning, which essentially said that the Morrison government is increasingly isolated on climate—Prime Minister Johnson made that clear—

Senator Payne: That's your interpretation.

Senator WONG: I think that's a pretty clear readout. Whether or not you agree with it, Minister, I think that's what the media was saying. In response to the stories this morning, was there a discussion with the PMO about putting out a readout?

Senator Payne: I didn't have that discussion.

Senator WONG: So how did you become aware that a readout was going to be issued?

Senator Payne: I'm not saying it was a readout per se. I'm saying it was in response to media requests.

Senator WONG: How did you become aware that this document was going to be provided to the media?

Senator Payne: My office provided me with a copy.

Senator WONG: When did you see a copy?

Senator Payne: This morning.

Senator WONG: And it was your understanding that because Mr Morrison's office thought the stories were not accurate, this readout would be provided?

Senator Payne: Senator, I'm not going to try to assume what was in the minds of others—

Senator WONG: No; I asked for your understanding.

Senator Payne: about the readout being provided. Of course, because the issue was a matter of public comment today and because you and I were coming here for several enjoyable hours together with our friends and colleagues, it was appropriate for that to be given to me.

Senator WONG: But that's about why it was given to you. Why did you understand it was being put out?

Senator Payne: I said in response to media inquiries. There is often a statement made after calls with foreign leaders. You have asked the secretary for others, and I have taken it on notice to provide you with the information as I am able to.

Senator WONG: It's not always the case. There have been quite a number of occasions where government has resisted providing any information about a call. But on this occasion you were happy to put something out. Did your office help draft this?

Senator Payne: Not that I'm aware of.

Senator WONG: Did you see a draft before it went out?

Senator Payne: No, Senator, and I was not expecting to. I was not part of the phone call.

Senator WONG: Are you aware of any discussions between political staffers about the content of this?

Senator Payne: Not specifically, but I would say that my office and the Prime Minister's office are in regular contact about a host of foreign policy issues every day.

Senator WONG: I'm suggesting to you that this so-called readout was prepared in the Prime Minister's office in order to try and avert a story that the government didn't like.

Senator Payne: Senator, I would dispute that, and I would say that the readout—if that's what it is called; it doesn't have an annotation on it—was prepared for the purposes of describing the Prime Minister's phone call with Prime Minister Johnson, which was a very good and positive call, and, in fact, begins by saying it was a warm discussion with Prime Minister Johnson last night. And that's what I would expect.

Senator WONG: Sure. But there are significant differences in the two readouts.

Senator Payne: I don't agree, Senator.

Senator WONG: Have you read the UK readout?

Senator Payne: It is right here in front of me. There's a lovely picture of Downing Street.

Senator WONG: The UK readout says: 'Prime Minister Johnson stressed we need bold action on climate change and he emphasised the importance of setting ambitious targets to cut emissions and reach net zero.' There is no reference to zero, there is no reference to bold action, and there's no reference to ambitious targets in the Prime Minister's readout. What the Prime Minister's staff in this readout have written is: 'Mr Johnson welcomed our significant increase in the emissions reductions program announced at the budget and strongly endorsed our focus on unlocking practical pathways to reduce emissions.' Where in Mr Johnson's readout is there any reference to a strong endorsement of Australia's 'focus on unlocking practical pathways to reducing emissions'?

Senator Payne: To be clear, I don't think it's reasonable at all for you to expect me to interpret between the lines of the government of the United Kingdom's—

Senator WONG: They say different things. One talks about net zero—

CHAIR: Senator Wong, allow the minister to finish on this occasion.

Senator WONG: That's true. One talks about net zero and the other completely ignores it.

CHAIR: No; allow the minister to finish.

Senator Payne: One is the Australia's statement and one is the United Kingdom's statement.

Senator WONG: Mr Johnson talks about the importance of net zero. That somehow was airbrushed from Mr Morrison's readout. Do we just pretend they didn't raise it?

Senator Payne: I am skim-reading this again very quickly as we sit here. Our Prime Minister's readout also refers to 'response to the COVID-19 challenge'. Prime Minister Johnson's readout does not refer to the response to the COVID-19 challenge, but I'm not about to suggest that that means that Prime Minister Johnson's readout is somehow not adequate or not an accurate representation.

Senator WONG: Come on! This is a key difference between your government and the Conservative government in the United Kingdom—that is, they have endorsed a net zero target, as has Japan, and your government has not. What I'm suggesting to you is that the reason the Prime Minister's office drafted a readout which excluded reference to that is because you're embarrassed at how isolated you actually are.

Senator Payne: I absolutely dispute that. This government has made it crystal clear that we are absolutely committed to the Paris agreement. We're meeting the pledges we have made through that agreement. We are taking real and practical action, which includes, within the Paris agreement and within our commitment to that, the goal of limiting global emissions to net zero in the second half of the century. We're committed to the implementation of the Boe Declaration and the Kainaki II Declaration—both of which recognise the strategic and economic threat that climate change poses to our region and both of which call on countries to take action to address those challenges.

You are glossing over the commitments that we have made in the budget in relation to future technologies to lower emissions and support jobs now and into the future, to cut costs for households, to improve the reliability of our energy supply, and also our technology investment roadmap—all of which are referred to in the summary sentence at the end of this readout: 'strongly endorsed our focus on unlocking practical pathways to reduce emissions'.

Senator WONG: Which is not reflected in what the UK have said.

Senator Payne: Senator, really!

Senator WONG: Yes, really.

Senator Payne: The COVID-19 challenges referred to in Prime Minister Morrison's statement—

CHAIR: Whilst you are talking over each other, can I deal with a procedural issue?

Senator WONG: You are isolated and you are trying to put out fake readouts.

Senator Payne: The COVID-19 challenge is not referred to in Prime Minister Johnson's statement. Are you going to tell me that that means that Prime Minister Johnson's statement is misleading the people of the UK?

Senator WONG: Oh, for goodness sake!

Senator Payne: That's what you are asserting.

Senator WONG: What a strawman argument!

CHAIR: First of all, we are talking about a document that has still not been tabled.

Senator Payne: That's what you were asserting.

Senator WONG: On net zero, you are isolated, and you are basically putting out readouts that—

CHAIR: Minister and Senator, would you mind, please. We are dealing with a procedural issue quickly, and that is the document that was presented by Senator Wong. Is it agreed that it can be tabled?

Senator Payne: Yes, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you. It is so tabled.

Senator WONG: Thank you.

Senator Payne: Well, it is by us.

CHAIR: Now having restored some order, let's try to—

Senator WONG: Would you like to finish what you were saying, Minister?

Senator Payne: I was going to say that, having referred to the Paris agreement and our commitment to that, including the goal to limit global emissions to net zero in the second half of the century, is indicative, descriptive, of our commitment. And I think the material which the Prime Minister has focused on his readout and the material the Prime Minister of the UK has focused on in his readout are both appropriate for the Prime Ministers.

Senator WONG: Yes, because we certainly wouldn't want to actually remind people just how isolated we are in the refusal to commit to net zero! But anyway—

Senator Payne: We could talk about 2030 targets for a while if you like. I don't think you've managed to focus on a 2030 target yourselves.

CHAIR: Let's move on.

Senator WONG: The last time I looked, we weren't in government. You're in government.

CHAIR: That's a reassuring thought.

Senator Payne: And we are very clear about our commitment to the Paris agreement and the goals that we are committed to on—

Senator WONG: No amount of words, no amounts of adjectives and no amount of 'crystal clear' and 'absolutely committed' can hide the fact that your government is increasingly isolated internationally on climate.

Senator Payne: Well, Senator, we are looking forward to participating very constructively in the COP.

Senator WONG: See—more words.

Senator Payne: And we backed the UK in taking on the hosting of the COP as well.

Senator WONG: Really?

Senator Payne: Yes, Senator.

Senator WONG: This is your big contribution to international climate—we backed the UK in hosting the COP!

Senator Payne: No; that's not what I said. You're completely misrepresenting what I said.

Senator WONG: How about actually putting up a national target and getting in line with a target that even your counterparts in the United Kingdom, a Conservative government led by Mr Johnson, is endorsing?

Senator Payne: We have a very clear plan, and it doesn't involve taxing Australians further.

Senator WONG: Oh, here we go! So you don't actually want to do anything.

Senator Payne: I know you don't want to hear that, Senator, but that is a very important part of this.

Senator WONG: I'm moving on.

CHAIR: Let's go back to questions relating to the portfolio.

Senator Payne: That is a very important part of this. You have to be clear about how much you want to tax Australians, Senator.

Senator WONG: Really? This is what you are going to do!

CHAIR: Questions please.

Senator Payne: I think editorial is to be expected, Chair.

CHAIR: It is to be expected but not encouraged. My role is to discourage it.

Senator WONG: Have you asked Mr Johnson that, Minister? Why don't you go to an international conference and run that sort of scare campaign with all our counterparts and like-mindeds—like the United Kingdom and Japan. Is that how you talk to the new Suga Administration? Do you talk to them about taxes?

Senator Payne: In every international engagement, Australia participates—

Senator WONG: You can't decide whether you're constructive or running a fear campaign.

CHAIR: Senator, you asked a question. Please allow the minister to answer.

Senator Payne: and responsibly.

CHAIR: Moving right along.

Senator WONG: You can't work out whether you're running a scare campaign or you're trying to be constructive.

Senator Payne: I know exactly, Senator. I'm not the one confused about the 2030 target, for example.

Senator WONG: Is that the best you can do? Goodness! Okay; I want to go back to the issue of stranded Australians. I wonder if Dr Webster could come to the table.

Ms Adamson : While Dr Webster comes to the table, could I please clarify evidence we gave in the first session regarding the number of female passengers aboard the Qatar Airlines flight. The total number of female passengers on the flight was 18. Thirteen of them were Australian and five were of other nationalities—just to be really clear about that. I think you were but—

Senator WONG: I was aware and I thought a couple of parts of that evidence were not correct in terms of what I had been advised, but I thought it was better for—

Ms Adamson : Thank you—just to be absolutely clear.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, you have the call.

Senator WONG: Thank you. I know Senator Rice asked some questions. I try not to re-cover topics, but I am going to have to re-cover some of them. I got a figure from your colleagues in PM&C last week that the number of stranded Australians seeking to return home was 32,300. Is that still the figure or has that been updated?

Dr Webster : As you know, that number changes daily. As at yesterday, approximately 34,000 have expressed a wish to return.

Senator WONG: Let's be clear. The number of people who are overseas is obviously substantially more than that. That was the number of people who have expressed to DFAT, via a registration process, that they wish to return home. Whilst these estimates have been going, since the estimates involving Prime Minister and Cabinet, the number has risen by about 2,000.

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator WONG: So it keeps going the wrong way.

Dr Webster : It keeps going up. That's right.

Senator WONG: I want to go through a bit of chronology here because I think it's quite illuminating. The Prime Minister, on 8 July—and I'd say it was a reasonably critical statement—said:

There's been many opportunities for people to return. If they're choosing to do so now they've obviously delayed that decision for a period.

The department, I assume, is aware from engaging—as my office has and as members of parliament and senators have—with many people who have contacted our offices that many people didn't choose to delay a decision to come home. That's correct, isn't it?

Dr Webster : I would describe there could be essentially three waves in this crisis, and we're currently in the third. The cohorts of Australians that we've been supporting to return have changed in profile over that time. The first wave was really the evacuation phase, where we had the two flights from Wuhan and one from Yokohama, where we rescued people, if you like, from epicentres of the COVID crisis. Obviously, that changed as the pandemic was declared in early March, and the people who returned home at that time and through to the end of June essentially were more in the short-term traveller cohort—tourists; people who had gone over for six to eight weeks or thereabouts. But the cohort that—

Senator WONG: Sorry—what was your moniker for the second wave?

Dr Webster : Short-term travellers, tourists.

Senator Payne: It is hard to put a single category on it.

Senator WONG: I understand that.

Dr Webster : That's a broad sense of the people that we advised to return home, should they wish to do so, on 17 March. There were some people who were overseas at that time who had networks in place. They had jobs and they had a longer term plan. They did not think that the crisis would last for as long as it did.

Senator WONG: Yes. We have people who tried to return home and weren't able for a range of reasons, including cancellation of flights and the market—meaning that, from some locations, there were no flights for a long period of time. There were people who were subject to local lockdowns who couldn't then get to wherever flights were. That is, they couldn't leave the location they were, and India and South America were two examples of that. There were people who were subject to local border closures. Most people overseas have been in a situation where they have had repeated cancelled flights. Many of them are waiting for refunds for those flights and have had to rebook and pay for other flights before they got refunds for earlier flights. They have been in very difficult financial positions. There are a whole range of reasons, so I'm struggling to understand why the Prime Minister would assert to the Australian people that people had 'delayed' their decision to return?

Ms Adamson : Dr Webster got through two of her three phases—

Dr Webster : I did.

Ms Adamson : I'd probably let her come to the third. But she put her finger on it in response to what you just said. There was a cohort of Australians who didn't think that the injunction to return, if I can put it that way, applied to them because they were, then, at that stage, in circumstances, which as Dr Webster said, were reasonably stable regarding their lives, their accommodation, their jobs and their broad circumstances. Perhaps that had to do with the expected longevity or otherwise of the pandemic or their sense of security around themselves. But we had a very strong sense as a department around that time that there was a whole cohort of Australians—and these things are personal decisions, of course—who didn't think that that applied to them.

Senator WONG: For example, I had one person contact my office or who made a public statement. She was a nurse in the UK. She didn't think that it was the right thing to do, to leave during a pandemic, so she wanted to stay. I just wonder why it is that the Prime Minister would make the suggestion, and I think it was a very clear implication, that somehow, these Australians are to blame—that they delayed their decisions and they shouldn't have?

Ms Adamson : These always come down to personal choices. From the department's perspective, we were doing everything we could to amplify the message that the minister gave and that the government was giving at that time. Ultimately, of course, they were decisions for Australians. We respect them and we're now helping a number who decided then not to return and who now want to. That's one of the reasons the number continues to increase, as you pointed out.

Senator WONG: Sure. But I put to you that the assertion of the Prime Minister on 8 July, 'There have been many opportunities for people to return,' is not based on fact. The reality is—

Senator Payne: Senator—

Senator WONG: If I can finish—

Senator Payne: Yes, sorry.

Senator WONG: We all know—and we had a discussion in the previous estimates around the first wave—what happened to the commercial aviation market. There were not many opportunities for people to return. There were people who were desperate to come home through that period but who did not have the opportunity to return because there were no commercial flights.

Senator Payne: I was going to say that I don't see this in any way as being the Prime Minister apportioning blame to individuals. Dr Webster and the secretary are quite correct: people make their own decisions—please let me finish—

Senator WONG: I was just shaking my head. I wasn't going to say anything.

Senator Payne: based on their personal circumstances, including circumstances such as the ones you outlined. But to give you a numerical indication—which I think is quite telling—of the numbers of Australians that were able to return, notwithstanding some of the difficulties that you identified, between 13 March and the beginning of July, when circumstances here changed considerably in terms of incoming flights, over 351,000 Australian citizens and PRs had returned to Australia. Part of that was our assistance in getting access for a number of them to those flights, which we referred to before and which Dr Webster referred to. Eighty-eight per cent of Australians who had returned did so before those issues began to arise in July. They were able to do that.

Senator WONG: I don't want to spend time, but the flights the government put on were only put into place after there was significant media pressure to do so.

Senator Payne: Which flights?

Senator WONG: The ones prior to the caps being put on.

Senator Payne: That's not correct.

Senator WONG: Anyway, I think that that is clear and I think Australians who have been watching this know it is not true.

Senator Payne: The evidence does not bear that out at all in terms of the arrangements made between the Australian government and carriers in various places around the world, between the efforts of—

Senator WONG: It's—

Senator Payne: Let me just finish, because I do think that that is an unfair reflection, actually.

Senator WONG: I won't be able to give you any time before 12:30.

Senator Payne: I do think that that is an unfair assessment and a reflection on the work that has been done in a number of posts in particular. I know it's invidious of me to pick a couple but I'm going to. At posts like Kathmandu, a number of posts in South America, the Philippines, South Africa—I referred to this briefly in my opening statement—a lot of work was done by heads of mission, personally, and by their teams, to bring Australians from the most obscure parts of various countries of South America, Nepal, South Africa and the Philippines in particular as well in very difficult circumstances, to ensure that people were able to get on to those flights, and I don't think that your reflection was fair.

Senator WONG: I want to make it very clear: I have no criticism of the many DFAT officers, especially those on post who work very hard. I am deeply critical of the government's delay in response, just so we're clear. I put to you that what's indicative in the Prime Minister's answer is an attitude that is 'well, people delayed and should have come home'. I'll put to you Senator Birmingham's comments just a few days later: 'If you wanted to come back you should have already come back in most circumstances.' Is that an indication of the government's decision—that really, the people who were still overseas when you announced the caps should have made a decision to come home? So it's their fault, essentially?

Senator Payne: No, it's not about apportioning blame.

Senator WONG: So why did Senator Birmingham say that?

Senator Payne: It's not about apportioning blame. It's being very clear about the advice that the government did provide on 17—

Senator WONG: Why did Mr Birmingham say that then?

Senator Payne: I'm explaining the government's view. On 17 March, we made very considered, very important statements advising Australians to return, because we were deeply concerned about the potential in the coming months, as we have actually seen come to fruition, for what it would look like in the international environment to try to move around. So that's why we made the statements on 17 March. They were emphatic—

Senator WONG: I'm asking about the statements on 13 July.

Senator Payne: and clear.

Senator WONG: And on the 13 July?

Senator Payne: In July, when circumstances changed in Australia, I think the statements made by the Prime Minister, by the Minister for Trade—and I'm not sure if you have other examples there that you intend to cite—were statements largely of fact, that over 351,000 Australians and PRs had returned to Australia since 13 March, a very considerable number. A proportion of those were well assisted by my department—the teams here in CCD and in posts. I agree and endorse, and in fact, was saying before, that comments in relation to those teams are overwhelmingly positive.

Senator WONG: Was it the government's position, which is reflected in the Prime Minister and Mr Birmingham's statements, that the Australians stranded overseas, as of 13 July, should have returned home to Australia by then?

Senator Payne: The government's position was the same as the position we adopted on 17 March, and said that any Australians overseas who wanted to return home should do so as soon as possible.

Senator WONG: But that is not what the Prime Minister said—

Senator Payne: There was no different position in July than in March.

Senator WONG: That is not what they said. Senator Birmingham said, 'If you wanted to come back, you should already have come back in most circumstances.' I've already put the Prime Minister's quote to you. They did not say the same thing you have said, so I ask you again: was it the Australian government's position that those Australians stranded overseas as of 13 July should have returned home by then?

Senator Payne: I've already said, it's not about, as you appear to be asserting, apportioning blame. It's about—

Senator WONG: I'm not the one apportioning blame.

Senator Payne: reiterating the advice—

Senator WONG: It's your government apportioning blame, your cabinet colleagues.

Senator Payne: I'm refuting that and I don't agree with you. I am saying that the minister, the Prime Minister, were reinforcing the very clear advice that we gave to Australians on 17 March.

Senator WONG: Which is not what they said. It's not what the Prime Minister said and it's not what Senator Birmingham said. It is the case, isn't it, that India was in a state, not necessarily complete, but there was a substantial amount of lockdown and travel restrictions in the months leading up to July?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator WONG: South Africa also had significant internal restrictions and lockdown in the months leading up to July?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator WONG: Similarly Peru?

Dr Webster : Yes.

Senator WONG: Similarly the Philippines?

Dr Webster : Yes.

CHAIR: Similarly in Victoria, denying international flights coming into Victoria?

Dr Webster : That occurred on or around 30 June, that Melbourne went into lockdown. They chose to close their international airport to international arrivals.

CHAIR: Did that restrict our capacity to take—

Dr Webster : Absolutely.

Senator WONG: Everything is Dan's fault, isn't it? That's really fantastic. We're all in this together.

CHAIR: Seeing that you're seeking to apportion blame, I thought I might come in and assist in that regard.

Senator WONG: I'm not the Prime Minister of the country saying that people should have returned home before now. People overseas heard that and they understood what it meant. It reflected his view about it. I think that it affected the extent to which, at the senior levels of government, this was given urgent attention.

Senator Payne: I disagree, Senator.

Senator WONG: We're at 34,000 now and it keeps going up. Are you aware of an example where Australians stranded in Guatemala were advised by DFAT to cross the land border into Mexico overnight because of their curfews in place in order to get a flight home?

Dr Webster : I'm not aware of that personally, but I can take it on notice.

Senator WONG: I think it was passed on, but anyway. The reality is that there were many locations in the world where, even if people had made the decision to come home—and many did—they could not get to where they needed to in order to get out. That's correct, isn't it?

Dr Webster : It is, although I should say that the minister is quite right that our posts around the world made extraordinary efforts to get people from very remote locations in a number of countries. That won't have got everybody.

Senator WONG: I appreciate that. I'm making a point about what the Prime Minister of the country and a senior cabinet minister said, which is that people should have returned home. Many people could not return home before the caps were put in place. And many people tried. Do you agree with that?

Dr Webster : I think there are a number of obstacles for many people around the world.

Senator WONG: Mr Kelly—he agrees with you on climate, which is surprising given that you're a moderate, but anyway—says he wrote to a constituent—

Senator Payne: Mr Craig Kelly?

Senator WONG: Yes.

CHAIR: The member for Hughes.

Senator WONG: Sorry, I didn't know which seat he was a member for.

Senator Payne: I know very well he's the member for Hughes, don't worry. It's just in the Shire. We know all the seats in the Shire.

Senator WONG: I'm from South Australia!

Senator AYRES: He's only the member because the Prime Minister intervened to save his preselection, I think.

CHAIR: He's the member because the people of Hughes overwhelmingly re-elected him.

Senator WONG: His views on climate and hydroxychloroquine are pretty good! I understand that this is what he wrote to a constituent who was stranded in the UK and seeking help: 'I understand the stress you must be feeling. I know it's easy for me sitting here in Sydney, but try to treat the experience as one of life's big adventures. Think of past generations who were trapped overseas for years because of war. They got through it and I'm sure you will, too.' Do you agree with this advice to a constituent?

Senator Payne: You're asserting to me that this is a letter from Kelly. I'm not aware of it.

Senator WONG: I'm not lying about it.

Senator Payne: I'm not going to comment on it.

Senator WONG: No, I bet you're not.

Senator Payne: The official advice, of course, is provided through Smartraveller.

Senator WONG: People were being advised to go to homeless shelters. Do we think that that is one of life's big adventures?

Senator Payne: They're not my words.

Senator WONG: No, they're not. Let's go to a number of unfortunate events in relation to IT and what you'd call breaches of data. I note in your PBS, Secretary—I realise that this is prior to these events—in the PBS, I think the performance criterion of having fit-for-purpose and secure ICT systems is on track. As I understand it—I'm sure you're prepared for this, because it is all on the public record—on 29 July our embassy in Colombia forwarded a sensitive and private email from a concerned citizen to more than 300 Australians stuck in South America. On 30 September, DFAT released the personal email addresses of 2,727 Australians stranded overseas. And last week DFAT released the personal email addresses of Australians stranded in France. So that is a third data breach. After 30 September a subsequent email sent to those affected stated, 'I want to assure you the department takes privacy and the handling of personal information very seriously. We've reviewed our internal processes and have taken measures to ensure such mistakes do not happen again.' Secretary, can you tell me what measures were put in place after the first breach?

Ms Adamson : Let me state at the outset that obviously we do take this very seriously. I mentioned in my opening statement shortcomings, and this area has certainly been one of them. Mr Newnham, who is broadly responsible within the department for ensuring that we adhere to our privacy obligations, can talk you through the detail. You referred to 29 July. The one that we first became aware of, if you could say that, at my level anyway, is the one that you refer to on the 30th.

Senator WONG: You weren't told about 29 July?

Ms Adamson : Not until after the 30th.

Senator WONG: Really?

Ms Adamson : These things happened back to back. I should also be clear these are not data breaches notifiably for the Information Commissioner. But we take our role very seriously and we have done so. You mentioned the PBS fit-for-purpose IT systems. We have now put in place a range of measures comprehensively, which Mr Newnham can talk you through, to address the matter. Of course that includes an IT area, because there is software which has now been installed which will prompt users sending emails to ensure that they have carefully considered BCCing or CCing or the address protocol. We did not have that in place at the beginning. This was a new situation for us.

Senator WONG: I don't want to spend too much time on this because I have limited time and I'd prefer not to have to come back to this endlessly through the day.

CHAIR: We're on a unity ticket on that!

Senator WONG: Stop asking questions about Dan Andrews then! Were there any changes, procedural protocols, put in place in response to the 29 July incident in which a private email went to 300 others?

Mr Newnham : Yes. Apart from immediately attempting to recall the email, we also developed at post and implemented new clearance protocols for group mail-outs. I might also note that I think you said in your lead-in that there were 300 email addresses copied to the 29 July email disclosure. Just to clarify: 206 email addresses were included there.

Senator WONG: It's been publicly reported as 300.

Mr Newnham : Our data shows it was 206.

Senator WONG: Was that protocol only implemented in the Bogota post, or was it implemented across the network?

Mr Newnham : It has been implemented across the network, but that occurred really after the 2,727-person email.

Senator WONG: So you basically put in place a new protocol, but only in Colombia.

Mr Newnham : That's right.

Senator WONG: And then when something else happened—

Ms Adamson : The next day.

Senator WONG: But you didn't do it everywhere else, which meant that nearly 3,000 people had their addresses—

Ms Adamson : But the time difference is involved. It was already the 30th.

Senator WONG: Secretary, I try only to go in hard when I think that I need to with department officials, and I understand that people make mistakes. But please, I don't think it's a reasonable thing to say that 'We did it the next day', when the failure to do it across the network meant you had an even worse breach the following month.

Ms Adamson : What I'm saying is that the time difference meant that we're talking about the same day. 29 July in Bogota is the 30th here. So we're talking about events on the same day. We then responded in the ways that Mr Newnham will set out.

Senator WONG: But that protocol—shall I call it a protocol? I don't mind. What do you want me to call it?

Mr Newnham : Protocol is fine.

Senator WONG: That protocol was put in place for that post but not put into effect across the network until after the personal emails of nearly 3,000 people were released.

Mr Newnham : That's right.

Senator WONG: Didn't we think that, if it happened once, it might happen again?

Ms Adamson : Because it's the same day.

Senator WONG: No, it's not.

Ms Adamson : It is the 29th.

Senator WONG: I've got 29 July and 30 September as the publicly reported dates.

Ms Adamson : Sorry; I apologise. I was thinking it was back-to-back.

Senator WONG: No; that's why I pushed back.

Ms Adamson : You are correct. I'm absolutely sorry.

Senator WONG: That I would have accepted.

CHAIR: We'll chalk that one up, Senator!

Senator WONG: No, it's all right; I'm not trying to get her!

Ms Adamson : Thank goodness for that!

Senator WONG: Can someone explain to me—didn't we think that, if it has occurred somewhere, it might happen elsewhere and that we probably should get this protocol out across the network?

Mr Newnham : I would just note that, in the course of this year particularly with previous consular events that have been handled by the department, there are very large numbers of communications going out to thousands of Australians on a regular basis.

Senator WONG: True; I accept that.

Mr Newnham : It is correct to suggest that the protocol was rolled out in Bogota first, followed by department-wide after the larger bulk email addresses were included in the email of 30 September. There are tranches of work that go on in the department to address these issues. One is the immediate response required to minimise the damage done in individual circumstances, and another is then to say: 'Alright, there are a couple of circumstances that have occurred here. What protocols do we need to add to across the network?' They include not just clearance processes and the pop-up IT analysis but also bespoke training to different parts of the department. That, I should add, builds on the mandatory training that already exists in relation to privacy. So we do have, we believe, a strong privacy culture in the department and a strong track record, including throughout the course of this year.

Senator WONG: And then there was a third breach. Was it last week?

Mr Newnham : That's correct. The third breach was on 21 October.

Senator WONG: Okay; I had the 23rd. So the protocols didn't work?

Mr Newnham : Clearly, in that circumstance, it was a very similar scenario, where a manual step that requires human judgement in a bulk exchange going out to a number of people inadvertently put email addresses in a transparent field rather than in the blind carbon copy field.

Senator WONG: I understand the technical—I'm just saying that you put in place a protocol, but then we had another breach.

Mr Newnham : Yes, that is correct. I would just note the mandatory training for all consular officers before they are posted overseas, the mandatory training across the board for all DFAT staff and the very small proportion of breaches that occur in the department.

Senator WONG: But that doesn't matter if you're one of the people whose privacy has been breached.

Mr Newnham : Absolutely.

Senator WONG: It doesn't matter if you say, 'By the way, most of the time we keep it private.' It's not a binary concept.

Mr Newnham : I want to just put on record for the committee that privacy is deeply important, and we take it very seriously in this department. We are very disappointed and are making all efforts to ensure that this does not occur in the future.

Senator WONG: When was the minister advised? In relation to the first instance, was the minister ever advised? I became aware of it, so presumably—

Senator Payne: Yes, I was advised.

Senator WONG: Did you ask the secretary or someone in the department to ensure that this matter was remedied?

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator WONG: What about after the second breach? Were you advised of that before it became public?

Senator Payne: I'm not sure of the timing, but I was certainly advised. I'd have to check on whether it was before or—

Senator WONG: Did you ever indicate to the secretary that it might be—were you advised about the protocol put in place after Colombia as a remediation step?

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator WONG: Did you ever consider that it would be a sensible thing to roll it out across the network?

Senator Payne: The secretary and I have discussed this matter in some detail, including mechanisms put in place to ensure it will not recur. That conversation is part of the engagement we've had with the secretary and with officials in terms of these issues. I certainly have apologised to those whose privacy was breached for this happening. Mr Newnham is quite right; it is not desirable and it is not something that DFAT wants to see happen. We do try to be very careful with people's personal information—and we should be.

Senator WONG: I thought that was the right thing for you to do, rather than, as some ministers do, never apologise. But I'm trying to understand whether there was a discussion with the secretary about the new protocol that the Colombian post was implementing being rolled out across the network prior to the 2,700 being breached.

Ms Adamson : Just to be really clear—and, I hope, helpful—I was not myself made aware of the breach in Bogota on 29 July. I was instantly made aware of the breach on 30 September involving a large number of people we were trying to help. At that point we doubled down on all the things we've always done, given that respecting the privacy of Australians in a very practical way is something that's very important to us, given the nature of the work that we do. It was therefore a matter of deep disappointment that it happened again, at which point we realised—in fact, I think it might have been just at the same point—we needed to look for a technical fix. We have got a lot of staff who are working very hard, who are tired and who, regrettably, have made mistakes, and we need to support them in that. We are approaching this from multiple angles. I've emailed all staff to make expectations clear, and, as the minister said, we have had discussions about this.

Senator WONG: When was your first discussion with the minister about these issues? It was only after the—

Ms Adamson : My recollection is that it was immediately after 30 September. I'd need to go back and check.

Senator WONG: So there was no discussion with the minister—it did become public, because I became aware of it—after the Colombia breach?

Ms Adamson : I was not made separately aware, through our own systems, of the Colombia breach.

Senator WONG: But there was no discussion?

Ms Adamson : We did not discuss the Colombia breach, to my recollection, but we certainly discussed—

Senator WONG: Okay. Have you identified any risks for those Australians whose information has been released?

Mr Newnham : We have gone through all three cases very carefully, using the Privacy Act as the key benchmark with the non-exhaustive list of criteria that you have to work your way through. That sounds very bureaucratic, but it's something you have to do fast and thoroughly. We have done that in all three cases. We have gone through all 2,727 email addresses to make sure there are no identifiers within those email addresses where that information could be used to raise the risk to the individuals whose email addresses have been disclosed. We have found that it is very unlikely that information contained there could be used to cause harm to anyone whose details were released.

Senator WONG: So the requests of Australians overseas to provide things like flight booking reference numbers et cetera—that is for separate reasons, not as a consequence of any risk identified as a consequence of the data breach?

Mr Newnham : No, not that I'm aware, not at all.

Senator WONG: Thank you very much for that. I will go back to Dr Webster. You're head of the task force, are you?

Dr Webster : No; Deputy Secretary Sheehan is head of the task force.

Senator WONG: Is Deputy Secretary Sheehan here?

Ms Adamson : No, he's not here. He works very closely with Dr Webster and operationalises all of this. That task force is at a band 3 level. Mr Sheehan heads that task force.

Senator WONG: So you don't want him to turn up to answer questions?

Ms Adamson : We discussed who would be best placed to appear here today. There is ongoing work—and I'm involved as well too. So I hope that we can answer any questions that you have, and I'm sure Mr Sheehan will assist us remotely, if need be.

Senator WONG: Okay. I do want to understand departmental resourcing. We have a task force headed by Mr Sheehan. This is internal to DFAT?

Ms Adamson : That's correct, although he does work closely with counterparts in agencies working on this.

Senator WONG: Sure. Of course. When was that stood up?

Dr Webster : That was 21 September.

Senator WONG: 21 September.

Dr Webster : That's right.

Senator WONG: My mother's birthday. There you go!

CHAIR: It's nice that's on the record! That's lovely!

Senator WONG: There you go, Mum; it's on the record!

Dr Webster : You'll remember it!

CHAIR: Watch the flood of cards coming her way!

Senator WONG: It's past the date. But I will remember that date now! And what led to that? I just want to know the decision-making process which led to that.

Dr Webster : The Prime Minister announced the task force that would be led by DFAT, and it really came off the back of the easing of caps across some of the jurisdictions.

Senator WONG: Right. Were you aware that the task force would be announced before it was? Sorry, were you aware of the existence of a task force before he announced it?

Dr Webster : We had already been working extremely hard throughout the months before that task force was set up as a government structure.

Senator WONG: Yes, but I didn't ask that. Did you become aware that there was going to be a taskforce when the Prime Minister announced it, or were you aware of it before? It's a direct question.

Dr Webster : I was aware that we would be expected to lead on work to bring Australians home before that.

Senator WONG: That's not my question. Can you please answer my question.

Dr Webster : The answer really—Frances.

Ms Adamson : Senator, we respond to both an expectation of what the government will do and then what it says, so we are ready to mobilise a task force at a moment's notice if one is needed.

Senator WONG: Did you know that the Prime Minister would be announcing a task force before he announced it?

Dr Webster : I didn't know that he would call it a task force.

Senator WONG: Okay. And how many people are in the task force?

Dr Webster : At the moment, there are about 114 staff in task-force teams, and that includes staff from other agencies, including Services Australia, ABF—

Senator WONG: Okay. So this is 114 from across government, which you're leading.

Dr Webster : It's largely within DFAT, but there are a few staff that we've got seconded in from other agencies: Services Australia; Infrastructure—we work with them in a virtual way, so we work very closely with them but they're not in the building; Australian Border Force; Home Affairs; and other agencies across government.

Senator WONG: How many?

Dr Webster : 114.

Senator WONG: No, from—sorry, I speak in shorthand too much. How many from other agencies?

Dr Webster : At the moment, Services Australia have 10 staff, and we're looking forward to an additional number in the coming weeks. They're helping with us the hardship program.

Senator WONG: Yes. Hang on. We've got 114. You've just given me five other agencies. I just want to know how many are from other agencies. You can do it on notice.

Dr Webster : I'll take it on notice.

Senator WONG: Take it on notice in terms of the detail. But approximately, of the 114, are we talking—

Dr Webster : I'd say about 20, if you include virtual staff that we're working with.

Senator WONG: Twenty from other agencies?

Dr Webster : Yes, approximately. But can I take it on notice for the detail?

Senator WONG: I'm happy for you take it on notice to confirm. I'm trying to just get a sense of scale.

Dr Webster : Get a sense of scale, yes.

Senator WONG: Have you provided an org chart?

Ms Adamson : We have a blizzard of org charts!

Senator WONG: Are they ones in a big enough font for me to read? Let me have an org chart that I can read!

Ms Adamson : We can get you one!

Senator Payne: Let me assure you, Senator, that the org chart my department provides to you will be able to be read by people in our age group! I confidently assure you of that.

Ms Adamson : We print it on A3, typically, Senator.

Senator WONG: The benefit of being short sighted is that it took me a long time to get to the point where I couldn't read close up, and now I am starting to—

Senator Payne: Same here!

Ms Adamson : I'm in the same cohort.

Senator WONG: It's really annoying! Can I have an org chart that I can't read, please!

Senator Payne: We've touched a sore point, Senator!

Ms Adamson : This is a bit unusual, but I've got an A3 version that I can—

Senator WONG: Excellent!

Senator Payne: Now she's sharing! Now she's sharing the A3!

Ms Adamson : The A3 is what's needed. But if you wouldn't mind sharing it back if I need it again, Senator!

Senator WONG: Okay.

Senator Payne: Can we have one of your spares, please!

Senator WONG: Okay. Is the task force actually identified here; and, if so, where?

Dr Webster : I don't think it's actually—

Senator WONG: Basically, have the 114 mainly been taken out of what was then Deputy Secretary Sheehan's group?

Dr Webster : Yes. It sits within Consular and Crisis Management Division under Deputy Sheehan's group, but we do have staff from a range of areas across the department that have come in to support the surge required to deliver on the task force's initiatives.

Senator WONG: Prior to the task force, this work was being done primarily by that group?

Dr Webster : Yes.

Senator WONG: And now you've set up a dedicated task force. Is someone doing the remainder of Mr Sheehan's job whilst he's doing the task force, or is he doing both?

Ms Adamson : Mr Sheehan is immensely capable, as you know, and, for months and months, this has been his No. 1 priority. We have double-hatted a number of positions across the department, including, actually, Dr Webster's. We have not double-hatted Tony Sheehan's role.

Senator WONG: Meaning he is still doing his other job?

Ms Adamson : He is still doing his other job, yes.

Senator WONG: And is the task force being separately resourced?

Mr Venugopal : Yes.

Senator WONG: How?

Mr Venugopal : The government has funded us a total at this point of $15.6 million, out of which $10.555 million was for last year and $4.1 million is for this year. We have drawn on that funding to be able to fund the task force, of course, as well as many other costs, including other consular costs and the cost of flights.

Senator WONG: So this is pre-existing departmental funding?

Mr Venugopal : This is additional.

Senator WONG: No. Sorry, I misspoke. Is this departmental funding which had been previously allocated or was it only allocated on 21 September?

Mr Venugopal : This is new departmental funding—

Senator WONG: I'm asking the timing of it, because some of it is for the 2019-20 financial year.

Mr Venugopal : Yes, indeed.

Senator WONG: So I'm asking: when was the decision made to allocate this additional departmental resourcing?

Mr Venugopal : Of course, this spans two financial years. My apologies. I did not pick up on the 21 September date. That's my mistake. The $4.1 million was actually in this financial year, and the decision was passed on to us ahead of the budget, and, of course, it was then subsequently announced as part of the budget process. The $10.5 million was from the previous financial year. In terms of specific resourcing for the task force, what we are doing is we are drawing on these funds. We have a standing agreement with the Department of Finance and we acquit it on a monthly basis. Should we go over the amount of funds that has been made available to us, we have a standing agreement that, through either an estimates variation or, perhaps in the next fiscal and economic update, through a measure, it will be funded.

Senator WONG: So are you saying you have a demand driven program?

Mr Venugopal : Not necessarily. So—

Senator WONG: Then you don't have a deal. You might have some nice words.

Mr Venugopal : So far, like I said, we have been funded $10.5 million last year on that basis.

Senator WONG: Can we just get the timing of this? As I understand it, what you're saying to me is DFAT got an additional $15.6 million in departmental funding of which $10.55 million related to the 2019-20 year. So I assume that was a MYEFO decision?

Mr Venugopal : It was subsequent to MYEFO.

Senator WONG: Can you give me the date of the decision?

Mr Venugopal : I don't actually have the date of the decision. I'll have to take that on notice.

Senator WONG: Then there's a subsequent decision to allocate about 4.1 for the 2020-21 year, which is announced in the budget as part of—

Mr Venugopal : That's correct.

Senator WONG: So we don't know when the 10.55 was decided, but you'll come back to me on that.

Mr Venugopal : That is correct.

Senator WONG: And then you say, 'Well, we're going to use some of this for the task force.'

Mr Venugopal : That's right. For instance—if I can explain one specific in that—if I use the 10.55 as an example, that has funded a whole range of things internally, including the cost of flights, which was $4.6 million in the last financial year; the cost of overtime, which is around $1.7 million; operational costs; the cost of staff welfare and entitlement; property costs; ICD costs et cetera.

Senator WONG: I understand that. I'm just trying to understand the sequence of this. Senator Abetz is wanting me to allow some people—to cede the call at some point.

CHAIR: It won't be some people; it may be me.

Senator WONG: If it's you, I'm definitely going to do it, because I need to keep you on side. I'm trying to get a sense of the sequence of this and then I'll go to how it's been expended. As I understand the evidence, the $10 million was a previous decision, there was a subsequent decision in the budget and you are attributing current expenditure on the task force to that.

Mr Venugopal : That's correct.

Senator WONG: Who's the first assistant secretary of consular and crisis management now?

Dr Webster : At the moment it is both me and Mr Greg Wilcock, who you spoke to earlier about Assange.

Senator WONG: So there are two of you?

Dr Webster : We've double-hatted the role again.

Senator WONG: Because it's a fair bit of work?

Dr Webster : There's an enormous amount of work.

Senator WONG: Are you both acting? I don't want to be rude—

Dr Webster : We are both acting at the moment, but I'm not pretending! You can have full confidence, Senator.

Senator WONG: That was very droll and well delivered! Very good. So Mr Todd, who've I've dealt with a fair bit, has left since we last met?

Dr Webster : He has. Mr Todd has retired, and he's very happy in his retirement.

Senator WONG: He was a very experienced officer, and you've engaged in the largest ever consular response. It was unfortunate to lose him at the time you did.

Ms Adamson : He has been a very valued member of staff for a very long time. As Dr Webster said, he has retired. He was farewelled in style. He regaled us with anecdotes from a long and illustrious career.

Senator WONG: I have a lot more questions on this, but I will—

CHAIR: Feel free to—

Senator WONG: No, I won't finish them in nine minutes.

CHAIR: Alright.

Mr Venugopal : I might clarify one thing on the timing of the funding. It was included in the July economic and fiscal update, both the $10.6 million and the $4.1 million.

Senator WONG: So not in BP2?

Mr Venugopal : That's correct.

CHAIR: I have a brief bracket of questions on Myanmar, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Whoever races to the table first who's the expert in those areas will get the first questions.

Ms Adamson : I think it's Myanmar first.

CHAIR: Alright. Let's start with Myanmar. It has been suggested to me by the Rohingya Intellectual Community Association of Australia that the Rohingya population in Myanmar remain at risk of genocide and that they face apartheid-like bans. Is that the official view? How serious is the issue and what are we doing by way of representations?

Mr Connor : It's our assessment that conditions for that population continue to be bad in that situation. The conditions in Rakhine State, in particular, are complicated both by continuing military action by the armed forces of Myanmar and by the armed groups that are formed on the other side.

CHAIR: If I may quickly interrupt you, I think you used the term 'bad'. Was that in relation to the military action as well?

Mr Connor : Yes, both.

CHAIR: I understand that on 29 April the outgoing UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, said the military's:

… conduct against the civilian population of Rakhine and Chin States may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Is that our assessment as well? Do we have any reason to dispute that assertion by the outgoing special rapporteur?

Mr Connor : We agree with the assessments that have been made by the UN in relation to the conditions in all of the areas where Rohingya reside—Rakhine State, Chin State, Kachin, Shan, Kayin and also along the Thai border.

CHAIR: Without traversing the atrocities any further, if we're agreed that the representation is being made, can I then ask what we're able to do or what we have done to make representations or seek to ease the terrible situation in which they find themselves?

Mr Connor : The situation of the Rohingya people has been a matter of constant representation by our embassy in Myanmar over many years. It continues now. There have been a number of representations made by everyone within the embassy, including by the ambassador there. The situation and our ability to engage is, as you will understand, complicated at the moment as a result of the COVID-19 issue. I have referred to it before in relation to the situation inside Rakhine state in particular. The difficulty is it's a recent and new outbreak and that's limiting what's able to be done. There are also some limits on the ability of our people within the embassy in Yangon to engage with their counterparts, because of the new restrictions placed on that, but it has been a constant matter of attention by the embassy.

CHAIR: All strength to your arm for the representations that are being made. It's very difficult. In the few minutes remaining, can I go to Armenia and Azerbaijan and simply inquire what our assessment is? Some sort of a peace agreement was reached, but then it didn't last for long, as I understand. Do we have any handle on the casualties and human dislocation that's being occasioned?

Mr Geering : As you would be aware, there have been a number of attempts at a peaceful settlement, or at least a fire. You'd be aware that the Russians, from Mr Lavrov, tried to broker one. You'd be aware that the organisation for security and cooperation in Europe has called for peace, and you would be aware that Secretary Pompeo also sought to achieve a peace settlement. Unfortunately, fighting continues. I don't have a precise casualty number for you, but this is a serious military activity. There are heavy weapons involved and there are significant casualties.

CHAIR: Would it be fair to say that there are other actors supporting the two sides of this dispute? Are you able to tell us who is on who's side in relation to the support provided to the two protagonists?

Mr Geering : There are a few other states who've given both verbal and some material support. Our position in this is not to seek to allocate blame or to call out particular states.

CHAIR: Foreign Affairs is always to be diplomatic and not to blame anybody for anything. I understand that, but are we able to name them. Let's say, is Turkey, for instance, on the side of Armenia or Azerbaijan? What about Russia? Are there other players in this dispute and, if so, where do they align?

Mr Geering : You would be aware that Russia has a base in Armenia, and you would be aware too that Turkey has provided verbal support to Azerbaijan.

CHAIR: And air fire support, or not?

Mr Geering : It has provided some material support.

CHAIR: So more than just verbal support?

Mr Geering : Yes.

CHAIR: Right. Do we have any assessment as to whether these two, one might imagine, smaller countries are being used as proxies for greater posturing by bigger powers than Azerbaijan and Armenia in this region?

Mr Geering : This conflict has been going on for a very long time.

CHAIR: With respect, I know that. But the actual military confrontation has not been going on for a long time.

Mr Geering : I wouldn't characterise it that way.

CHAIR: What, it's not a military confrontation?

Mr Geering : No, I wouldn't characterise it as a proxy war in the way you're—

CHAIR: You aren't?

Mr Geering : Definitely there is military activity.

CHAIR: That is what I was asking: whether or not it was. And your assessment is that it is not a proxy war, but simply friendly countries supporting their friends in this particular conflict without a broader agenda? Would that be a fair assessment?

Mr Geering : I wouldn't characterise it as a proxy war.

CHAIR: I've just agreed with that. Therefore, I'm asking whether this is just friendly countries to Armenia and Azerbaijan assisting friends, as opposed to a larger agenda being at play?

Mr Geering : I think, yes, there are countries who are friendly to those countries who have provided some verbal and material support. Yes.

CHAIR: And that is just based simply on historical friendship and without a broader, larger agenda being played out?

Mr Geering : As I said, I don't see it as a proxy war.

CHAIR: Alright. Thank you. When we return we might start with the very easy topic of China!

Proceedings suspended from 12:31 to 13:30

CHAIR: The committee will resume and, as indicated prior to the luncheon suspension, there is a bracket of questions relating to our relationship with China. A number of colleagues will be seeking the call, and I'll try and bounce it around as much as I possibly can. I'll lead off, if I may, by asking about the China Tribunal. Sir Geoffrey Nice QC's report, if I recall correctly, had just come out at the last Senate estimates, and the department had not had the ability to fully consider it.

Senator Payne: I suspect it was time, actually.

CHAIR: Yes; it had only come out a few days before, if I recall correctly. Has an analysis of it been done? Without giving us a huge chapter and verse discourse on it, do we find it to be a persuasive document?

Ms Lawson : We have read that report, and we have taken it very seriously. It does raise a number of concerning allegations, which we do take very seriously, and of course—

CHAIR: And the major thesis, if I may interrupt, just in case people are wanting to know what it's about, is the allegation of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience.

Ms Lawson : Yes, thank you. It also raises concerns about widespread official and societal discrimination. Also, that individuals have been subject to residential detention, and criminal and other forms of administrative punishment. These are concerns that we have raised and do raise with the Chinese government at appropriate times. I would also like to let you know that we have spoken to the chair of the tribunal, Sir Geoffrey Nice, as part of our review of that report. You might be interested to know that we did also pass that report to the Department of Health and to the Department of Home Affairs, noting the concerns that have been raised with DFAT about this issue. This, of course, was further to sharing the summary of that report with Universities Australia. I think we mentioned that to you at the last hearing.

CHAIR: Was it shared with Westmead Hospital, perchance? Do you know that?

Ms Lawson : I'm not aware of that.

CHAIR: It had entered into a most unfortunate relationship with an organ transplant hospital or facility in China, about which I gave a speech in, I think, February this year in the Senate. Take that on notice, to see if that was done. If that has not been done but could be done, I'd be most appreciative.

Ms Lawson : I will take that on notice, if that's alright.

CHAIR: So we have no reason to doubt the findings, for want of a better term, of the China Tribunal report?

Ms Lawson : I think it's fair to say we're not in a position to offer an assessment of the specific claims, particularly about organ harvesting, but we do find the report concerning and the issue warrants a continued close examination.

CHAIR: Yes, but, similarly, we cannot discount that which Sir Geoffrey determined.

Ms Lawson : We can neither confirm nor discount.

CHAIR: Thank you. I understand the last People's Congress, in all its motions that it passes from time to time, had a motion or a clause talking about the reunification of China. I understand that on this occasion, for the first time, the vitally important caveat of 'peaceful unification' was not included in the resolution. What can I be told about that?

Ms Lawson : We take any matters relating to cross-straits relations very, very seriously. Of course, the question of Taiwan's future status is a matter for the parties concerned. Our consistent position is that we call for a peaceful resolution that does not involve the threat or use of force or coercion. Stable and constructive cross-strait relations are in everyone's interests. Of course, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy.

CHAIR: I understand that. Do we think that the omission of the word 'peaceful' was simply a typographical error or in fact a change of policy?

Ms Lawson : I can't speak for that document or whether it was an intentional omission, of course, but we do—

CHAIR: It's a fairly important omission, and I would like, with respect, some serious consideration of this.

Ms Adamson : Let me add that I think what you're referring to from the National People's Congress was Premier Li Keqiang's work report. This is the central document, if you like, of the National People's Congress every March. You are correct that the word 'peaceful' was omitted from the language in relation to Taiwan. You're also correct that this was a notable omission, the word having previously been included over many years and probably as far back as we can remember. We therefore do take that seriously. We are, frankly, concerned by it, for all the reasons that Ms Lawson has set out.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. So it's treated as a serious situation, and we're aware of it. Can we still say 'newly re-elected' President of Taiwan? I'm forgetting when the election was.

Ms Adamson : I think we can. It was January, and she's in her first year of a four-year term.

CHAIR: Alright. The re-elected President Tang said:

Not mentioning 'peace' suggests Beijing is considering unification both by peaceful means and by force.

Is that a conclusion that we would draw as well? It's about the only obvious conclusion, is it not?

Ms Adamson : It is certainly open to draw that conclusion. We would, as we consistently have over the years, counsel restraint—on both sides, actually. Peace across the Taiwan Straits, and certainly peace in the Indo-Pacific region, is obviously one of our highest priorities. It's something taken seriously by all countries, who would, I imagine, adopt a very similar position.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. My local newspaper, the Hobart Mercury—which I don't quote that often!—on Friday 18 September had an article, 'Tassie data in China sights', which starts off by saying:

TASMANIANS could be the unwitting targets of foreign agents wanting to gather intelligence because of the state's unique position as a gateway to Antarctica.

What is the department doing in relation to suggestions such as this? Is it working hand in glove, for example, with the Australian Antarctic Division in all its endeavours on the Antarctic continent and in relation to the various bases or whatever the Chinese nation has in that area which Australia at least claims as its territory—noting that it is disputed?

Ms Adamson : The short answer is, of course, an emphatic yes, but Mr Newnham can provide further detail should you wish. DFAT has a longstanding relationship, as you know, with the Australian Antarctic Division. The sorts of considerations that you've just mentioned are indeed very much uppermost in our minds as we do that.

Mr Newnham : Senator, if I could just indulge the committee, would you be able to repeat the question, please?

CHAIR: Good luck! I strung a whole lot of questions together to try to curtail time.

Mr Newnham : I'm sorry.

CHAIR: Fair enough. I will try to do myself justice.

Mr Newnham : Thank you.

CHAIR: But I dare say the Hansard will show that I've missed something or added something. I was referring to an article in the Hobart Mercury on Friday 18 September with the heading 'Tassie data in China sights'. The article suggests:

TASMANIANS could be the unwitting targets of foreign agents wanting to gather intelligence because of the state's unique position as a gateway to Antarctica.

I think I asked as to the department's relationship with the Australian Antarctic Division; China's stations within that area of the Antarctic continent that we claim as our territory, noting that that is not necessarily accepted internationally; and whether we had any concerns about this assertion, which, might I add, was made by a previous Labor senator.

Mr Newnham : Thank you. I'd make a couple of points in response. The first is, of course, that Hobart is one of the gateways to Antarctica and it's a valuable—

CHAIR: Excuse me, it is the gateway!

Mr Newnham : Let me rephrase that.

CHAIR: Sorry. Keep on!

Senator Payne: There's the first mistake.

Mr Newnham : A rookie error! It is a very important gateway, one of a number of others as well that exist. And, yes, a number of nations seek to use Hobart as the gateway to Antarctica. What I can certainly say is that we have a very close relationship with the Australian Antarctic Division, including multiple phone calls with them this week, for example, but also on a regular basis on a range of matters. I can also say that earlier this year we undertook the most ambitious inspection regime Australia has ever undertaken in Antarctica: six stations. Two of them were Chinese stations, but it included Korean, German, Russian and Belarusian stations as well. Our cooperation with China, but indeed with all Antarctic parties, occurs on multiple levels.

CHAIR: To try to save time, I canvassed that with the Australian Antarctic Division, and they indicated those inspections. I just wanted confirmation here that this department was satisfied with the inspections.

Mr Newnham : Yes, Senator, and normally those reports would have been public by now. We've gone through them thoroughly. I have myself read them. We just have the requirement to have them disclosed to the parties first, and then they'll be made public. On the whole, there was a high degree of compliance of those stations with the Antarctic principles as set out.

CHAIR: Can the minister and the department confirm to me—this is the next topic—that we are not considering an extradition treaty with China?

Senator Payne: That's correct.

CHAIR: Good, because it was on the agenda at one stage, and I recall an uncomfortable party room meeting where I in fact got up to oppose such a proposition. That was some years ago now. I just want to make sure that that is absolutely off the agenda.

Senator Payne: That's correct.

CHAIR: Good. Can you tell us how we have gone about extricating ourselves from the extradition treaty with Hong Kong? Is that now completely off the agenda?

Senator Payne: We can advise you on that.

CHAIR: Could you give us an update on that, please?

Ms Lawson : We have suspended formally our extradition treaty with Hong Kong. The formal suspension occurred, I think, on 9 October. I'm just checking.

CHAIR: Do you have to give notice of suspension?

Senator Payne: There's a process for it, which includes going through our treaties committee as well.

CHAIR: When you say it's suspended, that means it is no longer operative now?

Ms Lawson : At this stage it is not operative; that's correct.

Mr Newnham : It was notified on 9 July to allow for the three-month notice period, and it took effect on 9 October.

CHAIR: Aha! That's what I was getting at. So 9 September—

Ms Lawson : That was the final, formal—

CHAIR: That was the final, but notice was given—

Mr Newnham : On 9 July, and it ended on 9 October.

CHAIR: On 9 October? Thank you very much for that. Has the department issued any recent, or relatively recent, travel advisories for China, or has there been a change made to the travel advisory and, if so, when?

Ms Adamson : Yes.

Ms Lawson : Dr Webster will be able to answer that question.

Dr Webster : The most recent change to the travel advice was made on 7 July.

CHAIR: Can you tell us the reason for that change?

Dr Webster : The update that was made was to the language in the travel advice.

CHAIR: Sorry—to the language?

Dr Webster : To the language. In the 'Latest update' section it read:

Authorities have detained foreigners because they're 'endangering national security'. Australians may also be at risk of arbitrary detention.

CHAIR: So it was because of the risk of arbitrary detention that that new travel advisory was made?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

CHAIR: Why was it found necessary to make that change to the travel advisory? Was it because of a deterioration in the position in China?

Dr Webster : I wouldn't say it was necessarily in relation to a deterioration of the position; it was in relation to risks that we assessed were there to Australians.

CHAIR: Did those risks exist shortly prior to the change in the travel advisory?

Dr Webster : That's why we would have made the advisory; we would have assessed that those risks were present.

CHAIR: Would you agree with me that having to advise potential travellers of this change suggests that there was a deterioration in the situation in China, that a risk which previously did not exist now exists?

Dr Webster : I wouldn't suggest it is a deterioration.

CHAIR: Is it an enhancement of people's liberties? How would you describe it? I know that Foreign Affairs loves to be very careful with its language, but I sometimes feel that these things do need to be called out for they are. If the culture is such that we can't say that that is because of a deterioration, so be it.

Dr Webster : I would say that we assessed that there was an increased risk for Australians of arbitrary detention in China.

CHAIR: An increased risk of arbitrary detention is not interpreted as a deterioration in the situation—is that the official advice?

Dr Webster : I don't necessarily wish to characterise it as a deterioration.

CHAIR: How else would you describe it—other than just a change, a neutral thing?

Dr Webster : It's certainly not neutral; we don't take changes to travel advice lightly.

CHAIR: If it's not neutral, is it on the positive side or the negative side?

Dr Webster : Insofar as it's an increased risk, it's negative.

CHAIR: Thank you. We finally got there! If you don't want to use the word 'deterioration', but 'negative', I'm willing to live with that. I understand some colleagues may have questions on this very issue. Senator Patrick.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you, Chair. Switching to the situation in Xinjiang, US presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign has described the repression of the Uighur people in China's Xinjiang province as genocide.

CHAIR: We're just on the travel advisory at this stage. I thought you had questions on the travel advisory.

Senator PATRICK: Yes, I do.

CHAIR: Could you just keep to that whilst the official is at the table.

Senator PATRICK: Sorry, I didn't appreciate that we were going with topics. I will switch to travel advisories. How many Australians are known to be in China and how many are in Hong Kong?

Senator Payne: It's very difficult to provide a figure on that. As you would know, there would be Australians in both locations—physically in Hong Kong and physically in mainland China. For a whole range of reasons, by no means would they all be registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—and they would be there for a plethora of reasons.

Ms Adamson : The working assumption before COVID was that there were about 30,000 Australians in China. Obviously quite a number have left during this period. I don't think we could say with any real confidence at the moment precisely how many are there, for the reasons the minister just gave.

Senator PATRICK: The bottom line is that you don't really track the number of Australians that are in China?

Senator Payne: No.

Senator PATRICK: Hong Kong?

Senator Payne: Except for Australians who are registered with DFAT and locations in which we know there to be centralised diasporas, it is difficult to do that.

Senator PATRICK: How significant is the risk of arbitrary detention?

Dr Webster : Significant enough for us to update the travel advice.

Senator PATRICK: Does the Chinese government use its national security laws to take foreign nationals, including Australians, hostage for political purposes?

Dr Webster : That's not something I want to comment on.

Senator PATRICK: It's a question, so does someone want to comment on that?

Ms Lawson : Are you referring to the national security law in Hong Kong?

Senator PATRICK: No, just their national security law in general. We've seen an arrest in China, and national security laws are being used in that particular case. That's the genesis of my question. Do they use national security laws to take foreign nationals, including Australians, hostage for political purposes?

Ms Lawson : We do know that some Australians—the Chinese government says they are guilty of crimes relating to national security. I probably wouldn't use the terminology 'taken hostage'. We have fundamental respect for China's legal processes.

Senator PATRICK: So how do you characterise the arrest and prosecution of Canadian, US and Australian citizens on national security charges?

Ms Lawson : Our overall priority is the wellbeing and welfare of the Australian individuals in question. It would not be helpful for us to speculate on other issues.

Senator PATRICK: It might be helpful in the context of alerting other Australians to the current situation there.

Senator Payne: The questions you were asking earlier, and Senator Abetz's questions in relation to travel advice and the changes that were made in July, go to your point. Where there are concerns, we have means by which to address those. They are carefully considered, through Dr Webster's area, through the processes the secretary has in place and through the processes the government has in place.

Senator PATRICK: The Chinese Ambassador to Canada recently warned that Canadian citizens in China, including Hong Kong, could be at risk of detention. Similar threats have been made against US citizens in retaliation for the arrest of Chinese intelligence officers in the US. Does DFAT believe that these threats may also further increased the risk to Australian citizens in China?

Dr Webster : When we formulate our travel advice we look specifically at the risks to Australians in China, and it's not necessarily through the same lens other countries would be looking at China.

Senator PATRICK: Sure. But if I focus on the Chinese approach here, and the way in which they have signalled this, it indicates a willingness to conduct a particular activity for a particular purpose. Surely, that must at least raise some concerns in respect of Australians?

Dr Webster : We do look at partners and their reactions to certain activities there, obviously. But we make our own assessments based on our own assessment of the risk to Australians.

Senator PATRICK: If an Australian journalist proposed to travel to China now or in the near future, would DFAT advise against such travel?

Dr Webster : At the moment, we have a 'Do not travel' advisory for China. We also have an outwards travel ban. So it would not be something we would advise in favour of.

Senator PATRICK: I presume that's the same for Australian business persons?

Dr Webster : They are subject to exactly the same—

CHAIR: The outwards travel ban relates to COVID, or to China specifically?

Dr Webster : The outwards travel ban relates to COVID.

CHAIR: Yes. I just wanted to clarify that for the record.

Senator PATRICK: But you're also warning people not to travel there because of the arbitrary detention risk?

Dr Webster : The 'Do not travel' advisory in China is there due to the COVID risk. It's a global 'Do not travel' advisory.

Senator PATRICK: So what impact does the warning have?

Dr Webster : People are still asked to look carefully at the language of our travel advisories for the risks in a specific country. At this stage, Australians in general are not able to leave the country due to the travel ban and they are advised not to travel to China, among all other countries globally.

Senator PATRICK: How confident is DFAT that the current state of bilateral relations with China will not involve further arrests of Australian citizens in China on trumped-up espionage charges?

Ms Adamson : As Dr Webster has said, we make very careful assessments—this is something we do on a continuing basis on the advice of our embassy and consulates in China—about the language we should use to alert Australians to the risks that they may face in travelling to any country and, obviously, in this instance, to China. I will leave it there, if I can. Obviously the situation that you're pointing to is one that we would not want to find ourselves in.

Senator PATRICK: Chair, is it in order for me under this topic to talk about a Dr Yang and Cheng Lei.

CHAIR: Yes. Why not.

Senator PATRICK: In respect of Cheng Lei, on 30 September DFAT confirmed that consular officials had twice visited the Australian journalist since her detention in August. Have you had any further consular access since then? If so, when?

Mr Wilcock : You referred to two visits made to Cheng Lei. That number still stands.

Senator PATRICK: So none since—

Mr Wilcock : None since 28 September.

Senator PATRICK: Which Chinese agency has detained Ms Cheng? Is it the Ministry of State Security?

Mr Wilcock : I don't know particularly which state agency has detained Ms Cheng, simply that she is detained.

Senator PATRICK: Can you take that on notice?

Mr Wilcock : I can come back to you later by all means.

Ms Lawson : It is the Ministry of State Security.

Senator PATRICK: Where is she being held?

Mr Wilcock : At a detention centre in Beijing.

Senator PATRICK: My understanding is that she is accused of endangering national security. Is there anything known of specific allegations or charges against Ms Cheng?

Mr Wilcock : Only what you've said. We're aware, as you are, because the ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing said in early September that she has been detained on suspicion of endangering national security.

Senator PATRICK: What representations have been made to the Chinese government on Ms Cheng's behalf by the Prime Minister, the foreign minister or senior Australian officials? If any, when and to whom?

Mr Wilcock : Speaking for the department, a number of representations. I don't have that number at my fingertips but I can come back to you. Since she was detained, we have of course asked for consular access to her consistent with our agreement on consular relations with China.

Senator PATRICK: Minister, any ministerial representation or any representations from the Prime Minister?

Senator Payne: At this stage in the process representations within the Chinese system are being made by the ambassador and his senior officials. Ms Cheng's detention and the detail we have been seeking is part of that representation process. We are monitoring her situation very closely. We are seeking to ensure that she receives fair and humane treatment. We have made formal requests in relation to her appropriate care, attention and treatment from medical professionals to ensure her ongoing health and wellbeing. I'm also very conscious that we have privacy obligations to Ms Cheng and her family. We deal within the constraints of that in terms of our public comment. I made a statement in relation to this matter on 31 August.

Ms Adamson : If I could add to give you a sense of it as well, the Australian ambassador has made representations on Ms Cheng Lei's case in the last week. I believe Ms Lawson has done the same with the embassy here in Canberra. At this stage there would be very few interactions we would have with the Chinese in which her case would not be mentioned.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you. A couple of quick questions on Dr Yang as well if that's possible. Two weeks ago it was confirmed that Dr Yang had been charged with espionage by Chinese authorities. When did Australian officials last have consular access to Dr Yang?

Mr Wilcock : We last visited Dr Yang, by video link, I should clarify, on 22 September.

Senator PATRICK: What is the precise nature of the espionage charges levelled at Dr Yang?

Mr Wilcock : We know that he is facing espionage charges. Beyond that, we are still seeking more information.

Senator PATRICK: Do you know what provisions in the Chinese law are involved and what the potential penalties that could be imposed are?

Mr Wilcock : On the precise nature of the charges or where they fit within Chinese statutes, no. The penalty for espionage goes from any number of years up to the death penalty.

Senator PATRICK: Again, what representations have been made at both official and ministerial level in respect of Dr Yang?

Senator Payne: I made a statement in relation to Dr Yang on the 14th of this month, and I have raised Dr Yang's situation directly in previous conversations with State Councillor Wong Yi and in correspondence with State Councillor Wong Yi. Similarly to the observations the secretary made about Ms Cheng Lei and her detention, there would be very few or no conversations or engagements with authorities in China that do not canvass these matters. The charges upon which Dr Yang is held are charges we have not accepted, and we have been very clear in relation to that. Again, we work closely through our consular team on this matter led by Mr Wilcock, with Dr Yang's family and close supporters. We understand this is a very difficult time for them.

Senator PATRICK: Chair, I do have supplementaries or some questions on Taiwan that it may suit you for me to follow up at this point?

CHAIR: You've had a fair bite of the cherry at this stage, Senator, so I was going to move on to another topic on China, and I think others might be interested in this one as well. That is the situation with the Uighurs. I was wondering whether your attention had been drawn to the Canadian parliament's committee that has looked into the Uighur policy. They've come to the determination that it amounts to genocide. When they say 'genocide', they mean genocide as set out in the 1948 genocide convention. I do note that the Chinese ambassador in Canada used similar language to confront these findings as he did to me in recent times, so it's nice to know I am in good company. The committee described the deplorable conditions. Uighur women and girls have been forcibly sterilised. They have had forced abortions and intrauterine contraceptive devices, and 80 per cent of all such devices have been placed in China in Xinjiang. The Uighur population birth rate has fallen by 24 per cent in the last year in comparison to the overall Chinese decrease of birth rate of four per cent—that's about five to six times the national average. The committee also told about thousands of Muslims who have been used as forced labour in factories that supply companies like—and I will just pick one out—BMW. I trust that the cars we are driven around in have not been manufactured by the slave labour of the Uighurs. And there's the allegation of harassment et cetera. So are we aware of that committee report and do we think it's robust and worthy of consideration?

Ms Lawson : We are aware of that committee and the finding. We do have very considerable concerns about the situation in Xinjiang. We agree that the conditions are extremely concerning. Of course, we have made representations on many occasions about our concerns about mass arbitrary detentions, restrictions on freedom of religion and freedom of belief, pervasive surveillance of individuals, and allegations and reports of forced labour. We're also aware of the reports of enforced birth control, which, of course, were covered in the article by Adrian Zenz on the Xinjiang Data Project. We are further concerned about allegations of forced labour supply. We have raised these concerns at every appropriate opportunity. The minister has raised the treatment of Uighurs and ethnic minorities in her dignitary address to the 45th session of the Human Rights Council. We have joined a statement earlier this month with 38 other countries on Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly. We've also raised concerns about Xinjiang at the last seven sessions of the Human Rights Council and we will continue to advocate for meaningful access to the region for international observers. On your question about genocide, our longstanding position is that questions of that nature are a matter for the appropriate international courts.

CHAIR: You've obviated some further questions with that answer, so thank you very much. But I just happen to note that your counterpart, Minister, rejoices in the name 'Champagne' in Canada—

Senator Payne: He does.

CHAIR: and I'm wondering how the French allow that, given their trade concerns. Good luck to him! He indicated earlier this month that Canada and 37 allies expressed grave concerns about the situation, and we were part of that group, from what I can gather. Is that right, Ms Lawson?

Ms Lawson : The group that we were part of was the statement at the UNGA.


Ms Lawson : That's correct.

CHAIR: And he also said:

Canada takes the allegations of genocide very seriously. We will continue ... with our allies to push for these to be investigated through an international independent body.

Would we join such a call?

Ms Lawson : We would assess the merits of joining at the time—

CHAIR: Given the information we have, how much more information would we need to be convinced that there are sufficient merits for such an investigation?

Ms Lawson : It's safe to say that our concerns about this issue are very significant. But, again, we would make a decision based on the information available at the time.

CHAIR: And I just happen to note that two Canadian senators described the regime in Beijing as the biggest threat to mankind and a danger to international security, which makes my language look exceptionally moderate. Over to my colleagues. Senator Sheldon, do you want to ask questions on the Uighurs?

Senator SHELDON: No. I want to ask a question about the social credit system.

CHAIR: Did you have a question, Senator Patrick?

Senator PATRICK: I have a very short supplementary. Noting that other leaders have characterised the situation of the Uighurs as genocide and the Canadian parliament has done the same, do we characterise what is happening as genocide?

Mr Newnham : Senator, as you know, that's a term used in a couple of contexts, but, at international law, it has a specific meaning, and it's in that 1948 convention that Senator Abetz mentioned a second ago, as well as being enshrined in customary international law. We believe, then, that the crime of genocide is a matter appropriate for courts. So, underneath that, of course—exactly to the points made by Ms Lawson—regardless of the label applied here, we continue to urge the respect for those fundamental freedoms but noting that it really is a matter for courts to make that judgement on the crime of genocide.

Senator PATRICK: Before a court would do that, obviously, a charge needs to be laid in respect of a claim of genocide. That involves certain triggers and certain thresholds. Are we not at the stage where those thresholds have been reached? We must be very close. What's the government's assessment on that?

Mr Newnham : Colleagues could speak to, I think, the points that have already been raised to this point. What I can say, Senator, is that there is not consideration of that trigger, as you mentioned—that step towards a case being brought or a body being set up on that matter.

Senator PATRICK: But don't we have an obligation to monitor human rights and make such assessments and, if necessary, bring them to the attention of an appropriate court?

Mr Newnham : I refer back to the points made earlier, which are that these circumstances are taken very seriously by Australia. They are monitored very closely and there are multiple avenues by which our concerns are registered. But your question then goes to the establishment of an international court to look at allegations of the crime of genocide, and my answer to that is: that is not contemplated.

Senator PATRICK: It went to thresholds. The point is: what would it take for the Australian government to act, noting what you know now? What further things would you need to note or observe in order to act to enforce human rights?

Senator Payne: I think Ms Lawson has set out a number of the steps that Australia has engaged in and continues to be engaged in. The address I made to the UN Human Rights Council on 14 September—virtual, of course, at this point if time—raised and addressed these issues. There's been reference to the UNGA Third Committee resolution on 5 October, where Australia joined with 37 other states to raise those concerns. Similarly, at the Human Rights Council, a statement which involved 26 other countries in June has also placed on the record Australia's commitment to pursuing these issues of human rights in Xinjiang. We've also been clear in relation to the importance of allowing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights meaningful access to Xinjiang at the earliest opportunity, which has not happened. We have made multiple requests ourselves, directly in Beijing, to seek access to Xinjiang, which we have not been granted for a number of years now. The issues pertaining to this matter were also the subject of considerable discussion through the AUSMIN process and formed part of our report in that context as well.

We are working jointly in international fora and advocacy to address the very repressive measures that you and other senators have identified and discussed. In the process of that international advocacy, we have seen a number of steps taken in relation to an acknowledgement of the existence of facilities. It is important that we do work with like-mindeds, which is what we're doing. I work closely with Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne from Canada and with UK Foreign Secretary Raab and UK Secretary of State Lord Tariq Ahmad, in the human rights context, on a number of these issues. It is a matter which has regular ventilation in terms of next steps and best next steps, and I know that there are members of the parliament here who also continue to raise these issues, as you yourself have, Senator. So I think that process of international advocacy, where Australia and others—I have named a number—are pursuing these issues, is an important part of the process.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you. I'll leave it there on that topic, Chair.

CHAIR: Alright. Senator Sheldon.

Senator SHELDON: Thank you very much, Chair. Ms Adamson, last October at supplementary estimates I asked the department about the rollout of China's social credit system. I asked about the data collection and the close surveillance of the political, personal, financial and economic activity of Chinese citizens, and I looked at how that extension goes to Australians in China but also Australians of Chinese heritage here. Since then there's been discussion with regard to TikTok, WeChat, a number of academic papers, policy circles and comments looking at the question of platforms both distributing Chinese Communist Party propaganda and the collection of personal data of Australians, including Chinese Australians. It's now one year on. Are you able to give us an update from DFAT about where the operation to protect Australians from surveillance here and abroad and where we're at with those sorts of challenges?

Ms Lawson : We are tracking that system very carefully. You noted that the system affects not just Chinese citizen but also companies or Australians present in China. As you will be aware, there are two systems within the social credit system. One is for individuals, and the other one is a corporate social credit system. Both of those systems are still in development. The Chinese government had targeted late-2020 for finalisation or nationwide implementation, but we think that will likely be a work in progress for several years. We have been tracking it closely. We've asked questions, raised concerns and submitted feedback to the Chinese government on its social credit policies on a number of occasions. We also regularly engage with Australian businesses operating in China to understand their views and the implications of the corporate social credit system for them. Of course, we've raised concerns and asked questions of the Chinese government as well.

We also made a submission to the Chinese government. It had a draftGuiding Opinions on Further Regulating the Scope of Inclusions in Public Credit Information, Punishments for Untrustworthiness, and Credit Restoration to Build Long-Term and Effective Mechanisms for Establishing Creditworthiness. It's a very long title. They seek to clarify the development of national regulations for the social credit system. Our submission underscored a number of issues that are important to us for inclusion in that, including the importance of the transparent and consistent implementation of laws, regulations and other measures to ensure fairness and to foster business certainty. We also requested that China seek to ensure that the operation of the social credit system guarantee the full protection of constitutional and other legal rights of entities and individuals. We've also sought advice from the Chinese government on how the social credit system would interact with other social and corporate measures that the Chinese government is considering implementing. I can provide those for you, if you like.

Senator SHELDON: If you could, that would be helpful. Thank you.

Ms Lawson : There's the draft Measures for the Hiring and Management of Foreign Teachers and also the National Development and Reform Commission's draft Regulations on Optimizing the Business Environment. Of course, we are very conscious of Australian businesses operating in China. Some in fact see some benefit coming out of this system. They feel that it will provide more transparency in a way, because it's all about collecting data, and they're seeking to publicise some of that data.

CHAIR: They actually believe that, do they?

Ms Lawson : Well, I can't speak to that, but if I can just continue—


Ms Lawson : Because the system seeks to track compliance, some foreign companies have told us—this is the view of the companies—that because their compliance levels are very high there may be some benefit for them in that. But, overall, we really would be very concerned about any scheme that unfairly impacted business operations. As to your question of whether the social credit system will be applied offshore, it's really not yet clear how the system might be applied to Chinese citizens, either those resident in Australia or for students and tourists.

Senator SHELDON: Moving on what might be considered naivety of companies that are saying it might be of some commercial benefit, I'm not sure if there's a human-rights, labour-rights or community benefit, more broadly. They're the questions I'm also asking about.

CHAIR: Can I quickly ask: would we be sending very, very strong objections to the Chinese government if it did become apparent—and I think we may have a suspicion it will—that they were using this methodology on people in our country, stating that we would consider that to be an infringement of Australian sovereignty?

Ms Lawson : If there was any suggestion that was occurring we would naturally raise it with the Chinese government. We would raise our concerns, yes.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: How would you know?

Ms Adamson : We would know because Chinese Australians would tell us.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Are you sure about that?

Ms Adamson : I am sure about that.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Given the recent evidence that we've taken in some of the hearings, it's really of great concern as to whether they actually would.

Senator WONG: I don't think the microphone was on for the first part of your question.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I was saying that, given some of the evidence that we've recently taken in some of the hearings that Senator Abetz and I and others have been participating in, Ms Adamson, it really is of concern to us whether that would actually occur, given the greater fear that appears to exist in our diaspora communities and communities in relation to their dealings with a growing number of people, sympathisers to Beijing, and what their activities are here in Australia. So I wouldn't be so sure about that.

Ms Adamson : I don't dispute at all what you have just said. But I'm also confident that we would know.

CHAIR: I trust that we would express more than just our concern, if that were to occur—that we would be communicating our displeasure in the strongest diplomatic language allowable?

Ms Adamson : Let me assure you of that. There should be no doubt whatsoever.

CHAIR: Good; thank you.

Senator SHELDON: Just for my sake, can you overview how we protect Australian data privacy by, for example, multilateral cooperation? Are there steps that we're taking to deal with the challenges regarding the social credit system?

Ms Lawson : We discuss with our international—

Senator SHELDON: I will say it a different way. You have engaged with the Chinese government about those concerns. Then there's a question of: are we preparing for if those concerns are realised? It's sort of after the event.

Ms Lawson : Are you talking about concerns of implementation in Australia?

Senator SHELDON: Here and on Australian nationals in China and elsewhere.

Ms Lawson : Preparation to the extent that we have good dialogue, and we are always approachable for people to express concerns to us. On broader questions about protection of private data—

Ms Adamson : Our ambassador for critical technology and cyber affairs is on his way down, because I think you're touching on a broader issue in which he is engaged. I think we need a quicker route down over the top of the balcony, rather than—

CHAIR: Can we just have a pole or something they can slide down!

Ms Adamson : Dr Feakin may have something to contribute to this discussion.

Dr Feakin : In terms of what we say in the multilateral institutions, such as the UN, through ASEAN regional forums and the like, we make extensive reference to the protection of human rights and privacy in those discussions. I wouldn't say we distinctly refer to the particular applications you have referred to in your questions. But we are continually reinforcing the importance of the respective privacy of human rights. That becomes contested in the international environment, but it's a position we hold continually through our discussions with multilateral organisations.

Senator SHELDON: Are you concerned about the operations of TikTok and WeChat in Australia?

Dr Feakin : From the discussions that we've had, we appreciate that there are different perceptions of the way in which data can be accessed and the way in which that data would then be used. There is no doubting that we are currently in an environment where there are different approaches to data and the way that that data could be used for government purposes or commercial purposes. There is currently an open discussion around the various applications, whether they be resting in China or, for that matter, in Silicon Valley. It is currently a very, very open discussion.

Senator SHELDON: So there's monitoring of a number of different systems, including WeChat and TikTok, and what the effects are on issues of human rights—potential human rights abuses or corporate misuse more generally?

Dr Feakin : That's not something that this position monitors and evaluates per se. The position, through the work we do at DFAT, is that we make representations around the broader issues in terms of our rights online. But certainly other agencies in the Australian government, of course, assess and evaluate the various security risks around particular applications.

Senator SHELDON: I'm going to the question of human rights consequences of this social credit system. I'm talking about China, but you're also raising it more generally, which I'm happy to hear you make a comment about, because this isn't isolated obviously to China. It goes to corporates, as you rightly said, and can go to other state entities. Have there been suggestions about any legislative frame that should be considered to deal with those sorts of challenges, and those potential challenges for the future?

Dr Feakin : As I said, domestically, there's a conversation more broadly in government around those particular issues. Internationally, no, there isn't a universal approach to these issues. That's the context we're operating in right now. We're certainly seeing an increasingly contested digital environment, where different values and principles are being exerted in the digital space in a way that I don't think genuinely anyone predicted even three years ago.

Senator SHELDON: Is there a format of what your expectation is on how the social credit system should be oversighted? Is there a preferred platform about how that would interact with corporate responsibility, with state responsibility and with human rights obligations? I'm concerned that you're saying there's a bit of a vacuum of the thinking on this. You said internationally that there is not a common view. There's a growing view in Australia. Is there a view the department is developing or has developed about what prism we should be looking at this through?

Dr Feakin : Again, I think I would refer to other departments for privacy, in terms of looking at this in the domestic context and the reach of applications that aren't developed and have a national base here. That certainly rests with other departments, and I couldn't comment on that.

Senator SHELDON: Thank you.

Senator WONG: I do have many questions on China, but I need to finish another topic first, so I'll perhaps talk to you later, Ms Lawson. I would like to return to the topic of stranded Australians. I did want to say, though, whilst there were obviously questions raised in relation to Dr Yang and Ms Cheng Lei, to acknowledge the engagement from the minister and the department in relation to those matters and to continue to place on record the opposition's full support for the efforts of the government to ensure that those two Australians are both treated well and, we hope, returned home safely.

Senator Payne: Thank you.

Senator WONG: Senator Payne, I noticed the PM was asked in a press conference about Qatar today and made a reference to the baby not being alive. I'm wondering, was he not briefed correctly? Did he just misspeak?

Senator Payne: I've seen a comment on that. I understand that it perhaps was just in the context of the sentence. I don't have the exact words in front of me.

Senator WONG: Okay.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Is this about the baby. The baby is okay, isn't it?

Senator WONG: Yes.

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: We also were concerned. I appreciate the issue about the women and all of those issues, but I trust, Ms Adamson, we were also concerned about the condition of the child in all of this?

Ms Adamson : Throughout the whole situation.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thank you, Ms Adamson. I'm pleased to hear that.

Senator Payne: Senator Wong, I was just trying to find a message I had on this. I will keep trying. I will come back to it.

Senator WONG: Yes, he spoke about the death of a child. Just to be clear, as I understand from what we have been told, baby is okay. Is that right?

Senator Payne: That's correct. The child was abandoned but okay.

Senator WONG: And you don't know how he came to be—

Senator Payne: I'm not sure.

Senator WONG: I also want to clarify: I think you said to me this morning that you didn't recall having had any specific conversation with the Prime Minister in relation to this matter prior to estimates or prior to today—is that right?

Senator Payne: No, I didn't say 'prior to today'—

Senator WONG: Or at all—sorry.

Senator Payne: The matter has been raised in discussions. You asked me if I had spoken directly to the Prime Minister. I had engaged with his office; I did not speak directly to the Prime Minister at the time.

Senator WONG: Well, the PM in question time was asked when he spoke to you about this issue, and he says, 'As indicated by our foreign minister in estimates earlier today, it was during the course of this week.'

Senator Payne: That's correct.

Senator WONG: But you have not spoken to him this week.

Senator Payne: It was raised in discussions this week, in the context of a broader—

Senator WONG: Yes, but you to the office, not you to the Prime Minister?

Senator Payne: No—the Prime Minister and other colleagues; in a broader discussion this week, this issue was referred to.

Senator WONG: That's not what you said. I asked you: 'Have you had any discussion with the Prime Minister about this? If so, when?' Answer: 'Not directly, Senator.' You told me you'd been in quarantine, and I said: 'But can you make a phone call?' 'Yes, of course, of course, but I'm saying I haven't seen the Prime Minister.' 'But have you had any conversation?' 'I don't recall that I have had a specific conversation with the Prime Minister.' So have you had a conversation with the Prime Minister this week or not?

Senator Payne: The matter was raised in a discussion with colleagues—a regular meeting with a small number of colleagues. This subject was raised. The Prime Minister and I were both present, yes. But I understood you to be asking me about a—

Senator WONG: Direct conversation—

Senator Payne: bilateral conversation—

Senator WONG: Yes.

Senator Payne: if you like. And I said: 'No, not on this matter, but I have discussed the matter with his office.'

Senator WONG: Okay. I might come back to that. We'll go back to stranded Australians now. The Prime Minister announced the cap on international arrivants—arrivals. It's late in estimates and I can no longer speak. The Prime Minister announced the cap on international arrivals on 10 July—is that correct?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator Payne: Let me find the time line, which I had earlier. Now I've put that somewhere as well, which is not going to help either of us.

Senator WONG: I think Dr Webster has said it was.

Senator Payne: Here it is. The Prime Minister made a statement on 10 July following discussions with premiers and territory leaders on these issues, as I understand it.

Senator WONG: Yes. Prior to that time, or in the lead-up to that national cabinet and that announcement, did this portfolio provide advice to government on the potential impacts of implementing a cap on arrivals?

Dr Webster : As I mentioned earlier, yes, the Prime Minister announced those caps on 10 July. In the week prior to that, as you'll recall, Melbourne went into lockdown. We began receiving updates soon after that from our colleagues across government in the department of infrastructure about the potential for that to have a knock-on impact in terms of caps on international arrivals. We advised our posts via cable of that likely event. We had interactions with the minister's office in relation to those conversations we were having with Infrastructure. Our inputs were around making sure that everyone was aware how many Australians were overseas at the time and the potential impact that might have in terms of it being more challenging for them to return.

Senator WONG: So, if I can summarise—and tell me if I have it incorrect—you became aware in the week prior that there was the potential for a decision to be made that would cap international arrivals?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator WONG: You advised posts of that fact, but it was not made public—that was my interpolation.

Dr Webster : On 3 July we sent a cable to posts. That was more about the fact that Melbourne had gone into lockdown and the international arrivals into Melbourne had ceased and the impact that would have.

Senator WONG: So it was not advised to posts that there might be caps?

Dr Webster : No, we didn't pre-empt that.

Senator WONG: And then you had interactions with them and you said your inputs, and I infer from that, this is the assessment you did of the potential impact of a cap—

Dr Webster : Yes.

Senator WONG: Basically you asked how many were overseas and what the potential impact was on capacity to return home. When you say 'challenges', I assume that includes the effect on the market and therefore the availability of flights?

Dr Webster : Yes, potentially.

Senator WONG: Did you do any—I hate to use the word modelling because it's such a term of art—quantification of what a particular set of caps would mean for the number of people who would be stranded?

Dr Webster : No, not at that very early stage, simply because it was extremely uncertain what those caps would be and how long they will be in place. You might recall that the 10 July announcement was initially a cap on international arrivals for a period of two weeks, at which point it would be reviewed. It may have just been a short-term impact.

Senator WONG: Sure. I was try to work out, in order to inform the negotiating position of the Commonwealth at the national cabinet and the meeting of premiers, whether there was an assessment of the implications of the number of people likely to be stranded, resulting from where the caps were. Obviously, the lower the caps, the more people you are going to have stranded, right?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator WONG: I'm just trying to get a sense of whether the effect of particular numbers was before government.

Dr Webster : Not from our department.

Senator WONG: Senator Rice asked you about additional flights—this was a few months later—and you said, 'We've always had contingency plans in place to work on facilitated flights.' When did you commence working on those plans? Was that after the caps or—

Dr Webster : Those are plans we've had in place all the way through this crisis.

Senator WONG: So you have had prepared plans for additional facilitated flights since the borders have been closed.

Dr Webster : Since March, yes. And we have rolled out a series of those flights.

Senator WONG: I know. When was the first one? Not the epicentre.

Dr Webster : Not the evacuation? It was early April—I'll have to find you the exact date—and it was Peru.

Senator WONG: Yes, I remember. They were being asked to pay very large amounts for seats on a private charter.

Dr Webster : That was the first flight: a private charter not organised by the Australian government.

Senator WONG: Which they organised because they didn't think you were doing it. I could get into it, but I'm not going to. How many facilitated flights have there been to date?

Dr Webster : It's 66.

Senator WONG: How many since the caps were announced?

Dr Webster : Two. Those were the most recent ones from the UK.

Senator WONG: And we've had evidence about the additional ones—I think it's six others.

Dr Webster : Six others.

Senator WONG: Are you able to tell me how many flights your plans extended to?

Dr Webster : Could you clarify the question?

Senator WONG: I'm trying to get quantification. When you said, 'We've always worked on contingency plans for facilitated flights,' did you look it up to 50, up to 100 or up to 200?

Dr Webster : No, because the situation is changing all the time. We're constantly assessing where our Australian citizens are, where they have commercial flights available—limited or not available at all—and where we might, should we be able to, mount facilitated flights. That will be dependent on the quarantine capacity in Australia.

Senator WONG: Were you funded for more facilitated flights at any point?

Dr Webster : I will turn to my chief financial officer. He mentioned earlier—

Senator WONG: The DFAT people have got to get better at budgets!

Dr Webster : He mentioned earlier the funding that we had in place—

Senator WONG: You've got to know where the money is coming from!

Dr Webster : which includes for facilitated commercial flights.

Senator WONG: Mr Venugopal, was there additional departmental funding for facilitated flights?

Mr Venugopal : We were funded as part of the $10.555 million that I outlined earlier in my evidence, in 2019-20. That included funding for facilitated flights.

Senator WONG: How many?

Mr Venugopal : Fifty.

Senator WONG: Fifty? For the 2019-20 year?

Mr Venugopal : That's correct.

Senator WONG: At the time this was allocated to you, which was the midyear update or whatever they call—

Mr Venugopal : It was at the July economic—

Senator WONG: The economic statement—the thing they did so that they didn't have a budget until October.

Mr Venugopal : Yes, that's right.

Senator WONG: You had already done the flights. So, at this stage, you'd already done, 60 or something between March and whenever it was?

Mr Venugopal : Yes.

Dr Webster : Sixty-four.

Senator WONG: I know, but if there are two that have been done recently, my point is that, by the time you were funded, you'd done the majority of the flights for which you had been funded. Is that right?

Mr Venugopal : Technically, yes, that is correct. If I may clarify one point, Senator: as you would be aware, this also has to do with the appropriation bills and the timing, so—

Senator WONG: I'm asking about a decision of government, not the appropriation bill.

Mr Venugopal : Fine. So, as a result of that, the government did make a decision on the funding of the $10.555 million, which was communicated to us and informed to us by the Department of Finance—

Senator WONG: When?

Mr Venugopal : Much before the July economic update.

Senator WONG: 'Much'?

Mr Venugopal : Yes. However, it was published as part of the JEFU

Senator WONG: When was the decision made?

Mr Venugopal : I don't have that information with me.

Senator WONG: When were you advised?

Mr Venugopal : It would have been certainly around—

Senator WONG: Don't say that.

Mr Venugopal : March or April.

Senator WONG: Then we come to the cap in July and, at that stage, you're not funded for any additional flights?

Dr Webster : We still had money remaining—

Senator WONG: Out of the 15?

Dr Webster : That's right.

Senator WONG: Minister, you were provided with advice from the department about the potential impact of the caps on people's capacity to come home, amongst other things, as a consequence of the availability of commercial flights. I don't think that's controversial. Prior to the decision being made on caps, did you put a view to your colleagues about the potential implications of a cap for stranded Australians?

Senator Payne: These matters have been the subject of extensive discussion between ministers and departments, particularly amongst portfolios involved in the complex process of not just the individual Australians seeking flights and seeking options but also—and you've referred to it yourself—the availability of aircraft and airlines, the landing of flights in the different states and territories, domestic agencies with respect to quarantine and the caps themselves. These matters have all been part of significant ongoing discussions right through this whole process.

Senator WONG: You didn't announce facilitated or charter flights until October; is that correct?

Senator Payne: This round of flights?

Senator WONG: Post the caps being introduced, you did?

Senator Payne: That's right.

Senator WONG: You said there were considerable discussions but, between July and October, did you raise with colleagues the fact that the consequence of the caps was that the number of Australians who were stranded and the number of vulnerable Australians who were stranded was rising?

Senator Payne: These issues were discussed regularly with colleagues. The decision-making process through the national cabinet, the advice from the AHPPC, and the management of the quarantine process, particularly, and the outcomes that were being sought to be achieved by jurisdictions, by states and territories, in terms of the management of the quarantine process—obviously, governments make decisions balancing all of these issues. We know what the impacts of inadequate quarantine are. We've seen that. So all of these matters are weighed up.

Senator WONG: That's true; I get that. But you know what's going to happen. You know it's happening. You announced the caps on 10 July. You didn't actually announce any assistance to stranded Australians until 2 September, which happens to be, frankly, after these matters were raised both in the parliament and in parliamentary committees.

Senator Payne: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—our consular officials, in particular—have been working constantly both at posts and through—

Senator WONG: No, it's measures. Can we not hide behind the hard work of officials.

Senator Payne: I'm not hiding, Senator. I'm actually not.

Senator WONG: I'm asking about your responsibility as minister to demand of your colleagues funding and resourcing for the things Australians need, and I'm clarifying that nothing was done—

Senator Payne: That's not correct, then.

Senator WONG: in terms of additional flights and hardship funds between the cap and the 2 September announcement, where you announced the hardship funds, which happened to be after these matters were raised in the parliament.

Senator Payne: There have been regular and ongoing efforts through the department, particularly through the consular teams—as I was about to say when you interrupted earlier—at posts and in the CCD, which is running two split 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week to—

Senator WONG: I'm asking about you.

CHAIR: Allow the minister to answer, please.

Senator Payne: Senator, seriously—

Senator WONG: You—your job.

Senator Payne: Seriously, Senator—

Senator WONG: It's not about their job. I'm asking about your job.

CHAIR: Please allow the minister to continue.

Senator Payne: Senator, I've been watching the discussions that have been had in a range of committees on these issues, and I understand the very legitimate questions that you and other senators have raised. But, to be very, very, very clear, if I think about this, there are a not insignificant number of other ministers who have been part of these discussions around the table who have been giving evidence on their own portfolios in estimates. If I recall correctly, we don't necessarily have direct responsibility ministers at the table. This has been a process of balancing the protection of Australians here and the support of Australians overseas, and it has involved a whole-of-government process of consideration which has drawn enormously on heads of department, on senior officials, on teams around Australia and around the world, in my case, to try to work within the constraints that COVID-19 has presented in this country. The constraints that COVID-19 has presented in this country have resulted in the country's second-largest airport being closed since 2 June. The constraints that COVID-19 has presented in this country have resulted in some states determining that they were not able to accept any more than just over 500 passengers a week into their states or territories—and, in some cases, none.

So this has been an extraordinarily difficult process, and, watching my staff, my teams and Australians themselves approach me directly about the support that they have needed, I absolutely appreciate the extraordinary difficulty it has presented for very, very, very many people. But what Australia has done to achieve the outcome that we are at now has required a very careful balancing of policy—to use your word—a very careful balancing of the demands of policy both to do what we needed to do here domestically and to provide the support we have needed to provide internationally. I am—and you have agreed with this already—immensely proud of the work that posts and staff here in Australia have done and, frankly, I'm immensely grateful, because it has been considerable to try to balance a situation where one state in Australia has taken over 72,000 international arrivals into their quarantine process while the numbers are very different for other states and territories. This has not been simple—not by any stretch of the imagination. It has not been an easy task, and we understand absolutely the impost it has put on Australians overseas. But it has required a delicate balance of policy and policy areas—to, again, use your words—and an assessment of the capacity of systems within Australia, in the context of a pandemic, to actually handle significantly higher numbers. That goes to security. That goes to health. That goes to management of quarantine and all of those processes, which brings me back to the fact that, knowing exactly what happens when quarantine processes are inadequate, we were not prepared to risk that.

Senator WONG: Can you confirm in terms of what you did that, in fact, you announced nothing further in relation to assistance to Australians who are stuck overseas until 2 September when you announced extended hardship funds?

Senator Payne: Senator, we, including—

Senator WONG: No—you, minister. The foreign minister.

Senator Payne: Yes, Senator, I understand that.

Senator WONG: I'm not asking about all the work they do. I'm asking about you.

Senator Payne: Working with my department, with the secretary, with Deputy Secretary Sheehan, with Dr Webster and with other officials, we have worked every single day to support Australians who were—

Senator WONG: Why won't you answer the question?

Senator Payne: restricted by the circumstances and the arrangements in place here, including the provision of what we call traveller emergency loans, or TELs, endeavouring to negotiate with airlines to assist them onto flights and a range of other actions to provide the support, where we were able to do so.

Senator WONG: I'm asking you, as minister, about your actions. I don't think hiding behind the work of officials is reasonable. I am not asking about the work of officials. I am asking what additional policy initiatives you brought forward. I'm asking you to confirm that you brought forward nothing until 2 September when you announced additional loans.

Senator Payne: No, Senator, it's not correct to say that that is the case—

Senator WONG: Then tell me where you did bring forward something.

Senator Payne: I am not going to go into the processes of—

Senator WONG: You did stuff that you won't tell people about?

Senator Payne: No. Senator, would you let me finish?

Senator WONG: Sure. Why can't you just tell us what you did?

Senator Payne: I'm not going to go into the processes of the government's internal discussions in that context, Senator, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the secretary and I, as part of the formal process that examined this every single week—in fact, multiple times every single week—have consistently provided support and advice to respond to the issues that you raise, including advice on steps that could be taken if we had the ability to take them. So the point that Dr Webster made earlier in relation to the preparations made for facilitated flights is part of that process. The—

Senator WONG: I'm going to get to them. I was asking about between July and September.

Senator Payne: And that's what I'm talking about.

Senator WONG: Anyway, you don't want to tell us what else you did in that time, other than referring to them, so I'm going to move on. There has been quite a lot of media focus and, obviously, a lot of communication from very distressed Australians overseas and their families here in Australia, and there have been a number of assertions about the advice that DFAT officials were providing to people, including one in August that people were being told to start GoFundMe style crowdfunding campaigns if they were running out of money and another that the Australian High Commission staff at Heathrow were providing a list of homeless shelters to Australians turned away by flights. Let's just pick those two examples: the reference to homeless shelters and the GoFundMe crowdfunding proposition. Secretary, is it the case that that advice was provided on any occasion by a DFAT officer to an Australian?

Ms Adamson : I can't be absolutely confident about the precise words used by consular officers overseas in every single instance. I do know, though, that in every single instance they were motivated by a desire to be as helpful as they could in the particular circumstances that Australians found themselves in. Dr Webster can speak to the broad advice—the advice that we provided consular officers—and the availability of what we called, consistently, travellers emergency loans, but then we had adopted a different larger-scale hardship approach. I know there has been quite a bit of discussion about a list of homeless shelters. But, actually, if you are homeless and you've been turned away and you have nowhere else to go, a list of homeless shelters is actually quite a practical thing to have.

Dr Webster : I would say, in addition to that, that there is no advice to consular officers to offer GoFundMe campaigns to fund their travel or their subsistence. In relation to homeless shelters, the secretary's quite right: when people approach us for help, they're destitute, they have nowhere to go or they have mental health issues, they have medical issues. Our consular officers are advised to give them lists of organisations that might be able to help them—so lists of lawyers if they're in legal trouble, doctors if they're in medical trouble, homeless shelters if they have nowhere to go. Then we have the traveller emergency loans. They might be referred to Lifeline, in Australia, they might be referred to beyondblue—

Senator WONG: We're not talking about that one. I asked specifically about homelessness: homeless shelters. It has been publically reported, and we have been told, that one of the responses from government to stranded people has been to refer them to homeless shelters. I'll ask the minister: does she think that's acceptable?

Senator Payne: I think both Ms Adamson and Dr Webster have set out the in extremis situation, where an individual person with consular issues approaches officers asking for help. A consular officer will do their best to support that person—always, in my experience. They will do their best to support that person with the means at their disposal. Is it ideal that, in some cases, people have found themselves in a position where they don't have somewhere to go because of the impacts of COVID-19 on the country in which they find themselves or the city in which they find themselves? Absolutely not. Is this the most difficult set of circumstances—and I'm happy to be corrected by those at the table—that we've worked with to try to support Australians? It most certainly is. There are a significant number of issues that have arisen through this process because of COVID-19 that we are aware of where we have tried to support Australians, and, in fact, I would call some of the outcomes that DFAT has provided to Australians overseas basically the delivery of miracles, in some cases.

Senator WONG: Minister, do you think it's acceptable for Australians to be advised by your department and by your government to crowd fund for their return home in the midst of a global pandemic?

Senator Payne: Dr Webster has said that that's not advice that we provided to consular officers, and it is not advice that I would give myself. But the point that I'm making is that dealing with an in extremis situation in a pandemic, where people are in circumstances that we have never experienced before, has taken a great deal of innovative and diligent work by the teams around the world—some in countries where we are seeing infections peaking at tens of thousands every day. It's still happening—

Senator WONG: I just asked one question.

Senator Payne: and it is very hard.

Senator WONG: I know you want—

Senator Payne: I don't want you to put words in my mouth, Senator—

Senator WONG: No. I just think that—

Senator Payne: and you try to do that all the time. And that's a matter for you.

Senator WONG: the continued lecture at everybody about a pandemic that we're all aware of is not actually answering my question, which—

Senator Payne: I'm not sure you are, sometimes, Senator—not you personally, actually.

Senator WONG: Alright, that's because I'm stupid. That's right!

Senator Payne: Not you personally.

Senator WONG: I don't understand the global pandemic! I mean, really.

Senator Payne: No, not you personally.

Senator WONG: The point is what you have done.

CHAIR: Let's not break a habit of a lifetime of people trying to put words into each other's mouths.

Senator WONG: We all know there's a global pandemic. We all know that.

CHAIR: Can we ask questions and then have them answered?

Senator Payne: Senator, I've seen some behaviour from those on your side which would suggest some don't.

Senator WONG: Well, we do.

CHAIR: Alright!

Senator WONG: But that is not an answer to your accountability and your performance.

Senator Payne: Actually, Senator—

Senator WONG: See, you're ducking again.

CHAIR: Can we have a question, please, Senator Wong?

Senator WONG: Every time I ask a question, we hear a lecture about a global pandemic. Everybody knows about COVID-19. We've got that. The question is your responses, Minister, and the extent to which you're showing leadership to help stranded Australians come home. Instead of being clear about what you have done, you keep giving us a lecture about a pandemic and hiding behind the very good work of officials. I don't think it's acceptable, and I think most people don't think it's acceptable for the Australian government to put people in a situation where they have to go to homeless shelters—

CHAIR: Is that a comment?

Senator WONG: where they have to charter their own flights, where they have to go to charities, where they have to wait and watch other nationals have facilitated flights before you, as minister, act.

Senator Payne: Senator, I don't accept your characterisation. And I would be very grateful—

Senator WONG: That's fine.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, allow the minister to respond.

Senator Payne: I would be grateful for your support, for example, in seeking to have quarantine numbers raised in a number of jurisdictions in this country. I'd be grateful for your support in seeking—

Senator WONG: And, as I recall, we put Howard Springs on the public agenda before the government did—in fact, we did. Some of the solutions—

Senator Payne: Howard Springs had already used by this government, as you are very well aware. And, as I recall, it was used by the Northern Territory government for its own domestic quarantine purposes after that, Senator.

Senator WONG: Can we go back to the Christmas deadline, please? The Prime Minister seems to significantly round down the number of stranded Australians when he speaks. On 18 September he said that it was 20,000 and, when pressed, he acknowledged that it was 24,000—when in fact it was 27,000. On 23 October he said they were 26,000, when there were in excess of 32,000. Is he being briefed poorly? Is it just a misspeak that keeps continuing? Or is he just trying to downplay how many people are actually stranded? It is a question for you, Minister.

Senator Payne: Thank you for clarifying, Senator. As Dr Webster has said, I don't have all of the Prime Minister's statements in front of me. But, as Dr Webster said—and as I think the secretary said earlier—these are literally constantly changing numbers. It is a situation where the number of Australians who made registrations with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has changed in weeks and months, where some Australians who are the subject of, for example, media attention, we then find out are not registered with DFAT and ultimately then end up on the list. So they are always changing. The Prime Minister endeavours to provide as much information as he can to Australians in the process of talking about these issues, and one would expect him to do that.

Senator WONG: On 18 September, the Prime Minister made a commitment that Australians would be home by Christmas. Before he made that commitment, was DFAT, or were you, Minister, aware that he was intending to do so?

Senator Payne: We were most certainly aware that our endeavours were to get as many Australians back to Australia, as the caps were changing in the states and territories, as we possibly could in as short an amount of time as was practically possible to do in terms of both airlines and caps. So that's the aim: to return as many people as possible.

Senator WONG: Well, it is not the aim. The 'commitment', as he's described it, is to bring everybody home by Christmas. He's described it as a commitment.

Senator Payne: The statement the Prime Minister made, as I understand it, on 18 September, which was the date upon which the cap changes were announced from national cabinet, was to say—and I have a note here in relation to a doorstop—'I would hope that we can get as many people home, if not all of them, by Christmas.' He said, 'I would hope that we can get as many people home.'

Senator WONG: And on 23 October, he said, 'I can confirm when we made our commitment on 18 September'—he referred to it as a commitment. Anyway, so it's not a commitment; it's a hope. Is that right?

Senator Payne: No, Senator. On 23 October the Prime Minister said:

It's our goal to get those 26,000 Australians home that were registered by Christmas. Now, whether we achieve that or not is going to be dependent on many factors. It's going to be dependent on the flights. It's going to be dependent on the continued cooperation of the states and territories.

That is a quote. I have mentioned those factors in our discussion here already.

Senator WONG: He also referred to it as a commitment elsewhere in the transcript—but let's leave it there. So he indicates on 18 September that the target or the goal is getting people home—and we differ as to the extent to which that was something that could bank on. I am asking again: when did the department first become aware that this was a target of the government—that is, to get the stranded Australians home by Christmas? Were you aware before 18 September?

Dr Webster : As I said earlier, I think we always knew that there was an expectation that we would try to get home as many people as we possibly could within the shortest time frame as we possibly could.

Senator WONG: That is not my question, though. It is the answer I would anticipate, but I'm asking a very direct question, which is: was DFAT aware that the Prime Minister was announcing a goal of getting the stranded Australians home by Christmas before he said so?

Ms Adamson : I'd have to take that on notice. As Dr Webster has said, this has been a constant for us with every available opportunity—

Senator WONG: That's not what I asked.

Ms Adamson : I will need to come back to you on notice. Because it has been a constant, it is constantly in our mind and I would need to check.

Senator WONG: That's a good answer.

Ms Adamson : It's a truthful answer.

Senator WONG: You are a very good department and you listen very carefully to what ministers say, including the Prime Minister. When you heard him say that it was the goal to get everyone home by Christmas, were you aware of it before he said those words or not?

Dr Webster : As the secretary said, I think we would have to take that on notice.

Ms Adamson : Including because the minister said that for she and I, in particular, but also Mr Sheehan and Dr Webster, this is a daily job for us and I would need to check what meeting of the regular ones that the minister referred to was held immediately before. Often there are such meetings before national cabinet when an indication to do things, including on the basis of our advice, is given and then it is announced. So I always pay very close attention, obviously, to the announcements out of national cabinet. We never prejudge them because that is the way national cabinet works.

Senator WONG: But, obviously, if there is a policy goal—I'm not going to have a semantic argument now about commitments, so let's like just parked that—to get people home by Christmas, your advice is relevant to that.

Ms Adamson : Of course it is.

Senator WONG: Were you asked to provide advice on the policy goal of getting all Australians home by Christmas?

Ms Adamson : I will need to take that on notice.

Senator WONG: Did the Prime Minister just announce it without actually getting advice as to whether it could be delivered?

Senator Payne: I've made it very clear, as has the secretary, that these matters have been the subject of daily, at one stage, twice-weekly and weekly consideration since January or February this year.

Senator WONG: These matters.

Senator Payne: And they are constantly updated and reviewed. The capacity we had to bring more Australians on flights here that were not able to return by commercial means or others, that part of the discussion, has been something that we've dealt with every single day. The secretary is right. I know you don't accept it, Senator, but it is actually correct.

Senator WONG: I think the diversion is obvious.

Senator Payne: It is not a diversion.

Senator WONG: I think it is, but others can judge.

Senator Payne: I am telling you a fact—it is not.

Senator WONG: And I'm asking for a fact. I'm asking whether you were advised prior to the Prime Minister articulating a goal of getting Australians home by Christmas. Were you advised that he was going to do so?

Senator Payne: The secretary and Dr Webster have taken the specific timing of any advice on notice.

Senator WONG: I bet they have. When did you know?

Senator Payne: I'm taking it on notice, Senator.

Senator WONG: Because you can't remember whether the PM spoke to you before he announced it? Surely you would remember that.

Senator Payne: As I have said, maybe there has been one week when we have not had a meeting that has canvassed this issue since February or March. These issues have been discussed amongst the committees of government, senior officials interdepartmental committees every single week—and, in some cases, every single day.

Senator WONG: Sure.

Senator Payne: That is kind of a process of providing advice, is my point, Senator.

Senator WONG: But there is a distinction between ongoing work around how we get people home and the leader of the country and the government giving a public commitment to bring people home by Christmas. You are an experienced enough official to know that there is a difference.

Ms Adamson : Of course there is, Senator, and if you were to ask me if I was surprised by that announcement, I would say no.

Senator WONG: Dr Webster, what do you understand the commitment to mean?

Dr Webster : I take it to mean quite literally that we should try to get as many people home as possible before Christmas.

Senator WONG: So not all of them—'if not all of them,' as the Prime Minister said? Do you think you can get them all?

Dr Webster : As many as possible.

Senator WONG: The task force was set up three days later. Was the task force, which was set up three days later, set up for the purpose of trying to deliver on this prime ministerial goal?

Dr Webster : That's right. I've been absolutely focused on trying to organise facilitated commercial flights, to work with our missions, our agencies and with people across government to use as many avenues as possible to bring them home—

Senator WONG: So it wasn't set up before but it was set up three days later in order to try and deliver on the Prime Minister's goal. Is that right?

Dr Webster : Yes, that's right. But, as I said earlier, we were doing that work all the way along. The thing that changed at that point in time was that jurisdictions started to ease their caps. More space was becoming available, and we became aware that there may be opportunities for us to launch facilitated flights, bringing in planeloads of people, rather than just small numbers just above the caps.

Senator WONG: We've confirmed already in evidence earlier today that, just immediately prior to and since the Prime Minister's commitment, the number of Australians who are stranded overseas has, in fact, gone up by nearly 10,000 since the commitment was made. I think that's right.

Dr Webster : It was 26,200 on 18 September. Today, I said it was close to 34,000; it's 33,700.

Senator WONG: So it's about 8,000 more?

Dr Webster : Yes.

Senator WONG: You said—and I think you referenced again the evidence that another committee received on Monday or Tuesday of last week—that you had two flights which have occurred since the caps were introduced and six more which are pending?

Dr Webster : Yes, that's correct.

Senator WONG: Qantas's public statements say that that would mean about 13,00 people?

Dr Webster : That's about right. Each flight can take around 175 and that will change depending on final numbers.

Senator WONG: So what is the proposal to bring home the remainder?

Dr Webster : As I mentioned to Senator Rice earlier, there are a few different channels for bringing additional Australians home. The first is within the caps, which, at the moment, are set at 5,575 a week. Obviously we want to make the most of that capacity. If you take it to be eight weeks until Christmas, that cap allows us to take in about 45,000 Australians. I just want to caveat that figure because about 75 per cent of that number would be Australian citizens and permanent residents in any given week. The ABF would have to confirm what those figures are, but I understand that, in terms of people who have visas, special exemptions to enter may make up the additional 25 per cent, so—

Senator WONG: I'm going to come back to that. Based on eight weeks, your calculation is that, if the caps are fully utilised, you can get 45,000 people home?

Dr Webster : That's right. But that includes, as I said, that 25 per cent, which is not—

Senator WONG: We'll come to that. 'Up to'—shall we do it that way?—of which there are 1,300 on facilitated flights.

Dr Webster : No, no. That is just within the caps. So that's one avenue within the caps. Above the caps is the additional capacity that I outlined to Senator Rice earlier. Howard Springs can take 500 every 16 to 18 days. I can run through the jurisdictions, but—

Senator WONG: No, I've heard that evidence already, unless it's changed since Tuesday of last week, but I'm making a different point. Technically, Howard Springs is not included in the cap, but, in terms of quarantine places—firstly, are the quarantine places being fully utilised?

Dr Webster : That's a matter for Infrastructure.

Senator WONG: Can you just tell me? You must know. I mean, really.

Dr Webster : My understanding is they're generally between 90 and 100 per cent, but it depends on the jurisdictions.

Senator WONG: Is Howard Springs fully utilised?

Dr Webster : Yes, we intend to utilise all 500 spaces.

Senator WONG: From when? Next week?

Dr Webster : From the first flight that we had that arrived from London which was last week. That carried 161 vulnerable Australians. A second flight that arrived in Darwin on 27 October carried 183 Australians from India.

Senator WONG: For those quarantine places, if you've got 1,300 being brought home by facilitated flights or charter flights—I've forgotten precisely the legal or financial basis of them—how are the rest going to get home?

Dr Webster : Other jurisdictions have also offered up space above the caps—

Senator WONG: No, no, flights. We're in a world where you told me that, if you assume the caps—plus, I assume, the 45,000 includes Howard Springs, does it?

Dr Webster : No, it doesn't.

Senator WONG: Okay. What is the total quarantine capacity between now and Christmas? Let's do it that way around—45,000 plus Howard Springs.

Senator Payne: We don't calculate the total quarantine capacity, but Dr Webster's doing her best—

Senator WONG: I know, but this is relevant to what—

Senator Payne: to provide you with an assessment.

Senator WONG: This is relevant to the goal the government has set and it's relevant to the number of flights you can organise, because you keep telling us—you came to the COVID committee and told us, 'It's not the flights; it's the quarantine places.' You can't then say, 'Actually, we don't know about the quarantine places.' Surely the right and the left hand in government know what they're doing. You've got a number of quarantine places, whether they are the capped places or Howard Springs. You then look at: what is going to be the carrying capacity of commercial flights and facilitated flights? You work out what the shortfall is. That's what I want answered.

Ms Adamson : The answer is—and I know you're very logical about these things—

Senator WONG: Not always.

Ms Adamson : that there are many, many empty seats on flights coming into Australia. It is the caps that reduce the number of passengers. So, as the caps are lifted—raised, rather than being removed—that frees up space for airlines to bring in—

Senator WONG: Of course.

Ms Adamson : So we could do this if—

Senator WONG: So surely you've done some demand analysis.

CHAIR: Allow Ms Adamson to complete the answer, please.

Ms Adamson : That is why the process, if you like—and this is essentially national cabinet—of encouraging all states to bring more quarantine capacity online and to lift the caps—

Senator WONG: But I'm asking you—your official just said 45,000 ex Howard Springs between now and Christmas, correct?

Dr Webster : So 45,000 is the number that could be brought home under the cap, yes.

Senator WONG: Correct, plus Howard Springs, which you don't count within that.

Dr Webster : No. That's above the cap.

Senator WONG: Yes, that's what I just said.

Dr Webster : That's right.

Senator WONG: Why was that so hard? And I'm saying, if that's the case, you've got 45,000 plus Howard Springs capacity for quarantine. Let's just assume that. Have you assured yourselves that there will be sufficient flight availability to do that, to utilise that?

Ms Adamson : There is no shortage of flights, Senator.

Senator WONG: I asked a question.

Dr Webster : So, to fill the 45,000—

Senator WONG: There's a shortage of seats.

Senator Payne: No, there's not a shortage of seats.

Ms Adamson : No, there's no shortage of seats.

Senator Payne: There's not a shortage of seats.

Senator WONG: I'm going to make sure all the people who contact my office—I'm going to say, 'Senator Marise Payne says there's no shortage of seats.'

CHAIR: Please allow the minister and secretary to answer.

Senator Payne: Senator, you know the point that we're making.

Senator WONG: Available seats.

Senator Payne: Seats available under the caps is the difference here. To take a physical plane—

Senator WONG: I understand that!

Senator Payne: I'm sorry—it's not clear that you did understand that.

Senator WONG: Oh, yeah, I'm stupid—that's right.

Senator Payne: Oh, I'm sorry, Senator.

Senator WONG: Well, why are you so patronising? I understand that.

CHAIR: Let the record show what was spoken!

Senator Payne: I'll get you a mirror!

Senator WONG: I just don't understand. You come here and tell me it's all fine. You've got a certain number of quarantine places. You've got flights that you've organised for 1,300. There's a very large difference between the number of available quarantine places, whether they're capped or above the cap, Howard Springs—however you wish to say it—and the flights that people can get on. And I'm asking this department: how are people going to get home, given the Prime Minister has said 'home by Christmas'?

CHAIR: And now allow them to try to answer, uninterrupted.

Senator WONG: Is there a plan to make sure people can get on seats?

Dr Webster : We will make the most of existing capacity. So, where there is capacity within the caps, we will ensure that it is filled. There are four different streams of flights coming in. There are scheduled commercial flights, which are capped, into jurisdictions. Then there are additional bilateral arrangements where jurisdictions have said they'll take additional passengers. That can be on scheduled commercial flights, which recommence and bring more people home, or it could be through just regular scheduled commercial flights, where, for example, into Western Australia, they've said they'll take an additional 140 a week. That would be spread across a range of airlines, and we will try and get as many vulnerable people on board those flights. So it lifts the number of people on each plane coming in.

Senator WONG: How many will you get home by Christmas? What are you working to?

Dr Webster : The numbers that I read out earlier, which were announced by the Prime Minister just last week, give you an indication of that additional capacity, which we will seek to fill—

Senator WONG: No. I'm not asking about capacity.

Dr Webster : The number over those eight weeks approximately would be an additional 4,800 Australians coming in on additional flights.

Senator Payne: Over the caps.

Dr Webster : Over the caps.

Senator WONG: Let's not be too bureaucratic here. You have nearly 34,000 stranded—that is, people overseas who want to come home. Of that 34,000, how many are you anticipating you will be able to get home by Christmas? Can you give me a full number, not just an under-the-cap number. How many of them get home by Christmas?

Dr Webster : It's actually a very complex question—

Senator WONG: Well, what are you working to?

Dr Webster : because it depends on a range of contingencies. We are working on the figures as they evolve in terms of what capacity comes online. If Melbourne comes online before Christmas, that would create additional capacity. New Zealand—

Senator WONG: You can't give me an indication?

Dr Webster : I don't want to speculate on an actual final figure.

Senator WONG: So the Prime Minister has made a commitment that we will get people home by Christmas, and, in October, the department which is the lead department can't give me a number that they anticipate they can get home by Christmas.

Senator Payne: I think the statements that Dr Webster has made go to—as you say—the commitment from 18 September. The number then was 26,200 or so, of which just over 3,000 of those, if I remember correctly—

Dr Webster : It was 4,000.

Senator Payne: 4,000 were what we had in a vulnerable category. The Prime Minister's commitment—the government's commitment—is to bring as many as possible of that cohort of Australians home. And 5,722 of the 26,000 registered as at 18 September are already back in Australia—5,722 have already returned. Dr Webster is correct in saying that it is contingent on a range of factors, including the fact that the seats under the caps—as you know only too well, because you, like I and other members of parliament, have been dealing with this—are seats which are commercially sold. Many of those have been sold by airlines at a business class fare or higher. We are able to assist passengers where that is prohibitive, and for many, many, many people it is. We are doing that to ensure that those seats can go to as many registered Australians as possible. But we have no control over to whom the airlines sell those seats. So, our focus for the vulnerable is on using Howard Springs, in particular, to make sure that we can support that cohort, but also in assisting vulnerable Australians to achieve seats on the commercial flights where we can.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, can I quickly ask a question here? Yes. In relation to the airfares and the substantial price of them, are we satisfied that they are an appropriate commercial fare given the situation in which the airlines operate, or is there a degree of opportunism being undertaken by the airlines in charging relatively high prices?

Senator Payne: I don't know if those questions were asked of the department of transport and infrastructure. They would usually deal with those matters. But the—

CHAIR: The taxpayer is subsidising, as I understand it, some of it. So I'm just wondering—

Senator Payne: Yes, I understand that, and through DFAT—I absolutely acknowledge that. As it has been put to me, if you take an example of an A-380, or whatever the aircraft itself might be, the maximum number of seats which are carrying passengers on a full international airliner is 45 or 50 passengers because of the daily and weekly caps. So, the cost of flying the aircraft doesn't change—

CHAIR: That is fully understood. I was just wondering whether any official assessment has been undertaken as to whether—

Senator Payne: Perhaps by Infrastructure. But the support that we have been focused on providing is in assisting Australians who have been booked on some of those flights to try to endeavour to have the airlines keep them on those flights, in some cases, and in other cases to provide funding to enable them to fly at economy—

CHAIR: That is understood. The fares charged are out of our control, and that's understood. I'm just wondering on the side whether any assessment has been made as to whether there is a degree of opportunism or—

Senator Payne: That would not be done by us. That would be done by Infrastructure and Transport, if it were to be done, but in the context of what we're dealing with—

CHAIR: I won't derail the hearing by pursuing this further. It was just a question of interest that arose out of the discussions. Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: Dr Webster, I promised you that I would come back to your indication that, of the people utilising the quarantine places within the cap, one in four—25 per cent—were non-Australian citizens. Is that right?

Dr Webster : That would be a figure that, as I said, we would need to check with the Australian Border Force. But I understood from previous hearings that Mr Pezzullo mentioned that approximately 75 per cent of the flights coming in are filled by Australian citizens or permanent residents and the remaining 25 per cent would be non-Australian citizens or permanent residents on special exemptions and visa categories.

Ms Adamson : Some of whom—we know this to be a fact—are family members of Australian citizens or permanent residents.

Senator WONG: Some of them are celebrities. Have you seen the modelling from PM&C that was referred to on Tuesday?

Dr Webster : I'm not sure which modelling you mean.

Senator WONG: The modelling about how many people would come back.

Dr Webster : We meet regularly and talk regularly with PM&C—

Senator WONG: Don't give me a process answer. Please answer the question.

Dr Webster : I'd have to take that on notice.

Senator WONG: You're a very good officer. You would know. Have you seen the modelling from PM&C, which PM&C referred to on Tuesday—the evidence I'm sure you watched or at least got a Hansard of—about the number of people likely to return by Christmas?

Dr Webster : We certainly share with PM&C our own figures, and they work off our data, in terms of the number of Australians overseas. Yes, to the extent that we're working off the same numbers.

Senator WONG: What number would be home by Christmas? What number of Australians likely to be home by Christmas have you seen in the context of that sharing of data?

Dr Webster : I'm not going to speculate on the number of Australians.

Senator WONG: I'm not asking you to speculate. I'm asking you a very direct question. I will remind you that this is Senate estimates and that if you have a PII claim you need to refer it to a minister. I'm asking if you have seen the number.

Dr Webster : I will take that on notice.

Senator WONG: On what basis?

Dr Webster : On the basis that I don't recall seeing a single figure, because the figures—

Senator WONG: Alright. What range of figures have you seen?

Dr Webster : The figures have changed over time.

Senator WONG: What range of figures have you seen?

Dr Webster : The figures have changed over time, because initially we had far fewer spaces within the quarantine caps—

Senator WONG: What are the most recent figures you've seen?

Dr Webster : Five thousand five hundred and seventy-five per week under the caps.

Senator WONG: That's not an answer. The question is—when you take into account all of the contingencies and variabilities that everyone seems to want to talk to me endlessly about so that they don't answer this question—what is the most recent set of data that you, as the responsible officer in the agency leading this, have seen about the number of Australians likely to be home by Christmas?

Dr Webster : I've given you the figures that I have in front of me, based on the quarantine capacity—

Senator WONG: That is a lawyer's answer. It is answering a different question. It's an answer about the number under the cap. That's not what I asked you. Could you please answer the question.

Dr Webster : The number that come in under the cap is the same as the number of Australians that will be able to be returned home in a space of time.

Senator WONG: Alright. That's your evidence, is it? We're not including Howard Springs?

Dr Webster : That includes—

Senator WONG: You said 'under the cap'. You spent some time lecturing me previously about them being under the cap.

Dr Webster : There are two figures that I mentioned earlier: one was the number under the caps, and the additional one was the calculation we have made around the announcements of additional capacity, including Howard Springs, above the cap, which was about 4,800.

CHAIR: Senator Van would like to ask a question directly related to this, at an appropriate time.

Senator WONG: I'm coming to the end of this. If I could finish this section, I'm happy to flick to him towards the end.

CHAIR: How long do you think you'll be?

Senator WONG: What time is the—

Senator VAN: I won't take long, Chair.

Senator WONG: If I could finish this section, please.

CHAIR: How long do you think you'll—

Senator WONG: What time is—

CHAIR: We go at four o'clock to the afternoon tea break.

Senator WONG: I should, depending on how much obfuscation there is—

CHAIR: But these are relevant issues right here and now—

Senator WONG: Yes, on this section.

CHAIR: No, in relation to capacity. I will go to Senator Van for one quick question.

Senator WONG: Chair, that's not reasonable.

CHAIR: I think it is. At estimates, we do allow people to interpose.

Senator WONG: If it's one question—

CHAIR: You've even been gracious enough to allow me to ask one.

Senator WONG: I have, but I'm at an important point. The officer is declining to answer a question, and I'd like to finish this set of questions, please.

Senator VAN: I think she's answered that question. I only have one question, Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: No, I'd just come back to it.

CHAIR: There will be one quick question from Senator Van, and then back to Senator Wong. Senator McMahon also has a question, but we'll do that afterwards. Senator Van?

Senator VAN: Thank you, Chair. I just wanted to check—how many people are adding their name to the list each week over past weeks because their circumstances are changing as the virus takes off again in Europe and other places?

Dr Webster : I wouldn't be able to give you a specific figure, but, as Senator Wong has pointed out, the number rises week on week. Even since last week, it's risen from, I think you mentioned, 32,000 to 34,000. I would have to take on notice where that is actually occurring. We've got that data, but I don't have it in front of me.

Senator VAN: Yes, but I'm right in saying that it's being added to each week recently?

Dr Webster : It is—absolutely.

CHAIR: Can you provide us on notice the increases and possibly where those increases are emanating from?

Dr Webster : Yes, I can.

Senator VAN: Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Van. Back to Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: What's the most recent projection you have seen of the numbers of stranded Australians who will be home by Christmas?

Dr Webster : It's the one in front of me. If we take 75 per cent of under the cap figures, that'd be about 33,500 Australians or permanent residents returned home in the next eight weeks. On top of that, above the caps, an additional 4,800 could be returned before Christmas.

Senator WONG: Okay. Well, we'll hold you to that—33,500 and 4,800—

Dr Webster : The one thing I—

Senator WONG: unless you want to ameliorate it, because nobody seems to want to give me figures.

Dr Webster : The only thing I want to make quite clear, if I could, is that the people, as the minister has said, that return under the caps are not necessarily all people that are registered with us to return.

Senator WONG: You won't give me the number, so we'll hold you to this one, unless someone can actually—you have the Prime Minister of the country telling Australians, 'We'll try and get all Australians home by Christmas.' We have a difference of view about how hard that target was. But I had the lead department declining to tell me how many they think they'll get home. So if you don't want to give me the number because you're worried about being held to it, we'll make clear the political commitment of 33,500 plus 4,800, unless perhaps you might want to come back and actually answer how much of the Prime Minister's commitment you think you can deliver as the lead department.

Senator Payne: We have discussed this before—

Senator WONG: Well, let's not spend time discussing it again.

CHAIR: Allow the minister to finish, please.

Senator Payne: The statement made by the Prime Minister following the national cabinet on 18 September related to 26,200 Australians, of whom 4,000, approximately, were in the vulnerable category. The commitment the Prime Minister made was to endeavour to bring as many of those people back to Australia prior to the end of the year.

Senator WONG: Yes. And you, as minister in the lead department, cannot tell me how many you think you'll get home. You're all trying to duck how many you think you'll get home.

Ms Adamson : I am not trying to duck—

Senator WONG: Well then tell me how many you think you will.

CHAIR: As many as possible, I would have thought.

Ms Adamson : I can tell you two things.

Senator WONG: As many as possible—is that the answer?

Ms Adamson : The first one is that we will do and we are doing every single day our very best, with a focus on the most vulnerable Australians.

Senator WONG: Sure. I accept that.

Ms Adamson : The second thing, as Dr Webster has said—we know from the caps and we also know, because of the work the Prime Minister and ministers are doing, the likelihood above caps. What is impossible to say right now is how many of those will be people who registered with us before 18 September or have registered with us since or who may register with us in the period ahead or—

Senator Payne: Or who aren't registered at all.

Ms Adamson : as the minister says, who aren't registered at all. But all of them want to come home.

Senator WONG: Sure. But my point is that the Prime Minister has made a commitment.

Ms Adamson : And we are delivering on his commitment.

Senator WONG: All I am saying is I think it's pretty reasonable to have some accountability for that commitment. And no-one here is telling me, and certainly the minister is not, how many of them you think you'll get home. I didn't make the commitment.

Ms Adamson : We will do our best and, come 25 December, we will know how well we have done.

Senator WONG: Surely you have a goal.

Ms Adamson : As many as possible.

Senator Payne: The goal is to bring the people home who were registered with DFAT on 18 September and as many Australians as we can in addition to that, obviously. But 5,722 people who were registered as at 18 September have already returned.

Senator WONG: We have all this evidence.

CHAIR: Allow the minister to finish uninterrupted, please.

Senator WONG: I'll come back after the break, then.

Senator Payne: That is through both the Howard Springs process and the commercial process. The commercial process is the process that sits under the caps. We also have the undertakings by states and territories—some; not all—to provide some additional capacity in their quarantine processes for vulnerable Australians, which will also assist us. I absolutely understand, for Australians who are overseas and, frankly, for people in the situation of members and senators who want to know the answers to these questions, the families of Australians—

Senator WONG: Families. Australians.

Senator Payne: I just said 'the families of Australians'. I just said that, Senator; thank you. I absolutely understand that this is not straightforward and it is not a simple logical equation, because, Senator, it isn't. We are endeavouring to deal with the quantum of people—the 26,200, in the first instance from 18 September, after that national cabinet meeting where the state and territory leaders and the Prime Minister agreed to take steps to address that number, including the vulnerable cohort within that 26,200 number—and 5,722 are here. That is what we are doing every single day to reduce that number. And we don't intend to stop at 26,200; we intend to continue to enable Australians to return. And, if we have to keep working within caps, that is what we will do, but it is not a straight line and it is not an easy, simple, logical equation. If it were, we would give you a mathematical answer that reflected that, but it is not.

Senator WONG: You've done the modelling on it. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has done the modelling. They made that very clear, but no-one wants to fess up as to what the outcome was. Could I just be clear from your answer just then, Minister: the number is not everybody—the denominator, as it were—who was stranded but, actually, only those who identified as being stranded on the day you made the commitment. Is that what you're saying?

Senator Payne: That's the commitment that the Prime Minister made on 18 September.

Senator WONG: It's not bad luck if you joined—

Senator Payne: No, Senator. As the secretary has said, Dr Webster has said and I have said—and I do think you are misrepresenting our position. Our position is to bring home as many Australians as we are humanly capable of bringing home.

Senator WONG: Will you tell us what has been modelled within government about the numbers you're likely to get home? We know that work has been done. We know Prime Minister and Cabinet has done that work with your inputs. Will you tell us what it is?

Senator Payne: I don't have that information with me.

Senator WONG: Right. Can I come back to the visa categories? Why are so many—

CHAIR: Just before you do, can we go to Senator McMahon, who still has a question on capacity?

Senator McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. My question is to the minister and the department. Are you aware of the potential facility in Darwin, at Wickham Point, which is very similar to the Howard Springs facility and could be used for additional quarantine?

Senator Payne: That's not a question that DFAT would deal with, because we are not managing quarantine. That is a matter for the Department of Home Affairs. I am reasonably confident that you have raised that with officials in relation to potential facilities.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you. Has the Northern Territory government contacted anyone in DFAT or your department to make that facility available?

Senator Payne: They would not be speaking to DFAT about that. The negotiations between the Northern Territory government and the Commonwealth were, and I stand be corrected, between—potentially, Health and Home Affairs; I believe it was Health—Health and the Northern Territory government in relation to the facilities in Howard Springs. They would be the negotiating parties on any further facilities.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: With this proportion, that is, 25 per cent—so one in four places—going to non-Australians, has the relative proportion of non-Australians taking up quarantine places increased over the past few months?

Ms Adamson : That's not information which would normally be available to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Senator WONG: Well, it is available to you. Mr Pezzullo made it clear that you're the lead department. It must be available to you in order for Dr Webster to do her job, because it goes directly to how many people can get in.

Ms Adamson : In relation to the role that we are carrying out in terms of the facilitated flights and the vulnerable Australians: the work that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is doing on those is only with Australian citizens, permanent residents and their families.

Senator WONG: Yes, I appreciate that. I'm making a different point, though; it goes to the availability of quarantine places. As we get more noncitizens taking quarantine places there are ipso facto going to be fewer places taken by Australian citizens. I'm just asking if there has been an increase in the number of noncitizens utilising quarantine places.

Dr Webster : I don't have that data.

Senator WONG: Do you—

Dr Webster : I think the Australian Border Force would have that data.

Senator WONG: They sent me to you.

Ms Adamson : Senator, I—

CHAIR: Can we take it on notice?

Ms Adamson : I read very carefully, Senator Pezzullo's—no! I take that back immediately!

Senator WONG: Wow! You're going to regret that! He'll enjoy that.

CHAIR: You wouldn't wish it on him!

Ms Adamson : Secretary Pezzullo's evidence. We get that information second-hand from Border Force—

Senator WONG: You do. That's what I'm saying.

Ms Adamson : But we don't know the proportion. We get a list of the passengers and we run those passengers against our lists. That's how we do that.

Senator WONG: Okay. I find that a little odd because I would have thought it goes to the many constraints you keep telling me about. That goes directly to one of the constraints, which is about places in quarantine and getting a sense of whether that's more or less relevant to how many people you think you can actually get home.

Ms Adamson : Yes, it's certainly relevant. In relation to New Zealand, for example, the one-way travel now available creates more quarantine places for us to then use for vulnerable Australians.

Senator WONG: Yes. We had evidence to Senator Kenneally from Australian Border Force, I think—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Last week?

CHAIR: Whenever.

Senator WONG: Well, there's been a lot of evidence! There was an answer provided to the COVID committee, actually—CV19/373. We can spend time with you getting the number, if you wish, but what it appears to indicate is that there were some 12,000 people in September alone in the other visa categories arriving in Australia. That's more than all Australian residents and citizens combined for that month. Is that something you're aware of?

Dr Webster : I'm not aware of that figure.

Senator WONG: Are you aware, or have you ever been advised or told, that in fact in the month of September we had more noncitizens arrive than citizens?

Dr Webster : No, I'm not aware of that.

Senator WONG: You've never been told that?

Dr Webster : No.

Senator Payne: Senator, I would just note that Dr Webster did refer earlier to family constructs where we may have one Australian citizen, one PR—or maybe not—and then dependents who are not Australian citizens, or parents who are not Australian citizens: all sorts of constructs.

Senator WONG: Sure.

Senator Payne: So in the absence of proper information, I'd like to take—

Senator WONG: Sure. I'll just read you the table. I can't give you this because it's got annotations from my office on it. Senator Kenneally asked the question inter alia for air arrivals in Australia for the period April to 25 September 2020. The total number of air arrivals in September was 25,000, of which Australian citizens were 8,267, New Zealand citizens 1,700 and Australian permanent residents 2,309. Then there were 10-odd diplomatic visa holders, some seasonal workers, business innovation visa schemes and special-purpose military authority. If you calculate all of those categories, there seem to be around 12,000 noncitizens who are not otherwise identified in terms of their visa category, which is the majority. You are not aware of that?

Dr Webster : We are not aware of that figure.

Senator WONG: It would impact substantially on our capacity to bring people home.

Dr Webster : It would impact on our calculations, which is why, as we said earlier, it's so difficult for us to actually predict how many in that capacity are people that we're seeking to bring home.

Senator WONG: If you had those 12,000 places—if the numbers are correct—that could go to Australian citizens and residents, that obviously means you get more people home by Christmas, correct?

Dr Webster : That's correct.

Senator WONG: Are there any further charter flights other than the two plus six that you have given evidence about?

Dr Webster : Not at this stage.

Senator WONG: Can I ask why the government is choosing not to facilitate any further at this point?

Dr Webster : We haven't chosen not to; we've chosen to monitor and review.

Senator WONG: Alright. Can I ask why the government has not yet made a decision to provide further flights?

Dr Webster : We're waiting to see how things progress. This situation changes week by week, as we said. Our preference always is to have as many people come home on scheduled commercial services as we possibly can. We will continue to mount these flights as the demand exists and as that provides additional opportunities for Australians to come home. It's not indefinite and it needs to be kept under constant review.

Senator WONG: The situation we have is that we have more Australians stranded than at any time prior. In fact, since the Prime Minister announced that people should be home by Christmas, the numbers have gone the wrong way. I put to you, Minister, that the Prime Minister didn't act until there was a lot of media and a lot more political pressure. We've had a lot of announcements, but as yet what we are seeing is, in fact, more stranded Australians and no-one from government able to tell us how many will actually get home by Christmas.

Senator Payne: I think we've had a very extensive discussion about—

Senator WONG: That was me summing up.

Senator Payne: I see. You weren't asking me a question.

CHAIR: Don't interrupt the summing up!

Senator Payne: I think Senator Wong has finished.

CHAIR: Does that finish you for the day?

Senator WONG: No, I haven't done China. I've got a whole folder here.

CHAIR: I thought there might be other topics!

Senator WONG: I have nothing more on that at this stage.

Senator Payne: Can I just say that it is my understanding—and I have endeavoured to find further information for you—that there is not modelling in the manner in which you refer to it. I will review the PM&C transcript myself to see what that might have been referring to, but that is not my understanding. It is not my understanding in relation to the work that we are doing or to anything that has come from PM&C. And I do also say—and I know that was your summing up, so perhaps I could be given a 30-second summing up of my own—

Senator WONG: It never is 30 seconds.

CHAIR: But don't encourage a further response!

Senator Payne: No, I won't. There is no question that the cap process makes this an extremely difficult task to implement. I am not denying that or, notwithstanding your accusations, hiding behind anything about how difficult it is. But we are very focused on adding to the 5,722 that have already returned out of the number the Prime Minister committed to on 18 September. When the caps were increased, it enabled us to proceed on this, and we will continue to do so.

Ms Adamson : I indicate that the Chief Finance Officer would like to come back on your question about when we received the $10.5 million.

Mr Venugopal : I can confirm that the $10.5 million as well as the $4.1 million were included as part of the Coronavirus Economic Response Package, which received royal assent on 24 March. We of course got the $10.5 million in that 2019-20 financial year. Subsequently the $4.1 million was transferred to DFAT on 10 July in the new financial year.

CHAIR: Alright, off to Qatar.

Senator WONG: There's been public reporting—I know you declined to indicate this—of other nations whose nationals appear to have been caught up in the very distressing events in Qatar. The ABC has reported that they understand that citizens of France and the United Kingdom were subjected to searches. If you don't wish to respond—it's on the public record now.

Senator Payne: I don't have any confirmation from those countries in relation to that that I would be comfortable referring to.

Senator WONG: That's fine.

Senator Payne: But I have said I will take that on notice as well.

Senator WONG: Sure. Can I go to the DFAT budget. The ABC reported that Mr Sheehan warned staff on 15 July that the department's budget continues to be under significant pressure and this will only be increased. Can you tell me what the basis of that assessment is? That's for you, Secretary. I think it's probably best.

Ms Adamson : That assessment at that time was based on the budget that we were working under. I think the first seven months of the year had allocated the costs that we were able to project and the structural elements of the budget as well. That was issued by Tony Sheehan as acting secretary in, I think, the first week of July. The government quite reasonably expects departments to operate within their budget envelope, and that was a decision that was made then on the basis of the information that we then had—a prudent decision to ensure that we did not exceed our budget. The chief finance officer can speak to the success that we ultimately had in doing that.

Mr Venugopal : As part of the 2020-21 budget, DFAT received new funding of $405.4 million subsequently in October.

Senator WONG: I don't think that was the question, but anyway. You ran a deficit of $127 million in 2019-20?

Ms Adamson : No.

Senator WONG: Sorry. In the 2019-20 PBS you projected a deficit of $127 million. However, in the 2020-21 PBS the estimated actual deficit for that same financial was 64. So you projected an operating deficit around double what you actually came in on. Is that correct?

Mr Venugopal : In reality, in the 2019-20 financial year we actually came in on a surplus. If you wouldn't mind giving me one second, I will get the annual report.

Senator WONG: I was asking a different question. The question was: in the 2019-20 PBS you projected a deficient so it of $127 million and the estimated actual deficit for 2019-20 in the 2020-21 PBS was $64 million?

Mr Venugopal : The estimated deficit of $64 million is actually including depreciation.

Senator WONG: I know how that works.

Mr Venugopal : That's including non-cash appropriations. On that basis—

Senator WONG: But it's in the PBS. I've had this discussion with one of your predecessors. This is still what provide the parliament with. I just want to be—

Mr Venugopal : It is correct. On a non-cash appropriation basis, that is correct.

Senator WONG: Okay. I'm actually just asking what happened to ensure the reduction in the operating deficit between the 2019-20 budget and the 2020-21. What did you cut?

Mr Venugopal : We didn't have to actually cut anything.

Senator WONG: From the budget you must have.

Mr Venugopal : I'm not understanding your question, I'm sorry.

Senator WONG: Well, because it's about the numbers, isn't it? You have a projected deficit of $127 million for the 2019-20 financial year and your estimated actual expenditure when the PBS was tabled in this budget was half that.

Mr Venugopal : Yes.

Senator WONG: And I'm asking what decisions were made to reduce the deficit.

Mr Venugopal : I may have to take part of that on notice; however, as part of a high-level response, I can tell you that in the passage of time between the 2019-20 PBS and the 2020-21 PBS there were several fiscal and economic updates. As I said, we received $10.5 million as part of the JEFU and there were other measures. We received funding as part of MYEFO. So there were lots of ons and offs occurring in that period of time. I don't have a tally of the number in that, but that's the broad answer.

Senator WONG: How did you tighten the belt?

Ms Adamson : [inaudible] we projected a deficit. Now, as you know, we have the overseas special account. We also work on the basis of the department's spending. We have been conscious for three years now that the accumulated efficiency dividend offsets absorb costs that we carry overseas. That's comparable with no other department. In fact, you referred to Mr Venugopal's predecessor, but not by name. It was Paul Wood, who obviously was tracking this very carefully, drawing my attention to it and ensuring that we were taking responsible action and that I was taking responsible action as the accountable authority to ensure that over time we were able to balance our budget. The chief finance officer has referred to this. Obviously there are ons and offs. Fortunately, there have been a number of ons of late. As has been the case with a number of departments, some cost expenditure that we anticipated at the beginning of the financial year has not come to pass because of COVID. I've also taken action to ensure that we're able to operate within our resources and do the job that the government expects us to do.

Senator WONG: That's the last bit I want to ask about. On notice can I have a list of the ons and offs?

Mr Venugopal : Yes. I can give you a reconciliation.

Senator WONG: Basically I want to understand the underlying transactions that led to a change in the net position. Got it?

Mr Venugopal : Yes. Can do.

Senator WONG: I'm interested in the last part of the secretary's answer, which is that you've taken action. Can you tell me what you've done?

Ms Adamson : Over the last three years or so we have particularly looked at areas where we can effectively make ourselves more efficient. Some of that has got to do with a range of practical things that government would expect us to do—the efficiency of our contracting arrangements, the amount of leased space we have and anything that goes to our costs. One of Mr Venugopal's colleagues David Lawrence has taken us through a very detailed expenditure review, which has enabled us to find where savings are to be made. Obviously—

Senator WONG: I—

Ms Adamson : Sorry?

Senator WONG: Sorry, I'll let you finish. I want to go to Mr Lawrence's review. I want to ask in which areas savings were made as a consequence of that. But you were doing a list.

Ms Adamson : Mr Venugopal can speak to that, but I've obviously looked at our staffing profile. Where we have staff I've looked at our structure. When I say 'I', I mean our governance committee. We have looked at these things and have been mindful of the need to, if you like, balance the budget. We're making good progress in doing that.

Senator WONG: What changes to the staffing profile and structure have you instigated as part of this?

Ms Adamson : There is a potentially quite detailed answer to that, but broadly one of the things that's obvious from the organisational chart is that, where we once had thematic ambassadors often freestanding in addition to a branch or a division, we've given them responsibility for oversighting the division or branch as well. That's, frankly, a more practical way of doing it.

We've also consolidated a range of functions and made savings of the kind that I referred to, including through space and property overseas. If you look at our cost structures, they're principally staff. Overseas rents account for about 25 per cent I think from memory. We had instituted several years ago a program called Redesign to make our posts' corporate back offices, if you like, more efficient, working through hubs. We've been able to do that as well. We've introduced a major program in Mr Sloper's division, People Division, and through the service delivery group more broadly with a focus on where we will be in 2022 in terms of the delivery of corporate services.

So we've done a number of things, including obviously the decision taken towards the end of the financial year to withdraw 10 positions from the overseas network and up to 50 positions in Australia. I should say though that those reductions were intended to be from the outset and will be achieved through natural attrition.

Senator WONG: So you've removed 10 positions from the overseas network. Are there any further reductions in addition to the 10 positions that you've described in Australia's diplomatic footprint?

Ms Adamson : No.

Senator WONG: Locally engaged staff?

Ms Adamson : Not specifically in relation to this, no.

CHAIR: The committee will suspend.

Proceedings suspended from 16:01 to 16:17

CHAIR: The committee is resumed. The secretary has a supplementary answer, I believe.

Ms Adamson : Thank you, Chair. It was actually a question that you raised yourself about whether the findings—

CHAIR: That makes it even more important!

Ms Adamson : it does indeed—of the China Tribunal report. You asked: was it shared with Westmead Hospital? The answer is that DFAT has not shared the tribunal report with Westmead Hospital, but we will ensure that that is done.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Senator PATRICK: I want to follow up on some of the questions that Senator Abetz was asking about Taiwan. He talked about changing words in communiques. There's clearly been an increase in rhetoric out of China with respect to Taiwan. We've seen over 50 PLA aircraft entering Taiwanese airspace. Taiwan is a democratic nation with nearly 24 million people and an important trading partner of ours. How concerned is Australia about the increase in threatening rhetoric from Beijing towards Taiwan and the increase in Chinese air force incursions into Taiwanese airspace?

Ms Lawson : As I have said previously, we don't take a position on the future of Taiwan's status, but we do want to see a peaceful resolution and we do not support the threat or use of force or coercion.

Senator PATRICK: I understand that that's the position, and it's a reasonable position, but it's about what your level of concern is in respect of current activities in relation to that.

Ms Lawson : The first thing I would say is that we want to see a region which is open, secure and inclusive, and a prosperous and resilient Taiwan has a very important role to play, in that we do highly value our relationship with Taiwan. As you said yourself, it's a really big export market for us, our seventh largest, and our 10th-largest merchandise trading partner overall. We have very close what we call unofficial ties with Taiwan which go to our strong economic and trade relationship. Also our cultural and educational links, which are within the parameters of our one-China policy. I think the Australian government was very clear in the AUSMIN communique that we affirm Taiwan's very important role in the Indo-Pacific, and we fully intend to maintain those strong unofficial ties. We do look at other ways in which we can support Taiwan, including in its participation in international organisations, for example.

CHAIR: At the beginning of your question you indicated the aspiration for the region. I'm not sure I heard the word 'democracy' being used as part of that aspiration. Was that an oversight or is that part of our—

Ms Lawson : I think it's not an oversight; it's just that I didn't mention the word.

CHAIR: Good. Alright. So that is part of our aspirations as well. Thank you.

Ms Adamson : Can I go back to Senator Patrick's question. Of course everything that Ms Lawson said is right and represents a formal Australian government position. You did ask though whether we were concerned about the incursions across the median line in the Taiwan Strait and about what we are observing in relation to an increase in tensions in that part of our region, and the answer is, of course, yes, we are. There are other grounds for concern around the region. I know the Japanese, for example, are concerned in relation to the East China Sea; India in relation to the border; and countries with claims in the South China Sea are watching all of that very carefully. I think, and this goes a little bit to my opening statement, this is a complex world with considerable challenges. These are areas that we watch very closely indeed, and Taiwan's relationship with mainland China is certainly one of them.

Senator PATRICK: Following from that, Secretary, is there a risk of another Taiwan Strait crisis in the near or medium future?

Ms Adamson : We would always hope, including through the words that we use and the relationships that we have, obviously both in Beijing and unofficially, as Ms Lawson said, in Taipei, to ensure through our own diplomacy and that of a wide range of partners that we don't get to that point. It is certainly something I would be more concerned about this year than a year ago or possibly in fact at any time over the last 3½ decades that I've worked on this subject, if you like.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you. That's informative and very diplomatic. I noted the AUSMIN statement and I think I even tweeted positively on that—I'm still waiting for your like, Minister! You said:

The United States and Australia highlighted that recent events only strengthened their resolve to support Taiwan.

What precisely does this reference to support to Taiwan actually mean on the coalface? What does it involve?

Senator Payne: I don't have the entire statement in front of me, but suffice to say that we were reaffirming Taiwan's important role in the Indo-Pacific region, a number of aspects of the relationship that Ms Lawson has referred to. I would go further, though, to point to one other aspect of the statement:

… that any resolution of cross-Strait differences should be peaceful and according to the will of the people on both sides, without resorting to threats or coercion.

Our absolute focus is on security and stability in the region. The secretary has set out a range of issues which are of concern and which I, the secretary, the department and the government pay strong attention to. We think that constructive cross-strait relations serve the interests of all parties here. One of the observations we have made, for example, is that we think, given the work that has been done in Taiwan in relation to COVID-19, that that is an important contribution in the context of how they have addressed this in the context of, for example, World Health Assembly discussions, as has previously been the case. That would be a very practical representation of their engagement.

Senator PATRICK: Does the Australian government have any plans to step up the unofficial relationship that we have with Taiwan in the context of this additional support?

Ms Lawson : We are constantly looking at ways in which we can expand our economic ties. As the minister has already alluded to, Taiwan places a lot of importance on its participation in international organisations. We have been very carefully trying to make sure that there is an inclusive approach in those organisations—for example, in the WHA—in order to achieve the health objectives of those organisations. It's critically important that entities like Taiwan are able to be there to share information. Of course, as we've seen, Taiwan has handled the COVID situation extremely well. Going also to COVID responses, we worked very closely with Taiwan on PPE—for example, we sold sanitising alcohol to Taiwan. They sold us mask material and, in fact, they later donated 500,000 medical masks, which ultimately went to Victoria, where they were needed most. We also co-host a range of events. We had unofficial dialogue between officials with Taiwan. Those activities all proceed and we continue to look at ways in which we can make the most of the very strong economic ties that we enjoy.

CHAIR: I think Senator Fierravanti-Wells has a quick question to interpose.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: It's on Taiwan.

Senator PATRICK: You talked about officials. I note that just recently the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, went to Taiwan, and US Under Secretary of State Keith Rush visited Taiwan. Are there any plans for Australian ministers or senior officials to visit Taiwan in the near future?

Ms Lawson : Obviously the COVID situation makes international travel very difficult at this stage, but that would be something that we would continue to consider.

Senator PATRICK: Taiwan occupies a number of small islands in the South China Sea, including the Pratas Islands and around the Spratly group. Are you concerned that these could be subject to unilateral action and occupation by China? What would be the consequences of such actions from our perspective?

Ms Adamson : This is a live issue, if you like, at the moment. I'm sure that's why you're asking the question. Obviously any scenario that goes to what you've mentioned would be escalatory in nature and would be the kind of thing that we're broadly talking about as not being desirable.

Senator PATRICK: What about any occupation by Taiwan in respect of that? Is the reverse a consideration at all?

Ms Adamson : There are existing arrangements. Essentially what we're looking for is peaceful maintenance of the status quo. As you know, there is a small Taiwanese presence on some of these islands. Others are inhabited but are visited. We're quite serious when we talk about wanting neither side to escalate, and both sides are capable of that in the current circumstances.

Senator PATRICK: Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty provides:

Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.

Does the Australian government consider the Taiwan Strait to be part of the Pacific area for the purposes of the ANZUS Treaty?

CHAIR: That may be a detailed question for notice.

Ms Adamson : As you know, the interpretation of it and decisions around those things are for government to make at the political level in light of circumstances. They have, as you well know, I'm sure, been canvassed from time to time over the years. That would be a highly sensitive matter and not something on which I would wish to comment definitively today.

CHAIR: This will need to be your last question.

Senator PATRICK: Can I put it to you that the Menzies government had no doubt about the scope of the ANZUS treaty, that it would cover any Chinese attack on US forces in Taiwan or, indeed, in the South China Sea. Has there been a change with respect to that? It was clearly part of the negotiation.

Ms Adamson : As I alluded to, this has been raised on a number of occasions over the years and canvassed in a variety of ways. It would ultimately be a decision for the government of the day. I personally hope they never have to make it.

Senator PATRICK: Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: Senator Fierravanti-Wells, you have a question?

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thank you. Ms Adamson, following on from what you said, clearly the tempo has been increased. We've seen reports and videos of simulated invasions. In fact, I even read that, in Inner Mongolia, China has a replica of the presidential palace of Taiwan that it has built in terms of exercising in Inner Mongolia. Given the US government's recent decision to sell over $1 billion of arms to Taiwan and given the immediate threats that resulted from Beijing, are we clearly seeing a change in the US's position and, as a consequence of that, change in the language that the US is now using in relation to Taiwan? And at what point would circumstances be such that we too would consider a change of position in relation to Taiwan?

Ms Adamson : I think it's important to consider the historical context. We go back—we all do when we think about this issue—to the end of the Civil War and then, in relation to the United States, as you've raised, the US-China joint communique of 1972 and the Taiwan Relations Act 1979. Every US administration has needed to deal with this issue. With Reagan in the 1980s, there was the US-China joint communique of 1982. There have recently been the six assurances reiterated to Taiwan, and this was published by the current administration. Arms sales have been a feature, if you like, or every US administration has had to consider this, and every US administration, as I look back through my list, to the late 1970s has made a contribution to Taiwan's ability to defend itself. You are right that the current administration, the Trump administration, has been more forward-leaning in relation to Taiwan, particularly in recent months. Senator Patrick referred to the senior level visits that have taken place.

Australia takes very seriously, of course, the terms of recognition of the People's Republic of China in 1972. That has obliged us to have what Ms Lawson described as an 'unofficial relationship' with Taiwan—principally, an economic relationship with Taiwan. But, as the minister said, we are alert to the opportunities which that framework nevertheless provides us to assist in ensuring that Taiwan has the international space, if you like, to be able to participate as a member of APEC or to participate, as we would very much like and strongly support, within the World Health Assembly. There is a range of ways in which this comes to the fore. I would say, and I'm sure you would understand, that the US's relationship with Taiwan is unique in that respect, so there are some things that you described the US is doing which we would simply not be in a position to do.

CHAIR: Have you heard of Forum 2000, the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal, which has within it hundreds of intellectuals and scholars? I might possibly fit into it that it also includes activists, but the first two categories wouldn't. They assert that the future of Taiwan should be decided by the 23 million citizens of Taiwan. Is that a proposition that we would agree with?

Ms Lawson : We would definitely agree that they would certainly need to have a say in Taiwan's future.

CHAIR: 'Have a say', but if that say were not listened to would we just say, 'They had their say that they didn't want to be invaded, but bad luck,' or would we say, 'It's a fundamental principle that the future of Taiwan should be decided by the 23 million people of Taiwan'—and to put it bluntly—'not the authoritarian regime across the Taiwan Strait'?

Ms Lawson : We've made it very clear to both sides that we would not support or condone any kind of resolution which was made under the use of force or coercion.

CHAIR: Alright. Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: I'm partway through some questions about DFAT. I might come back to them, other than to say—Ms Adamson, of the 10 positions at overseas posts which are to be cut, they include two from PNG and a human rights supporting position in China. Is that right?

Ms Adamson : That is a notional role. I want to be able to assure you right up front that we will continue to do the human rights work in China that we need to. Yes, it happens to be that position, but that's because it's next one in or out. The embassy's work, though, will continue, and the priority that we currently give to monitoring and making representations on human rights issues will be absolutely maintained, and, indeed, if it is necessary, it will be stepped up.

Senator WONG: Of the 10 positions, are you able to give me a breakdown, if you haven't already been asked, of the posts that will be losing positions?

Ms Adamson : We have already provided that information, although—

Senator WONG: To me?

Ms Adamson : No. I was just about to say—

Senator WONG: It's quite possible I missed it.

Ms Adamson : We have been on the public record in relation to it, but if you would like me to take you through those I can. The affected posts are Baghdad, one position; Beijing, two positions; Jakarta, two positions; Port Moresby, two positions; Manila, one position; Mexico, one; and Tokyo, one. I should say that those posts are large enough to reorientate resources to ensure they implement government priorities. Combined, the seven posts represent 24 per cent of DFAT's overseas workforce—APS and LES.

Senator WONG: I'll come back to some more detailed questions on that. I haven't had an opportunity to ask you this. I want to go to the announcement by the foreign minister on Insiders on 19 April of Australia's desire to pursue an independent review or inquiry into the origins of the virus. Secretary, when did you first become aware of this initiative?

Ms Adamson : The need for an independent investigation was something that the minister and I and, indeed, my officials and I—and I'm glad that Ms Peak has joined me at the table—had been discussing with the foreign minister but also through our foreign mission in Geneva and elsewhere in the weeks leading up to the minister's appearance on Insiders. The position as it was articulated on that day was something I heard when it was announced, but it did not surprise me in light of our earlier discussions about the need for it and the various options that were available.

Senator WONG: Were the discussions about the World Health Assembly process, in Geneva and elsewhere, occurring at the time prior to the Insiders announcement?

Ms Peak : Yes, discussions were occurring in the World Health Organization, in advance of the World Health Assembly, prior to 19 April.

Senator WONG: Secretary, when you talked about the Geneva aspect, it was in that context, was it?

Ms Adamson : It was more that the World Health Organization is located in Geneva, so that was the natural focus for discussions about the need for it.

Senator WONG: Sure, but I think you said that the first you heard of the detail and precision of the announcement was when the minister said it.

Ms Adamson : As I said about the precise words that the minister used on that day, it wasn't as if she rang me immediately before Insiders and said, 'These are the precise words I'm going to use.' But I wasn't surprised to hear it, because we'd been talking about the need for an investigation in the weeks and days leading up to that.

Senator WONG: The need for an investigation is an unremarkable proposition. What is unusual is Australia making an announcement unilaterally that they would pursue it. Were you aware that there would be an announcement that we would be pursuing this?

Ms Adamson : Not in those terms, no.

Senator WONG: Was the decision to make such an announcement, Minister, a decision that went to cabinet or NSC, or was it something that was discussed between you and the Prime Minister?

Senator Payne: I'm not going to go into the processes of government in relation to that, except to say that there were most certainly discussions at senior levels in relation to this matter.

Senator WONG: Do you discuss with the Prime Minister the prospect of making an announcement prior to doing so?

Senator Payne: As I said, I'm not going to go into the details of those discussions, but the Australian position in relation to the need for an appropriate review had been discussed at senior levels in government.

Senator WONG: Yes, but there's a distinction between the prospect of a review and the work that was being done multilaterally to progress that. I'm asking: was the decision to make your announcement on Insiders that morning something that the Prime Minister and you discussed?

Senator Payne: And I said I'm not going to go into those conversations, Senator.

Senator WONG: I'm not asking for the detail of the conversation. You made a decision which—

Senator Payne: These matters had been discussed, yes. We alluded to that in the conversation you had with secretary Adamson.

Senator WONG: Sure, but, again, there's a distinction between work that's done with like-mindeds through a multilateral process, which is eventually what occurred at the World Health Assembly, and a decision to make a public announcement, as Australian's foreign minister, on Insiders. I'm asking: was the idea of that announcement the Prime Minister's or was it yours?

Senator Payne: These matters have been discussed through government, and I'm not going to go into any further detail.

Senator WONG: Why won't you tell us who decided to make an announcement?

Senator Payne: Because they are matters that were discussed at senior levels of the government.

Senator WONG: This announcement garnered a great deal of attention and has been the subject of much discussion. No-one disagrees with the need for an inquiry. There have been various views about making the announcement in the way that it was made, and I'm asking you, in this context, as Australia's foreign minister, to explain why you chose to make an announcement as you did.

Senator Payne: The matters that were being discussed not just here in Australia, of course, but much more broadly, including by the WHO director-general and by the UN secretary-general, in relation to reviews were also being discussed within government, as the secretary has pointed out. They were being discussed in the context of the nature of reviews, and I think the conversations that had been had in government had well canvassed these issues.

Senator WONG: Yes. I'm just asking who made the decision to make the announcement.

Senator Payne: The government.

Senator WONG: Was that you alone? You and the Prime Minister? The National Security Committee?

Senator Payne: As I said, these matters are discussed at senior levels of government, and—

Senator WONG: No, this is the same frustration we had previously, where there is a multiplicity of words.

Senator Payne: It is, because I've been completely consistent over time.

Senator WONG: No, you haven't been.

CHAIR: Allow the minister to finish.

Senator WONG: There's a multiplicity—

CHAIR: Allow the minister to finish.

Senator Payne: Senator, I have been consistent over time in a number of portfolios, when you have asked me to go into discussions within government, in saying I don't do that.

Senator WONG: Well, I haven't actually asked you for any details of the discussions. You're the foreign minister, you made an announcement on Insiders and I'm asking who decided to make a domestic announcement.

Senator Payne: The government decided.

Senator WONG: Did you just want a story for the day?

Senator Payne: The government decided.

Senator WONG: Okay. Did you receive any advice, prior to making such an announcement, of the likely position of like-minded nations on such an announcement?

Senator Payne: Those issues had been canvassed amongst like-minded heads of mission in Geneva several weeks before 19 April. They had been discussed, including the circulation by the EU of a zero draft of the COVID-19 response resolution. That included text on an evaluation that was circulated some time before that as well.

Senator WONG: Which is what was happening through the WHA process, but that's not what you announced. You didn't announce what we eventually did, which was to back a EU-led resolution. You made a very different sort of announcement, a unilateral announcement. So did you, before making that announcement, seek any support from allies, like-minded nations or partners before the decision we were taking? I'm asking about you personally.

Senator Payne: We worked through multiple processes on these matters. I had discussions with like-minded colleagues on this matter and on others, preceding any public discussion. I'm not going to go into the details of those, but the outcome, of course, which was the resolution being adopted by the significant majority that it was adopted by, indicates the level of support for Australia's call.

Senator WONG: But it was the EU-led resolution that got up, which was probably, in hindsight, most likely to get up.

Senator Payne: Well, that's your view, Senator.

Senator WONG: It is important. This is about tactics versus content. No-one disagrees with the need—and we've made it very clear publicly, over and over again, that all of us agree with the need—for an independent inquiry. But I asked you a specific question about who you spoke to prior to making an announcement on 19 April. I just would remind you, before you tell you won't tell me, that you gave me a lecture about the Prime Minister giving readouts of calls. I just want to know: did you speak to any allies or like-minded nations about going out publicly and announcing an independent inquiry before you did so?

Senator Payne: I've already said that Australia, including through my discussions, raised the issue with a number of like-minded colleagues.

Senator WONG: Who?

Senator Payne: I'm not going to go into the details of those conversations.

Senator WONG: Did you get any support for an inquiry such as you announced before you announced it on 19 April?

Senator Payne: The support that the World Health Assembly resolution received is an indication of the level of support.

Senator WONG: You didn't, did you? You made an announcement before you'd locked anybody in.

Senator Payne: The level of support that the World Health Assembly resolution received is an indication of the level of support.

Senator WONG: Yes, that was down the track. You made an announcement here, in Australia, before you got any support from our allies and partners.

Senator Payne: I think it was you who used the word 'unremarkable'—

Senator WONG: No, the content.

Senator Payne: to talk about the suggestion that there should be a review. And, in fact, the—

Senator WONG: I just put a proposition to you about your behaviour, not about mine. I'm happy to swap positions, if you want, but—

Senator Payne: That didn't work for you, I'm terribly sorry.

Senator WONG: No, it didn't. We lost the election; I'm well aware of that!

Senator Payne: I have told you that I had discussions with a number of colleagues—international colleagues, like-minded colleagues—that conversations were underway between like-minded ambassadors in Geneva, that conversations and discussions were held across government on these issues, and that they resulted in a very significant vote in support of the resolution.

Senator WONG: You keep talking about the WHA resolution—I'll come back to that.

Senator Payne: Well, that's the outcome, Senator.

Senator WONG: Well, it's not the outcome we led. That was already put forward by the EU. I'm asking you—

Senator Payne: It's about Australia making a contribution.

Senator WONG: No, I'm asking whether you secured support from any allies, partners or like-mindeds before you made a domestic announcement about what we were going to pursue.

Senator Payne: Self-evidently, the support that was—

Senator WONG: The answer's no.

Senator Payne: obtained by many for the resolution itself speaks to that.

Senator WONG: It doesn't. That's ex post facto. You keep responding to a question about what happened prior to the 19th by talking about something which later happened. I'm asking a very simple question: did you, as Australia's foreign minister, get support from allies or like-mindeds prior to making that announcement?

Senator Payne: I've indicated that I had a number of discussions with key allies—like-mindeds, to use your terminology—about these issues.

Senator WONG: If you got support, why won't you tell us that now?

Senator Payne: I believe it is important that I am able to have appropriately confidential conversations with counterparts that they probably don't expect to be, and wouldn't welcome being, ventilated in the context of an adversarial discussion such as the one that you're pursuing.

Senator WONG: You describe the WHO participating as or revering itself as poacher and gamekeeper. Is that the Australian government's position?

Senator Payne: At the time, I think it is fair to say, there were concerns being expressed not just in Australia but on a broader scale about some aspects of the steps that had been taken since early January, I think—or December-January They had been raised by many, including, in Australia, the Prime Minister. In the UN itself there were discussions in relation to that. I do think there were—and perhaps, in some quarters, continue to be—concerns about those matters. But one thing that is part of the process of international negotiation is achieving an agreed outcome, and that is what is reflected by, as you've said, the now-adopted EU-led motion in which Australia was strongly engaged.

Senator WONG: I'm going to ask you again: did you secure any support from other nations prior to making the announcement? You don't have to tell me who. Did you secure support from one, two, three, four countries beforehand?

Senator Payne: I had very productive discussions with a number of like-mindeds on this issue.

Senator WONG: Were they were aware you were going to make an announcement?

Senator Payne: These issues had been discussed, and I'm not going to say anything further.

Senator WONG: No, we keep fuzzing these issues. How the community of nations would respond to a once-in-a-century pandemic was discussed, as was how the multilateral system might respond, but I am asking whether they were aware that you would make a public announcement in the way that you did? No?

Senator Payne: Sorry, Senator, I thought you were still going. International colleagues, like-mindeds, were aware that Australia was committed to pursuing this issue, yes.

Senator WONG: I'm suggesting to you that you didn't lock in anyone before you made an announcement. Is that right?

Senator Payne: Senator, it's your job to do that. I'm not going to go into my conversations with international colleagues—those conversations which they would expect to be dealt in an appropriately respectful and confidential way.

Senator WONG: You've said our position was that it can't be the World Health Organization to do this review because of the poacher and gamekeeper but, ultimately, we agreed with the text of the WHA, which obviously is auspiced by the WHO—correct?

Senator Payne: I think the text—and the department can go into the details of the work that was done, particularly by Australia, to engage on the resolution—reflects an outcome that obviously received very broad support and it does achieve the desired approach that Australia had identified. We're also very pleased, for example, to see the appointment of eminent leaders like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Helen Clark—well known to Australia—as the heads of the independent panel. I've had an opportunity to have a conversation with the Hon. Helen Clark—she may be Rt Hon. Helen Clark—in relation to this as well.

Ms Adamson : Senator, I don't necessarily wish to intervene but could I perhaps add a diplomatic perspective to this?

Senator WONG: I was going to move on.

Ms Adamson : Can I just to say that the announcement had a galvanising effect on what had been a quite intensive debate and discussion. Australia contributed through its diplomatic advocacy but advocacy at the level of the Prime Minister and the foreign minister to an outcome that ultimately, I believe, resulted in a stronger resolution, supported, as the minister has said, by 145 co-sponsors.

Senator WONG: On an EU-led resolution which was already in train at the time the announcement was made?

Ms Adamson : Yes, but we made a difference, Senator.

Senator WONG: I'm pleased we did. All I'm asking—

Ms Adamson : We did.

Senator WONG: I'm pleased that you're deciding to put a view about an opinion from the table, which you usually decline to do. I'm simply asking why it is that a domestic announcement was made without sufficient support being locked in and without a government process for a decision that the minister is prepared to discuss. She doesn't want to respond to either of those other than to say she doesn't talk about what happens.

Senator Payne: I can take the public statement, Senator, if you wish, of the EU Ambassador to Australia, His Excellency Dr Michael Pulch.

Senator WONG: I have read what he said: it's called diplomacy.

Senator Payne: Senator, it seems to me that it's convenient for you to call it diplomacy—

CHAIR: It's not very diplomatic to keep interrupting!

Senator PAYNE: when you want to; and it's not diplomacy if it's something that we are contending on this side of the table.

Senator WONG: If Australia's foreign minister makes a domestic announcement, it's not unreasonable to talk about how you might've actually done some legwork before.

Senator Payne: It's actually an articulation of our interest, Senator.

Senator WONG: Please don't do that. Of course, you know and I know that we have jointly articulated those interests. It's how you went about it that I'm raising questions about, and I'm asking legitimate questions you don't wish to answer.

Senator Payne: Senator, I've given you indications in response to your questions—

Senator WONG: You don't want to answer. I'm going to now go to weapons inspectors.

Senator Payne: and I've indicated that I don't intend to go into details.

Senator WONG: When did you first hear, Secretary, about the idea that the Prime Minister floated of giving weapon inspector powers to WHO workers?

Ms Adamson : I first heard about that when it was said in public.

Senator WONG: Minister, where did that idea originate?

Senator Payne: Senator, I think the term that the Prime Minister used was particularly in relation to concerns about the robustness, if you like, of some aspects of the World Health Organization's capacity to actually engage, to inspect, to enforce and to do the sorts of things that he has spoken about. I know that it has attracted your and other people's attention, Senator, but those are the concerns which prompted that comment.

Senator WONG: He specifically said:

… I expect the same arrangements in terms of what I’m suggesting about how that could be done.

The story was that your government was seeking to have weapons inspector powers for the WHO. I think if we read the entirety of this transcript, I think that was a very reasonable take out of the story. When did you become aware that the Prime Minister was going to call for, raise the idea of, weapons inspector powers for the WHO?

Senator Payne: Clearly you've already referred to this in terms of the independence of these processes. Clearly Australia believed, and believes, that it is very important that the WHO has sufficient powers to quickly and thoroughly investigate.

Senator WONG: Minister, please. I didn't ask about the WHO powers. I asked when you as foreign minister became aware that Australia's Prime Minister would be floating or calling for the idea of weapons inspector powers for the WHO.

Senator Payne: What the Prime Minister was saying—

Senator WONG: Why don't you answer the question?

CHAIR: The minister has got about three words out. So please allow the minister to—

Senator Payne: Six, actually, Senator.

Senator WONG: Well, why don't you answer the question?

Senator Payne: Because, Senator—

Senator WONG: You don't want to.

Senator Payne: your interpretation, I think, is not accurate. It's not a representation of the breadth of what the Prime Minister said, which was about the sorts of powers that we think are necessary to ensure that a disease outbreak of this nature can be appropriately investigated.

Senator WONG: He specifically spoke about weapons inspector powers. You can't just pretend it didn't happen.

Senator Payne: I'm not pretending it didn't happen.

Senator WONG: He's the leader of the nation. He's not just a commentator. He says, 'We want to pursue these weapons inspector powers.' I'm asking when you became aware that that was something Australia was pursuing.

Senator Payne: I was probably with the Prime Minister at the time he said it. I'm not sure that I was.

Senator WONG: Did you just hear it when it came out of his mouth?

Senator Payne: No, actually, I didn't. These matters around powers had been discussed as part of the discussions in government about a review process.

Senator WONG: Weapons inspectors, in the way that they are understood—and people refer to Iraq—such a proposal has required approval by the UN Security Council or be available under binding treaty commitment. And it would be the case, wouldn't it, that certainly permanent members of the UN Security Council or the relevant nation would require consent before accepting international inspectors on their soil? Correct?

Senator Payne: Senator, you continue—

Senator WONG: Is that correct?

Senator Payne: I'm sorry; I didn't hear all of that.

Senator WONG: The idea of weapons inspectors—

Senator Payne: Yes, I understand what the idea of weapons inspectors is.

Senator WONG: My point is: is it not the case that weapons inspectors, as we have understood them, would require the consent of the nation concerned for those inspectors to enter?

Senator Payne: There is a formal process which pertains to weapons inspectors, yes.

Senator WONG: Was the Prime Minister aware of that before he decided to float weapons inspectors for the WHO?

Senator Payne: Yes, I'm sure the Prime Minister was aware.

Senator WONG: Right. You discussed that with him, did you?

Senator Payne: I'm not going into conversations with the Prime Minister.

Senator WONG: No, I'm sure you wouldn't. Did we ever put forward any proposition to enable greater powers for WHO which might accord with the Prime Minister's floating of weapons inspector powers?

Senator Payne: This process is still underway.

Senator WONG: Have we ever put anything forward? Has Australia put anything forward?

Senator Payne: In recent times or previously?

Senator WONG: Since the Prime Minister said—

Senator Payne: No, this process is still underway. The first engagements of the independent panel and their work only commenced, if I'm not mistaken—

Senator WONG: But they're two different propositions which are floated. One is an investigation, but one is the Prime Minister suggesting that we should enable some weapons inspector powers, or consent to weapons inspector powers, as an aspect of WHO membership. He's very clear about that. I understand the inquiry that Helen Clark and others are undertaking is still proceeding. I'm asking a different question. I am asking whether, at any time, Australia has ever proposed, in any forum, weapons inspector type powers for the WHO.

Senator Payne: DFAT might be able to add more in terms of the technical engagement we've had through the WHO executive board and in Geneva. But I would repeat what I said. This is an ongoing process, not a completed process. There are a range of contributions which we'll be able to make over a period of time, and we will do that.

Senator WONG: Secretary or Ms Peak, can anyone point me to text which we've proposed to give life to the Prime Minister's weapons inspector point?

Ms Peak : If I may, when we were negotiating the WHA resolution—in particular the paragraph that refers to the independent evaluation—we put forward language that ensured that the effectiveness of mechanisms at the WHO's disposal was included so that those issues could be considered broadly.

Senator WONG: Broadly? Are you able to give me text that you would say was an attempt to promulgate the Prime Minister's position?

Senator Payne: I think Ms Peak has in fact set out—

Senator WONG: No, text. I'm just asking for the text.

Ms Peak : The text in the evaluation paragraph, which is 910 of the WHA resolution. It specifically says 'the effectiveness of mechanisms at the WHO's disposal', and that speaks to—

Senator Payne: Which is exactly the point, Senator. The effectiveness of mechanisms—

Senator WONG: I'm just trying to listen to what she's quoting. Ms Peak, maybe you could give us the page number?

Ms Peak : It's the second last clause in the resolution, 9.10.

Senator WONG: Is this from us?

Ms Peak : This is from us.

Senator WONG: Okay, so the Prime Minister articulated that we should have weapons inspector powers: 'What we have is a stepwise process of evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from WHO co-ordinated international health responses, including the effectiveness of the mechanisms at the WHO's disposal.' That's how the Prime Minister's weapons inspector idea has been taken forward, is it?

Senator Payne: I think the effectiveness of the mechanisms at the WHO's disposal goes exactly to that point.

Senator WONG: Former Foreign Minister Bishop was asked about the weapons inspector issue. She indicated she was surprised the government hadn't provided a full explanation of the strategy and talked about the need to avoid ad hoc or reactionary stances that lack consistency. Do you have any response to the former foreign minister?

Senator Payne: No, Senator.

Senator WONG: She made the statement that the Prime Minister's plan for nuclear weapons inspector powers was seen by China as a provocative threat to its sovereignty. Do you think she's right?

Senator Payne: I'm not going to engage in a running commentary on those statements. I think the clause that Ms Peak has pointed to, which talks about the powers at the disposal of the WHO, being considered in the context of the review, goes exactly to the point that the Prime Minister was making.

Senator WONG: But I'm putting to you your predecessor's assessment.

Senator Payne: I understand that.

Senator WONG: She was obviously—I might not always have agreed with her, but she did have some demonstrated success in negotiating multilateral or plurilateral matters. Obviously, for example—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Not all the time, Senator—

Senator WONG: I'm not going to get—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: This is the same foreign minister that wanted an extradition treaty with China. So let's put that into context.

Senator WONG: And my position on that's on the public record. There was the MH-17 resolution. She obviously has some experience of multilateral negotiations. You don't think any of her criticisms are valid?

Senator Payne: Senator, her comments are her own.

Senator WONG: Ms Peak, can you confirm, in relation to the paragraph you read to me, there's no relationship or similarity between those words and any of the words which have been used to ground UN Security Council decisions enabling weapons inspector powers?

Ms Peak : I'd have to take that specific question on notice, but, in the broad, we believe that that clause in the resolution does enable consideration of the mechanisms at the WHO's disposal, including the legal basis for its powers, which are centred in the international health regulations. These will be considered thoroughly, including recommendations flowing from the independent panel.

Senator WONG: Sure, but the final text—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Sorry, would that include breaches of the World Health Organization regulations, particularly in relation to the notification provisions that exist under the rules that the communist regime failed to adhere to?

Ms Peak : Yes. The scope of the evaluation will include questions of compliance with the International Health Regulations. In fact, the independent panel has committed to establish an authoritative time line of exactly what happened throughout the period of the pandemic—not just actions by the WHO but by its member states.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Does that include the notification, particularly by Taiwan, through the International Health Regulations' reporting window back in the beginning of January? That was effectively ignored by the World Health Organization. Then the WHO tweeted that there was no human-to-human transmission, based on information provided by China. Are we expecting that those sorts of details will be gone into? Sorry, Senator Wong, I just want to drill down into this.

Ms Peak : Yes is the answer. One of the important points that Australia made when we pursued the text in the evaluation was that it would be comprehensive. You'll see the language in there: impartial, independent and comprehensive. That was a critical element for us, and we expect that the independent panel will go into establishing an authoritative time line and have a very comprehensive evaluation.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Ms Peak, I hate to be cynical, but I really do question the independence, given that the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization is a former agriculture minister of China and that the head of the World Organisation for Animal Health herself has been a person who has been very complimentary of the way the communist regime dealt with SARS outbreaks. How confident are we that this is going to be an independent assessment, particularly when we're talking about—and it's the only place that I can see we're talking about this—these zoonotic sources of the virus?

Senator Payne: That is another inclusion that Australia was able to obtain.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I'm glad that at least we were able to include that. But, given the nature of the inquiry, I'm really very concerned about the independence of it.

Senator Payne: We are working very closely on this, both in Geneva and through DFAT here. I think I said in response to a question that Senator Wong asked me that I've also taken up the issues of concern from Australia's perspective with the Right Honourable Helen Clark, who is co-chair of the independent panel. I have not yet had the opportunity to speak to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but I look forward to doing that as well, to assure her of Australia's priorities.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I'm concerned about two different clauses: 9.6 is about the WHO, FAO and OIE, and then 9.10, a separate clause, talks about initiating of the earliest appropriate moment in consultation with member states. As I understand it, there are two separate processes: one under the auspices of FAO and OIE and the other one under the auspices of the existing bodies within the World Health Organization. That's what I thought that Helen Clark and others were in charge of. Do I understand correctly that there are two separate processes and that one is about the internals at the WHO and the other one supposedly to identify the zoonotic source and to provide guidance about how to prevent pandemics in the future. Have I understood that correctly?

Ms Peak : There are, in fact, four separate but related inquiries underway. There is the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, chaired by Ms Clark and Ms Sirleaf. That will have a comprehensive overview of matters that have occurred through the pandemic. They will be able to take into account the findings and evidence provided to the other three inquiries underway. You're right that, under paragraph 9.6, the specific inquiry into the zoonotic source of the virus is being undertaken by the WHO, in close consultation with the OIE and the FAO. They're doing so with a panel of independent experts as well, and they've been to China for a preliminary investigation.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: But they didn't go to Wuhan?

Ms Peak : The intention was that it would be a two-step process. The first step was to—

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: So they will be going to Wuhan?

Ms Peak : They will be going to Wuhan, absolutely. The first step was two people going in to establish the framework and the terms of reference for the investigation. The second step is to bring in a lot of scientific experts to do both research and a field mission into China, including Wuhan.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thank you. Sorry, Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: You're not suggesting that maybe the outcome was a little short of the announcement, are you, Senator?

CHAIR: Wait a minute. I'm sure that's rhetorical. Questions for the minister, please.

Senator WONG: Legitimate questions.

Senator AYRES: Very strict.

Senator WONG: Ms Peak, there is broad language about mechanisms, but would you confirm there is no reference to weapons inspectors or weapons inspector powers?

Ms Peak : There is no reference to weapons inspector powers specifically.

Ms Adamson : Again, can I come in on that question. You yourself know that when you're in the business of negotiating something, there will be a wide range of positions. The language that the Prime Minister used and the intent that he had was, if I can put it this way, at the stronger end of the spectrum. Ultimately, the result will be one that is reached by consensus. But he did reflect a very strong view across the globe, I think—that this pandemic never be permitted to happen again. We'll see what the outcome is. I would predict it would be something short of that, obviously, but what he was doing was articulating a position and a strength of view and feeling that was—

Senator WONG: We're having two discussions here. We're having a discussion in which you're responding to propositions around negotiations happen. I'm actually making a deeper point, which is that I think a number of these announcements were made with a very strong focus on domestic politics, not on multilateral strategy. That's my view. And I think—

Ms Adamson : I have to say from a practitioner's point of view that—

Senator WONG: I don't know why you're responding with a political response.

Ms Adamson : The reason I want to do this, from a diplomat's and from a practitioner's point of view, is that leaders reflect the views of their people. That view, put in the international domain, carries weight. The ultimate outcome, of course, is a matter for consensus building, and I would not expect—just to be really clear about it—that there will be weapons inspector powers at the end of this process.

Senator WONG: Of course there won't be. But there is strategy, and then there's politics. Can I be clear: did we ever put forward texts that included weapons inspector powers through the WHO process? I know what's being negotiated. I'm taking the secretary's point about ambit—that's my phrase; it's a negotiation. But did we ever put anything on the table to progress weapons-inspector-type powers as a result of what the Prime Minister said?

Ms Peak : As I mentioned, the clause on the effectiveness of mechanisms at the WHO's disposal was the proposal that we had put forward to ensure that those issues could be canvassed.

Senator WONG: So this is our proposal?

Ms Peak : This is our proposal.

Senator WONG: So we never put forward more forward-leaning texts that you could show me or texts which referred to weapons inspector powers?

Ms Peak : I think this text allows the broad conversation to happen around powers without limiting it to one specific power, such as a weapons inspector—

Senator WONG: I agree. I understand what you're saying. I'm actually asking whether or not we ever put anything forward that reflected more closely what the Prime Minister told the nation we were pressing for.

Ms Peak : No, this is the language we put forward.

Senator Payne: We would expect to take forward technical proposals to give effect to the government's interests and objectives, which, in large part, reflect what the secretary just said. And there is building consensus around that, which is the outcome we have with the support of 145 co-sponsors.

Senator WONG: When were the first EU propositions around this EU led resolution communicated to us?

Senator Payne: I think it was circulated in Geneva in mid-April. So some days—a week or so—before we discussed it publicly.

Ms Adamson : You're right, on 15 April.

Senator WONG: And you were aware of that, Minister?

Ms Adamson : Yes.

Senator WONG: I'm again going to put something Ms Bishop said to you, Minister. She said, in relation to the weapons inspector point:

Without Security Council backing there is no legal authority for other countries to go into China and collect evidence or interview witnesses and the like. So, I think the analogy with weapons inspectors is inappropriate because weapons inspectors only go in by invitation.

Senator Payne: They're Ms Bishop's words, and I'm not going to comment on those.

Senator WONG: Is she right or wrong in terms of security council legal authority?

Senator Payne: Without having them in front of me, I'd say that she's broadly correct.

Senator WONG: Can I go to the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations on this?

Senator Payne: Yes.

Senator WONG: You made a statement in March of last year in which you announced the foundation as a 'high-profile platform for the promotion of Australia-China ties', harnessing the efforts of the private sector and others to 'turbo-charge our national effort in engaging China'. You also talked about the foundation providing grants—this is in December of 2019—to Australian business and other sectors to build 'connections, markets and audiences' with China. Is it still the foundation's objective to 'turbo-charge our national effort in engaging China'?

Senator Payne: The foundation is underway. It is fair to say that, like many things in 2020, it has been impacted severely by the difficulties around COVID-19. But, in my recent meeting with the chair and the CEO, we had the opportunity to discuss how we might progress a foundation which is the first of its kind. The effort to bring together governments, businesses, education institutes, community and cultural sectors and Chinese-Australian communities as well is an important one. I want to make sure that we build on the work of the Australia-China Council, which had been working for decades in this area. We will also work on research and support training, and we'll do exchange programs. So they are the sorts of focuses that we have.

Senator WONG: Can you confirm it hasn't been formally launched yet?

Senator Payne: I can for the reason that, which does not obviate it from being operational, we were to do the launch in Sydney with the Premier of New South Wales I think—and I don't have the date in front of me—in January or February—

Ms Adamson : February, it was.

Senator Payne: The event was cancelled at the time because of bushfire issues in New South Wales and whether there was an appropriateness in proceeding with that event—certainly the Premier was unavailable. We decided to reconvene, and, in the context of the decision to reconvene, we then found ourselves dealing with COVID-19. So, we didn't do a formal launch, but the work of the foundation got underway.

Senator WONG: Are you intending to launch it, or you're not going to?

Senator Payne: I think we won't do a formal launch in that sense. That would seem a little late in the piece. And Michaela Browning, if that's what you're peering at—

Senator WONG: Yes, I was trying to see whether that was—hello.

Senator Payne: the CEO, is online. I kind of have a view of the back of her head.

Ms Adamson : No, she's up there.

Senator Payne: Okay, I have to do something about my glasses again.

Senator WONG: That's her; that's not the back of her head.

Senator Payne: Well it is if you're sitting where I'm sitting and looking at the back of the screen. We decided to move on from the concept of a formal launch, given the effluxion of time.

Senator WONG: Have there been board meetings to date?

Ms Adamson : Yes, there have, and Ms Browning can speak to those.

Senator WONG: How many?

Ms Adamson : Off the top of my head, three. I'm an ex-officio member, but I might have missed one when I was overseas. Michaela, do you want to take over the detailed questioning?

Ms Browning : There have been three formal meetings of the foundation, two informal meetings of the board and a considerable amount of intersessional discussion with the board.

Senator WONG: Okay. I'll provide some questions on notice to get details of that. Have any grant rounds been initiated?

Ms Browning : Yes, we've got an inaugural competitive grants round underway at the moment, it's almost completed, and we had an ad hoc grant round earlier in the year that was about important contributions to the overall COVID response effort.

Senator WONG: So you've got a current inaugural grant round and you've had some ad hoc grant rounds?

Senator Payne: One ad hoc, Senator.

Senator WONG: So just a grant to someone? Was it a round or an individual grant, the ad hoc?

Ms Browning : It was an ad hoc grant. It was a consideration of a range of possible COVID related response activities, and one grant was provided under that.

Senator WONG: To whom?

Ms Browning : That was to the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity for research collaboration on immune response and vaccine efficacy work related to COVID in collaboration with long-established Chinese partners.

Senator WONG: So working with China on a vaccine?

Ms Browning : Not on a vaccine, more on immune responses to vaccines and vaccine efficacy, which would be valuable for any particular vaccine that emerges.

Senator WONG: Okay. I just want to check the relationship between the board, the department and the foreign minister. Does the board provide advice to government?

Ms Browning : Sorry, Senator, are you still speaking to me?

Senator WONG: I'm just asking a question to whoever wants to answer it. I think they're looking at you.

Ms Browning : The independent advisory board provides advice to the CEO, which is my position, and also to the minister. It is also providing and informing the work of the foundation itself, and the decision-making of the foundation.

Senator WONG: Right, so the board advises the foundation. Who's advising whom? Who does the board advise? You or the minister, or both?

Ms Browning : The board is providing advice to me and I take that advice in my advice up to the minister, but it is informing the decision-making of the foundation. I have the financial delegation and responsibility for decisions, but obviously I do that in consultation. I report to the minister, but the board is providing advice to me in that decision-making, and I will also convey that advice to the minister as appropriate.

Senator WONG: But is the minister the final decision-maker?

Ms Browning : I am the delegate for financial decisions.

Senator WONG: Okay, so the board is not a decision-maker?