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

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Senator WONG: Mr Wood, I refer to question on notice 13, where you have given me, aggregated at a fairly high level, any programs affected, cancelled, rescoped or altered as a result of the 2015-16 budget. In the prior estimates in June 2015 you gave me tabled document 6, two pages of spreadsheets which gave a much more detailed breakdown, country by country. Can you provide an update of those two tables? Secondly, in relation to question on notice 13, in relation to each of the agreements that you have advised have been changed I would like a description of what has actually happened, financially and in terms of the scope of the project. Is there any of that information, particularly the first aspect, that could be provided later today—that is, the financial tables?

Mr Wood : The answer to your first question is yes, we can provide that. In relation to your second question, we have the relevant first assistant secretaries from the particular geographic areas, who would be able to assist in providing more information on those matters. We will consult and get back to you in terms of putting that in a table format. There are people here who would be able to provide some more detail on those particular items that are listed in the answer to the question on notice.

Senator WONG: Thank you for your assistance. As I understand it, you can provide reasonably readily today a document analogous to the tabled document No. 6 from the June 2015 hearings. You may or may not be able to provide today an update, both a financial and qualitative description, to question on notice 13.

Mr Wood : That is correct. However, we do have people who can provide you with more information on those items.

Senator WONG: Moving to another matter, is DFAT advised or informed if a member of parliament goes overseas on either official or non-official business?

Mr Varghese : The normal practice would be that where a member of the parliament or a member of the executive travels overseas on official business, they would usually be in touch with the department either to request assistance, which is quite common, or to advise us of the travel.

Senator WONG: And on non-official business?

Mr Varghese : For non-official business there is no set practice. Sometimes members of parliament let us know that they are travelling to a particular place privately, for our information. There would be many cases where they would not.

Senator WONG: In cases where they do not, are there other triggers or flags which might lead to DFAT being advised or becoming aware? I should put it passively.

Mr Varghese : Only incidentally. There would not be any systemic triggers which would draw it to our attention. There may be a coincidence of conversations or events that might lead us to be aware.

Senator WONG: I recall that prior to being a minister perhaps I should have advised but did not advise the relevant high commissioner. I was contacted in the relevant country: 'You're here—why didn't you tell us?' So there is no trigger when you leave or into the country? There is no cable sent? There is no process?

Mr Varghese : Are we talking about private travel?

Senator WONG: Yes.

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: Is that the case in relation to members of the executive as well?

Mr Varghese : The principles would be the same. When they travel officially we would be aware of it. When they travel privately, it would depend on whether they choose to inform us or not.

Senator WONG: If I understand your evidence correctly, in relation to members of the executive travelling on private business, you could only be informed if they advised you—is that correct?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: In relation to Mr Stuart Robert's visit to China in 2014, was DFAT advised ahead of the visit?

Mr Varghese : No, we were not.

Senator WONG: When did DFAT become aware of the visit?

Mr Varghese : I would have to take the details on notice, but I think our post in Beijing would have become aware of the visit shortly after it had occurred. That would have been in the context of some advice from Defence that there had been a meeting with the vice-minister which has been referred to in the media. I understand that the Department of Defence indicated in its estimates testimony that it became aware of that meeting after it had occurred. We would have become aware in Beijing shortly after that.

Senator WONG: As a result of advice from Defence?

Mr Varghese : That is my understanding. If that is wrong, I will come back to you.

Senator WONG: This has obviously been a matter of some focus. Have you made inquiries about DFAT's knowledge and involvement as a result of this matter gaining some prominence?

Mr Varghese : I did seek to satisfy myself that it was the case that the department, as well as the post, had no prior knowledge of the visit. That was confirmed to me by departmental colleagues and by the embassy in Beijing.

Senator WONG: When did you make that contact?

Mr Varghese : Soon after the matter came into the public domain.

Senator WONG: Did you make that contact personally?

Mr Varghese : The department had already looked into the matter. I just wanted to make sure that it was doubly correct.

Senator WONG: How did the department look into the matter?

Mr Varghese : In response to media queries about what we knew, the departmental spokesperson had a line which was obviously based on our own inquiries as to what we knew and did not know.

Senator WONG: Had a line?

Mr Varghese : A media line.

Senator WONG: As a result of the media spokesperson trying to develop this line for media inquiries—this is in the last week or so, right?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: Did an officer of the department, or did that officer establish clearly the sequence of events in terms of DFAT's knowledge of this visit?

Mr Varghese : The threshold question is whether we were aware of the visit. The answer to that was no. Therefore the sequence becomes secondary.

Senator WONG: I understand that you are going to take on notice more detail, and we would appreciate it if you could provide that today. I think your evidence is that DFAT became aware of Mr Robert's visit to China and his meeting with the vice-minister as a result of advice provided by the Department of Defence. Is that your evidence?

Mr Varghese : That is my understanding.

Senator WONG: Approximately how long after the meeting was DFAT advised?

Mr Varghese : I think very soon after the visit. My recollection—and again, I will check this—was that it would have been in late August.

Senator WONG: How did DFAT become advised? Did Defence speak to the post?

Mr Varghese : I think the sequence was that the Defence section in the embassy would have been advised—

Senator WONG: Can I stop you there? You keep saying 'would have'. This matter has been—

Mr Varghese : I understand the point you are making, because you have made it before.

Senator WONG: I know what a thorough and diligent officer you are, so I am assuming that you would know with some precision. So hypotheticals—

Mr Varghese : Let me rephrase my answer. My understanding is that Defence in Canberra advised the Defence section in Beijing about the visit and the meeting and that the embassy more broadly became aware of it through the defence section in Beijing. Again, I will correct that if I am wrong.

Senator WONG: Thank you. I appreciate that. The Prime Minister has indicated that Dr Parkinson is undertaking an inquiry in relation to this visit and, in particular, whether or not the ministerial standards have been observed. Has DFAT provided information to Dr Parkinson or to PM&C for the purposes of that inquiry?

Mr Varghese : I am not aware of Dr Parkinson seeking any information from DFAT, but I will check with colleagues to see whether we have had any requests. Our comment about not knowing about the visit is on the public record because we made that available to the media, but I will check whether Dr Parkinson has sought any additional information from DFAT.

Senator WONG: What about the other way around—have you provided information, whether or not he sought it?

Mr Varghese : I am not aware of us providing Dr Parkinson with any information.

Senator WONG: I also understand—and only from the public reporting, which has been moving so fast that I may not have got all the facts in order—that in fact the travel from China to Singapore by Mr Robert, which was subsequent to the meeting, was for the purposes of official business.

Mr Varghese : I do not know and, because he was not a portfolio minister at the time, we would not know.

Senator WONG: My next point was: did DFAT have any involvement in that trip, and in the Singapore leg of the trip?

Mr Varghese : I would have to take on notice whether we had any involvement in the Singapore leg of the trip, given it was an official visit by the minister. The embassy in Beijing would not have had—and I am conscious that I am using the 'would'—any involvement at the Beijing end because it was not aware that Mr Robert was—

Senator WONG: I assume if it was official business he would have received facilitation at Changi et cetera or however he flew in. Presumably through that DFAT became aware at least of the fact that he had been in China—that is, that he was arriving in Singapore from Beijing, not from Sydney. Could you take that on notice?

Mr Varghese : Sure. I will take that on notice.

Senator WONG: You have not made these inquiries?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: Going back to the meeting with the vice-minister and Mr Robert's visit to China, can you tell me whether or not Mr Robert sought or received any facilitation assistance from DFAT for his visit to Beijing?

Mr Varghese : No, he did not. We did not know he was going to Beijing, so we were not in a position to offer him anything.

Senator WONG: I am assuming a DFAT officer therefore did not attend the meeting with the vice-minister?

Mr Varghese : No. As I have indicated, we were not aware of the meeting until after the fact.

Senator WONG: Can you tell me where vice-minister sits in the Chinese system?

Mr Varghese : I will defer to my colleagues from North Asia division. My understanding is that a vice-minister is the senior most official level within the Chinese system. The minister is, if you like, the political equivalent and the vice-minister is the senior official, and there can be more than one vice-minister. Mr Fletcher, who is very familiar with the ways of the Chinese system can, I am sure, add or subtract to that answer.

Mr Fletcher : Yes, that is correct. There are always several vice-ministers in the ministry. They correspond in their function to the deputy secretaries in an Australian department.

Senator WONG: Having said that, they differ from a vice-chairman. Who is more senior? I am recalling that my counterpart on a ministerial level in the climate negotiations a number of years ago was Vice-Chair or Vice-Minister Xie.

Mr Fletcher : In China some ministerial bodies are more important than others, are called commissions and are headed by a chairman, who is the equivalent of the minister—for instance the NDRC, which deals with climate change. The vice-ministers of that entity are called vice-chairs.

Senator WONG: Thank you. Whatever. It is a fairly senior position—correct? Mr Varghese, have you been aware of any other meeting with a vice-minister of a foreign power by a member of the executive of which DFAT had not been advised?

Mr Varghese : This gets you into Donald Rumsfeld's territory about known unknowns and unknown unknowns. By definition I would not be aware of a meeting that we have not been advised about.

Senator WONG: Let's not play semantics. It would be pretty unusual, would it not, for a minister in the Australian government to meet in any capacity with a vice-minister from China, and DFAT not to be aware of that?

Mr Varghese : What ministers do if they are on a private visit—

Senator WONG: They do not cease to be ministers.

Mr Varghese : If I could finish my answer, please: what ministers do on a private visit, and the knowledge of it, is obviously just going to depend on the extent to which the department or the mission has been advised of it. I cannot give you an answer to the question of whether it is highly unusual or relatively unusual or common practice. I do not—

Senator WONG: Mr Fletcher, you worked in Beijing for some years, didn't you?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: Do you recall any occasion on which a minister met with a vice-minister equivalent of which you would not have been advised, that you subsequently became aware of?

Mr Fletcher : I am not aware of cases which I was not aware of, no.

Senator WONG: No, I asked a different question. To your knowledge has any other minister ever met with someone at vice-minister level without DFAT engagement?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: Tell me about that.

Mr Fletcher : There are all kinds of—

Senator WONG: Vice-minister level. A minister—

Mr Fletcher : ministerial officials in China. Vice-ministers or ministers, from a Chinese perspective, are sort of considered at a similar level. There are no hard and fast rules. I cannot say that something could not have happened or never does happen.

Senator WONG: No, apart from this instance. You are answering a different question. To your knowledge, has there ever been a minister come to China while you were on the post who met with someone at vice-minister or other senior level without DFAT being advised?

Mr Varghese : I am not aware of such meetings having occurred and us later having discovered them. But when people are in China they sometimes meet people.

Senator WONG: If a minister came to China and met with a vice-minister on official business, usually you would have—would you not—a DFAT official was present. Sometimes it would be the ambassador—but, if not, certainly someone from the embassy, someone taking notes. You are a diligent department, and for contact at these levels—between a member of the executive and someone at a senior level—you would ensure someone from the embassy was present and taking notes, correct?

Mr Varghese : That is correct—if it is an official visit, which I think was your question.

Senator WONG: Correct.

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator WONG: Can I go back to you saying you will check if DFAT knew he was coming from Beijing. It is frankly inconceivable that DFAT would not have been aware that Mr Robert was arriving from Beijing. The post—

Mr Varghese : On the face of it, if he was supported and facilitated in Singapore then the post would presumably have known from where his plane was coming; correct. But the embassy in Beijing would not necessarily have known.

Senator WONG: I asked you a question about facilitation, and you said Mr Robert did not require any facilitation or seek any; is that right?

Mr Varghese : In relation to China?

Senator WONG: Correct.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: Land transport?

Mr Varghese : No facilitation. We did not know he was there.

Senator WONG: It is pretty unusual, isn't it?

Mr Varghese : As I said earlier, there is not a hard and fast rule about advising missions or the department if you are on private travel. It is essentially up to the traveller.

Senator WONG: In the time that I was doing a fair bit of engagement with foreign governments, it would have been inconceivable to me as a minister that I would have met with someone as senior as a vice-minister and not had a DFAT official present. It would have been inconceivable. You do not cease to be a minister, do you, even though you are on private business?

Mr Varghese : That is correct.

Senator WONG: People still think you are representing even if you have paid for your own trip. I am just going to outline what I understand to be the process and check with you that my understanding is correct. Where ministers seek travel approval, a letter is written to the Prime Minister's office. The Prime Minister then approves it. Is DFAT advised at all, through that travel approval process, of the fact of travel—non-portfolio ministers?

Mr Varghese : In relation to non-portfolio ministers, the way the system works is that once the Prime Minister has approved travel the relevant department would be in touch with DFAT, and sometimes directly in touch with the post, to put in place arrangements for the visit.

Senator WONG: Did that occur in relation to the Beijing to Singapore leg of Mr Robert's visit?

Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice.

Senator WONG: You are entitled to do that. But I want to place it on record that I find it remarkable, given the prominence of this issue and given my regard for your thoroughness, that you have not come prepared with detailed knowledge of DFAT's engagement with this issue. This has been an issue over which the Prime Minister has referred the ministers conduct to the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Mr Varghese : Can I just say this: the focus of this issue has been on Mr Robert's visit to China. I have given you the sum total of our knowledge of Mr Robert's visit to China and whether the department or the embassy had any involvement in it. His onward travel is not the focus of public attention at the moment—

Senator WONG: It is entirely relevant.

Mr Varghese : It may well be entirely relevant—

Senator WONG: It is entirely relevant—

CHAIR: Senator Wong, let the secretary finish.

Mr Varghese : but it is not the focus of attention at the moment and, therefore, I do not have the details of what our post in Singapore did following Mr Robert's visit to Beijing. I will get that information to you as quickly as possible.

Senator WONG: Thank you, and that is useful. But the issue is: DFAT was aware of him being in China.

Mr Varghese : No, DFAT was not aware of him being in China.

Senator WONG: It is inconceivable that DFAT via the Singapore post was not aware that he was coming from Beijing. You have to rock up to the gate.

Mr Varghese : As I said to you earlier, it may well be that the Singapore post was aware—and I imagine they would be if they met him on arrival—but that does not mean the post in Beijing was aware of it.

Senator WONG: But I am talking about DFAT as a collective—

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator WONG: I did not say the post in Beijing. But let's go back to Beijing. I do want to make sure I have understand your evidence correctly. I think you said you—DFAT—became aware of the meeting after the Department of Defence advised the Defence personnel at the Beijing post of the meeting. Do you have the date of that?

Mr Varghese : Mr Fletcher may have it.

Mr Fletcher : 26 August.

Senator WONG: What was the date of the meeting?

Mr Fletcher : I think it was the previous week.

Senator WONG: So the week prior, someone in DoD advises the Defence personnel at the post; is that right?

Mr Fletcher : That is right.

Senator WONG: Can you tell me how that advice was provided?

Mr Fletcher : By email.

Senator WONG: I would like a copy of that email, please.

Mr Varghese : Can I take that on notice. I think we are talking about a Defence email.

Senator WONG: But it is a document that you hold because you received it.

Mr Varghese : Can I take that on notice. It is not our document is all I am saying.

Senator WONG: It is. It is also your document. The document belongs to both of you—sender and recipient. Was it a classified email?

Mr Fletcher : I do not know.

Senator WONG: Have you seen the email?

Mr Fletcher : I will have to check.

Senator WONG: Have you seen the email?

Mr Fletcher : I think so, yes.

Senator WONG: When did you see the email?

Mr Fletcher : Earlier this week.

Senator WONG: What does it say?

Mr Fletcher : It says that the minister had informed his department that he had been in China. It lists the people he had met, and it also refers to his other activities—tourism, et cetera.

Senator WONG: Other activities? What does 'other activities' mean?

Mr Fletcher : Golf and visits to tourist sites.

Senator WONG: Golf and visits to tourist sites? What did he visit?

Mr Fletcher : I do not know.

Senator WONG: Did the email express any surprise that they were not advised?

Mr Fletcher : I will have to check. I will take that on notice.

Senator WONG: In terms of the list of people, did he meet with any other senior officials, or any other officials from the Chinese government or the Communist Party?

Mr Fletcher : No.

Senator WONG: Who else did he meet with?

Mr Fletcher : There were three individuals named. They were the people who have been named in the media reports.

Senator WONG: I am sorry, I cannot hear.

Mr Fletcher : The three individuals named in this week's media reports.

Senator WONG: I have not been following all of this because I have been in estimates. Can you remind me of those three people.

Mr Fletcher : It is the vice-minister of land and resources, Mr Wang Min. There are two other individuals, one of whom is a company representative—I think both of whom are from the Chinese company involved in the ceremony, or event, that he attended.

Senator WONG: Is there a reply from the post to DoD to this email?

Mr Fletcher : I am not aware of any reply.

Senator WONG: Who was advised—well, I will not ask the officer's name, but it was a Defence officer?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: What did they do as a result? What happened then?

Mr Fletcher : I am not aware of any follow-up action.

Senator WONG: Mr Varghese?

Mr Varghese : I cannot add to that.

Senator WONG: What does that mean?

Mr Varghese : Mr Fletcher indicated that he was not aware of any follow-up action.

Senator WONG: No, I am asking about whether you are aware.

Mr Varghese : No, I am certainly not aware.

Senator WONG: You have not checked?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: So you have not checked whether or not once DFAT was advised that a minister was wandering around China having meetings with a vice-minister—you get advised a week later whether your post did anything? Did they report it? Did they put it in a cable?

Mr Varghese : Sorry. Did they report that they had received advice about the visit?

Senator WONG: Yes. Did they report anything about the visit? Did they say, 'Mr Robert, a member of the Australia executive, has met with a senior official in China. We weren't aware of it, nobody attended and we are not sure about what happened at the meeting.'

Mr Varghese : I will take on notice whether there was any such report. Given that the information came from the Department of Defence and the minister was in that portfolio, I am not sure that reporting back to Canberra something that Canberra had reported to them would have made a whole lot of sense, but I am willing to take it on notice.

Senator WONG: Hang on. The report from Canberra is from the Defence portfolio.

Mr Varghese : Sure.

Senator WONG: There are foreign policy issues which may arise. I would have thought it would be a useful thing for Canberra to know that a member of the executive has had a meeting that no-one knows what happened in.

Mr Varghese : But I will take it on notice to see whether there was any report.

Senator WONG: Did the post make any contact with the Chinese government after they became aware of this ministerial level meeting?

Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge. I do not know if Mr Fletcher has anything further.

Mr Fletcher : No.

Senator WONG: Did the post, did anyone, did you do anything after you were advised of this meeting?

Mr Varghese : I said I would take on notice whether the post reported it.

Senator WONG: Did the post report it to you or one of your—

Mr Varghese : No, I said I would take on notice whether they did or they did not.

Senator WONG: You cannot remember?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: Anybody at dep-sec level or the SES level advise that a minister had a meeting that nobody knew about and nobody had attended?

Mr Varghese : Let me take it on notice, because the relevant division head is not aware of it and I am not aware of it, so I think—

Senator WONG: That relevant division head is you, Mr Fletcher?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: But you were not at the time—2014.

Mr Fletcher : That is correct.

Senator WONG: You were in Beijing. So who was the relevant division head at 2014?

Mr Varghese : Peter Rowe.

Senator WONG: You have not made inquiries of him?

Mr Varghese : He is retired.

Senator WONG: I know, but I assume he is still around. You have not made enquiries?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator CONROY: I asked Mr Richardson yesterday about his envoy. I appreciate you have being talking about this for a little while and you may have already covered some of this, but I want to be very precise about my understanding. Mr Richardson said yesterday that the defence attache in Beijing knew nothing about the visit. Was any other official in the embassy aware that Minister Robert was in the country? Was any contact made with any official? Was any assistance provided by any official in the embassy? You may have covered some of that but I wanted to be very specific: not just the defence attache, but any official?

Mr Varghese : I understand. We have covered this, and the answer to your question is: neither the embassy nor the department was aware of Mr Robert's visit at the time.

Senator CONROY: And they have confirmed that to you?

Mr Varghese : Yes, the embassy has confirmed that.

Senator CONROY: They have no record, at all?

Mr Varghese : No. They were not aware of the visit.

Senator WONG: Did the Chinese government contact the Australian government in any capacity to follow up any issues raised at the ministerial level meeting?

Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge. I am pretty sure they did not but I will defer to Mr Fletcher.

Senator WONG: Mr Fletcher?

Mr Fletcher : Not to my knowledge.

Senator WONG: Did the Chinese government have a note-taker at the ministerial meeting?

Mr Fletcher : It would be usual for them to have some staff.

Senator WONG: I am sorry—could you repeat that?

Mr Fletcher : It would be normal practice for a meeting with a Chinese official to have several people present from their department.

Senator WONG: Has DFAT, or anyone from the Australian government, requested or received copies of those notes?

Mr Fletcher : Not to my knowledge.

Mr Varghese : Mr Fletcher is more of an expert on this. It would be highly unusual for the Chinese system to share their record of conversation with us.

Senator WONG: No, because you would usually have someone in the meeting, which reminds us all why this is such an extraordinary occurrence. So your answer is: it would be usual for them to have someone at the meeting but there has been no contact made seeking sharing of the record of the meeting. Is that right?

Mr Fletcher : That is correct. I had no knowledge of it and I doubt that we would have sought any.

Senator CONROY: We have all seen from the photographs that have been reproduced in the Australian newspapers—and I appreciate you could not possibly watch every single company or their websites—was there any publicity around the meeting in Chinese media at the time that Mr Robert was in China? The next day, was there a photograph with their media?

I understand, from the website of the company where the signing took place, they were very proud of it, and they published it very quickly. So I am just trying to understand: even though he may not have told you he was there, did anyone notice he was there through the Chinese media? I am presuming you do have a fairly comprehensive watch on Chinese media, although I appreciate, as I said, you would not have on every single company, but were there any announcements by the Chinese government of Mr Robert's parading around the country on behalf of Nimrod?

Mr Varghese : Can we take that on notice—whether there was any coverage in the Chinese media, and if so, whether the embassy was aware of it?

Senator CONROY: Sure.

Senator WONG: Can I just go back to the note-taker issue? Is it really that unusual for governments to exchange or share notes taken by note-takers—

Mr Varghese : It is pretty unusual.

Senator WONG: to confirm that they are correct?

Mr Varghese : It is pretty unusual, and it would be very unusual with the Chinese government, I think.

Senator WONG: I was asking in the generic deliberately—but you have taken that step. I just want to check the dates. The embassy becomes aware of the meeting and the visit on 26 August 2014. You are taking on notice whether they did anything with that knowledge, correct?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: I would be grateful if you could find that out and we could come back to this later today, given we are here until 11 o'clock tonight. Apropos Senator Conroy's question, there was a press release put out by the Chinese government about the meeting. Did that not come to the post's attention or to DFAT's attention at all?

Mr Varghese : Can I take that on notice as well?

Senator WONG: I understand that this is an official statement on the Chinese government website on, I think, 19 August 2014, that Mr Robert and his delegation met with Vice-Minister Wang Min. You are not aware of that?

Mr Varghese : We are talking about a date when Mr Roberts was still in China?

Senator WONG: Correct.

Mr Varghese : All I can say is that the embassy had no knowledge of his visit at the time, so I would have to assume—and I am conscious, Senator Wong, that you prefer more than assumptions—that they were not aware of that press release, because if they had been they would have been aware that he was in the country.

Senator WONG: When did the foreign minister become aware of the assistant minister's visit?

Mr Varghese : I would have to take on notice whether the foreign minister became aware of it before this became an issue in the public domain, most recently.

Senator WONG: Have you had a discussion with the foreign minister about this?

Mr Varghese : No—about whether she was aware of it?

Senator WONG: No, about the fact of this visit.

Mr Varghese : No. I have had a discussion with her in passing about the issue and about the practice of private visits by ministers and the extent to which they inform the department and missions, and that discussion was consistent with the answer that she gave in the parliament about there not being a widespread practice and it being case by case.

CHAIR: Senator Wong, just before you resume, I am remiss for not having recognised Senator the Hon. Richard Colbeck, who has replaced the Attorney-General at the table. Welcome, Minister.

Senator Colbeck: Thank you.

Senator WONG: What is the practice? Are you saying it is ad hoc?

Mr Varghese : Yes. I think this is where we started, Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: I ask the minister to tell us when the foreign minister or her office became aware of Mr Robert's visit to China and his meeting with the vice-minister?

Senator Colbeck: I will have to take that on notice.

Senator WONG: You really do not know? You have come to estimates when this matter has been sent to the most senior public servant in the country for investigation and you do not know when the minister you are representing, who has responsibility for relations with foreign powers, knew about this?

Senator Colbeck: No, I do not.

Senator WONG: That is convenient. If you could inquire—

Senator Colbeck: I will inquire—

Senator WONG: and respond during the course of the hearing, we would be grateful.

Senator Colbeck: Certainly.

Senator WONG: Mr Varghese, can you tell me which passport the minister used?

Mr Varghese : I do not know, but I shall take that on notice as well.

Senator WONG: Not many inquiries are being made about this matter. It is very convenient, is it not? It is only a matter that the Prime Minister has referred to Dr Parkinson, but we would not want to actually get informed about it! Do we know what visa he had?

Mr Varghese : I do not.

Senator WONG: Can you find that out, too?

Mr Varghese : Sure. Happy to.

Senator WONG: The press release to which I referred refers to Mr Robert and his delegation. Do you know who his delegation were?

Mr Varghese : I do not, Senator. I am happy to also take that on notice.

Senator WONG: Senator Colbeck, I assume Ms Bishop has staff members here. Maybe you could inquire of them when she became aware.

Senator Colbeck: Senator, my office is watching too, so they will be in touch with Minister Bishop's office as well.

Senator WONG: When did Ms Adamson, who was the then ambassador, become aware of the visit?

Mr Varghese : I will take that on notice. But going back to the evidence we have already given you, Mr Fletcher indicated that on 26 August the Defence section was advised. I will take on notice whether Ambassador Adamson was also subsequently advised and, if so, whether she can recall when.

Senator WONG: As a result of this matter now coming to DFAT's attention, what inquiries, if any, has DFAT made as to what was discussed in the meeting?

Mr Varghese : Senator Wong, I am not aware that we have made any inquiries about the content of the meeting.

Senator WONG: What inquiries have you made on the details of the meeting?

Mr Varghese : I will take that on notice.

Senator WONG: Oh, come on! Mr Fletcher, you saw the email earlier this week. What other inquiries did you or staff reporting to you or other DFAT staff, of which you are aware, make about the visit, the meeting and Mr Robert's engagements in China?

Mr Fletcher : To answer the question, the focus of our inquiries was whether we had known of the visit in any part of the department or whether the embassy had known of the visit. We have not, to my knowledge, asked anybody about what occurred during the meetings. It was a year and a half ago. It was with the Ministry of Land and Resources. As far as I know, we are not proceeding to find out what happened.

Senator WONG: Generally, it is a good thing to know what ministers say to vice-ministers in the Chinese government, is it not?

Mr Fletcher : Well, it was a protocol kind of meeting.

Senator WONG: How do you know?

Mr Fletcher : Based on the fact that it was with the Ministry of Land and Resources in connection with a visit between a Chinese minerals company and an Australian company that was signing some kind of agreement. It is normal for there to be some kind of meeting between people on both sides in association with those ceremonies.

Senator WONG: So where there is a commercial deal? Tell me if I understand what you are—

Mr Fletcher : Yes. If there is a senior level of engagement by a business figure, they would usually try to associate themselves with a government meeting of some sort. Those meetings are often very polite, and not necessarily full of substance.

Senator WONG: So it is a class of meeting, shall we say, where—

Mr Fletcher : You could call it a courtesy call.

Senator WONG: Sure. It is a class of meeting where, if there is a commercial agreement which involves a Chinese company, you would have a meeting which involves an official of the Chinese government, you would make sure you get a picture and a media release that shows that the government is supportive of the arrangement and that gives the company a bit of face and so forth. Is that a reasonable analysis?

Mr Fletcher : That is quite typical and that usually happens when you are involved with a state-owned enterprise.

Senator WONG: Is it an SOE we are talking about?

Mr Fletcher : Yes, it is.

Senator WONG: It is a state-owned enterprise. Can you give some examples of these sorts of meetings where a state-owned enterprise and an Australian company have had such a ceremony or such a meeting that you are aware of? Are you able to give some examples of similar meetings?

Mr Fletcher : I cannot recall specific examples but they happen frequently.

Senator WONG: Do Australian ministers ever attend them?

Mr Fletcher : It is possible.

Senator WONG: If Australian ministers attend you would generally have members of the post there?

Mr Fletcher : On official visits, yes, that would be the normal practice.

Senator WONG: The purpose of the meeting was essentially commercial. No, I will withdraw that. The purpose of such meetings is to support, publicise, give weight to—endorse might be too strong a word but support might be the best word—the commercial agreement.

Mr Fletcher : And the developing relationship.

Senator WONG: Is it appropriate that a minister rock up to one of these meetings without telling you?

Mr Varghese : Ultimately, these are questions of judgement for the relevant minister in the context of a private visit.

Senator WONG: Would you ever advise a foreign minister of this country to participate in such a meeting, even if she or he were travelling in a private capacity?

Mr Varghese : I think it would be on a case-by-case basis.

Senator WONG: Right.

Mr Varghese : It would depend on the country, it would depend on the circumstances and it would depend on the nature of the meeting. I do not think I can give you a hard and fast rule on it.

Senator WONG: No, there is not a hard and fast rule. I hear—

Mr Varghese : Or hard and fast advice on it.

Senator WONG: There is no hard and fast rule because no-one contemplates that anyone would actually do this. That is why there is no rule, isn't it? No-one would actually contemplate that an Australian minister would rock up to China and participate in what is a commercial function without letting you know.

Mr Varghese : I cannot add to what I have just said.

Senator WONG: No, fair enough. Are you aware that the reported comments of China Minmetals Corporation are that Mr Robert spoke 'on behalf of the Australian Department of the Defence'?

Mr Varghese : I have seen those references in the media.

Senator WONG: Can you tell me how that is consistent with Mr Robert's claim that he attended in a personal capacity?

Mr Varghese : Whether the Minmetals claim was accurate in the first instance—

Senator WONG: It is a smart answer, but go back and try—

Mr Varghese : remains to be seen.

Senator WONG: Okay—so you are going to answer it by trying to question the quote. I can go and get the quote for you and put it to you again if you like. How is it consistent with Mr Robert being there in a personal capacity?

Mr Varghese : You are quoting a statement from the company purporting to represent the nature of Mr Robert's participation.

Senator WONG: Shall I do it this way? It is a very good public servant's and lawyer's answer to question the premise of the question. Any public statement which asserted that Mr Robert was representing the Department of Defence would be, or is, inconsistent with an assertion that he was there in a personal capacity.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: Thank you. I think Senator Conroy has gone. He did ask questions about this. It is common practice, is it not, when members of the executive go to China on official business, that they would be provided with phones for the purpose of the visit?

Mr Varghese : I do not want to get into security related details, which would be inappropriate in an open hearing.

Senator WONG: Okay.

Mr Varghese : But—

Senator WONG: I am happy to ask it in a different way. That was actually put on the public record earlier this week, but I am happy to ask it in a different way. Were any of the protocols which are usually in place in relation to members of the executive visiting China, for example, put in place in relation to Mr Robert's visit?

Mr Varghese : I think that the short answer to that question is 'no'. That is partly because I do not think the system as a whole was aware of the visit.

Senator WONG: Thank you. Mr Fletcher, have you read the Chinese language reports of this meeting?

Mr Fletcher : No, I have not.

Senator WONG: As one of the few people, probably, who can read them—

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: You did not want to read them?

Mr Fletcher : I have other things to do—

Senator WONG: I am sure you do! I might come back to this question—I might table it and ask you to respond to it after the break. But you are aware of public reporting about what the parties—the Chinese government and the SOE—have said about the meeting?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: What I am putting to you, given your knowledge of China and how that political system operates, is that it is plain that the company and the Chinese government thought they were dealing with Mr Robert in his ministerial capacity?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: Thank you. Can I ask about gifts? Have you provided any advice to ministers about what to do if they get a watch?

Mr Varghese : There are very clear guidelines on the declaration of gifts and I think they speak for themselves.

Senator WONG: That was not really my question. Has DFAT provided any guidance or advice to ministers about receiving gifts of watches?

Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge—advice specifically on receiving gifts of watches. But—

Senator WONG: How to pick a fake?

Mr Varghese : No, I do not think we have got into—

Senator WONG: Or how to pick a real one!

Mr Varghese : No, I do not think we get into the business of forensic examination of the authenticity of watches that may be given—

Senator WONG: Tens of thousands of dollars' worth of watches.

Mr Varghese : The short answer is 'no'.

Senator WONG: How long have you been an official with DFAT?

Mr Varghese : I joined the department in 1979, so 37 years.

Senator WONG: That is very impressive! So in that very lengthy and distinguished career, Mr Varghese, how many Rolexes has a minister received, to your knowledge?

Mr Varghese : I have no idea.

Senator WONG: To your knowledge, have you ever known of a minister receiving a Rolex? Until this occasion?

Mr Varghese : Not to my personal knowledge, no. But I am sure that ministers receive many gifts that I am unaware of.

Senator WONG: When you were high commissioner in India, did any visiting minister get a Rolex?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: You did not work in Beijing, did you?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: Have you ever got a Rolex?

Mr Varghese : No—regrettably!

Senator WONG: Neither have I! Not a real one, anyway.

CHAIR: Neither have I!

Mr Varghese : It would be well above the value of what I can—

Senator WONG: Correct.

Mr Varghese : And I would not be able to afford the difference.

Senator WONG: And, presumably, you would not say, 'I think I can keep it because it's a fake—nudge, nudge, wink, wink.' Right?

Mr Varghese : I could not possibly comment on that.

Senator WONG: You could not possibly comment—fair enough. So DFAT presumably is not asked to check if a watch is fake or not, and whether someone can keep it?

Mr Varghese : Sometimes the department is asked for advice on the value of a gift, because that is obviously relevant to a declaration that a minister might make.

Senator WONG: Tea sets and things like that. Yes.

Mr Varghese : Sure.

Senator WONG: Were you asked for advice in relation to any of the Rolexes which have been publicly disclosed now?

Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge, but I am happy to take that on notice.

Senator WONG: Mr Fletcher, you were in Beijing. Did anyone get a Rolex while you were there?

Mr Fletcher : No.

Senator WONG: Can I go back to the Parkinson inquiry? I find it hard to understand that there has been no inquiry from PM&C of DFAT as to details of what you know about this visit.

Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge, but it could well be that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has been in touch with colleagues in the department to seek information.

Senator WONG: Mr Fletcher?

Mr Fletcher : Not to my knowledge, no.

Senator LUDLAM: I will get a couple of questions in now, but I suspect it might be worth coming back a bit later when we get to the Consular, Public Diplomacy and Parliamentary Affairs Division. I have got a few questions relating to the decision of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention about Julian Assange. I note also that foreign minister Bishop met with Mr Assange's legal team when she was in London last week. I just want to acknowledge that the decision was probably taken on fairly short notice and presumably she had a full diary—I just wanted to acknowledge that she did make time to speak to his legal team. Could anybody at the table with fresh information bring us up to date about any outcomes of that meeting and what the Australian government thinks is going to happen from here.

Mr Varghese : I think at that meeting the foreign minister indicated that she would seek further legal advice on the question of passports. How we end up handling that, of course, is going to depend to a very large extent on what the UK government does in the event that Mr Assange were to leave the Ecuadorian embassy.

Senator LUDLAM: We will come back to some of the specifics later. I am obviously not going to press you on the content of that legal advice, because I know that down that path lies madness, but could you tell us whether or not the advice has at least been furnished to government as yet?

Mr Varghese : Yes, we have.

Senator LUDLAM: Has the government, again without pressing you for details, begun to act on that advice? Is there anything that you can report that has actually happened since then?

Mr Varghese : I do not think the conditions on which a government decision is required have arisen yet. It really relates to what happens to Mr Assange in the event that he were to leave the Ecuadorian embassy.

Senator LUDLAM: That makes it sound a bit like you were just adopting a wait and see approach—not to put words in your mouth. It does sound a bit passive.

Mr Varghese : I am struggling to understand how a proactive approach in relation to, for instance, the passport issue is actually open to us.

Senator LUDLAM: I have got a couple of ideas. If there are none forthcoming, I have a few. Will the Australian government lobby for Mr Assange's passport to be returned to him? He has just been found to have been unlawfully and arbitrarily detained for a period of five years. Have we made any overtures to the British authorities to return his passport?

Mr Varghese : I think that is a question for the UK government in relation to its own legal processes and its own legal obligations.

Senator LUDLAM: They are now under a legal obligation to let him go and to not submit him to arrest.

Mr Varghese : That is your interpretation.

Senator LUDLAM: That is the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention interpretation, Mr Varghese.

Mr Varghese : I think you will find that the UK government has a different view of what its legal obligation is.

Senator LUDLAM: So they just get to disagree with international law when it suits them.

Mr Varghese : No, that is your interpretation.

Senator LUDLAM: No, it is the interpretation of the UN's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Mr Varghese : I think the UK Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made the UK government's position quite clear—

Senator LUDLAM: That they are going to disregard international law when it suits them—that is my interpretation. That is how it sounded to me.

Mr Varghese : I think Mr Hammond's statement stands on its own.

Senator LUDLAM: It stands condemned.

Mr Varghese : You can put an interpretation on it.

Senator LUDLAM: Let's take a quick jump back. I think you are telling me that, no, you have not made representation that Mr Assange's passport should be returned to him?

Mr Varghese : That is correct.

Senator LUDLAM: Has the Australian government made any representation at any time over the recent period if you like—but I am actually interested in the last five years, or any update you can provide us—with Swedish authorities to progress their investigations over the claims that relate to things that are alleged to have occurred in Stockholm in 2010, to expedite, hurry up and move that investigation forward? I have just gone through a chronology of all the things that the Swedish prosecutors have done to avoid questioning Mr Assange and it makes for very strange reading.

Mr Varghese : I will see if Mr Philp has any information on that. If he does not, I will take it on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks, Mr Varghese.

Mr Philp : We have had contact with the Swedish authorities on a number of occasions conveying Australia's expectations that Mr Assange's case would be afforded due process, consistent with Swedish law but not, should I say, since December 2011.

Senator LUDLAM: Wow—four years ago.

Mr Philp : In fact, because there has been no change in Sweden's approach. They are very much aware of our opinion but they have not changed their approach since then and we are confident that what they had done at that time, which remains current, was consistent with Swedish law and due process.

Senator LUDLAM: They have done nothing and it sounds like we have done nothing. They have actively avoided and taken every opportunity to avoid questioning him. Do you not think that that is a bit peculiar for somebody in his situation?

Mr Philp : I understand that negotiations continue. It is a matter for the Swedish authorities and the British authorities. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, all we have the authority or entitlement to do is to ensure that he receives due process in law and that we are confident that the legal systems are robust, which we are. We should also ensure that he has legal advice, which I think we all know he does have.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, he does indeed have. I do want to acknowledge people in this room, foreign ministers of both political persuasions and current foreign minister Julie Bishop that, in the instance of Peter Greste and his colleagues detained in Egypt, there was genuine and sustained activism behind the scenes and in public to have those individuals released from detention. When Melinda Taylor was detained in Libya, people jumped on planes and phone calls were made. Yet you are telling us that you have no record of any representation being made to the Swedish authorities since December 2011, in the instance of an Australian citizen who has found himself in the situation. Why the vast difference in behaviour?

Mr Philp : I think there are very few people who would equate the Swedish or the British legal systems with Libya's current legal system. These cases have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis and decisions made about what is appropriate in each one. In Mr Assange's case, we look at what the Swedish and the British authorities have done in accordance with the European arrest warrant and we see that he is receiving due process under those legal systems. He has access to legal assistance. When he was detained, we checked on him a number of times to make sure that his welfare was appropriately considered. Those are all consistent with the rights that we have under the Vienna conventions.

Senator LUDLAM: But Mr Assange's legal team cannot compel the Swedish authorities to question him. It is a very strange situation for them to be put in. I do not think they have the ability to compel prosecutors to question him. So actually they can let this run for another 20 years if they feel like it and the Australian government will just let that happen.

Mr Philp : There is a Swedish statute of limitations that would not allow it to continue for another 20 years.

Senator LUDLAM: How long could this conceivably go for?

Mr Philp : I would have to take that on notice, but I believe until 2020.

Senator LUDLAM: We just let that slide for another five years.

Mr Philp : As I say, it is our job to ensure that there is due process, that he has access to the legal provisions and that nothing has been done to him that is not consistent with what would be done for a British citizen in the United Kingdom or a Swedish citizen in Sweden. We cannot interfere in another state's legal processes. We have no standing to do so and no right under the Vienna convention.

Senator LUDLAM: It is not about interference; it is about advocacy for an Australian citizen. Every now and again, we do advocate for Australian citizens and every now and again we get results. Can anyone at the desk confirm whether Mr Assange is the first Australian citizen to be found to have been arbitrarily detained by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention since it was founded in 1991?

Mr Philp : I cannot.

Mr Varghese : We will take it on notice.

Senator LUDLAM: If you could. I have not been able to come across any other instances.

Mr Varghese : Yes, I cannot think of one myself.

Senator LUDLAM: The British government and, I believe, the Swedish authorities have effectively contested the UN working group's findings. Does the Australian government have a formal view on the findings?

Mr Varghese : The opinion is not directed at Australia, so we do not see a need to express a view on it. In any event, it is not a legally binding opinion.

Senator LUDLAM: The UN working group has stated actually fairly unambiguously that it believes that it is legally binding for countries that respect international law.

Mr Varghese : We do not share the view that it is a legally binding opinion.

Senator LUDLAM: We shared that view when it was Aung San Suu Kyi in question, for example.

Mr Varghese : I am sure that legal issues are always decided on a case-by-case basis.

Senator LUDLAM: We decide whether we respect the authority of that body on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Varghese : No. The merits of a legal opinion are decided on a case-by-case basis. Our view is that this opinion is not legally binding.

Senator LUDLAM: It is remarkable. So it was good enough for the Burmese authorities to respect and uphold its findings, though it took months for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released, it was good enough for the Iranian authorities and the authorities of the Maldives and a number of other countries, but we are just going to give a free pass to the British government because they do not like the sound of the judgement.

Mr Varghese : That is commentary.

CHAIR: That is a statement; you are not expecting a response.

Senator LUDLAM: A response would have been great. The states are actually bound by international treaties that they have signed. The UK is a signatory to these human rights instruments, so is the Swedish government. Have any representations at all of any kind been made to either the British authorities or the Swedish authorities on respecting the decision of this UN judicial body since that finding was handed down?

Mr Philp : No.

Senator LUDLAM: Why not?

Mr Philp : Because it is a matter for the Swedish and the UK authorities—

Senator LUDLAM: The guy is an Australian citizen.

Mr Philp : and we do not consider it legally binding on them.

Senator LUDLAM: He is an Australian citizen, and we are also signatories to these international human rights instruments and we have been for decades. We were among the first signatories in the world.

Mr Philp : As an Australian citizen, it is my job to ensure that he has access to consular assistance, which we will continue to do as we have done in the past.

Senator LUDLAM: Again, this is in press so feel free if you have better information than me: one of the requests that has been made of the foreign minister has been to restore Mr Assange's passport. What have you done to respond to this request?

Mr Philp : Mr Assange's passport is legitimately held by the UK authorities. It was surrendered to them as part of his bail conditions.

Senator LUDLAM: I believe it has expired now.

Mr Philp : It has not expired. It is held by the British authorities. He is entitled to apply for its return. It is lawfully held by them and we would not, under those circumstances, seek for its return.

Senator LUDLAM: You would not seek to intervene in any way? Okay. I might come back later, Chair, when we get to the consular and public diplomacy division.

Senator FAWCETT: Did anyone compel Mr Assange to seek refuge where he did?

Mr Philp : I believe not.

Senator FAWCETT: Why was he originally seeking not to go back to Sweden? What were the charges against him?

Mr Philp : There were a number of charges relating to sexual assault.

Senator LUDLAM: There were no charges, Mr Philp. You are familiar with this case and you must know better than that.

Mr Philp : That is correct, there is an investigation relating to sexual assault under Swedish law. Charges do not have to be laid in order for an investigation and an arrest warrant to be put out under the European processes.

Senator FAWCETT: There were victims in Sweden who were seeking justice which is why they were seeking to interview him.

Mr Philp : They sought to interview him as part of an investigation into sexual assault allegations in Sweden, that is correct.

Senator FAWCETT: Nobody forced him to take refuge. That was his own choice.

Mr Philp : Mr Assange voluntarily entered the Ecuadorian embassy, that is correct.

Proceedings suspended from 10 : 14 to 10 : 30

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Varghese, can I bring us from the UK and Sweden back to issues closer to our region. Can you talk to the committee about efforts that the department and the government are making at the moment to work with China and regional countries around encouraging a rules based order for things like the South China Sea freedom of navigation.

Mr Varghese : This is obviously a very important long-term issue for the region as well as an issue that is current in the short and medium term. We are at a moment of transition in the region as economic growth rearranges strategic weight. As we work our way through the challenges of that transition, I think it is very important, firstly, that we all make a conscientious effort to develop effective regional institutions that can act as a buffer in the event of regional instability. Also, we must find a consensus on some core principles that would frame strategic behaviour and the strategic culture of the region. That is where a rules based system and a reinforcement of basic international norms becomes very important.

These are issues that have a particular currency in relation to the South China Sea, where we have a number of claimant states who cannot reach agreement on the merits of their claims, and therefore it is very important that we all find and adhere to a framework which is based on the rule of law and certain fundamental principles, including respect for international law, the settlement of disputes peacefully, refraining from actions which could exacerbate tensions and looking for negotiated solutions. Some of this work crystallises around the merits of a code of conduct in the South China Sea. We have been strong advocates of the code of conduct, and we have urged all the claimant states to also go down that path. We have urged China and ASEAN—because ultimately the code of conduct will turn on an agreement between China and ASEAN—to try to conclude that as soon as possible.

Senator FAWCETT: In terms of regional stability, the other country of interest is North Korea. In January this year—I think it was 6 January—they announced a nuclear test and made claims about the kind of test it was. How effective is our monitoring in order to have independent verification of what is occurring in places like North Korea and their capability to suddenly exert a significant influence from a security perspective?

Mr Varghese : I will not go into the details of our access to information on North Korea because—

Senator FAWCETT: One of your officials started moving forward when I first asked the question, so I had the sense that somebody was happy to go to that.

Mr Varghese : it might take us into some rather sensitive areas. But we do have, in the context of the verification system that is in place in anticipation of a comprehensive test ban treaty coming into force, the capacity to monitor and measure nuclear tests or their equivalents. That is an important source of information.

The actions of North Korea, both in relation to their claimed hydrogen test and more recently in relation to their testing of a ballistic missile, are matters of very grave concern for us and for the region. We think it is important for North Korea to desist from its nuclear program. We think that is a significant cause of instability in the region. Those activities are in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and, as you would know, the Security Council is currently considering what further measures it can take in relation to North Korea.

China has a very important role to play because it has the closest relationship with North Korea and probably the most influence on North Korea, although I think North Korea has, for a very long period of time, shown that it is resistant to influence from outside powers no matter where they may be located. It think it is important for the broader stability of the region that we do everything we can to try to convince North Korea that it has embarked on a path which is certainly not in the region's interests and, I would argue, in the long term also not in North Korea's own interests.

Senator FAWCETT: Dr Floyd, did you have anything to add to that?

Dr Floyd : You may be aware that the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization has set up a network of monitoring stations around the world. There are some 337 of them. When North Korea's test occurred, it was less than 15 minutes after that test that my office was rung by Geoscience Australia, which manages and monitors some of that data from Australia and some other sites around the world. Less than 15 minutes later they rang and said, 'There has been a suspect detection in North Korea.' Three hours later our various colleagues across the intelligence community, with Geoscience Australia, were putting together information with quite a deal of detail that became a leading report used by other countries. It just happens that it is in business hours in Australia when these things happen. It shows that the international monitoring system works, that the cooperation amongst countries works and that any tests such as this will be detected. The detail with which these things are able to be pinpointed is quite amazing. It is public information that the latest test site was some 700 metres away from the previous test site. They can get to that level of detail.

With regard to the size of the explosion and the claim about a hydrogen bomb, the magnitude of the yield of this test was similar to that of the previous test in 2013. If it was a fully functioning hydrogen bomb you would expect the yield to be probably 1,000 times greater. So it leaves the experts to consider then, 'What was this? We have the claim of a hydrogen bomb, but we do not have the yield of a successful one.' There are various modes in which these bombs can be put together, and there is no definitive data at the moment on exactly what was used.

The message that I see in all of that is that the monitoring system works and, if there is an explosion like this set off anywhere in the world, it can and will be detected.

Senator GALLACHER: I am just looking at where it says in the budget papers, 'Expanding Australia's diplomatic footprint.' You have allocated $98.3 million over four years to:

… boost the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's overseas network by opening new diplomatic posts in Buka (Papua New Guinea), Doha (Qatar), Makassar (Indonesia), Phuket (Thailand), and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), and providing increased resources for Houston (United States).

My question, Secretary, is: when that budget appropriation is spent, who signs off on the actual expenditure in each of those locations? Is that yourself, the minister or a delegated authority?

Mr Varghese : The chief financial officer may want to add to this. The budget obviously gives us the headline authority to expend on those new policy proposals. The detailed expenditure is something which would be examined and approved within the department.

Senator GALLACHER: By whom? That is my question. At what level is that approval delegated, or is it for the minister or yourself?

Mr Varghese : I will ask the chief financial officer to take you through the delegation for it.

Senator GALLACHER: I do not want to be taken through anything. I want to know who actually signs off on the expenditure.

Mr Varghese : I will ask him to respond to that.

Senator GALLACHER: You do not?

Mr Varghese : I do not, personally, because I delegate a lot of my authority down the line.

Senator GALLACHER: So you are delegating your authority and the minister's authority on expenditure to what level?

Mr Varghese : That is what we are about to answer.

Mr Wood : The department operates a decentralised delegations structure. Depending on an officer's level they will have a certain delegation amount, and these may go down to lower-level APS staff. The majority of the delegations reside at the senior executive level—SES band 1 or SES band 2. In relation to the expenditure under this proposal there are two components. The $98.3 million that you referred to is split into an operating component and a capital component. The capital component is $36.6 million—

Senator GALLACHER: I can see that from the budget papers. I do not need it to be read again.

Mr Wood : Correct, Senator. That is the building construction component. The operating component covers salaries and security as well as rent—those are the main components. The delegation authority for the capital side would generally be the executive director of the overseas property office, or there may be other elements where I may sign off or other officers within the corporate or property area sign off.

Senator GALLACHER: So you may sign off.

Mr Wood : I have a delegation authority.

Senator GALLACHER: I understand perfectly what you are saying. If I were to go to a couple of items—say, a 10-year lease—who would sign off on that? Or a refurbishment or a fitout of a property—who would sign off on that? Is that delegated to an SES band 1?

Mr Wood : It is, Senator. I may refer to Mr Nixon. There are some rules around long-term leases where we need to seek the finance minister's approval. If it goes over a certain period we need to seek high-level approval, but in general there would be an internal approval for the leases.

Senator GALLACHER: What about monetary value? Who approves monetary value? Are you saying it is delegated to an SES band 1 irrespective of how many hundreds, thousands or millions of dollars it is?

Mr Wood : No. The delegations have a dollar limit.

Senator GALLACHER: I will cut right to the chase. There is a property in Doha, in the Tornado Tower, which has been leased for 10 years and which we believe has a five per cent increase per annum. How much is the value of that lease?

Mr Wood : I might need Mr Nixon's assistance.

Mr Nixon : I thought I had the details of the lease with me here. I am just looking for them within the document that I have. I think the first point is I do not believe the lease has actually been signed as yet. As you may be aware, we are waiting on the approval of the parliamentary Public Works Committee before we commit to that.

Senator GALLACHER: That is a very pertinent point, but the whole process of estimates is to scrutinise the expenditure of taxpayers' money. Now if one committee of the parliament is not able to scrutinise leases, the appropriate place to ask about leases is at estimates—

Mr Varghese : Sure. Senator, I think that is absolutely an appropriate question.

Senator GALLACHER: so give us the figure.

Mr Nixon : The Tornado building has an area to be leased of 895 square metres. There is a total lease cost of, as I understand it, $80.70 per square metre per month, with an annual escalation rate of 1.5 per cent per annum.

Senator GALLACHER: Eighty dollars a square metre per month times 900—does anybody have a calculator?

Mr Varghese : Do you have an annual figure, Kevin?

Mr Nixon : I do not actually have that converted, Peter; sorry.

Senator GALLACHER: It is 1,000 times 80 times 12—is that roughly what we are talking about? Or are you going to do the calculation for me? What I am asking is: how much is the lease per annum? Can somebody do that calculation for us, and we will move onto the next issue, which is: you have mentioned there are 895 square metres; can you advise the committee how much is that costing to fit-out.

Mr Nixon : I think we provided some advice to the committee, which was updated yesterday, indicating that the estimated fit-out cost was in the order of about $7 million Australian approximately.

Senator GALLACHER: We need to be very clear on the public record: what was the medium works proposed to the Public Works Committee for the fit-out?

Mr Nixon : Yesterday the advice was a figure of $7,036,000.

Senator GALLACHER: And the earlier advice of a week ago?

Mr Nixon : There was earlier advice, I believe, through a letter that was sent to the committee referring this as a medium works on 5 January, and the figure at that point was slightly higher. I will provide that figure in just a moment.

Senator GALLACHER: Mr Nixon, we are on the public record. It was $1 million higher. We are led to believe the initial proposal was approaching $10,000 per square metre—$9,994 a square metre—which is, in my experience on the Public Works Committee, double the most expensive fit-out ever approved by that committee. I am trying to get to the bottom of how much you are paying for the lease, how much you are paying for the fit-out and at what level in the department—who takes these sorts of decisions of expenditure of taxpayers' money? Secretary Varghese, you are saying you delegate it. I want to know who you delegate it to. I want to hear that person, who signed off, to say approaching $10,000 per square metre was a good deal. I would like to hear some justification of that expenditure of taxpayers' money.

Mr Nixon : Senator, I provide advice in respect of the costs of the fit-out for Doha and for other locations.

Senator GALLACHER: I accept that the Office of Overseas Property follows the instructions of the department. That you source ability and you give them back the value of what you need to do, and someone has to—do you sign off on it, Mr Wood? Have you signed off on this proposal that is currently before the Public Works Committee?

Mr Wood : As Mr Nixon said, we have not signed the lease. If I could note, we do go through a costing process to get this money recognised and appropriated through the budget. We would have had this type of discussion or conversation with the Department of Finance to arrive at the funding for this post.

Senator GALLACHER: So has the Department of Finance approved this project?

Mr Wood : The Department of Finance approves the budget envelope for the construction of this project, and within $98.3 million is a component of around $20 million for Doha and of around $7 million is for the capital.

Senator GALLACHER: I would like the secretary to take on notice that I would like the expenditure in Doha and the level of the responsible officer it was delegated to. If you did not oversight and approve this expenditure, who did and what was their level? On a rudimentary calculation it is the most expensive fit-out that has ever been put before the Public Works Committee of the Australian parliament. To put figures of $80 per square metre per month—I want to know the annual fit-out. I am sure someone can give is that before we finish this session. How many people are going to be working in this building? Who has that information?

Mr Nixon : The other night we provided a response to that question when we briefed the Public Works Committee—

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps you can brief this committee.

Mr Nixon : The response was: three DFAT A-based officers, one Austrade officer and a total of 11 locally engaged staff, I believe.

Senator GALLACHER: When we do the sums on that, you would divide them by the square metre each of the leasable components and you would end up with a standard that is probably four times the normal Public Service standard. They have about 63 square metres each or at $10,000 a square metre to fit-out and all at a rent which we have not been made aware of yet. Why are we renting so much space for so few people at such a great cost?

Mr Nixon : Again, we did raise this the other evening when we briefed the Public Works Committee—

Senator GALLACHER: I am sorry but I have to interrupt there—this is a different committee. I am trying to go to the budget papers and examine expenditure. I understand it might be frustrating to you, Mr Nixon, but I am going through another committee process. Everything I ask is new to this committee.

Mr Nixon : Certainly, Senator. There was an instruction that we were to open a new post in Doha; we undertook a market assessment; we identified a range of options available for consideration. So my understanding is that in the first instance there was something in the order of 11 buildings that were deemed to be available. We then went through a process of undertaking some options analysis of those, short-listed to a smaller number of buildings and then subjected those buildings to a number of technical, due-diligence exercises, primarily focused on the location and the operational capability of the buildings—the security installations and enhancements that were available, fire systems that were of importance to us, the structural integrity of the building and then the mechanical and building services. From that exercise there were three buildings that were shortlisted.

Those three buildings were the Tornado Tower, the Burj Doha and another building referred to as 'The Gate'. After further analysis, the building selected, the Tornado building, was viewed as being superior to the two alternatives. It was for that reason that that building was recommended.

Senator GALLACHER: I have no issue with what the Office of Overseas Property has done. It has followed its instructions and has come up with its best assessment of the property. My question is back to the department. When the cost of that becomes known and when the built-in redundancy of floor space is known, who signed off on almost $20 million worth of expenditure in Doha, when we have facilities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi? Where has this come from?

Mr Varghese : The decision to open a post in Doha was a government decision and sitting behind that was a judgement that we needed to extend our diplomatic footprint in that part of the world, given the economic and also some broader political issues that are now bigger in our relationship with the Middle East and with the emirates. Why we are doing Doha on top of the others reflects those judgements. If we cannot answer the question about who will sign off on the delegation when it is finally approved, I will take that on notice. We will give you an annualised figure for the rent.

Can I just make one other comment? I do not think you can necessarily, for the opening of a new post, take the square meterage and divide it by the number of employees and compare it to the average square meterage of a Public Service department in Canberra—

Senator GALLACHER: No, we never did that. We compared it with the Commonwealth offices in Sydney and it is double those.

Mr Varghese : But there would be requirements at a post which may justify it—and certainly I would expect it would justify—ending up with a different ratio, whether that is in relation to meeting rooms, public spaces or the broader representational function of a post.

Senator GALLACHER: If we go back to the budget statement, it says:

This will increase Australia's diplomatic presence and will promote Australia's foreign policy, aid and trade interests.

Is this decision of Doha underpinned by a foreign policy criteria or imperative or is it underpinned by an aid imperative?

Mr Varghese : It is underpinned by a national interest imperative, which has a foreign policy element to it, a very strong trade and investment element to it and a slightly less strong aid element to it.

Senator GALLACHER: So we rule out aid—less strong—

Mr Varghese : I would not rule it out. I am trying to give you a sense—

Senator GALLACHER: Are we providing aid to the richest per capita country in the world?

Mr Varghese : No, we are not providing aid to the UAE. We do not have bilateral aid programs in the region except—

Senator GALLACHER: Qatar.

Mr Varghese : We do not have bilateral aid programs in the region except for the Palestinian territories.

Senator GALLACHER: Our most significant item of trade at the moment is motor vehicles, which will cease in 2017, so we will be back to live animals and boxed meat.

Mr Varghese : I think the whole purpose of trade policy is to keep expanding the scope of our trade opportunities.

Senator GALLACHER: I accept that it is not for me to make that decision—it is for the government to make that decision—but I am pressing home that we have a fit-out for 14 people that comes out at probably 63 square metres. We do not need the whole floor, but we have leased the whole floor for 10 years, plus an increase, when we clearly cannot fill it on the current staffing or even the prospective staffing. The fit-out itself is coming in at just shy of $10,000 a square metre. My scrutiny here is: who in your department actually signs off on these things? Where do they present a plausible case to justify such expenditure? I am sure that you are not going to do that in Mongolia, New Guinea or even Houston, Texas. So it is a standout in terms of expenditure. We can have a political difference about the importance of Qatar in terms of trade—we do $1 billion worth of trade and it is going down and it will go down in 2017 when motorcars fall out of it—but where do you delegate $20 million worth of expenditure? Doesn't anybody come back and say to you: 'By the way, this is looking a bit high. You okay with it'?

Mr Varghese : The role of the Overseas Property Office is to get the best deal in the circumstances. We are dealing with a high-cost environment so your numbers are going to look larger than your numbers in, say, Phuket, where we are opening an office as well. You can only look at these numbers in the context of where the mission is, what it is doing and what its staffing profile is. You have made the point that you think the overall floor space seems excessive. I think the overseas property office would be able to explain why that amount of space is appropriate and required. You may end up with a different judgement as to whether—

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps we could get that evidence. Why is that floor space appropriate and required?

Mr Nixon : Certainly. When we look at the alternative buildings, the floor plates there ranged in size from, at the gate, about 700 square metres. The other alternative, at the other extreme, was the Burj Doha, where the floor plate is about 1,090 square metres. The practice in dealing with landlords in the Middle East is very much that they lease buildings on a whole floor basis. They provide very unattractive alternatives if you are seeking to take less than a whole floor, and, in some instances, they simply do not make the space available if you are seeking to take an area less than a whole floor plate. When we look at the preferred option, the Tornado Tower, the unit rate per square metre applied is lower than the unit rate per square metre for rent for each of the alternatives, and the annual rate of increase of 1.5 per cent is less than the five per cent that was sought for each of the alternatives.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. Just going back to the lease, the lease that you have quoted is in Australian dollars?

Mr Nixon : The lease will be, I believe, in Qatari riyal. We have adopted a conversion rate utilising what is referred to as the BER.

Senator GALLACHER: The figure we will get will be in Australian dollars?

Mr Nixon : No, the fee we get will be in—

Senator GALLACHER: Sorry—the information you have provided to the committee will be in Australian dollars?

Mr Nixon : Correct.

Senator GALLACHER: The other committee that I am a part of looks at what is in the public interest, what is value for money and whether there is any revenue. Is there any revenue derived from this new embassy? Is there any prospective revenue that would come from this investment of taxpayers' money?

Mr Nixon : We are not subleasing any of the space, so we will generate no income from that tenancy.

Senator GALLACHER: So we have a lot more than what we need because of the way they lease in the Middle East—you have to take the whole floor. We have 14 people in 890 square metres.

Mr Nixon : We are seeking to make the best use of the space that is available. In an ideal world, yes, we would probably have sought to lease less space. Therefore, the area that we refer to as, perhaps, in being in excess of the normal requirement is being utilised as an opportunity for the post to conduct some of their public diplomacy activities at the mission itself and also to use it as an opportunity for trade or promotion type activities.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. I will just finish with two last questions.

Senator FAWCETT: I have one on the same topic. To introduce the concept of opportunity cost, how significant is Qatar and the region in terms of our national security activities—counter-terrorism et cetera—and our trade opportunities? If this is the best available, how does it stack up in terms of the priority we should be placing on securing a place for our diplomatic efforts?

Mr Varghese : I think it is fair to say that not only is the trade and investment agenda with Qatar an evolving one but the political and strategic engagement that we have is also at a much higher level now that it would have been, say, five or 10 years ago. I do not see that diminishing. In fact, if anything, I can see it increasing. These were some of the considerations behind the government's decision to open in Doha.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you.

Senator GALLACHER: There is no income from the project. The next point is value for money. Is someone on that side of the table going to put to this committee that this is value for money, that taxpayers are getting value for money for an investment of $20 million?

Mr Nixon : I think, in respect of the estimate for the fit-out costs, what we have provided to the committee is the cost estimate at this point in time. We will continue to pursue other opportunities for refinement and savings within that budget. Within the budget that has been provided, there are still substantial contingency amounts which are appropriate at this point in time—until such stage as we are able to execute a works contract and get better definition around pricing and, potentially, timing for the delivery of the works. Then, as the project develops, we would hope to return some of that contingency as unexpended.

Senator GALLACHER: Secretary, I think from your website brief there have been three ministerial visits to Qatar since 2011. Would that be correct?

Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: So it is not a place that we visit on a regular basis?

Mr Varghese : I imagine that will change once we have a post there.

Senator GALLACHER: So we have had agriculture, trade and—I cannot recollect the other ministerial visit, but they have been few and far between up until now?

Mr Varghese : We are looking to the future, in relation to why we want to open in Doha, but I am happy to take on notice whether the figure of three is accurate and current.

Senator GALLACHER: In respect to the other posts that are mentioned under that $98.3 million, I would appreciate if you could give us, on notice, an assessment of what those costs are looking like.

Mr Varghese : Sure, we will take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: And if you could follow up who you have delegated the sign-off of these lease and fitouts to.

Senator WONG: Mr Fletcher, I asked that you get some advance notice of a document—the press release that I was referring to prior to the break.

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: I seek to table that.

CHAIR: Yes, of course.

Senator WONG: Thank you. I do not know if you have had time to look at it, Mr Fletcher. The chair might want to ask you to translate the entire document—I told him that you were good enough to do that. I actually just want to ask you about two matters. Can you confirm that the document does say that the minister spoke on behalf of the Australian Department of Defence? It is at the beginning of the second last paragraph.

Mr Fletcher : It refers to Mr Robert as the Assistant Minister for Defence in Australia, in terms of his title.

Senator WONG: Does it also identify representatives of both Nimrod and Minmetals as attending the meeting?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: Mr Varghese, can you tell me how a press release identifying Mr Robert as the Assistant Minister for Defence is consistent with him attending a meeting in a private capacity?

Mr Varghese : This is a press release by a Chinese SOE. We do not control what they say. They do not clear it with us before they say it. As we have discussed at great length this morning, we were not aware of this visit.

Senator WONG: It is not whether or not they clear it with you. They are clearly, on an official Chinese government website, communicating to the world that Mr Robert was there as Assistant Minister for Defence. I am asking you how that is consistent with an assertion that he was there in a private capacity.

Mr Varghese : On the face of it, it is not.

Senator WONG: Have you had the opportunity to make any inquiries regarding the Singapore post's knowledge of Mr Robert's trip?

Mr Varghese : I am still waiting for some advice from the post. I have some information, but it is incomplete information.

Senator WONG: That is fine; we can wait. I will ask you later in the day. It might be released from the Chinese SOE, but it is on the Chinese central government official website, is it not?

Mr Fletcher : Yes.

Senator WONG: I have nothing further, unless there is anything arising out of my questions earlier, other than the Singapore aspect, which you can come back to me on now.

Mr Varghese : No. I am still waiting for advice on the foreign minister's comment.

Senator WONG: Mr Wood, is there anything we can talk about now, or do you want to come back to this after lunch?

Mr Wood : Sorry, Senator, could you repeat the question?

Senator WONG: Is there anything in relation to my first question about the aid tables et cetera that you can give me now?

Mr Wood : I was checking just then. The tables should be ready very soon.

Senator WONG: I am happy to come to it after lunch. Thank you, Chair.

Senator McEWEN: I would like to ask some questions about the appointment of Mr Philip Ruddock as Special Envoy for Human Rights. This appointment was announced by the Prime Minister, the foreign minister and by Mr Ruddock himself on 8 February this year. When was Mr Ruddock first offered that position?

Mr Varghese : I would need to check with the foreign minister, because any discussions with Mr Ruddock would have been held not by the department but by the foreign minister.

Senator McEWEN: So you will take that on notice?

Mr Varghese : I will.

Senator McEWEN: Could you also either answer or take on notice when he accepted the offer of the position?

Mr Varghese : I will take that on notice, because it is linked to the first question.

Senator McEWEN: Do you know, Mr Varghese, whether there was anything in writing given to Mr Ruddock regarding the position?

Mr Varghese : I have not seen anything in writing. So I shall take that on notice.

Senator McEWEN: Do you know if there is any letter of appointment?

Mr Varghese : I have seen nothing in writing, so I will take it on notice.

Senator McEWEN: You were not asked for any advice about preparing a letter of appointment or any other correspondence?

Mr Varghese : We were asked for and provided advice about how a special envoy position would operate.

Senator McEWEN: When were you asked for that?

Mr Varghese : On 30 January I was asked for advice on how the position might operate.

Senator McEWEN: Were you asked by the foreign minister herself?

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator McEWEN: Are you able to table the advice that you gave the foreign minister?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator McEWEN: Can you explain the responsibilities, duties and any powers that Mr Ruddock will have as Special Envoy for Human Rights?

Mr Varghese : His role as special envoy is set out in the press release that was issued when it was announced. That covers the role Mr Ruddock will play in relation to candidature for the Human Rights Council, and it goes through others things that he will do as a special envoy in terms of progressing Australia's human rights agenda. I think it is a fairly comprehensive setting out of what his role will be.

Senator McEWEN: Do you mean the foreign minister's press release of 8 February?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator McEWEN: It constitutes eight sentences. Is that the extent of the written requirements of the position, as far as you know?

Mr Varghese : I have taken on notice whether there is any direct written communication with Mr Ruddock on the appointment. So, if I can add anything to that, I will.

Senator McEWEN: Prior to the appointment of Mr Ruddock, do you know whether there was any other process? When the foreign minister approached you or you had your discussion on 30 January 2016 was that in the context that the government would be looking for candidates for the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights? Or was it in the context that Mr Ruddock had been designated as potentially the Special Envoy for Human Rights?

Mr Varghese : The advice was for advice on how a special envoy position would work and how it would fit in with our Human Rights Council campaign and how it would fit in with our broader human rights policies internationally.

Senator McEWEN: From your discussions at that meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was it your understanding that Mr Ruddock was already preselected, if you like, for the position of Special Envoy for Human Rights?

Mr Varghese : It was my understanding that he was under consideration.

Senator McEWEN: Was it your understanding that anybody else might be under consideration?

Mr Varghese : Other names were not canvassed in the discussion I had with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, so I do not know if there were other names in the mix.

Senator McEWEN: Was there any discussion about whether there should be a process for selection of the Special Envoy for Human Rights, for example: to establish a selection committee?

Mr Varghese : No, the discussion went to the role and the scope of the position not to the selection process.

Senator McEWEN: Was it your understanding from those discussions with the Minister for Foreign Affairs that there would be no process of a selection committee, as happens with some other government appointments?

Mr Varghese : I did not draw a conclusion one way or the other about the selection process. If I could just add that in the past when the government has chosen to appoint special envoys, they have done so by making a decision on an individual. I cannot think of a precedent in the past where there has been a selection process.

Senator McEWEN: Just to be clear: Mr Ruddock will be representing the Australian government in his activities as special envoy.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator McEWEN: So he will not be representing the parliament, he will be representing the government.

Mr Varghese : The government, yes. He is a special envoy from the Australian government.

Senator McEWEN: What will be his status in terms of diplomatic credentials or accreditation?

Mr Varghese : Normally the way this works is that someone who is appointed a special envoy would be designated as such. When that person was attending meetings or representing Australia at a conference, they would carry that designation with them. It does not require any more formal processes than that.

Senator McEWEN: When you say 'designated', will he have some kind of formal letter or something saying: 'You are the Special Envoy for Human Rights of the Australian government'—is that what you mean?

Mr Varghese : Yes. I expect there will be formal correspondence to Mr Ruddock that sets that out. For instance, at an international conference there is always a delegates list that is put together and his entry will appear as Special Envoy for Human Rights.

Senator McEWEN: So you expect there to be formal correspondence setting out his actual status?

Mr Varghese : Yes and I will take on notice whether that has happened.

CHAIR: Just for my understanding, is the action taken with Mr Ruddock consistent with, for example, when the previous government appointed Mr Bob McMullan as Special Envoy to the UNSC campaign? Do we have a similar set of circumstances as has pertained to Mr Ruddock?

Mr Varghese : Certainly the use of the special envoy position is something that we have resorted to on a number of occasions—the security council campaign was one good example. I am seeking to think whether Bob McMullan was a member of parliament at the time that he did that, I would have to check.

Senator McEWEN: What kind of passport would Mr Ruddock be issued with? Will it be a diplomatic passport or an official passport?

Mr Varghese : We have not yet addressed that question, but my expectation is that he would probably travel on a diplomatic passport.

Senator McEWEN: Would that mean he would be considered a diplomat for the purposes of the respective conventions and treaties?

Mr Varghese : The Vienna conventions usually relate to an accredited diplomat to a foreign government or to an international organisation, and that is what your privileges and immunities flow from. Travelling on a diplomatic passport does not, in and of itself, entitle you to any particular privileges or immunities.

Senator McEWEN: We understand from his own comments that Mr Ruddock will be undertaking this role while he is still a member of parliament and subsequent to his no longer being a member of parliament, because he has indicated that he will not contest the next election. In this period of time, will he be considered to be a public servant?

Mr Varghese : No. He is a member of parliament.

Senator McEWEN: When he resigns as a member of parliament, will he then be considered a public servant?

Mr Varghese : Whether this function continues after Mr Ruddock leaves the parliament is a matter for the government. Were he to continue after he has left the parliament, then I expect we would need to enter into some contractual arrangement with him.

Senator McEWEN: Did you have any discussions with the foreign minister about whether Mr Ruddock would continue the position after the next federal election?

Mr Varghese : The advice I furnished the foreign minister related to the nature of the role, not its duration.

Senator McEWEN: Who will Mr Ruddock report to?

Mr Varghese : He will work very closely with the department, because a significant part of his duties will be to assist us and promote our candidature for the Human Rights Council, and that is a campaign which is managed in the department. He may well, in a sense, report to more than one person, but ultimately he will report to the foreign minister.

Could I just clarify, Chair, in response to your question, that the advice I have is that Bob McMullan was not in the parliament when he was appointed as a UN Security Council special envoy.

CHAIR: Thanks.

Senator McEWEN: So he will report to the foreign minister? Okay. With regard to the arrangements for payment for Mr Ruddock for his responsibilities as Special Envoy for Human Rights, I understand that while his role has commenced immediately or as of 8 February—is that right? He is in the position now. He is Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights. Correct?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator McEWEN: But he will not be paid for that position until such time as he leaves the federal parliament. Is that right?

Mr Varghese : He certainly will not be paid while he is a member of parliament. That would not be appropriate—

Senator McEWEN: That would disqualify him under the Constitution?

Mr Varghese : or constitutionally allowed, I would think.

Senator McEWEN: Are you confident that that arrangement for payment does not disqualify him under section 44 of the Constitution, with regard to occupying an office of profit under the Crown?

Senator GALLACHER: It should, generally.

Senator McEWEN: I am happy for the minister to answer that. Are you confident, Minister?

Senator Brandis: I just heard the end of the question.

CHAIR: Can Mr Ruddock be paid for the other role whilst he is receiving a salary as a member of parliament?

Senator Brandis: It would depend on the arrangements, but, of course, ministers are paid a salary, and the component of a minister's salary which is their ministerial salary as opposed to their parliamentary salary is not treated as being a violation of section 44, because, although the source of the salary is the public purse, they are paid for being a minister. Now, I do not know what the arrangements with Mr Ruddock are.

Senator McEWEN: But they are appointed by the Governor-General, to be ministers, Mr Ruddock is appointed by the government.

Senator Brandis: That is not the point. All ministers are appointed by the Governor-General. If the arrangements in relation to Mr Ruddock put him in a position that is legally analogous to that of a minister receiving a ministerial salary, while obviously a member of parliament, that would not be problematic. Of course, after Mr Ruddock retires, then the issue does not arise. I am quite certain the appropriate arrangements to ensure that there is no section 44 issue will be made. But if you like I will take any further answer on notice and have it looked at.

Senator McEWEN: I think that would be very useful.

Senator Brandis: I am not even aware that Mr Ruddock is to be paid a salary to be a special envoy, by the way, while he remains a member of parliament.

Mr Varghese : No, he is not.

Senator McEWEN: I am attempting to clarify that.

Senator Brandis: Mr Varghese tells me that he is not and so the issue does not arise.

Senator McEWEN: I understand that, too, but my understanding is that he will be paid when he leaves the parliament for the work he is currently doing now as Special Envoy for Human Rights.

Senator Brandis: I do not know about the arrangements. I will take that on notice.

Senator McEWEN: So you were not consulted by the foreign minister about the potential section 44 challenges or issues that might arise?

Senator Brandis: I am not sure that there are potential section 44 issues. I have not had a conversation to that effect with the Foreign Minister.

Senator McEWEN: Or with Mr Ruddock?

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator McEWEN: Do we know what stipend, salary or remuneration that Mr Ruddock will receive for his work as Special Envoy for Human Rights?

Mr Varghese : He will not be receiving any remuneration for the work as special envoy. My expectation is that we would cover the cost of his travel to international meetings, or in the course of being the special envoy, but he will not be receiving any remuneration.

Senator McEWEN: And when he leaves the parliament? The whole issue of the section 44 came up because there is an indication that he will be paid for the work he is doing now, once he leaves the parliament, so that he can avoid the problems with section 44. What is the plan? What is he going to be paid once he leaves the parliament?

Mr Varghese : I do not think the foreign minister has made an announcement about the length of Mr Ruddock's appointment and, as I indicated to you, should he continue in this role as special envoy after he has left the parliament, if that is the wish of the government, we would enter into a contract with him to cover that role with the equivalent of a salary in the way that we cannot while he is a member of the parliament.

Senator McEWEN: So for this period of time until he leaves the parliament he is just receiving his backbencher's salary—

Mr Varghese : Correct. He is not receiving any salary.

Senator McEWEN: And the allowance he gets for being chair of various committees and stuff?

Mr Varghese : He is not receiving any additional remuneration from the department for his role as special envoy.

Senator McEWEN: You said that he will be provided with travel that will include the cost of fares and a travelling allowance. How is that going to be determined?

Mr Varghese : It would be determined on the basis of the travel by a senior public servant.

Senator McEWEN: But he is not a public servant.

Mr Varghese : No, but for the purposes of setting rates of travelling allowance and class of travel, he would travel as a senior public servant would.

Senator McEWEN: Was that arrangement discussed with the foreign minister in your conversation?

Mr Varghese : In the advice I gave to her, I canvassed that his travel would essentially be on a reimbursement of costs basis. That means that we would pick up the cost of his travel.

Senator McEWEN: 'We' being DFAT?

Mr Varghese : Yes, we being DFAT.

Senator McEWEN: This position is not in your budget for this financial year?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator McEWEN: So?

Mr Varghese : We will absorb the costs.

CHAIR: Can I get you to pause there, Senator McEwen, please. We go to Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: DFAT's 2015 to 2018 aid investment plan for Cambodia highlights a role of NGOs as 'important partners given their expertise, on-the-ground networks and experience working with local communities'. In light of this, has Cambodia's 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations affected the status or operations of any of the NGOs or volunteer organisations we partner with?

Mr Chittick : More broadly, my understanding is that the law has not had a material impact on NGO activity in Cambodia at this stage, given that it relates largely to activities in election periods, but I will take it on notice to provide you with specific information on NGO partners of the Australian government.

Senator RHIANNON: You said 'material impact', so, when you take it on notice, could you identify any impacts at all, please.

Mr Chittick : I will.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Has the government through the minister and/or the ambassador made representations to the Cambodian government regarding the potential negative impact of the law on Cambodia's development and civil society?

Mr Chittick : We have an ongoing discussion through our embassy and through visiting delegations with the government of Cambodia on a range of human rights issues. I do not have any specific information in my briefing about this specific aspect, so I am happy to take that specific aspect on notice, but we have an ongoing dialogue with the government of Cambodia on human rights issues more broadly.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Could you take this specific issue on notice: are you aware of other international donors who may have made formal representations regarding this law?

Mr Chittick : I am aware through media reporting that a number of other donors have, including the European Union, but I do not have the full specific list with me, so I will be very happy to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Has Australia undertaken any formal reviews or evaluations about current assistance to Cambodia's electoral authorities?

Mr Chittick : Again, I have to take the specifics of that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you please set out, when you take it on notice, what has been achieved. The question was: has Australia undertaken any formal reviews or evaluations and, in that context, what has been achieved if they been undertaken?

Mr Chittick : I can refer you to the aid program performance report for Cambodia that is on our website. That presents detailed information on performance on all of our projects. Can you just bear with me for a moment.

Senator RHIANNON: So is it particularly about the work of Cambodia's electoral authorities?

Mr Chittick : Yes. I cannot find the specific reference at this stage. I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Moving on to Vietnam, has the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation been selected as part of a consortium to construct the Cao Lanh Bridge project in Vietnam?

Mr Chittick : The construction of the Cao Lanh Bridge is over half built now. I do not have with me the specific names of the contractors of each aspect of that, so I will be very happy to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: After five questions on notice, I am not doing too well. I thought you would have had that information available. Does nobody else here have information on this?

Mr Chittick : There are many contractors in our aid program in Vietnam and Cambodia. I do not have all of those at hand right at this moment.

Senator RHIANNON: Who is responsible for overseeing resettlement activities under this project, and are there independent checks to ensure that affected populations are adequately compensated and housed as per DFAT's resettlement policy?

Mr Chittick : I have visited the site and some of the communities who have been resettled. The project, which is managed out of our embassy in Vietnam, has a very substantial component for resettlement. The embassy oversees that. There will be a contractor, the name of which I do not have, which is responsible for implementing a very substantial resettlement program. That program is underway. When I visited Vietnam last year I met with a number of the community members that we had resettled. That is an ongoing process. But, as you indicate, it is a very important element of any infrastructure project undertaken under the Australian aid program. It is a very important part of our infrastructure program at the Cao Lanh bridge—overseen by our embassy in Hanoi, but with a particular contract to deliver that program.

Senator RHIANNON: Do I take from that answer in response to my question about independent checks that it is a contractor who undertakes the independent checks?

Mr Chittick : There is a contractor that delivers the services. Again, I do not have quite the detail with me about the quality assurance process, but I am aware of a range of quality assurance processes, which are separate to the contractor responsible for resettlement, that verify the quality of the resettlement process. But I would like to take the details of that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice the essence of the question and particularly, with regard to the independent checks, if the work of the contractor is in accord with DFAT's resettlement policy and how that is determined.

Mr Chittick : Certainly. To the essence of your question: I can confirm that DFAT's very important policies on resettlement are fully implemented through our aid program in Vietnam, particularly in the case of a large infrastructure project such as the Cao Lanh bridge, which does displace a number of community members in its construction. At a policy level, I can confirm that it is a very important part, which is why there are particular elements of the implementation of that program that relate to resettlement. But I would be very happy to get you the specific details of the contractor for the resettlement process and the details of our quality assurance process.

Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the embassy—and hopefully you can answer this or take it on notice—what specialist expertise does DFAT have at post to oversee this project, particularly in the context of occupational health and safety and resettlement? In your previous answer you describe the embassy and the contractor. Can you start with the embassy. What expertise is there for this work?

Mr Chittick : At our embassy in Hanoi we have a significant number of staff. I would have to find out, separately, the details of the number of staff. There is a combination of Australian-based staff and also Vietnamese-based staff. The people who are responsible for that are professional aid managers in a general sense. Some of those people will have acquired, during their career, specific experience in terms of OH&S or resettlement. But it is an important part of our design and implementation framework that we comply with all of the aid program's policies, including workplace health and safety and resettlement. I do not have with me any specific details about the skill sets of the specific managers of this project in the embassy, but expertise, where we do not have it in house, is something that we acquire through seeking expertise on a contract or seeking expertise, where it is available, in the department in Canberra through engagement from the post with the relevant part of the department that is responsible for either workplace health and safety or resettlement.

Mr McDonald : Mr Chittick referred to the Performance of Australian aidreport that was put our earlier this week, and I think that provides a good snapshot of the evaluation that we do of our programs. So if you take East Asia, for example, which we have been talking about—

Senator RHIANNON: Can I just ask: does it specifically include the bridge project?

Mr McDonald : No.

Senator RHIANNON: It is more general.

Mr McDonald : For example, we have looked at safeguards as a part of that in terms of their alignment and whether that is being satisfactorily addressed. So that happens annually. So, as Mr Chittick said, we take that issue very seriously and we do evaluations of those and report those publicly. So I would encourage you, if you get the opportunity, to just have a look. It is page 37 of that report.

Senator RHIANNON: Just one more question on Vietnam. Is there an estimate for the cost of research and development and design innovations needed to protect this bridge infrastructure from the impacts of climate change, considering that it has been identified that the Mekong is particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts?

Mr Chittick : I do not have that level of specific detail with me, so I would be very happy to take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I would like to move on to Indonesia. The web page for the Australia-Indonesia education partnership notes $524 million in funding for this program is under revision following consultation with partners. What is the status of these consultations and will funding for this program be reduced?

Mr Cox : Could you repeat the name of the program that you are referring to?

Senator RHIANNON: It is on your web page: Australia-Indonesia education partnership. I can give you the web page if you want, if that helps. But you note, under the bit about this partnership, $524 million in funding for this program and it states:

… under revision following consultation with partners …

So my question was: what is the status of these consultations?

Mr Cox : I have some notes about that, and I will give you an update on the status.

Senator RHIANNON: While you are looking at your notes, I am also after an answer on: will funding for the program be reduced? Could you deal with those two matters please?

Mr Cox : The programs are being reviewed consistent with the reductions in the aid program. There are various elements of our program with Indonesia on the education program. On the program on performance oversight and monitoring of the Indonesian school system, that program has been extended for one year at no cost. So part of that program has been continued, but there has been no cost extension to it. There are other elements of the education program as well. I think probably what I had better do is get the rest of that for you on notice. Certainly, that program is currently under review and there will be reductions to it. The main objective of the program is now to focus on improving the quality of the skills of teachers and curriculum and to move away from building of school buildings. So, in discussions with the Indonesian government, we have agreed with them that the focus of the program will shift to teacher quality, teacher education, curriculum design, results and outcomes, and we will reduce the program of school building that was the main focus of that program in the past. So the cost reductions will go to the cutting of the school building element and we will now focus more of our resources on technical advice to improve teacher quality and educational outcomes for students.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you give us a dollar amount on how much is being capped, please?

Mr Cox : Yes, I will get that for you on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Moving on to Myanmar now—thanks, Mr Chittick. What types of cooperation activities are we undertaking currently with the Myanmar police, military and border security authorities? Is any of this cooperation funded through the aid program?

Mr Chittick : The specifics of the responsible agencies for each of those are not with DFAT; it would be the Department of Defence, the AFP and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. I can give you a bit of an overview, but the specific details of how those programs are managed and whether they involve ODA-eligible expenditure would have to be sourced from those specific agencies.

More broadly, we have begun to build engagement between our national security agencies. We face a range of common national security issues in our region, and as Myanmar has begun to democratise—and certainly with the installation of an NLD government following successful elections last November—I would anticipate that those engagements will increase.

We do have a defence attache based in Myanmar, and he oversees a defence-defence relationship. We do have a relationship between our two police forces—counter drug-trafficking activities are an important element of that relationship—and we do have, again, an increasing relationship on immigration and border protection issues. Those relationships are at a much lower level of development than our relationship with Myanmar's neighbours. The specific details of those are managed by other agencies, but I am happy to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: And also the issue about the funding? Are they funded through the aid program?

Mr Chittick : Yes, I will ask them that question.

Mr McDonald : Just on that, Senator: you are probably aware that currently the Development Assistance Committee is looking at modernisation of ODA. Some of these issues that Mr Chittick just mentioned are issues that are under consideration at the moment. There is a meeting on that later next week, where all members of the Development Assistance Committee will look at that modernisation. No decisions have been taken, but it is an area that has been talked about within the Development Assistance Committee for the last 12 months or so.

Senator BERNARDI: I only have a few questions that should not take more than a few moments. They are in respect to consular assistance provided to individuals. Mr Varghese, do the various outposts maintain a comprehensive record of requests for assistance or visits by individuals who use the facilities or who seek advice from any of our outposts?

Mr Varghese : Certainly, where we provide consular assistance to a member of the Australian public we would record that in our consular database.

Senator BERNARDI: And what about in respect of politicians?

Mr Varghese : Where politicians are also consular cases and we assist them, that would be included in our database.

Senator BERNARDI: With your term 'consular cases': if there is a visit by a politician to high commission or to a consulate, would that be recorded—whether it be an official visit or an unofficial visit?

Mr Varghese : It would not be recorded in our consular systems, but, where a member of parliament is travelling and has let us know that they are travelling, there would be a record of it within the departmental system.

Senator BERNARDI: Within the department, are there any particular facilities or benefits or assistance that is offered to previous officeholders within various governments, whether they be ministers, prime ministers or deputy prime ministers?

Mr Varghese : As a courtesy, we certainly offer a level of assistance to former prime ministers. That is usually within the constraints of the resources at a post. As a courtesy, we would also normally, if requested—and all of these are on an if-requested basis—provide assistance to former governors-general. That tends to be the limit of the assistance we provide to former office holders.

Senator BERNARDI: But any assistance provided to a former office holder would be recorded in your files?

Mr Varghese : Depending on the nature of the assistance, yes.

Senator BERNARDI: I will cut to the chase. I am intrigued as to what, if any, assistance has been offered to former Prime Minister Rudd by any of the outposts, consulates or high commissions.

Mr Varghese : Here again, where a former Prime Minister is travelling and requests assistance from one of our diplomatic missions, to the extent that the missions are able to provide it and the request is appropriate, we would seek to accommodate that. Typically, former prime ministers would usually ask for assistance such as a meet-and-greet on arrival and perhaps some ground transportation on arrival and departure. From time to time they might request assistance with the setting up of appointments with governments. We would not get involved in appointments for private business purposes or anything like that. We deal with these requests on a case-by-case basis, but our inclination would be that, if a legitimate request were made, we would try to accommodate it within our existing resources.

Senator BERNARDI: There may of course be a subjectivity about the difference between private business and perhaps requesting a meeting with a government. They may indeed overlap. How do you determine what is appropriate and what is not?

Mr Varghese : I think that, if there were a request to meet with a government official, we would not consider that inappropriate. If there were a request to meet with private sector business partners, I think we would look at it differently.

Senator BERNARDI: I do not want to play hypotheticals, but, in the circumstance where a former Prime Minister was seeking employment that was dependent upon the endorsement of foreign governments and their representatives, would it be appropriate for the department to provide facilities and access for that former Prime Minister to pursue his employment aims?

Mr Varghese : I think that, if a request were made for assistance with the securing of an appointment and the subject matter of that appointment were to canvass whether the government would support a former Prime Minister for a particular position, my personal view is that that would not be inappropriate—

Senator BERNARDI: Sorry, 'would not be'—

Mr Varghese : It would not be inappropriate to seek that appointment.

Senator BERNARDI: You may want to take this on notice. I am quite confident that you will. Are you able to provide to me the number of times that Mr Rudd has sought assistance from our outposts or from the department to facilitate such appointments over the last 18 months?

Mr Varghese : What I can tell you is that, since the last estimates, DFAT has provided assistance for two visits by Mr Rudd. If you want us to go back further, I would need to take that on notice.

Senator BERNARDI: Okay. Thank you. And DFAT would be advised—I am hoping you would be advised—and you would be aware if Mr Rudd or any other former Prime Minister just requested assistance from an embassy or a high commission?

Mr Varghese : Where a request has been made for assistance from one of our posts, we would be aware of it.

Senator BERNARDI: You would be aware.

Mr Varghese : Ex-prime-ministers often travel without calling on the assistance of a post, so we would not always know when an ex-Prime-Minister is travelling.

Senator BERNARDI: Is there a circumstance where they could avail themselves of assistance from a post in an unofficial capacity that you might not be aware of?

Mr Varghese : I do not see how we could provide assistance if we are not aware of it.

Senator BERNARDI: Maybe built around a personal relationship with the ambassador or the high commissioner?

Mr Varghese : I see what you mean.

Senator BERNARDI: A longstanding relationship in that respect?

Mr Varghese : I think, no matter how the approach was made, whether it was on the basis of a past friendship or not, if the post was providing assistance then I expect we would know about it.

Senator BERNARDI: Okay. Could you just check that for me? I am specifically interested in the high commission in Singapore and whether Mr Rudd has visited there, been there and requested any assistance over the last 12 months—and, if so, the nature of that assistance, the nature of those visits?

Mr Varghese : What I do have in front of me are details of assistance provided to former prime ministers since September 2013—

Senator BERNARDI: That is quite helpful.

Mr Varghese : that the department is aware of. In relation to Mr Rudd, Singapore does not appear on the list.

Senator BERNARDI: What does appear on the list?

Senator McEWEN: Does Mr Abbott appear on that list of former prime ministers to whom post assistance has been given?

Mr Varghese : Yes, he does.

Senator McEWEN: Perhaps you could give us details of that too, Mr Varghese.

Mr Varghese : Yes. In relation to Mr Rudd visiting China, the UK, the USA and France in September 2013, he requested some assistance with appointments and transport, and we provided airport facilitation. We provided some assistance in securing a Chinese visa. We provided some assistance for ground transport. In relation to Mr Rudd's visit to Bahrain and China in October 2013, there were requests for assistance with transport in Bahrain and airport facilitation in Beijing which we responded to. Sorry, I have information on more than two visits, so let me just revise my earlier comment. Still in 2013, in November, on a visit to the UK, Mr Rudd requested airport facilitation; in December, to the USA, airport facilitation, advice to the office on program logistics; and, in December 2013, airport facilitation in the United States. My 'two visits' reference was since the last estimates; I am now going back in history.

Senator BERNARDI: No, that is all right.

Mr Varghese : In January 2014, Mr Rudd requested airport facilitation in the United States. Again in January, in France, he requested airport facilitation; in late January-early February, Germany, airport facilitation and the ambassador's contact details; 28 February to 3 March, visit to the UK, airport facilitation; 3 to 5 March, in Russia, advice and liaison on program, transport, accompany to meetings; 5 to 7 October, to Korea, airport facilitation; 8 November, to the UAE, airport facilitation; 27 to 30 July, Burma, airport facilitation; 21 October, Malaysia, airport facilitation; and 23 October, the Netherlands, airport facilitation, assistance with arranging meetings, and ground transport. I think that is it.

Senator BERNARDI: I appreciate you providing that information. I am hoping this is my final question: in the provision of those support services and facilitations, is it the case that DFAT deems it appropriate where it is for a non-commercial purpose as opposed to for a private trip or a non-commercial purpose? Does DFAT provide similar assistance even if it is for a commercial purpose for the individual?

Mr Varghese : I think that, as a courtesy, if it is a private trip, we would, if we could, provide facilitation with to and from the airport, but we would not provide facilitation with business appointments.

Senator BERNARDI: I am sorry—there is a differentiation between business appointments and courtesy to and from the airport. I am saying: if someone is on a commercial trip—if our former Prime Minister is on a commercial trip—paid for by an external body that is not associated with the Australian government, would the outpost provide the same level of assistance, maybe not with appointments but with transport and various other things? Is that standard?

Mr Varghese : To and from an airport.

Senator BERNARDI: Is that standard for former prime ministers?

Mr Varghese : If requested we would provide to and from the airport.

Senator BERNARDI: If requested—so: immaterial as to the nature of the trip?

Mr Varghese : Yes. It is essentially a courtesy to former prime ministers.

Senator BERNARDI: I understand that, and it is what I wanted to clarify, so thank you very much.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Varghese, this week the opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs addressed the National Press Club and spoke about the boundaries with East Timor. That goes to the heart of the treaty on certain maritime arrangements in the Timor Sea. Can you just give us an update as to where CMATS is at, in terms of outcomes for Australia, for East Timor and for industry?

Mr Varghese : I will see if colleagues can add some detail but, as you are aware, the government of East Timor initiated proceedings under CMATS to have the treaty declared null and void ab initio on the basis of some alleged intelligence activity by Australia in the course of the negotiation of the treaty. Those proceedings are currently adjourned, and we are awaiting advice from the government of Timor as to when they will be seeking to resume the arbitration.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. The arbitration is one side. I am interested also to understand the current operation of CMATS in terms of what it is providing in terms of certainty and stability for business investment and therefore returns to both East Timor and to Australia.

Mr Varghese : I think it is fair to say that, while this issue is the subject of an arbitral hearing, from the point of view of companies, there would be a hesitancy in proceeding in the absence of a very clear legal framework, and I think that is the reason, in part—I think the global market probably has a bit to do with it as well—why, for instance, activity on Greater Sunrise is effectively not going forward.

Senator FAWCETT: Greater Sunrise can be developed, though, under the current agreement—is that correct?

Mr Varghese : It sets a framework for putting to one side the question of maritime boundaries precisely in order to allow commercial operations to proceed, but obviously if that framework is under legal challenge, which it currently is, that will influence the perspective of the companies involved.

Senator FAWCETT: So, if there were renegotiation, how long has it traditionally taken for two countries—or in this case three; I think Indonesia has to agree as well—

Mr Varghese : Maritime boundary negotiations?

Senator FAWCETT: Yes.

Mr Varghese : They can take an awfully long time.

Senator FAWCETT: In the alternative case, remaining with CMATS, how long would it take for Sunrise to be developed and for those benefits to start flowing to East Timor?

Mr Varghese : CMATS effectively sets aside the question of maritime boundaries for a period of 50 years from the entry into force of the agreement, and that obviously is a sufficient window for any commercial operations.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Cox, while other discussions are taking place, do you have anything you would like to add?

Mr Cox : Only to say that CMATS provides for a fifty-fifty upstream revenue split if it were in operation and, as you indicated, it was designed to provide a framework for the commercial development of the Greater Sunrise field. Basically, the whole purpose of the agreement was to provide a certain framework for the development of the gas reserves there. But, as the secretary rightly says, while it is now under legal challenge, that cannot effectively proceed.

Senator FAWCETT: So, if all parties continued with the existing agreement, there would be a fifty-fifty split of the benefits of that field, which would go to East Timor. But under the alternative—trying to find some new negotiation—it could be 10 years or two decades. How long before we would see the confidence for people to invest and for that benefit to start flowing to East Timor?

Mr Cox : As the secretary says, it is hypothetical. It is very hard to say. It could be a very, very long time, so the benefits may not flow for a very, very long time.

Senator Brandis: There are also some technical issues, Senator Fawcett. You obviously are very familiar with the issues here. There are a number of very, very complex technical issues—in particular the capacity of the resource to be exploited by a pipeline and the conveyance of that pipeline over the trench that delimits the end of the Australian continental shelf, near the southern boundaries of East Timor. So there are issues of technical feasibility; there are commercial issues, of the kind to which Mr Varghese has adverted; and there is, as you rightly say, the issue of commercial uncertainty arising from the pendency of the arbitration.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Varghese, before the shadow minister for foreign affairs gave the speech this week, was a briefing sought, or did the department seek to provide any advice, on legal or financial implications of the undertaking to essentially throw ourselves at the mercy of the International Court of Arbitration?

Mr Varghese : A briefing sought by the opposition?

Senator FAWCETT: Yes.

Mr Varghese : No, not to my knowledge.

Senator FAWCETT: So they have come out with an international policy position without actually seeking the advice of the department.

Mr Cox : Ms Plibersek, I understand, did visit Timor-Leste last year.

Senator FAWCETT: So she has got their briefing but not one from the department.

Mr Cox : No.

Senator FAWCETT: Interesting.

Senator McEWEN: Just before I go back to the special envoy questions, Mr Varghese, you provided that useful information about former Prime Minister Rudd. Do you also have information in a similar form that you could provide to us for former Prime Ministers Abbott and Howard for the same time period?

Mr Varghese : I do. I am just getting the sequencing of my page numbers.

Senator McEWEN: That is all right. If you could table that, we could have a look at it. Thank you.

Mr Varghese : Okay, I am happy to table it.

Senator McEWEN: Thank you. Going back to the matter of the special envoy, I was asking questions about the support or resources that will be provided to Mr Ruddock in his position, and we talked about travel and how he would be paid a travel allowance commensurate with what a senior public servant would receive. Was there any budget limitation on the travel for Mr Ruddock?

Mr Varghese : In the advice I gave to the foreign minister, I did give her an indicative sense of what the costs of a special envoy would be in terms of travel, and obviously we would also need to provide some additional support resources in the department.

Senator McEWEN: In terms of indicative travel, did you come up with a program of travel?

Mr Varghese : We have not yet come up with a detailed program of travel. That will be the next step. In fact, I think Dr Strahan's division is now working on the details of what precisely Mr Ruddock's travel will be and what events he will attend.

Senator McEWEN: And that is in the context of Australia's goal of getting a position on the Human Rights Council?

Mr Varghese : That will be an important element of it, yes. He will more broadly advocate Australia's human rights position internationally, but securing a seat in the Human Rights Council is a key objective.

Senator McEWEN: When do you think that program of travel might be finalised—indicative?

Dr Strahan : We have already developed, just yesterday, a rough program for Mr Ruddock, which would include attending major international human rights meetings such as a major death penalty conference in Oslo in June; the Human Rights Council at the end of February and the beginning of March, in Geneva; and possibly attending meetings relating to LGBTI issues and Indigenous issues in May.

Senator McEWEN: In Geneva?

Dr Strahan : That would be in Paris. We also think that he would attend major domestic human rights meetings such as what might be held by some of the major legal and human rights groups in the country.

Senator McEWEN: So we have got Oslo, Geneva and Paris so far, and domestic stuff.

Dr Strahan : Yes.

Senator McEWEN: Will Mr Ruddock be provided with any additional staff? Is somebody going to be seconded from DFAT to work with him or within DFAT to work with him?

Mr Varghese : We will probably need to place an extra person in Dr Strahan's division to help manage the work of the special envoy.

Senator McEWEN: What level will the extra person be?

Mr Varghese : Probably an EL1 level, in Public Service terms—below SES.

Senator McEWEN: Just the one person? What about diary support and—

Mr Varghese : I think we can manage with one additional person.

Senator McEWEN: And that position was not included in your current budget?

Mr Varghese : No. The costs of the special envoy are new costs which we will absorb.

Senator McEWEN: Have you done a rough estimate of what all those new costs will be for the remainder of this financial year?

Mr Varghese : I think, in terms of staffing, it will probably be of the order of about $120,000. In terms of travel, now that we have a more precise idea about where and when, we could probably put some indicative numbers against that, but I do not have them in my head.

Senator McEWEN: Could you take it on notice to provide those numbers?

Mr Varghese : Sure.

Senator McEWEN: So that is $120,000 for the staffer for the remainder of the financial year—is that right?

Mr Varghese : No. This would be a full financial year cost. How long it goes for I do not know.

Senator McEWEN: What are the restrictions, if any, on the category of travel—first class, business class, premium economy—and/or accommodation—four star, five star—that would apply to this position?

Mr Varghese : He would travel on the same basis as a senior officer of the department, which means he would travel business class and he would stay in a standard room in a hotel.

Senator McEWEN: So he will be receiving travel allowance? Is that how it will work?

Mr Varghese : He will get TA when he travels.

Senator McEWEN: Are we confident that receipt of TA from the Commonwealth will not compromise Mr Ruddock's parliamentary position in terms of section 44 of the Constitution?

Mr Varghese : We will ensure that whatever arrangements we put in place to cover his travel expenses do not create any legal uncertainty.

Senator McEWEN: I do note, Attorney—from information helpfully provided by the APH website—that the exclusion in section 44 of the Constitution with regard to office of profit under the Crown specifically excludes Queen's Ministers of State for the Commonwealth and members of the Defence Force, but it does not make any mention of special envoys. Nevertheless, you have taken on notice that you will give us advice about that.

Mr Varghese : We are conscious of the legal issues, and we will make sure that whatever we do is consistent with the law.

Senator Brandis: Of course, Senator, as you know, travel allowance is not a form of remuneration. It is a form of compensation for costs incurred as a result of the fact of travel.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Like politicians.

Senator McEWEN: Yes, but we are not acting as special envoys while we are politicians, Senator Macdonald. Can I just clarify that there has been no agreement so far to pay Mr Ruddock once he completes his term as a member of parliament? Is that correct?

Mr Varghese : That is correct.

Senator McEWEN: You said, 'If that was going to happen'.

Mr Varghese : Yes, exactly. The arrangements following his departure from the parliament have not been decided.

Senator McEWEN: When you had your discussions with the foreign minister about the parameters of the position et cetera, Mr Varghese, was the issue of the possible conflict under section 44 of the Constitution discussed at any length?

Senator Brandis: If I may say so, Senator McEwen, I think this is a bit of a red herring. I cannot see any possible issue under section 44 of the Constitution, since Mr Ruddock is not being remunerated while he is a member of parliament.

Senator McEWEN: But the secretary said that they would be very careful to make sure there was not.

Senator Brandis: You have raised an issue. I think it is palpably a false issue. But, nevertheless, I am sure that Mr Varghese, in his characteristically careful and thorough way, will ensure that there is not a problem. But there is no reason to believe that there is.

Senator McEWEN: Mr Varghese, did you suggest to the foreign minister at all that it might be prudent for Mr Ruddock not to commence his duties until such time as he has left the federal parliament to avoid any potential conflict with section 44 of the Constitution?

Mr Varghese : No, I did not.

Senator McEWEN: Did she raise that at all with you?

Mr Varghese : I do not want to get into the details of the discussions I have had with the foreign minister. I have indicated that I provided advice, but I do not want to go into the details of that advice.

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator McEwen. Senator Dastyari.

Senator DASTYARI: I know we are going to break in about 12 or 13 minutes, so I am going to try and hopefully get the questions for this section done. I will be as brief as I can be. Mr Varghese, you are obviously aware of the commentary and stories regarding the Baghdad embassy security arrangements in the lead up to Christmas and New Year?

Mr Varghese : I am.

Senator DASTYARI: There was obviously a fair bit of commentary around this. As I understand it, the allegation was that there was a shortage of guards at the Australian Embassy in Iraq. Is that your broad understanding of what the issue was?

Mr Varghese : Senator, I am glad you raised this question because it does give me an opportunity to put on the public record the basic facts in this case, because in my view the media coverage of this issue has been not only a beat-up; it has been misleading, inaccurate and unbalanced.

Senator DASTYARI: Why not run us through it here?

Mr Varghese : Here are the facts. Patently, the department puts the highest priority on the safety and welfare of its employees, and the suggestion that we would run a cut-price security system is, frankly, quite offensive.

Secondly, there has been no additional risk imposed on our mission in Baghdad as a result of the transition from the old contract to the new contract. Indeed, the only additional risk that has arisen in this case has been the placing on the public record of security details by the journalist in question, which do raise issues of risk to our staff. So the only additional risk from a security point of view has been created by these inaccurate newspaper reports.

Senator DASTYARI: I am going by the reports that I read over Christmas. My understanding of the allegation is this, Mr Varghese: you went through the appropriate tender processes for security arrangements at the Baghdad embassy, someone was awarded the tender, and the person who had been awarded the tender was not able to meet the requirements of the tender after being awarded it. Up until that point the department had acted in good faith, believing with reason that the person who had been awarded the tender would be able to deliver it, and it related to the non-delivery of a tender for security that had been awarded by DFAT. Is that not correct?

Mr Varghese : There was never a non-delivery.

Senator DASTYARI: So everything that was in the tender was delivered?

Mr Varghese : This contract has been delivered. It has been delivered to the satisfaction of the department. What we are dealing with here is a group of disgruntled former employees who seem to have found a direct line to a media outlet which seems happy enough to publish their views irrespective of the veracity of them. The core question here is: has this contract been managed in a way that doesn't put our staff at any additional risk? And the answer to that is clearly in the affirmative. I am not going to go into the details as to why particular allegations made in these articles are right or wrong, because that gets into operational questions that we do not want to canvass in an open hearing—I am very happy to offer a private briefing to you or to members of the committee on this. But the idea that you would take as gospel truth what is being asserted in some of these articles is, I think—

Senator DASTYARI: Hang on, Mr Varghese, that is not what we have done at all.

CHAIR: Excuse me, Senator Dastyari, for one second. I will come back to you in a moment. Secretary, could you advise please: did the journalist seek any advice or information from your department as to the veracity of the story that they were contemplating writing?

Mr Varghese : We have consistently said on the public record that we have confidence in the way in which this contract is being delivered. I would have thought that that was really the core question: was the contract being delivered in the way that was required under the terms of the contract, and was it providing an adequate level of security in what is a very high risk environment?

Senator DASTYARI: You are right: these are allegations. But they are quite serious and, as you said, they come from employees of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade coming forward—I would say in a whistleblower capacity. That does not mean that they are necessarily right but it does mean that there are people within who have come forward to raise concerns. Did that warrant or begin an investigation process by the department to make an assessment as to the veracity of these allegations? Have you done a review?

Mr Varghese : We have looked into all of the aspects that have been raised in these media reports. To give you one example of the inaccuracy of these reports, one blithely refers to statements made under public interest disclosure legislation. Nothing like that has happened. These are assertions without foundation. We have carefully looked into all of the issues that have been raised and, as I said, we are satisfied that the security operations in our mission in Baghdad are operating effectively and that the transition to the new arrangements has not created any additional risk to our staff.

Senator DASTYARI: And my question is have you conducted a review or an assessment or a reassessment following these allegations to be able to make that statement that you have just made?

Mr Varghese : We keep our security arrangements in a high-risk environment like Baghdad under constant review. It is not a question of whether all of these things just work their own way and we are required to make a review as a result of these disasters.

Senator GALLACHER: Are the public reports about a $101 million contract reducing to $50 million and, as an aside, a contract in Afghanistan increasing by $10 million, unsourced and incorrect too?

Mr Varghese : The value of the Baghdad contract is $51 million over three years, with two optional one-year extensions at an additional cost, and that compares with the previous contract, which was $100 million over five years. The cost envelope is less—it is not less at our request. This is an important point: we did not say we wanted these services provided at a reduced cost. The market has changed, the salary levels have changed, the infrastructure has changed—

Senator DASTYARI: Has Baghdad become safer over that period?

Mr Varghese : Baghdad is a high-risk environment.

Senator DASTYARI: That was not the question—the question was has it become safer.

Mr Varghese : Compared to five years ago? I think we are operating at a high level of risk, and I would not go into fine gradations. Salary levels are not necessarily determined by the level of safety at any one time. Salary levels are determined by supply and demand, essentially.

Senator DASTYARI: And they will reflect risk—the riskier the environment, the more expensive a contract is, surely.

CHAIR: Competition in the marketplace.

Mr Varghese : Exactly. I will not go into details here, but the structure of our protection regime in Baghdad is unchanged.

Senator GALLACHER: So you are clearly saying the report that the contract for safety has reduced by 50 per cent is wrong?

Senator DASTYARI: It has been reduced.

Mr Varghese : I have given you the figures. If we go the full five years in the new contract, the envelope will be smaller than the five-year contract that it has replaced, and the reason for that is not that we have asked them to cut corners and reduce safety levels—the reason for that is the market enables them to deliver it at a lower price.

Senator GALLACHER: And do you sign off on that security contract or is that also delegated?

Mr Varghese : That is delegated.

Senator GALLACHER: A $100 million contract is routinely delegated?

Mr Varghese : I operate a $5.4 billion budget. If I were approving all expenditure I would be doing nothing else.

Senator GALLACHER: But if you are addressing critical areas of expenditure where there was publicity or perceived problems, that is quite different from doing all of the work.

Mr Varghese : The whole system of government is based on deliberate delegation to officers who have the capacity and experience to exercise that delegation in a proper way.

Senator McEWEN: Senator Bernardi was asking questions about East Timor. Can you please take on notice whether any current or former Abbott or Turnbull government ministers have visited Timor-Leste in the term of this parliament.

Mr Varghese : Officially?

Senator McEWEN: Yes. When was the last time a foreign minister visited Timor-Leste, when was the last time the current foreign minister visited Timor-Leste, and what was her position at the time.

Mr Varghese : I will take that on notice.

Proceedings suspended from 12:30 to 13:30

Senator WONG: I want to go now to another matter in relation to ministerial conduct, which is in relation to former minister Jamie Briggs. And I just want to ask you some questions, and if there is another officer who needs to come to the table I am flagging that. When did anyone from the department—obviously other than the complainant herself—first become aware of a complaint about the minister's conduct at Stormies?

Mr Varghese : I think I can help you with the time line on this. The department in Canberra first became aware of the issue on 2 December. That was when the conduct and ethics unit was advised about it.

Senator WONG: Who advised them?

Mr Varghese : The employee, the person who was at the centre of this.

Senator WONG: How would you like me to refer to her? Would you like me to refer to her as the 'complainant' or the 'employee'? I have no view about it. I just do not want to—

Mr Varghese : Let us use 'employee'.

Senator WONG: I am happy to do that. So the employee advised the conduct and ethics unit on the second. Was that by way of phone call or by email or other?

Mr Varghese : Sorry. On 30 November the employee contacted one of our staff counsellors in the corporate management division. And then on 2 December, which is what I was referring to, the employee sent an email to the conduct and ethics unit. My notes do not tell me what the mechanism for the 30 November contact is, whether it was a phone call or something else, but that was the first record we have of someone in Canberra being aware of the incident.

Senator WONG: And I will come back to what then occurred. Are you aware now of what contact occurred between the employee and DFAT officials in Hong Kong?

Mr Varghese : On Monday, 30 November, the employee briefed a senior officer in the consul general about what had happened, and following that discussion the employee contacted Mr Briggs's then chief of staff to relay her concerns.

Senator WONG: So the employee herself contacted Mr Briggs's chief of staff.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: So it was the senior officer at the consul general?

Mr Varghese : That is right.

Senator WONG: Was the contact of Mr Briggs's chief of staff at the suggestion or request of that senior officer?

Mr Varghese : I think it followed the conversation, and there was an agreement that that would be an appropriate thing to do.

Senator WONG: When was the next contact?

Mr Varghese : It was 2 December, as I have covered.

Senator WONG: When did you become aware?

Mr Varghese : I became aware on 4 December, which was a Friday.

Senator WONG: And how did you become aware?

Mr Varghese : Sorry—3 December was when I became aware. I was advised by one of my deputy secretaries who had herself been advised earlier.

Senator WONG: How was your deputy secretary advised? I just want to get the process. The employee speaks to a senior official in the Consulate-General and the employee is advised to speak to Mr Briggs's chief of staff.

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator WONG: The employee then contacts the staff counsellor—

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator WONG: and then emails some two days later—please stop me if there is some contact in between those two dates—the Conduct and Ethics Unit of DFAT.

Mr Varghese : That is correct.

Senator WONG: What then happens between the 2nd and the 4th, before your advice?

Mr Varghese : On the 2nd the Conduct and Ethics Unit then briefed the head of the Corporate Management Division, who in turn briefed the relevant deputy secretary. That is all on 2 December. On 3 December the relevant deputy secretary briefed me, so that is when I first became aware of it.

Senator WONG: What action did you take as a consequence of becoming aware of the incident?

Mr Varghese : I had a discussion with the foreign minister about it. This is the following day on the 4th of December. So I advised the foreign minister of my knowledge of the incident and she asked for some formal advice about handling of the issue.

Senator WONG: Was that provided?

Mr Varghese : Yes, that was provided the next day on Saturday, 5 December. I provided her with the advice that she requested.

Senator WONG: As a side matter, can you please tell me on which date that brief was signed and on which date that brief was returned to the department?

Mr Varghese : I did this through an email to the foreign minister, who, as I recall, was travelling at the time.

Senator WONG: So there was no formal brief? Sorry, I should be clear. Let me rephrase the question so that I am a little more precise. Is it an emailed brief of which a hard copy would subsequently be delivered, requiring signature, or is it advice by way of email?

Mr Varghese : It is advice by way of email, but I would consider it formal advice: the structure of it was so worded.

Senator WONG: Did it require signature or noting?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: Did you receive a reply?

Mr Varghese : I did. I had a reply in the form of a further conversation with the foreign minister, who indicated that she would discuss the matter with the Prime Minister.

Senator WONG: Was that on the same day?

Mr Varghese : That was on the Saturday—Saturday, 5 December.

Senator WONG: What was your or your officers, excluding the employee, next involvement with this matter?

Mr Varghese : On the following day, which was the Sunday, 6 December, I contacted the employee just to keep her in the loop, to let her know where things stood, and also to check on her welfare. I also then in response to a request from the foreign minister—so, we are on the Sunday still, 6 December—forwarded to the PM's chief of staff a copy of my email to the foreign minister on options for handling the matter.

Senator WONG: So Mr Clarke, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, contacted you on the Sunday?

Mr Varghese : No, I sent him—

Senator WONG: No, the previous request from the Prime Minister: how did you become aware of that? Perhaps I misunderstood your evidence. I thought you said you had a request for advice from the Prime Minister and, as a result, you forwarded the email to Mr Clarke. Is that right, or is it the other way round?

Mr Varghese : No, at the request of the foreign minister—

Senator WONG: At the request of the foreign minister.

Mr Varghese : I forwarded the email—

Senator WONG: To Mr Clarke.

Mr Varghese : to Mr Clarke.

Senator WONG: Did you have a conversation with Mr Clarke about it?

Mr Varghese : I did have a conversation with him on the Sunday to indicate that I was sending him the documents. I also—

Senator WONG: What were the documents?

Mr Varghese : My note to the foreign minister and also the record of conversation that the employee had done following her conversation with Mr Briggs's chief of staff. I also forwarded to Mr Clarke a record of the conversation that I had had with the employee on 6 December.

Senator WONG: The record of conversation with Mr Briggs' chief of staff related to the phone call that you have already given evidence about—on 30 November?

Mr Varghese : The contact between the employee and Mr Eaton consisted both of a text message and a telephone conversation.

Senator WONG: How many telephone conversations? How many text messages?

Mr Varghese : I do not have that detail. I think there was only one telephone conversation, but I would need to check. I think the text messages, or message, as I recall, was essentially to set up a telephone conversation.

Senator WONG: The text messages were reproduced in the document that you sent Mr Clarke—is that right?

Mr Varghese : No. What I sent to Mr Clarke was, firstly, a copy of my advice to the foreign minister and, secondly, the statement that the employee had done on 2 October, and a record of my conversation with the employee of 6 December.

Senator WONG: I will continue with this sequence shortly. In relation to the matter of getting some advice from the Timor-Leste post, I wonder whether you have had an opportunity to get anything.

Mr Varghese : Yes. Subject to a triple checking, I can confirm that, in relation to the question that Senator Fawcett raised, during the visit by the opposition spokesperson, Tanya Plibersek, to Dili the post in Dili had given Ms Plibersek a briefing on 14 April 2015. That was done by the ambassador and his team. I have since had that triple checked.

Senator WONG: That is very efficient. Are you happy, Chair, if I go back to Mr Briggs? Or does someone—

CHAIR: We are in East Timor. Senator Madigan, I think you were going to ask some questions in East Timor?

Senator MADIGAN: Yes.

CHAIR: So it might be appropriate, if we can, Senator Wong—

Senator WONG: Yes. There is a lot on Mr Briggs, so I am happy to have—

CHAIR: I know there is—yes. I will go to Senator Madigan and then, if I can, to Senator Rhiannon. Then I will come back to you, Senator Wong.

Senator MADIGAN: Thank you, Chair. My questions start off in East Timor's oil and gas production. Attorney-General, would you agree that there has been no effective foreign policy towards East Timor since 1999, other than for Australia to maximise its access to East Timor's sovereign gas and oil resources?

Senator Brandis: No, I would not agree with that at all, Senator Madigan—not at all. I think the professional diplomats at the table will be better able than me to express to you the range and depth of the relationship between Australia and East Timor, notwithstanding the fact that there is a dispute between our respective nations in relation to one matter. It is a friendly relationship. Australia is a generous aid donor to East Timor, and always has been. But rather than me elaborate in an in-expert way, why don't we have either Mr Varghese or Mr Cox, perhaps, expand on that answer.

Mr Varghese : Perhaps I could start, and Mr Cox may want to add. The relationship with East Timor is one of our most important regional relationships. It has a number of dimensions to it. We have a very substantial bilateral relationship with East Timor, including—as the Attorney-General has just indicated—a substantial aid program but also a broader political dialogue. We work with East Timor closely on a range of economic and development issues. We have a trilateral mechanism that brings together East Timor, Indonesia and Australia, which meets at foreign minister level. We consider it to be a close and fairly broadly based relationship and certainly not one which only runs on the one track that you mentioned.

Senator MADIGAN: With East Timor's current oil and gas production likely to cease by 2026, is it not in the long-term strategic interest of Australia to assist East Timor to become a stable and prosperous country?

Mr Varghese : It is very much in our interests for East Timor to become a stable and prosperous country. One of the reasons why we have negotiated the agreements that we have with East Timor is to provide a certain legal framework—in other words, a legal framework with a large measure of legal certainty—which would enable the maximum exploitation of the resources in the area. That has been the basis of our treaty negotiations in terms of both CMATS and the Timor Sea Treaty.

Mr Cox : As you might be aware, Senator, Timor-Leste have accumulated a petroleum-wealth sovereign wealth fund of $16.1 billion based on the wealth from the joint development area, of which they earn 90 per cent of the upstream revenue.

Senator MADIGAN: Would it not be in the immediate strategic interests of Australia to allow East Timor to resolve the question of their national sovereignty over seabed resources before the International Court of Justice according to law?

Senator Brandis: Senator Madigan, there are no proceedings currently on foot before the International Court of Justice. There is—as Mr Varghese said in answer to questions from another senator before lunch—an arbitration which is currently suspended, which has been commenced by East Timor and may resume. But Australia is not creating any impediment to East Timor exploiting its resources. There are two treaties in particular, the Timor Sea Treaty and the CMATS treaty, which actually provide a framework within which those resources are able to be exploited to the benefit of both countries. As you have just heard Mr Cox say, in relation to the resource that is currently being exploited—I think Mr Cox was referring to this—the split is 90-10 in East Timor's favour.

Senator MADIGAN: Attorney-General, do you conduct state-to-state correspondence in relation to Australia's international strategic security and economic interests?

Senator Brandis: Me personally? Ordinarily no, although, in relation to the legal proceedings to which I have referred, correspondence with the legal agent, as it is called, of East Timor from the Australian agent is usually authorised by me.

Senator MADIGAN: Attorney, on 26 May 2015, I believe you wrote to the East Timorese minister, Mr Agio Pereira, stating:

Australia recognises the need for all States to respect the confidentiality of communications between States and their legal advisers consistent with the widely accepted principle of legal professional privilege.

Is that right?

Senator Brandis: Yes. That was an issue that had been raised in ICJ proceedings, and it bears upon—or it may potentially bear upon—an issue in the arbitration.

Senator MADIGAN: Attorney, would you agree that this letter was written in the hope that East Timor would discontinue proceedings at the International Court of Justice?

Senator Brandis: East Timor, in fact, did discontinue proceedings that it had commenced in the ICJ. Those proceedings were settled, and they have now been disposed of.

Senator MADIGAN: Attorney, would you agree that your assurance of 26 May did not embrace any future bilateral negotiations concerning the maritime delimitation, or any other related procedure, between the two states, including the present case before the international court? In other words, was East Timor misled into discontinuing proceedings in 2015 when the only assurance given related to communications between legal advisers being legally privileged communications?

Senator Brandis: No, Senator. You have the better of me, because I do not have a copy of the letter in front of me and it is a letter I have not seen in nearly a year. But that letter was written with a view to providing certain assurances so that the ICJ proceedings could be settled—and they were—to the mutual satisfaction of both parties. There are no ICJ proceedings on foot at the moment. I think perhaps you may be referring to the arbitration proceedings, which are on foot but are not current, in the sense that they have been adjourned. They were adjourned some while ago. But the letter from which you have quoted was a letter that was sent in the course of arriving at a resolution of the ICJ proceedings.

Senator MADIGAN: Attorney, was the current secretary of your department, Mr Chris Moraitis, a senior DFAT officer in October 2004?

Senator Brandis: I know Mr Moraitis's professional background has been as a DFAT officer. That is what he was at the time he came to be the secretary of my department in 2014. Whether he was a DFAT officer in 2004 I am not sure. I think he was. I think you are probably right, Senator, but I do not have a resume of Mr Moraitis's career to hand. Perhaps one of the officers at the table might know from their own personal knowledge of Mr Moraitis.

Mr Varghese : He was a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officer in 2004.

Senator MADIGAN: Thank you, Mr Varghese. Attorney, was Mr Moraitis a member of the delegation from Australia in Dili in October 2004, during which, it is alleged, clandestine listening devices had been installed by ASIS in the East Timorese ministerial cabinet room?

Senator Brandis: Let's decouple the two parts of that question. The allegation with which I am familiar is not an allegation that Australia has ever accepted. Whether Mr Moraitis travelled to East Timor at that time I am not aware. I will take that on notice.

Senator MADIGAN: Would you consider it appropriate for Mr Moraitis to have any role in matters concerning the refusal by your colleague Foreign Minister Bishop to grant a passport to the former ASIS officer known as Witness K?

Senator Brandis: How Ms Bishop exercises her power under the Passports Act to suspend or cancel passports is a matter for her, in respect of which she receives advice from her department. Perhaps Mr Varghese could elaborate a little further on the procedure whereby the foreign minister receives that advice. I am not aware that Mr Moraitis was involved. I would not expect that, as the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, he would have been.

Mr Varghese : I can confirm that Mr Moraitis was not part of the decision-making process in relation to that particular issue you raised.

Senator MADIGAN: Is there a potential conflict of interest?

Senator Brandis: a) Not if he was not involved and b) if, contrary to what we believe to be the case, he had been involved, then not on any of the premises of any questions that have been accepted.

Senator MADIGAN: Has there been a departmental review of the basis on which former Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus authorised the installation of listening devices in the home of the former senior ASIS officer Witness K?

Senator Brandis: Firstly, that is question to be asked in the Attorney-General's estimates. Secondly, I am not confirming that Mr Dreyfus did so. If that occurred, which I am not confirming, it could only lawfully have been done by warrant, and it is not the practice of the government to respond in a public forum to questions of the content of warrants issued by the Attorney-General under the ASIO Act or otherwise.

Senator MADIGAN: Attorney, have you informed yourself of the identity of any person who swore an affidavit in support of the issue of the warrant authorising installation of the listening devices in the home of Witness K?

Senator Brandis: Again, I am not confirming that that was done. The question you have put to me seems to flow from your previous question which is about what my predecessor Mr Dreyfus may or may not have done. I would not, ordinarily, see any affidavit or statement sworn by anyone in support of a warrant issued by a previous Attorney-General. I am not confirming that what you say is right but, in any event, it is not something I would know about if it was issued by a former Attorney.

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to move on to some questions about China. I understand that Australia is currently working with China on an antimalarial project in Papua New Guinea. Is Australia planning to work with China on other development projects in the Asia-Pacific region?

Mr Fletcher : At the moment, I do not believe we have plans for further cooperative aid programs with China.

Senator RHIANNON: I think you said that you 'understand'. Does that mean you need to take it on notice?

Mr Fletcher : Yes, I can take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: The question was: is Australia planning on working with China? You have taken that on notice. Has the Chinese government approached Australia with any proposals for future cooperation?

Mr Fletcher : I do not believe so but I can check that on notice as well.

Senator RHIANNON: Will Australia appoint a board member to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank?

Mr Varghese : I think we already have appointed a board member who is a senior Treasury official.

Senator RHIANNON: Did that need to be approved by cabinet?

Mr Varghese : It is not our appointment as in a DFAT portfolio appointment. It is a Treasury process. I think you would be best addressing that to the Treasury.

Senator RHIANNON: In order to understand, because this is a new bank, it is not like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank where our aid money is going. There is a development component?

Mr Varghese : The AIIB is not an aid-based bank. The contributions to the AIIB are not official development assistance.

Senator RHIANNON: It does not come across you in any way?

Mr Varghese : No, we are closely involved in what the AIIB is doing because its core agenda is the infrastructure agenda in the region, in which we take a very close interest, and we work very cooperatively with Treasury on it. But the lead department on the AIIB is Treasury, not DFAT.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. I want to move on to some general aid questions. How many full-time equivalent staff currently work in the innovationXchange branch?

Mr McDonald : I think it is 10—

Senator RHIANNON: Ten?

Mr McDonald : full-time equivalents. Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: You said 'you think'. Does that mean—

Mr McDonald : I will confirm that in writing. Ms Rauter might be able to confirm now, but it is 10, I think.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. How many full-time equivalent staff are in the innovationXchange branch; and how many FTE staff are in the Office of Development Effectiveness, please?

Ms Rauter : I can confirm that there are 10 FTE in innovationXchange.

Mr McDonald : In relation to the Office of Development Effectiveness, I am pretty sure it is 14 or 13—one or the other. I will confirm that in a moment for you.

Senator RHIANNON: Also, could you inform us—now, hopefully—how this compares to the FTE just prior to the integration in 2013?

Mr McDonald : I would have to take that on notice. But, as you know, the aid budget is at a different level to what it was at integration. There are fewer staff in the organisation, so there would be fewer staff in ODE.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. I am just after the comparison.

Mr McDonald : I think there are three of four fewer than there were previously in ODE, the Office of Development Effectiveness. In terms of the innovationXchange, it was not in existence at that time.

Senator RHIANNON: No. But you will take that on notice so we get the exact figures?

Mr McDonald : Yes, I will.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Has Australia undertaken a multilateral assessment since 2012?

Mr McDonald : The department undertakes multilateral assessments with our multilateral partners as the replenishments come forward. So, as they are due for renewal, we undertake a multilateral assessment.

Senator RHIANNON: When is the next one planned, please?

Mr McDonald : They come up progressively. We have one coming up shortly in relation to the Asian Development Bank. There is a replenishment coming up in May, for example, so that is an assessment we will do then. It is a progressive thing through the year as they come forward. We also have one coming up with the International Committee of the Red Cross later this year. That is another multilateral assessment. We can give you, on notice, when they are due.

Senator RHIANNON: That would be good. I was trying to understand: how is Australia's funding for multilateral agencies linked to these assessments?

Mr McDonald : Where we move into a multiyear agreement with multilaterals, we look at whether they are effective in accordance with the government's priorities, and whether they are delivering and performing according to our expectations. We undertake that assessment. That is then fed into the consideration by the foreign minister of what sort of support we will provide, going forward.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. Going back to Ebola issues, is DFAT planning to undertake an independent evaluation of its Ebola response in order to draw lessons from that to inform future responses to infectious diseases?

Mr McDonald : I might need to check that with Mr Exell. But, certainly, we did a progressive assessment throughout the Ebola response around Australia's response, and Mr Exell might be able to elaborate on that.

Mr Exell : At this stage, there is not an intention to take on an independent review or evaluation of our Ebola response. There was an internal DFAT review and, indeed, there was a whole-of-government review of our overall Ebola response. We were also part of a WHO major review of their response and their global reactions, or global response, to Ebola. So there were pretty significant review exercises going on around the work there.

Senator RHIANNON: Have they been released publicly?

Mr Exell : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you—that is for all the ones that you mentioned. I think there were three.

What formal project management training are DFAT staff required to complete—including monitoring and evaluation, financial management, and anticorruption measures—prior to managing large aid projects?

Mr McDonald : We have quite an extensive program of training and we have quite a substantial set of guidelines for staff to follow. We also have quite comprehensive fraud and corruption guidelines. We also have particular provisions built within contracts around that. So we have quite an extensive array of support for staff—

Senator RHIANNON: Who provides the training when they start, please?

Mr McDonald : I will have to get some assistance here from Mr Dawson. He will be able to inform you on the training.

Senator RHIANNON: I was also interested in details. Does training mean that somebody is given a manual to read when they have time? Or are they actually given time—three days when they start or some substantial period of time—to undertake training? If you could describe what training means, please.

Mr Dawson : All staff working on the development program have the opportunity to undertake a range of training and personal development work to benefit them for the jobs that they do. That suite of training, which covers all the sorts of things that you have identified, from design through to implementation, monitoring and evaluation, procurement, et cetera, is delivered by a combination of officers from the department and contracted service providers. There is no set amount of training time which is identified, but out of my division, which runs much of the training and capacity building work within the department, we do something like 220 training courses face-to-face—including workshops, coaching sessions, et cetera—each year. It is a very extensive program. It is a rolling, ongoing one.

Senator RHIANNON: When you started the response, Mr Dawson, you used the term 'opportunity' to take training, which sounds as though it is not required. Does that mean that there would be people who could even be senior in terms of some of the projects, or at any level, who may not be given any training?

Mr Dawson : We expect that officers will undertake the training that is necessary to do their jobs effectively. There are only a small number of things that we specifically mandate. For example, we have mandated that everyone in the department undertake fraud awareness training. We have an online course to enable that to happen, and people have been doing that progressively. On the development side, for officers in Canberra we particularly take the view that they know what they need to be doing. They join communities of practice, they undertake the sort of training opportunities which are necessary for them to do their job. We are a little bit more directive when it comes to staff going on postings overseas. So we identify positions that require particular skills and we make sure that the relevant training is built into the pre-posting preparation for those positions.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice what is mandatory in terms of training and what can be chosen by your staff.

Mr McDonald : I would just like to add a couple things that are important. We have governance arrangements in place in the agency to look at high-risk and high-value programs that are coming forward. So there is actually a very senior governance arrangement that I chair that looks at those particular proposals coming forward.

Also, in relation to the fraud and corruption that you talked about, I think it is important to let you know some of the key things that we are doing. It think it does provide some assurance around that. We have a fraud control plan that meets the Commonwealth Fraud Control Guidelines. All of our aid investment designs are prepared for individual aid investments. We have risk management plans, we have due diligence checks, we also have publicly available information on revenue allocation and public complaints processes. So where people are seeing particular fraud they can report that to us. We also have, as we said, a comprehensive training program on fraud. We also offer training to contractors and non-government organisations to increase their awareness and understanding of fraud. In the year 2014-15, we had nearly 1,000 people trained on that. We also pursue recovery of all fraud and we have recovered significant amounts of funding over the last year. We also monitor our projects on the ground through inspections and the like. So we have a very comprehensive fraud and corruption approach that has been built up over a number of years, and that provides the assurance that that money is being used in an accountable way.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks, Mr McDonald. So is the comprehensive training program on fraud and corruption mandatory?

Mr McDonald : We have it continuing through the organisation, so it would not be mandatory—

Senator RHIANNON: No, I am talking about people who are employed by you who come into DFAT for the first time or who change jobs. Is it mandatory that they undergo comprehensive training on fraud and corruption?

Mr McDonald : I will check that with Mr Dawson.

Mr Dawson : As I said, it is mandatory that staff undertake an online fraud awareness training program. With staff who are dealing with significant financial responsibilities, we work to make sure they are properly trained on fraud issues, and that includes visits by fraud experts to our posts to make sure that staff at posts have that necessary training. It includes working with geographic divisions and activity managers in Canberra as well.

Mr McDonald : And our level of fraud is very low and it continues to be low. It is .026 per cent at the moment. It is consistent with what it has been throughout, so if we see any change in that we would look at our approach to it.

Senator Gallacher interjecting

Senator RHIANNON: That might be more interesting!

Mr McDonald : I thought you might ask that, Senator.

Senator Gallacher interjecting

Mr McDonald : Look, I am not in any way reducing the importance of that and, as I said earlier, we actively pursue the recovery of those. We take that extremely seriously, and I think, Senator Gallacher, you and I have had discussions on that before. That is why I mentioned some of the money that we have recovered this year, and I am happy to provide that on notice to you as well. But, yes, any fraud is unacceptable.

Senator RHIANNON: Has DFAT retained AusAID's quality at entry and peer review systems prior to projects being approved?

Mr Dawson : Yes, the structure of aid quality systems in DFAT has built on, but remains fundamentally the same as under, the previous AusAID.

Senator RHIANNON: Are independent experts required to participate in these?

Mr Dawson : There is no requirement for independent experts. If you mean independent as in outside the department participation in these processes, there is no requirement for that. But, where sensible, independent sources of advice are used.

Senator RHIANNON: Has DFAT retained the Aid Works system used previously by AusAID for monitoring and reporting on aid activities?

Mr Dawson : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: The government has determined how it will fund the multiyear $1 billion commitment for climate change assistance announced by the Prime Minister at the Paris conference. My question is: has the government determined how it will fund it?

Mr McDonald : Yes, the funding will come from the aid program.

Senator RHIANNON: What I meant to ask is: have you determined it within the aid program?

Mr McDonald : Last year, I think, through the aid program we provided over $200 million—$229 million, I think—and that included our contribution to the Green Climate Fund, but I might ask Mr Tooth to elaborate on my answer.

CHAIR: Briefly, if you would, Mr Tooth.

Mr Tooth : Deputy Secretary McDonald is quite correct. It was $229 million in 2014-15 and we are currently working out how to spend the $200 million this year.

Senator WONG: Mr Varghese, you were taking me through the time line. I think we had got to 6 December, where you had emailed the Prime Minister's chief of staff, at the foreign minister's request, a record of the conversation that the employee had had with Mr Briggs' chief of staff. We were talking about texts and whether it was a full record of the conversation. Perhaps we should go back to that point.

Mr Varghese : What I emailed were three documents: a copy of my note of advice to the foreign minister, which we discussed earlier; the employee's record of her conversation with Mr Eaton and my record of conversation of my phone call with the employee.

Senator WONG: What happens next?

Mr Varghese : That is the point really where the process switches across to the Prime Minister, his office and his department. We as a department had no formal role in any of that.

Senator WONG: What does 'no formal role' mean? Does that mean no role?

Mr Varghese : The Prime Minister commissioned his secretary to provide advice, and that is consistent with the ministerial statement on behaviour. The secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet was then responsible for putting that advice together. As you know, he commissioned Lynelle Briggs—

Senator WONG: No relation.

Mr Varghese : No relation—to assist him in that process. We did not have any part in that process except to facilitate Lynelle Briggs's contact with our employee. The next point at which I became involved was when I had received from the employee a record of her conversation with Mr Briggs. I received that on 11 December. I passed it on to the secretary of PM&C.

Senator WONG: So the employee takes written notes recording a conversation between her and Mr Briggs—the former minister, not the former Public Service Commissioner, Ms Briggs—which you receive on 11 December.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: When did that conversation take place?

Mr Varghese : I think I received it the day in which the conversation occurred, which would be 11 December, but I would have to refresh my memory.

Senator WONG: Mr Briggs and the employee had a conversation on 11 December, and you received a note of that conversation.

Mr Varghese : That is correct.

Senator WONG: Was that conversation initiated by Mr Briggs or the employee?

Mr Varghese : I think by the former minister.

Senator WONG: Was it an apology? Did it involve an apology?

Mr Varghese : This is part of that process that the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet presided over. I do not want to go into the contents of some of these documents. I am trying to be as helpful as I can in terms of indicating—

Senator WONG: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I understand. Did you answer the question about who instigated the conversation?

Mr Varghese : My understanding is that it was the former minister.

Senator WONG: Was there any other conversation subsequent to the complaint being received, of which you are aware, between Mr Briggs and the employee?

Mr Varghese : Not that I am aware of.

Senator WONG: Was the employee interviewed or spoken to by any officer of PM&C, any member of the PMO or by Ms Lynelle Briggs after the complaint was received?

Mr Varghese : I have not seen a copy of Lynelle Briggs's report, so I do not know the extent of the discussions, but my understanding is that certainly Lynelle Briggs spoke to the employee, and I think the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet would have been involved in setting up that conversation.

Senator WONG: Were you spoken to by Ms Lynelle Briggs?

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator WONG: Was anyone from DFAT spoken to?

Mr Varghese : Not to my knowledge.

Senator WONG: What support was offered to the employee in question from the time the complaint was made by the department?

Mr Varghese : We have been careful to ensure that she receives, and continues to receive, as much support as she requires. She has had access to our counselling services. She has had a number of conversations with very senior officers of the department. I have spoken to her on a number of occasions. The deputy secretary responsible for management has spoken to her on numerous occasions. I think she feels that she is getting strong support from the department.

Senator WONG: You have given evidence about two conversations, I think, with the foreign minister in relation to this matter, on 5 December and then—

Mr Varghese : Yes, that weekend of the fifth and the sixth.

Senator WONG: Did you have any further conversations with the foreign minister post 6 December in relation to this matter?

Mr Varghese : I did speak to her on 12 December to advise her or to check that she was aware of Lynelle Briggs's appointment.

Senator WONG: Did the foreign minister make inquiries about the welfare of the employee?

Mr Varghese : Yes, she did.

Senator WONG: What did you end up telling her?

Mr Varghese : I reassured her that we were doing everything we can to help the employee and that I thought that the employee had been coping with it remarkably well.

Senator WONG: When was that discussion?

Mr Varghese : She asked about the welfare of the employee, as I recall, in all of our discussions.

Senator WONG: Was there any contact with the FMO, the foreign minister's office, in relation to this matter, or was the contact primarily secretary to minister?

Mr Varghese : The latter. I was dealing directly with the minister on it.

Senator WONG: Mr Varghese, this has been publicly reported, so I am going to put it to you, and I think it is probably self-evident: you could not deal with the allegations because (a) they involved a minister and (b) it was a minister who was not within the portfolio.

Mr Varghese : I do not think the latter is necessarily particularly important, but certainly, as secretary of the department, I had no authority to conduct any formal investigation relating to the conduct of a minister.

Senator WONG: I do not want to go to advice to government, but that was the basis on which the matter was referred so quickly to the Prime Minister's office—correct?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: You said you still have not seen Ms Lynelle Briggs's report—is that right?

Mr Varghese : That is correct.

Senator WONG: When was the report received by Prime Minister and Cabinet?

Mr Varghese : I do not know.

Senator WONG: Has the employee been made aware of the contents of that report?

Mr Varghese : I do not know if the employee has been given a copy of the report by the author of the report or by the department. But, since it is a report in which the department has no formal role, my visibility of it is not complete.

Senator WONG: I want to ask some questions about the post's knowledge of this. Was the first knowledge that anyone at the post had the discussion, which you have referenced, on 30 November?

Mr Varghese : Yes, to the best of my knowledge, the first occasion on which this issue was raised within the post by the employee was on 30 November.

Senator WONG: There were public reports of the employee ringing colleagues on the night in question. I do not have a full sequence in front of me, but is that what you are referencing? I do not think so, because the alleged incident is the 27th and then—

Mr Varghese : No. I think there were reports about the employee ringing a friend or friends and others, but your question related to the knowledge of the post as opposed to—

Senator WONG: I'm sorry; I thought it said colleagues.

Mr Varghese : But they might have been colleagues not at the post.

Senator WONG: Okay, I am making an assumption. So you are not aware of what occurred there? Are you aware of—

Mr Varghese : My understanding—

Senator WONG: Are you aware of any contact—with any DFAT officer—that the employee concerned had on the night in question?

Mr Varghese : I am aware of the employee contacting a friend and colleague who was a DFAT officer not at the post.

Senator WONG: Where was this officer?

Mr Varghese : I do not want to go into that. I do not want to give information which identifies the person.

Senator WONG: Right, okay. But not based in Hong Kong?

Mr Varghese : Not based in Hong Kong.

Senator WONG: When were you aware that Mr Briggs was intending to resign? Were you aware of—

Mr Varghese : The final decision making in this process occurred when I was on leave and the acting secretary of the department was dealing with it.

Senator WONG: Who was acting in your absence?

Mr Varghese : Jennifer Rawson.

Senator WONG: I want to know: was Ms Rawson advised prior to the resignation becoming public?

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator WONG: How long before?

Mr Varghese : She was advised in advance but on the day on which the announcement was made. So the 29th.

Senator WONG: Was the employee advised ahead of the announcement?

Mr Varghese : Yes, the employee was advised ahead of the announcement.

Senator WONG: Do you have any details of the dates of that?

Mr Varghese : Well, I think because the precise date of the announcement was not determined until very late in the piece—whether it was going to be the 28 December or 29 December—the employee was advised that something would be happening soon, but not time, place and date.

Senator WONG: First, when was the employee advised that something would be happening soon but not the precise time and date?

Mr Varghese : On 27 December.

Senator WONG: Who advised her?

Mr Varghese : The acting secretary.

Senator WONG: When did Mr Briggs actually resign?

Mr Varghese : On the 29th.

Senator WONG: Is that a correction of your earlier evidence, which was—

Mr Varghese : No, because I think—

Senator WONG: Let me finish the question.

Mr Varghese : I think what happened was that the acting secretary and the PM's chief of staff would have been in touch over this period and foreshadowing an announcement, but it was only on the day of the announcement that it was confirmed that that was when it would be.

Senator WONG: So we have a confirmation as first foreshadowed. When was it first foreshadowed with you or with the acting secretary that this matter would result in Mr Briggs's resignation?

Mr Varghese : I was on a boat in Myanmar—

Senator WONG: Correct—

Mr Varghese : so I was not completely in the loop on this at this stage.

Senator WONG: So when was it first foreshadowed? When was the minister—

Mr Varghese : To the acting secretary? I would have to check.

Senator WONG: But obviously at some point prior to the 27th, because that is the point at which the acting secretary has a conversation; is that right?

Mr Varghese : Yes. I left on—

Senator WONG: Can I just get this right? At some point on or prior to the 27th, the acting secretary is advised by the Prime Minister's chief of staff that there is a possibility of the minister's resignation but that a final time for that decision has not been made, after which the acting secretary has a conversation in not dissimilar terms—that something might happen—with the employee. Is that accurate?

Mr Varghese : Broadly, I think that is accurate. Let me just backtrack a little bit.

Senator WONG: Okay.

Mr Varghese : I left on 26 December.

Senator WONG: That was probably quite timely, wasn't it?

Mr Varghese : Just prior to my departure I did have a discussion with the Prime Minister's chief of staff, who foreshadowed that there would be an announcement very soon, he thought around the 28th or the 29th. I shared that advice with Jennifer Rawson and asked that the employee be kept closely informed of developments. It was on the basis, I think, of that conversation and probably—although I am not certain of this—a further discussion that Jennifer may have had with the Prime Minister's office that she contacted the employee on 27 December to foreshadow that an announcement would be made.

Senator WONG: 'An announcement' meaning a resignation?

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator WONG: So was the discussion on the 26th between you and the Prime Minister's office the first time you were advised that a resignation was going to occur?

Mr Varghese : I had been advised earlier by the then secretary of PM&C that the Governance Committee was going to be meeting to consider Lynelle Briggs's report. In my subsequent discussions with the Prime Minister's chief of staff, it was clear to me that the outcome would be a resignation.

Senator WONG: Meaning subsequent to the Governance Committee of cabinet meeting?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: When did that discussion with Mr Thawley occur?

Mr Varghese : I spoke to him on 22 December, which was the day that the Governance Committee met.

Senator WONG: 22 December?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: I think you said that in subsequent conversations it was clear that a resignation would occur.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: Did they occur on the 22nd?

Mr Varghese : No, I think the subsequent discussion would have been on the 23rd, but the timing of the announcement at that point was not decided, which is why we did not quite know exactly when.

Senator WONG: You knew on the 23rd that, as a result of or consequent upon the Governance Committee's consideration, a resignation was going to occur, but you were not advised as to the timing of that?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: Who was making the decision as to timing?

Mr Varghese : I do not know. That is the short answer. This would have been a matter that the Prime Minister's office, the former minister and perhaps others might have been involved in, but we were not. DFAT was not.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Varghese, we spent yesterday in the Defence estimates. We spent a long time talking about our engagement in the Middle East, particularly with the fight against Daesh. Clearly at the moment, with the regime forces closing on Aleppo, there is a huge wave of new Syrian refugees, and the need to be responding to the humanitarian crisis in country and in region is enormous. Could you step us through where Australia is at?

I know there have been some figures put out since 2011 as to how much cash we have given, but in terms of where that support is going internally in the regions—for example, health outcomes or food security et cetera.

Mr Varghese : I will ask either Mr Innes-Brown or Mr Isbister to take you through that. Mr Innes-Brown is the head of the relevant geographic division and Mr Isbister looks after our humanitarian program.

Mr Innes-Brown : Since 2011, Australia has provided a total of $213.2 million in response to the Syrian crisis; that includes $20 million that we pledged last week at the London Conference. It has gone to a range of partners including the UNHCR, the World Food Program, the UNICEF, Australian NGOs, the WHO, the UN OCHA, the UNFPA, the Australian Red Cross, the UNRWA and international humanitarian organisations, which we do not name for security reasons. So there have been a range of partners. Specifically, from last week's announcement of the $20 million for Syria, $5 million went to the UNHCR. That was for protection shelters, cash assistance and emergency supplies. It was for the regional countries that are hosting refugees. We also gave $4 million to the World Food Program. Again that was in the regional countries around Syria. To UNICEF we gave $4 million to provide child protection, water and sanitation, hygiene, education and health. It is for refugee-hosting countries. There was also $3 million for Australian NGOs. In the coming weeks, we are deciding who those partners will be but the NGOs we will fund will provide protection and educational activities for Syrian refugees, vulnerable Jordanians and possibly Lebanese. We also provided $4 million of funding for organisations inside Syria, which I will not name for security reasons. It will be for food, medical assistance and protection.

Senator FAWCETT: In terms of broader engagements with regional governments around the housing of people and the running of camps—I recognise that some are under governments and some under UN arrangements—we have had a lot of reports of minorities from Syria who have not been made any more welcome in refugee camps than they were in areas they fled from. Has any effort been made to try and make sure that the needs of those minority communities who are fleeing the conflict are also catered for?

Mr Innes-Brown : I have not had any recent reports. I know that you carefully raised that at the previous estimates and we did inquire into it. It is true that over recent years some communities have not felt welcome in certain camps because they are a predominant sect or religion. However, we have found in Lebanon, and even in Jordan, that a lot of refugees are not in the camps but in the community. That has been one of the features of this particular crisis.

Senator FAWCETT: Has any funding been made available to community or faith based groups who are working with community-located displaced peoples as opposed to global bodies?

Mr Isbister : I will make a couple of comments on that. As Marc mentioned, as part of the package over the last three or four years and over the most recent year, we have provided support for Australian NGOs. With those NGOs, there are a range of organisations with different backgrounds and experience Caritas Australia, is one which is an organisation that works with all organisations but that particularly provides assistance to certain marginalised groups affected by the crisis. The other thing to mention is that the minister also announced in her package the deployment of ten Australian Civilian Corps deployees. A number of them will be protection officers who will be working with UNHCR, UNICEF and other partners to particularly look at the protection needs of Syrian refugees who have come across to either Jordan or Lebanon. Obviously, in looking at that, it is particularly some of the needs of certain marginalised groups. So there is certainly an awareness both in terms of how we fund and who we fund in that issue, but also we are complementing that with deploying protection officers who can work with those partners to specifically deal with some of those issues.

Senator FAWCETT: So whether it is the two officers we saw from Mr Varghese—but in terms of our broader efforts to seek to contribute to a resolution in the area, obviously we had a good briefing yesterday on the military efforts. From a foreign policy perspective, is there anything that you can update the committee on since we last discussed this topic?

Mr Varghese : I think Mr Innes-Brown has been very closely involved in it. He is probably best placed to—

Mr Innes-Brown : Most recently, Minister Bishop had a range of discussions at Rome last week, where there was an anti-Daesh coalition meeting—a small group meeting—and also in London at the Syria donor's conference. We have been quite active in talking to players that are involved in the process and, particularly, in encouraging those with direct influence on the parties of the conflict to try and take forward the negotiations process that started in Geneva a couple of weeks ago which, unfortunately, is temporarily suspended. But Minister Bishop made clear in her remarks last week that we needed to focus on Daesh, but we also needed to focus on finding a political solution in Syria and to, also, try to advance the political process in Iraq, which was obviously going to be crucial for longer term stability. We have been engaged on it. I was in Vienna last November when the previous International Syria Support Group meeting took place and had discussions with people around the margins there, and had some official meetings. It is something our posts abroad are constantly engaged in, with both partners in the region and also some of the bigger players. We have made very clear our wish that we need to get a serious negotiation process going as soon as possible. Every day that goes on more people are killed and injured. As you know, it is an enormous international crisis.

CHAIR: I just want to go back to the innovationXchange discussion that was raised a bit earlier, please. I was wondering if one of the officers could give the committee some understanding of the range of investments that innovationXchange has made in the last year.

Mr McDonald : Ms Rauter would be best to do that. We have quite a good pipeline of projects coming forward.

Ms Rauter : Our range of projects include those that we announced when we first launched innovationXchange 12 months ago, including Seed Pacific. It is a project to partner with the private sector and corporates, NGOs, hopefully, and academia to introduce what we call shared value projects in the Pacific—which is really what the private sector does very well—and bring that to have a development purpose to increase our impact in the Pacific. We also have the Pacific Humanitarian Challenge, which, actually, just closed on Sunday. We received 129 applications, or proposals and innovations, which we are now starting to assess. Hopefully, it will help us to address the issue of identifying needs in the Pacific. It will also give us new ideas on how we respond to that quickly and also ideas on how we build financial and other resilience to help communities respond or recover quicker.

CHAIR: Can you give us some illustration, if any, of interest and participation from the private sector in partnering with you in areas such as health service delivery in the Pacific, the Blue Economy, et cetera. I just want to know where, if at all, you have been successful in attracting private sector interest.

Ms Rauter : In the Seed Pacific project that I first mentioned, we have already begun talking with the private sector. We have had an initial engagement—a stakeholder engagement—meeting where we had, I think, five private sector organisations as part of that discussion.

CHAIR: Can you give us some indication, without necessarily naming them, of the nature of those private sector organisations? Are they multinationals? Are they corporates? Are they privately owned?

Ms Rauter : They are multinationals. They are probably in the food production sector and also in the mining sector.

Mr McDonald : Just on that one: it is worth mentioning that this is the project that we think at different points we are going to have a stop-go on it. Getting the multinationals into the Pacific is our way of trying to do it, and we will have to make an assessment as to whether it is successful or not at different points of that project.

CHAIR: Can you tell me what the attraction is, what is the incentive, what is the catalyst for private sector organisations to want to partner with DFAT? It is philanthropic; but is there anything else?

Ms Rauter : In the discussions that we have had with the private sector so far they are interested in advancing the development impact that they can have. For example, a conversation I had with one organisation: they are working with agriculture to increase their supply of locally sourced products but they do not have the development expertise that we have and so they are interested in bringing what they know about supply chains together with what we know about development, our community connections and our government relationships.

CHAIR: Before I go back to Senator Wong, can you tell me how the Bloomberg partnership is working, if at all, with you in improving health systems in developing countries? Have we had any success in that space yet?

Ms Rauter : Yes. So far Bloomberg have managed to sign up 16 out of the 20 pilot countries that they had some initial meetings with and that they identified as offering good potential for improvement in their data collection systems in the health space. So Bloomberg are now moving on to develop country-specific project plans with each of those countries and the relevant ministries in those countries. There is still a while to go but they are certainly well on track in terms of the project plans that they have submitted to us.

CHAIR: Is the fact that there is just not good reliable data on their delivery of health, the level of health in the various sectors of the populations in developing countries, holding back our work in developing countries?

Mr McDonald : Yes, it is. In 60 per cent of deaths the reason for them is unknown, for example. So the lack of data means you cannot then inform through the analysis what the best interventions are within those countries. The other attraction of this particular project is that we can see it being replicated into other areas. Domestic violence is a good example. So more data coming in, being able to have good analytical capability, which Bloomberg have, and then being able to make sure the interventions align with the data is the best chance of effectively intervening in that. That is why it is such an attractive—

CHAIR: Is it finding its way yet into your aid policies?

Mr McDonald : With the aid policies, certainly within health, one of the things we are looking at is a broader health strategy across the region. Of course, data is important in relation to strengthening those systems as we go forward. So, yes, it is; but it is at the point where they are signing up the countries that there is much more work to do, but the start has been very positive and it is within the region. There are three or four countries within the region.

Senator McEWEN: Senator Back, just before we go to Senator Wong, I just have a couple more questions about innovationXchange while we are here, if that is okay.

CHAIR: Certainly, Senator McEwen.

Senator McEWEN: I refer to an answer to question on notice No. 74 from supplementary estimates about the costs of some facilities at the innovationXchange space, in particular the answer that three beanbags were purchased for innovationXchange staff to use instead of a couch. The cost was $590 each. Having done a little bit of research about the cost of beanbags, I found it quite difficult to find one that cost more than $200. You can get beanbags at for $24.95. Where were the beanbags sourced from and why were they so expensive?

Ms Rauter : They were commercial quality beanbags. They were sourced from an Australian supplier, and that Australian supplier sources all of their products through sustainable and social impact sources. They work very strongly with Indigenous communities who do a lot of their design work. So, again, Australian-designed and supplied tends to be more expensive than cheaper overseas-sourced products, and it is also of commercial quality.

Senator WONG: Who is the supplier?

Ms Rauter : I will take that on notice.

Senator WONG: You do not know?

Ms Rauter : I do know; I just cannot find it right now. It starts with 'K'!

Senator WONG: Do you want us to just pause momentarily while you find it?

Ms Rauter : I will get back to you on that one.

CHAIR: So they are quality beanbags!

Mr McDonald : Just while that is occurring, one thing about the fit-out in the Innovation Exchange overall—because it was much broader than beanbags—was that the actual fit-out costs were less than the average in DFAT for our fit-out costs at the moment.

Senator McEWEN: There are 10 people who work there—is that right?

Mr McDonald : Well, as to the fit-out of any space—it is per square metre.

Senator GALLACHER: What is the cost per square metre there?

Mr McDonald : Yes—per square metre.

Senator McEWEN: Is there a bean bag for every person?

Mr McDonald : I think we have answered the question, saying there are three beanbags. Earlier I said—

Senator McEWEN: Sometimes they are doubles; you can get double beanbags.

Ms Rauter : They are single beanbags.

Mr McDonald : I am not a beanbag expert myself—

Senator McEWEN: I cannot get out of them anymore!

Mr McDonald : Probably likewise!

Mr Varghese : Can I just make one point about the amount of airplay these beanbags have got: in the end, I think that, when we were doing this fit-out and furniture and fittings, it was a choice between—

Senator WONG: I think the government has elevated this—what was it called? 'innovationXchange'—

Mr Varghese : I think what the government has done is elevated what the innovationXchange does, rather than the beanbags, but—

Senator WONG: We can't help it if you buy beanbags.

Mr Varghese : There was a choice between purchasing a three-seater couch or purchasing three beanbags, and the price of the couch would actually have been much more expensive than purchasing the three beanbags.

Senator McEWEN: The couch that you selected, Secretary, was $2,300.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator RHIANNON: How many people can sit on a beanbag? One? So it is one person on a bean bag compared to three people on a lounge?

CHAIR: Under normal circumstances!

Senator RHIANNON: 'Under normal circumstances'! That is the best line, Chair!

Mr Varghese : Well, we have not conducted a competition to see how many people can sit on a beanbag!

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator McEwen.

Senator McEWEN: I have not finished. I have one more question—

CHAIR: You have not finished on the beanbags?

Senator McEWEN: No, it is not on the beanbags, but we are waiting for the name of the company.

Ms Rauter : I will come back to you on that.

Senator McEWEN: Thank you. I would like to ask a question about the ping-pong table. We did ask, on notice, what the ping-pong table that can also double as a conference table cost, but we do not seem to have that information in the answer. Have you got that?

Mr McDonald : You call it a ping-pong table; I call it a meeting table. It is used all day for meetings, not for ping-pong, and it can be changed into a ping-pong table. It is actively used throughout the day. It seats 10 or 12 people. So I do need to correct what it is actually for: it is actually for meetings during the day.

Senator McEWEN: I did ask for the cost, though. Do we have that?

Mr McDonald : Yes.

Ms Rauter : Yes. The cost was $6,300.

Senator McEWEN: Six thousand three hundred?

Senator WONG: For the table?

Ms Rauter : Yes.

Senator McEWEN: Has it ever been used for playing ping-pong?

Ms Rauter : Very occasionally, yes.

Senator McEWEN: Are there rules about when it can be used for playing ping-pong versus when it is to be used as a conference table?

Ms Rauter : It is not used as a ping-pong table during working hours.

Senator McEWEN: During working hours.

Mr McDonald : And I will say: the staff in the innovationXchange work quite long hours and work very hard in that exchange.

Senator McEWEN: What is it made of, for $6,300?

Ms Rauter : It is made of wood.

Senator McEWEN: And is this from the same company that the beanbags came from?

Ms Rauter : No.

Senator McEWEN: Is it an Australian-made item?

Ms Rauter : Yes.

Senator McEWEN: Perhaps you could let us know from whom it was purchased as well. Also not answered in the question on notice was whether an OH&S evaluation has been done of the table when it is being used for ping-pong. Has that been done?

Ms Rauter : Yes, it has.

Senator McEWEN: And what was the result?

Ms Rauter : The result is that there is low risk associated with the use of that table for ping-pong.

Senator McEWEN: Do people have to provide their own shuttlecock and bats, or are they provided?

Senator WONG: It's not a shuttlecock; it's a ping-pong ball! You see, if you'd grown up in South-East Asia you would know that, wouldn't you!

Ms Rauter : They have been personally purchased for the staff.

Senator McEWEN: They have been purchased?

Ms Rauter : Personally purchased—not by the department.

CHAIR: Now, Senator Fawcett: you had a follow-up question on the ping-pong question, and then I will go to Senator Wong.

Senator FAWCETT: It is such an important thing I thought it was worth asking! Were other options considered, and how did they rate in terms of cost?

Ms Rauter : Yes, other options were considered and we went through a tender process for all of the fit-out for the innovationXchange and went with the best-value money package through the tender process.

Senator FAWCETT: So what is the opportunity cost you attribute to staff morale? I will leave that one! Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks, Senator Fawcett!

Mr McDonald : It is worth saying it is an open office. There are no offices at all, even though we have an SES and executive staff in there as well.

CHAIR: There was a time I would have been willing to challenge the best of them, Mr McDonald!

Senator RHIANNON: They're hipsters.

Senator WONG: I used to love ping-pong when I was a kid. There you go!

Can we go back to your and my discussion, Mr Varghese, in relation to the sequence of events leading up to former minister Briggs's resignation. First question: regarding the three documents that you emailed to the PMO that you gave evidence about previously, we know one of them was provided to the foreign minister; were the other two as well?

Mr Varghese : Yes, she would have received all three documents.

Senator WONG: Can you explain to me why my FOI to the foreign minister's office has been refused on the basis that there is no document relevant to the scope of my request? My FOI request related to all documents relating to the behaviour of the former minister et cetera towards an Australian consular official in Hong Kong during an official visit, including but not limited to the written complaint or record of a complaint and the report of the investigation. We know at least that the foreign minister's office has those three, and the matter has been declined on the basis that there are no documents. It is a different issue if there is an FOI exemption.

Senator Brandis: Mr Varghese was not the decision maker, and a question as to why a decision was made can really only be asked of the decision maker. The grounds of the decision appear to be, on the face of the decision—and you read it into the record—that there are no documents answering the description. That conclusion, so far as I am aware, has not been challenged or appealed against.

Senator WONG: Don't worry; I will be appealing it.

Senator Brandis: Well, Senator, if you are going to be appealing that, then under no circumstances should those questions, or can those questions, properly be answered in this forum, because, depending on the attitude Commonwealth takes to your foreshadowed appeal, that could prejudice the Commonwealth's legal position.

Senator WONG: I think it is called a review, actually. I think it is a review of the information. We can go down this path. I just think it seemed—

Senator Brandis: The point I am making, Senator Wong—

Senator WONG: Can I finish, Chair?

Senator Brandis: is that we cannot go down this path—

Senator WONG: Chair, I had not finished.

Senator Brandis: particularly in view of what you have now told us.

Senator WONG: Chair, he keeps interrupting me and I have only just opened my mouth.

CHAIR: I thought it was a point of explanation from the Attorney-General, Senator Wong.

Senator WONG: How can he explain what I have not—

CHAIR: If he has completed that explanation—

Senator WONG: He is not psychic. He does not know what is in my head. I know he thinks he might be, but really he does not. It just seems we have had clear evidence today that documents were provided to the foreign minister's office. The foreign minister's chief of staff has declined the FOI on the basis not that the documents fall within an exemption but that there are no such documents. Now, those propositions are difficult to reconcile.

Senator Brandis: That is a comment, and you are at liberty to make whatever comments you like, but there are two reasons why the line of questioning you are pursuing cannot be responded to. First of all, you are asking for the reasons for a decision, and the decision maker is not here. Second—

Senator WONG: I assume she is listening.

Senator Brandis: you have now announced to this committee that it is your intention to seek review of this decision. In view of that, the Commonwealth will have to consider its attitude to that review—

Senator WONG: Sure.

Senator Brandis: and no response to the questions of this kind to which you are seeking answers could possibly be provided, because they might potentially prejudice the Commonwealth's legal position in those foreshadowed proceedings.

Senator WONG: Thank you! From a common-sense perspective—and I assume the foreign minister's office is listening—it just seems most odd that someone would say, 'Actually, no, we've got nothing,' when clearly they have got something. Anyway, I will move on.

Mr Varghese : Sorry to interrupt, Senator Wong, but can I just add one thing to what I have said. On 6 December, when I forwarded documents to the Prime Minister's chief of staff, there were actually four documents rather than three. I just wanted to clarify that. There was my advice to the foreign minister. There was the employee's statement of 2 December, which is her statement about the incident that was of concern. There was the employee's record of the conversation that she had with Mr Eaton; that is what we have discussed previously. And then there was my record of the conversation I had with the employee. I am sorry; I forgot—

Senator WONG: Which one had you previously forgotten? I apologist; I was slightly distracted. Let's do that again.

Mr Varghese : I actually cannot remember now which one I forgot; but, for the sake of completeness, they are the four documents.

Senator WONG: Copy of note of advice—

Mr Varghese : I think it was the statement of the employee of 2 December which I forgot to mention.

Senator WONG: Yes, I think that is it.

I think we got to the 23rd. On the 22nd the governance committee of cabinet meets and you become aware after that that a resignation is pending, but no final decisions were made. What happened on 23 December?

Mr Varghese : The then secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet advised me that a decision may be announced on the 28th but the date had yet to be confirmed.

Senator WONG: And eventually it was the 29th.

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator WONG: A week after the governance committee met and a week after you were advised that a resignation was pending depending on the date that was determined, correct?

Mr Varghese : Yes, roughly a week. I can also confirm that the employee did not receive a copy of the report.

Senator WONG: Okay. I will follow up two things then. I think I asked Senator Colbeck—while you were away, Senator Brandis—when the foreign minister's office became aware of Mr Robert's trip. I do not know if you have received any—

Mr Varghese : I can answer that. The foreign minister only became aware of this when the matter hit the media.

Senator WONG: And her office?

Mr Varghese : Same with the office.

Senator WONG: Thank you. Mr Wood, thank you for preparing the document. I do not think it has been tabled, so do you want to table that?

Mr Wood : Thanks. I table a document called 'Senate estimates reporting as at 11 February 2016'. This mirrors the format of tabled document No. 6 from the estimates hearings of 2 June 2015.

CHAIR: Thank you. We are happy to accept that.

Senator WONG: I also asked for a second document, which was essentially an update to question on notice 13. Did you want to tell me what is going to happen with that one? I ask because our discussion was not on the public record.

Mr McDonald : It will probably be easier for me to do it because it is in a different area to Mr Wood. We will not be able to produce the material you asked for in the detail you asked for today. I apologise for that, but we actually have to go into our SAP and AidWorks system to get the exact figure—the value that you talked about—for you. We will also need to make sure of the accuracy of the material we have provided. Today, for example, that question 13 may need updating in terms of the programs on that list as well. I would prefer to take that on notice and provide that material to you at a later date.

Senator WONG: All right. Chair, we will have some aid questions. We might need to have the opportunity to have a look at that document.

CHAIR: Sure. If you are happy to cede to Senator Macdonald now—

Senator WONG: Okay.

CHAIR: Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks. My questions follow on from questions I asked at last estimates relating to Vanuatu. Since the estimates committee last met there has been a very significant constitutional issue in Vanuatu with the jailing of the Deputy Prime Minister—for bribery, I think—and half the parliament. I am interested in whether that has any impact on Australia or Australia's foreign aid. Could I first of all get the details of that? What was it all about, and what influence, impact or otherwise does it have on Australia? While you are getting ready for that, I again pay tribute, Mr Varghese, to your diplomatic staff throughout the Pacific. They are a wonderful group of high commissioners and ambassadors and do a wonderful job in Australia's interests in an area of the world for which I believe Australia has a special responsibility. It is good to see them working so proactively. Having said that, can you perhaps let me know about the political turmoil in Vanuatu a couple of months ago?

Mr Sloper : Certainly politics in Vanuatu has been what we describe as fluid in recent months. As you noted, there were a series of convictions. Fifteen of the 52 MPs were convicted on bribery charges. This resulted in a snap election on 22 January. Today parliament sat for the first time after that election, and we had a new prime minister along with a speaker elected this afternoon.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Who are they?

Mr Sloper : The new Prime Minister is Charlot Salwai. I think he was elected about an hour and a half ago. He comes from a group of 36 MPs who are known at the moment as the Memorandum of Agreement Group because they have a common agreement despite being across many different parties. The speaker, I understand, comes from the same groupings. The results of the elections themselves were announced on 1 February. We ended up with a fragmented new parliament. As I mentioned, there are 52 MPs. There were 17 parties, including eight single-member parties. Over the next few days we will probably see some simplifying of coalition arrangements, but, having seen the election of the Prime Minister, we expect, for the short term at least, to have a stable government to engage with.

You asked about our engagement. This has continued on through the period, of course. We obviously had some challenges in dealing with particular ministers as they were held in custody, and I have to admit there have been some delays with regard to our reconstruction efforts, as we have an arrangement whereby we have co-signing of investments as they go forward in terms of the longer-term reconstruction effort. We hope that now, with a new government coming into place, we can take forward some proposals that have been under development in the last few months.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: As I understand, the bribery charges were actual money offered to different parliamentarians to support a particular nomination for prime minister. Is that the broad nature of the bribery?

Mr Sloper : In the broad that is right. Those who have been sentenced are now suspended from parliament for 10 years.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I think one of them was the Deputy Prime Minister, who was also a member of the Greens political party in Vanuatu. That is correct, is it?

Mr Sloper : There were a range of parties involved. The 15 MPs included five ministers, two of whom were former prime ministers and one of whom had held the deputy prime minister and foreign minister portfolios, respectively, at the point of being charged. But certainly it was in regard to shifting party allegiances. One individual admitted to this relationship with the others, and that led to greater evidence coming forward and therefore the convictions proceeding.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: And he was given immunity from prosecution.

Mr Sloper : That is right, though he remains suspended from parliament.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It was a very brave judge, I understand. Where did she come from? She is not local.

Mr Sloper : I would have to take the judge's background on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I asked AUSTRAC yesterday or the day before some questions about movement of money through Vanuatu, which is in some places seen as a tax haven. Is the department aware of the sums of money involved and the source of those moneys that were allegedly involved in the bribery?

Mr Sloper : With regard to these specific allegations: no, we are not across the details of those. I would point out, though, that with regard to corruption more broadly or transfers of illegally acquired funds, if there are formal reports provided to us, we refer them to AUSTRAC and other authorities for investigation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: How confident are we that no Australian aid money was involved in any of the misfeasance—well, it was not misfeasance; it was criminal activity. Is there any suggestion that aid moneys going to particular projects might have been manipulated and used for improper purposes by, for example, some of the ministers who had been found guilty?

Mr Sloper : Clearly, fraud is always a risk within our operations across the Pacific. In regard to this specific case, we have not seen any evidence that aid money has been associated with these allegations or now convictions—that is, there are no investigations underway in regard to any allegations in regard to the activities that led to the sentencing of the politicians.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. The recent election occurred without drama or any involvement of the police, the mobile squad or anyone else?

Mr Sloper : Indeed, the election ran very smoothly. I think the events unfolding before the election led to some concern, and many within Vanuatu as well as those without watched the unfolding of the political events associated with the court cases. We saw some politicians during that period suspended and those suspensions being lifted depending on where the President or the acting President was at the time, but there was no suggestion that there would be involvement by the police or others, and the elections themselves ran very smoothly. We provided logistics support for the delivery of ballot boxes and officials to observe some polling stations. That included high commission staff, somebody from the Australian Electoral Commission and an official from DFAT here in Canberra. Separately, a range of international bodies provided electoral observers. This included the Commonwealth. One member of that delegation from the Commonwealth was a federal member of parliament here.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Who was that?

Mr Sloper : Mrs Jane Prentice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: There have been no complaints about improper conduct at the ballot box?

Mr Sloper : No. It has been accepted as reflecting the will of the people. I think today's sitting of the parliament reflects the next step forward.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: We have been paid for the Chinese crane that fell on the high commission residence?

Mr Sloper : I would have to take that on notice. I am aware of the crane you are referring to that fell across the fence next to the high commission. I do not know the status of the cost recovery associated with the damage, but I can take that on notice.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Okay. I think that is probably all I can usefully ask about all of that, but thank you very much.

CHAIR: I will go to Senator Xenophon since he has time constraints.

Senator XENOPHON: I want to go back to issues that were raised by Senator Madigan earlier. I want to acknowledge that there are a number of questions that he wanted me to ask that I ask with him. This relates to the refusal of Witness K's passport on grounds that, pursuant to section 14 of the Australian Passports Act, a competent authority suspects on reasonable grounds that, if an Australian passport were issued to Witness K, Witness K would be likely to engage in conduct that might prejudice the security of Australia. I know, Attorney, that it seems to raise blood pressure for all of us whenever I mention Witness K, but I want to ask. I understand Witness K was supposed to give an agreed form of evidence at The Hague before an eminent arbitral panel composed of Lord Lawrence Collins, appointed by Timor-Leste; Professor Michael Reisman, appointed by Australia; and Chairman Professor Tullio Treves, who I understand is, under the rules, a nominee of both parties. I am trying to understand how Witness K's agreed evidence in camera can in any way be likely to prejudice the security of Australia.

Senator Brandis: I think Witness K's arbitration proceedings—to which you refer in your question—commenced by Timor-Leste, which have been adjourned, may be resumed, so they may be treated as pending proceedings. For that reason, I do not think it is appropriate for me to comment on the proceedings, whether issues in the proceedings or procedural aspects of the proceedings.

Senator XENOPHON: I am not asking you to comment on the proceedings but I am trying to understand. I have given you details of the proceedings in the context of the refusal by the foreign minister to issue Witness K a passport. It appears the only purpose for which Witness K is intending to go overseas relates to giving evidence in an agreed form. I understand the agreed form of evidence would involve no revealing of the identity of agents involved. In other words, these are matters that had been agreed between the parties, so that there will be no issue of the identity of Australian agents, or ASIS agents, being revealed. I do not understand on what basis the passport is being refused. I had to give details of the proceedings in the context of the refusal to issue him a passport.

Mr Varghese : Maybe I could add to what the Attorney-General has said. The decision to refuse a passport to Witness K is not a decision to prevent him from giving evidence in the arbitral proceedings.

Senator XENOPHON: But that would be the practical effect though would it not?

Mr Varghese : Let me finish my answer if I may. Those proceedings, as the Attorney-General has indicated, have been suspended and we are awaiting advice as to whether they will be resumed and, if so, when. If they are resumed, and there is a continuing interest in Witness K giving testimony, the government has made it clear that we are prepared to make arrangements at the appropriate time to enable that evidence to be given in a way that both upholds the integrity of the proceedings and ensures that our national security concerns are met. I think you need to slightly separate the two issues at play here: the decision to refuse a passport, in others words to refuse a passport for Witness K to travel more generally, and the particular requirement to appear as a witness under the arbitral proceedings.

Senator XENOPHON: My understanding is that the Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, is reported to have said that there are no security concerns on the part of ASIO in respect of any outstanding security matters in respect of Witness K, that in effect ASIO knows that Witness K is not a whistleblower. My understanding is that under the Intelligence Services Act he is allowed to make a protected disclosure in relation to the grave misgivings he had in respect of the intelligence operation involving East Timor. If he has made a protected disclosure, then on what basis does the foreign minister say that he ought not to be issued with a passport?

Mr Varghese : The foreign minister's decision is based on section 14 of the Australian Passports Act, which provides for a competent authority to request the minister to cancel or refuse to issue a passport where that competent authority suspects on reasonable grounds that the applicant might engage in harmful conduct—for example, conduct that might prejudice the security of Australia or a foreign country. That is the basis on which the foreign minister has made her decision.

Senator XENOPHON: The competent authority being?

Mr Varghese : The competent authority in this case is ASIS—not ASIO, ASIS.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you for clarifying that. This is directly from a matter that Senator Madigan wanted to raise, and I want to acknowledge his interest, and this is effectively his question: do you see a conflict of interest in the Australian Secret Intelligence Service being the competent authority under the act when Witness K wishes to give evidence of allegedly unlawful conduct by the same body, ASIS?

Mr Varghese : The basis of the request from the competent authority will be considered by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, because this matter is now the subject of proceedings in the AAT. While those proceedings are underway, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to go into the details upon which the competent authority's request is based. I think we should let those proceedings finish.

Senator XENOPHON: But those proceedings will be held in secret, presumably, because of the issues raised.

Mr Varghese : Certainly some aspects of them we would request be held not in a public format.

Senator Brandis: These proceedings of course are held in public. It is for that reason that it is inappropriate in this forum to comment on issues that may arise in the AAT proceedings.

Senator XENOPHON: So, Attorney, you are not willing to proffer a view about the perception that there may be a conflict of interest in ASIS being the competent authority under the act, when in fact Witness K is making serious allegations about the conduct of ASIS?

Senator Brandis: Let us not confuse issues here, Senator Xenophon. The decision is a decision of the foreign minister. She is the decision-maker and, in making her decision, she acts under a statutory power.

Senator XENOPHON: You are the first law officer of the Commonwealth, are you not?

Senator Brandis: As you know, I am.

Senator XENOPHON: Yes. So you do not have a view on that as the first law officer of the Commonwealth?

Senator Brandis: I am simply pointing out to you that you are confusing issues here, Senator Xenophon. The decision-maker is not ASIS. The decision-maker is the foreign minister. The foreign minister's decision is being, as Mr Varghese has said, reviewed by the AAT. It is a perfectly regular jurisdiction for the AAT to review decisions of this character, but, while the decision of the foreign minister is before the AAT, I do not see how it is appropriate that it be a matter of commentary or public discussion by ministers or officials in this forum.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you, Attorney. Do we have any idea, Mr Varghese, as to what the time frame is for the AAT matter? Do you have any advice with respect to the likely resolution of that or when arguments may be held?

Mr Varghese : I do not know when the matter will be concluded, because that would depend on, I suppose, the nature and complexity of the issues that are raised, but the process has started. On 23 December, the lawyers for Witness K did request a statement of reasons behind the minister's decision. We are in the process of finalising that statement of reasons and expect to provide it to Witness K's lawyers shortly. I cannot put a time frame on the proceedings of the tribunal. It is up to the tribunal.

Senator XENOPHON: Is it not acknowledged, Mr Varghese, that ASIO had no objection on national security grounds to Witness K being issued with a passport?

Mr Varghese : With respect, Senator, that is not the issue at play here. The issue at play—

Senator XENOPHON: No—I am asking you a direct question with respect to that: what is your understanding—

Mr Varghese : I cannot answer for ASIO. You would have to ask the director-general of ASIO what ASIO's view on this is.

Senator XENOPHON: Will the applicant be given full access to the Commonwealth's argument and facts or will it be a case that the applicant, as in some of these cases, will have to second-guess what the arguments are, because in some of these matters the Commonwealth says that that material is classified or cannot be disclosed to the other party and the other party needs to fly blind, so to speak, in terms of their argument?

Senator Brandis: Senator Xenophon, once again, I do not know—nor, I am sure, does Mr Varghese know—what procedural characteristics the AAT hearing will have, nor would it be appropriate to comment on them. Whether those provisions of the NSI act, to which you are apparently referring, will be invoked in this case, I simpler do not know.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you. I want to go to the issue of exclusive economic zones—Australia's assertion. Does the United States accept our exclusive economic zone as we define it, Mr Varghese?

Mr Varghese : I will see if our legal advisers are able to add anything, but I think the short answer is yes, the United States does accept our exclusive economic zone. Dr French may clarify that.

Senator XENOPHON: This relates to the 200 nautical miles around Australia's coastline and around Australia's territory, in those terms.

Dr French : Generally speaking, it is not a case of states in general accepting or recognising particular coordinates or areas under the jurisdiction of states with respect to EEZs or other maritime zones. At the global level, with almost 200 sovereign states, many of them with maritime zones, if foreign ministries were engaged in the constant activity of recognising or accepting or analysing the details of the various maritime entitlements of states, I suspect my area would do little else than that. What does happen is that coordinates and charts are deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and that has duly been done by Australia with respect to our exclusive economic zone. We are not aware, in general terms, of issues raised by other states with those.

Senator XENOPHON: Because of the break, I may have to get back to this in a couple of hours, with the indulgence of the chair, but can I just put this to you—and you may wish to reflect on it, in fairness to you, Dr French, and to the department: in July 1994, The Maritime Legislation Amendment Act 1994 was passed. Australia established an exclusives economic zone including Antarctic Territory. My understanding is that the United States protested that claim within months. Do have recollection of that or is that something that you would like to check on? I do not blame you for not having it at your fingertips.

Dr French : I do not specifically recall that. You are specifically referring to the exclusive economic zone off the Australian Antarctic Territory?

Senator XENOPHON: Just in general terms. This is the legislation: the Maritime Legislation Amendment Act 1994 included Antarctic Territory. Antarctica is 14.4 million square kilometres and Australia has made a claim of 40 per cent of that.

Dr French : What is certainly the case is that Australia has a clear claim to the Australian Antarctic Territory and, as a natural corollary of that, the appurtenant maritime zones are part of the Australian Antarctic Territory, including sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the EEZ of the Antarctic Territory. That said, under article 4 of the Antarctic Treaty there is, if you like, a freezing of claims—

Senator XENOPHON: Is that a pun?

Dr French : No pun intended, Senator—of claims and/or protests of claims with respect to the various states which do have claims of sovereignty with respect to Antarctica. So, certainly it is clear that a number of states, including the United States, do not recognise Australia's claim, but it is dealt with in an orderly and civil manner within the mechanism contained within article 4 of the Antarctic Treaty.

Senator XENOPHON: Perhaps you could take that on notice for later on today. I would like to put a couple of questions to you and then I will be out of time for now. I am trying to establish which countries recognise our exclusive economic zone. As a South Australian senator, I would like to make reference to Anxious Bay, Encounter Bay, Lacepede Bay and Rivoli Bay. Through the Seas and Submerged Lands Act 1973, Australia made a proclamation in 1987 pursuant to that act. Is it the case that a diplomatic protest was made by the United States in 1991 and that the United States does not recognise our assertions of an economic zone? I am happy for you to consider that later on. I will look at my Wikipedia entries in the meantime.

Dr French : I do not have the exact details in my head, but I do recall the matter in general terms. It relates to Australia's assertion of rights with respect to those historic bays and the ability for us to draw straight base lines closing those bays in a manner consistent with customary international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. We are satisfied and convinced that those historic claims are entirely consistent with both customary and conventional international law.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you very much, Dr French.

Proceedings suspended from 15:30 to 15:45

Mr McDonald : If I could just provide some answers to a couple of questions before the break. Firstly in relation to Senator McEwen's question around the supplier of the beanbags and the meeting table for the innovationXchange, the company's name is Koskela and they are a Melbourne based company. The second item was around the staffing figures for the Office of Development Effectiveness. It currently has a full-time equivalent staffing of 13.9 and, prior to integration, its staffing was 18.6 FTE.

Senator DASTYARI: Mr Varghese, I just wanted to go back to some questions regarding the guard situation at the Australian Embassy in Iraq. I was going to ask you a few specific questions regarding URG and the contract. I was also going to ask some questions specifically regarding the information level that was available to the ambassador Christopher Langman. Are you the right person to be addressing these questions to?

Mr Varghese : It is a good place to start and, depending on the nature of the questions, we might go elsewhere.

Senator DASTYARI: I know you called into question some of the media reporting. I just want to check that some of the facts are broadly correct so that I am not basing my information on incorrect information, because I am really just going on what is already in the media. So the contract was awarded to a company called URG—correct?

Mr Varghese : Is this Baghdad we are talking about?

Senator DASTYARI: Baghdad, yes.

Mr Varghese : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: The contract, you are saying, was for three years for $51 million with an option of a two-year extension?

Mr Varghese : Two optional one-year extensions. So, effectively, yes, taking it to another two years.

Senator DASTYARI: And you are saying that that was at the end of a tender process that was done through whatever tender processes these things go through?

Mr Varghese : Correct.

Senator DASTYARI: There is also a claim that two senior officials of Unity Resources Group advised the new ambassador, Christopher Langman, to the Baghdad embassy chancellery raising their direct concerns regarding compliance with the contract. Are you aware of that—is that correct, by the way?

Mr Varghese : I am aware of that report. That is a good example of the point I was making before—

Senator DASTYARI: That is why I am asking.

Mr Varghese : which is that the series of reports that have appeared on this issue in that newspaper contain a number of inaccuracies, not all of which we are in a position to actually publicly refute because they go to operational details of the security contract. But just taking that particular example, I think the report—I do not have it in front of me—said that the representatives of the contracting firm had effectively told the ambassador that they were not in compliance with the contract. You have it in front of you; I do not.

Senator DASTYARI: Yes, that is a very good summary.

Mr Varghese : That is nonsense. They did not so advise the ambassador. It goes very much to this point that I was making about the inaccuracies of those newspaper reports.

Senator DASTYARI: Are you aware of whether representatives or officials from Unity Resources Group raised concerns with Christopher Langman, the ambassador?

Mr Varghese : In the course of managing a contract, there are going to be continual discussions about the details of the implementation of the contract. That is just in the nature of contract management. The point we have been making as a department, including to that newspaper consistently, is that at no time in this process did we reach the conclusion that the contract was not being effectively implemented. That is quite contrary to the impression created by those articles.

Senator DASTYARI: Is it correct or incorrect that 40 Australian protection specialists out of 67 who previously guarded the embassy and visiting officials were flown out of Iraq after accusing URG of cutting pay by half and risking lives by scrimping on arms and protective equipment, bypassing detailed security checks and providing inferior medical support and insurance cover? These are very serious allegations.

Mr Varghese : I do not know the details of that. I will see whether there is anyone in the room who is able to answer that question. I would in any event want to make sure that whatever answer we give did not reveal any operational details that could be an issue for the security of our people.

Senator DASTYARI: While we are waiting, Mr Varghese: you recently went to Baghdad?

Mr Varghese : No, I have not been there recently. It has been over a year since I was in Baghdad.

Senator DASTYARI: Is there anyone here who is kind of responsible been there since 1 January?

Mr Varghese : The Prime Minister has been there since 1 January—

Senator DASTYARI: Of course, and so I assume someone would have accompanied him.

Mr Varghese : Can I say, in relation to the Prime Minister's visit—which was obviously under the new contract—that the security arrangements operated very effectively and very professionally.

Senator DASTYARI: But you did not attend with the Prime Minister.

Mr Varghese : No.

Senator DASTYARI: Did anyone attend from the department?

Mr Varghese : No, I do not think there was any DFAT official for that leg of the tour. I joined the Prime Minister in Washington.

Mr Williams : In relation to that claim about 40 Unity personnel being flown out: that is not true.

Senator DASTYARI: Were any flown out? Is the number correct or incorrect, or is the whole premise incorrect?

Mr Williams : At the time that that claim was made—which was in an article that appeared on 2 January—

Senator DASTYARI: Second of January 2016, The Weekend Australian.

Mr Williams : Twenty-six out of the total Unity contracted staff had not signed onto the new contract at that stage, so there were replacements for them.

Senator DASTYARI: Mr Williams, do you manage the contract process?

Mr Williams : I am not the contract manager but I signed the contract.

Senator DASTYARI: There was obviously a tender process—

Mr Williams : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: Tenders have their own rules and are done at arms-length, as they should be. URG was awarded the contract; correct?

Mr Williams : Yes.

Senator DASTYARI: What date were they awarded the contract?

Mr Williams : The contract was signed on 16 October 2015.

Senator DASTYARI: Okay. We first started to hear this when—as Mr Varghese pointed out—there were media articles. Of course, being a matter that you directly oversee within the department, you are aware of the series of media articles regarding it. When were these concerns first brought to your attention?

Mr Williams : How do you mean 'concerns'?

Senator DASTYARI: Correct me if my assessment of what has happened is wrong. There are employees within the embassy and within URG who raised concerns with the paper. Mr Varghese has the right to dispute the validity of those concerns, but they were raised with a media outlet. I can only assume that they went to the ambassador and back through to you before that happened.

Mr Varghese : Senator, I am not aware of any DFAT employees who raised concerns. Is that what you were suggesting?

Senator DASTYARI: To be honest, I was not meaning to suggest that. I am not aware of that either. They may or may not have been; I am not quite sure where some of this information has come from.

Mr Varghese : I may have misunderstood you but I thought you said 'contractors and employees'.

Senator DASTYARI: Sorry.

Mr Williams : The first newspaper article appeared I think on 28 December, just before the actual transition—

Senator DASTYARI: Implementation of the contract, yes.

Mr Williams : from the old contract to the new contract. That is when the media reporting began. As happens in a new contract situation, when you are transitioning to that new contract of course you draft the new contract and you put in place arrangements with the particular protective security provider to ensure that the transition will proceed as smoothly as possible. These transitions in the high-threat environments that characterise a place like Baghdad pose in themselves certain challenges, and in this case there were some contractors under the previous contract who wanted higher salaries than were being offered. So they then went to the press just before the old contract expired.

Senator GALLACHER: Did they want higher salaries or just to remain on the salaries they were on?

Mr Williams : They were on higher salaries than were being offered for the new contract.

Senator GALLACHER: So they wanted to stay where they were?

Mr Williams : Correct.

Senator GALLACHER: I just wanted to clarify that.

Senator DASTYARI: The number you gave me is 26 of those experienced security staff then left?

Mr Williams : That was at the time of that newspaper article, which was alleging that 40 former Unity contractors had been flown out—

Senator DASTYARI: No, it said that 40:

… were to be flown out of Iraq in coming days after accusing URG of cutting pay by half and risking lives by scrimping on arms and protective equipment, bypassing detailed security checks and providing inferior medical support and insurance cover.

Mr Williams : As I said, that was not correct.

Senator DASTYARI: You are saying it was 26?

Mr Williams : At that stage 26 of the former Unity staff had not signed up to the new contract, because we were into the new contract by that stage.

Senator DASTYARI: What is the changeover in staff number?

Mr Williams : I do not want to give exact numbers, because that goes to the heart of how many security personnel we deploy in-country, and that goes to sensitive information which I do not necessarily want on the public record. But we are happy to brief you about this in a private capacity.

Senator DASTYARI: When allegations of this type get made—and there are a whole series of them about embassy guards losing pistols, inferior security, inferior equipment, safety concerns—you obviously look into it appropriately. But has there been any kind of formal review conducted that you are aware of?

Mr Williams : We have looked into all of these claims and we can brief you on each of them in a private hearing, which we have offered. As I said, there is a lot of security-sensitive information that needs to be addressed as part of the responses we can give to you, especially around weapons and numbers of personnel we deploy in a security capacity.

Senator GALLACHER: In investigating these claims—and I accept they are claims—who did you speak to? Did you speak to URG or to an embassy official who has experience, knowledge, and carriage of safety and security?

Mr Williams : Both. It is not a formal investigation, but we have looked at each of these claims.

Senator GALLACHER: So basically you went to URG and said, 'Is this right?' and they said: 'It is wrong. It is not right.' How did you check that?

Mr Williams : Through discussions with personnel at our mission in Baghdad and with Unity.

Senator GALLACHER: I read also that there was a $10 million problem in Afghanistan, where the US identified security concerns about our security contractor in Afghanistan. What is the mechanism for testing that the contractor is providing the security? We do have people at risk here.

Mr Williams : That claim was also incorrect.

Senator GALLACHER: Was that incorrect as well?

Mr Williams : Yes, that $10 million figure is incorrect.

Senator DASTYARI: The $10 million might be incorrect. Is the premise of it incorrect? The figure may be incorrect. Is the overall premise incorrect? There might be $9.8 million; there might be $11 million—the money is insignificant. Is the entire premise incorrect?

Mr Varghese : This is in relation to Kabul? Were you asking about Kabul?

Senator GALLACHER: I am pretty sure it is in the papers.

Mr Varghese : There was an additional $8.4 million over three years, which was—

Senator DASTYARI: Not that $8.4 million.

Mr Varghese : Hang on a minute. It was added to the contract price. The contract price was $81.4 million over three years, but that additional funding was to vary the contract in order to ensure that we could meet changes to the Afghan government tax regulations or requirements and also the Nepalese government's minimum wage increases for the Gurkhas that are employed.

Senator DASTYARI: That gives me a worrying sense that we pay the Gurkhas minimum wage—international minimum wage. But that is a different matter. I am wrapping up on this. What is the process that is in place for an independent security assessment of a matter like this? I am sure this is not the first time there have been issues or concerns raised around security arrangements at an embassy, which is obviously what you look after, Mr Williams. Is there, or has there previously been, a process where someone has done an independent audit or review?

Mr Williams : We do review, on an ongoing basis, arrangements at our embassy where we have high-level security arrangements in place. In the process of doing the new contracts for Kabul and Baghdad, we reviewed the old contracts and undertook to make amendments to those contracts where we thought that we could improve some issues or make some adjustments that we considered necessary.

Senator DASTYARI: But the allegation, as I read it, is not necessarily that there was a problem in the tender process or the awarding of the contract. The allegation, as I read it—and again I am going off media reports as well; you very kindly offered a private briefing, which I will take you up on—is that there was a gap between what the contract said and what has been delivered. We have seen this happen in other places as well: a tenderer sometimes makes a tender offer, and the reality is sometimes different from the tender offer because they are desperate to win a tender and they bid lower than others. That is not unique to security. The consequences in security are higher than perhaps in other areas. This would not be a new issue for you. Is there a process or system in place for an independent review?

Mr Williams : We believe the review mechanisms that we have in place—and we have gone through a very substantive review of these two contracts over recent months—is more than adequate.

Senator GALLACHER: That is you reviewing yourself and your performance with the security contractor.

Mr Williams : With the security company, and with our embassies as well.

Senator DASTYARI: But has there been an example of this being done independently in the past?

Mr Williams : I cannot recall. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator DASTYARI: So, Mr Williams, what you can effectively say is that, to your knowledge, you are not aware of an instance where there has been an independent review of a contract of this kind, but you are not in a position to say whether it has ever happened or not.

Mr Williams : That is correct.

Senator DASTYARI: I have a tiny bit more, but I can come back to it.

Senator RHIANNON: Has any aid money been allocated to Syrian refugees and to Palestinian refugees in Syria?

Mr McDonald : Senator, earlier on—I am not sure if you were here—Mr Innes-Brown and Mr Isbister went through our provision of humanitarian aid to Syria. Yes, we are providing humanitarian aid in Syria and the surrounding regions.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I will look that up. Was it also specified about the Palestinian refugees in Syria? Was that detailed in that answer? If not, can I ask it, please.

Mr McDonald : I will ask Marc Innes-Brown to clarify that, but the provision of the funding is to international organisations and Australian NGOs. Mr Innes-Brown can cover that.

Mr Innes-Brown : I will have to check specifically on the allocation of that funding in relation to Palestinian refugees, but we also give money to UNRWA, as you know.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes.

Mr Innes-Brown : That covers Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan, and in Syria where it is possible to reach them.

Senator RHIANNON: Maybe the question is: are you covering it through UNRWA or are you covering it in any other way, considering—

Mr Innes-Brown : We will have to check with our partners and come back to you on that if that is okay.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. Three days ago there were reports that 23 homes of Palestinians were demolished in the West Bank. It has been reported a number of aid agencies provided tents to the approximate 100 homeless people. The European Union have called on Israel to stop the demolitions. Did Australia take any action similar to the European aid agencies? Did Australian aid fund tents or other assistance to the Palestinian people who have been rendered homeless?

Mr Innes-Brown : I am not aware of those reports. I will have to check with our post and get advice on the various aspects of your question.

Senator RHIANNON: Leaving the specifics of what has happened in the last week, has Australian aid been used to assist people rendered homeless because of the demolitions of Palestinian homes?

Mr Innes-Brown : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Can you document Australian aid funded projects that have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, and in land where the Bedouin tribes live?

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes. With regard to Gaza, I can provide information on that—during the conflict in 2014. It is an issue, I think, we have traversed before in estimates, but I will just take you through it again. During that time, two Australian NGOs who we funded via the AMENCA2 program experienced damage to their projects. World Vision estimated that the value of the assets that they lost was at over $1.8 million and Union Aid Abroad, APHEDA, estimated the value of assets lost in the communities it was working with at the time at nearly $1.4 million. There was also $30,000 worth of damage at Australian aid funded school infrastructure that had been built by UNICEF at the time in that conflict.

Senator RHIANNON: When that damage occurs, does that mean that additional funding is given to assist those projects to be rebuilt?

Mr Innes-Brown : As part of our humanitarian response to that conflict, we did provide additional funding to the NGOs in Gaza to help the relief effort—yes, that is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: You just mentioned humanitarian aid. If I understood you correctly, additional money has been given to humanitarian aid but to various ongoing projects like the glasshouses to schools. Has that been made up when those sorts of projects are destroyed?

Mr Innes-Brown : We gave an additional $4 million to the two Australian NGOs at the time. That was designed to help rebuild the farms, the wells and the fishing boats in the communities. We also reprioritised over $3 million of other funding to help World Vision and those two NGOs to support earlier recovery in the areas they were working in.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering the level of damage that has occurred in Gaza, separate from Australian funded aid programs but generally the level of destruction, has that resulted in any increase in the proportion of our aid budget within the Middle East going to Gaza or is it still approximately the same?

Mr Innes-Brown : In that particular year, there was an increase but, generally speaking, when we were running the AMENCA2 program, and we obviously had funding that was going to UNRWA and we were giving money to the Palestinian authorities, we estimated that around 40 per cent of our funding per year was in Gaza at the time.

Senator RHIANNON: So is that an increase?

Mr Innes-Brown : No. I said that was a sort of general average. Obviously, there was a spike in assistance in that particular year because of the $25 million response to the damage that was done.

Senator RHIANNON: Right, so it was a spike and it has gone back to what it was?

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes, that is right. At the time we had the AMENCA 2 program running, where we had two NGOs operating in Gaza and two operating in the West Bank. That came to a close at the end of the last financial year. We now are in the process of developing the third phase, and obviously that will encompass Gaza as well as the West Bank.

Senator RHIANNON: Just moving onto South America: considering the spread of the zika virus in South America, is the government reassessing its decision to phase out aid completely for that region?

Mr McDonald : In relation to the zika virus, Mr Exell will need to come forward, but the allocations at the moment within the budget have been made. There is provision in that where there are needs for additional funding, like humanitarian or emergency funds, as we have talked about before, but, no, there has been no consideration of that at the moment.

Senator RHIANNON: The question was about South America itself, so what you just mentioned—is any of that occurring in South America? If not, where is it occurring?

Mr McDonald : In relation to this—if Mr Exell is around, he can help me on this—there has been whole-of-government consideration around the zika virus overall. In relation to your specific question about South America, obviously we are aware of the disease in South America, but we are not considering providing funding to South America, no. Mr Exell might want to add to my answer.

Mr Exell : The focus for us has really been in the Pacific region. There was an announcement from the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Mr Ciobo, on the weekend about giving support to the region, in particular a $500,000 contribution to the WHO Zika Virus Action Plan for the Pacific.

Senator RHIANNON: Does this work include any evaluation of the accessibility of affordable contraception in zika affected countries?

Mr Exell : No, our work has not specifically looked at or done an assessment on the value of contraceptives in in affected countries. As you may know, we support family planning activities, including the distribution supply, information about the type and use of contraceptives already, but we have not looked specifically at this issue. I would probably refer you to the Department of Health. I am aware of a study about the issue of possible sexual transmission of zika, but I do not think the science has actually been completely established. There is quite a bit of debate going on. I think the Department of Health—we take our technical advice from them in terms of specific advice that may or may not be needed to be given in terms of sexual transmission of the zika virus.

Senator RHIANNON: Moving on to issues to do with water and sanitation, how much funding has been cut from sanitation programs?

Mr McDonald : Nothing has been cut recently in terms of the budget allocations that were provided as part of last budget. Those allocations are still in place. In terms of the actual specifics, we can take that on notice and provide that to you.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there anybody here who has details of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council and what state that is in following the cuts?

Mr McDonald : Mr Exell may be able to help; I am not sure.

Mr Exell : I am not familiar with the collaborative council, as you referred to it. I would have to take that on notice if there are specific implications for that support.

Senator RHIANNON: If you could take on notice please how much has been cut from the council, and what changes have resulted with regard to the work that they undertake.

Mr Exell : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: I want to move on to issues to do with the Global Poverty Project. Can you confirm that at least $15 million will be allocated to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative for 2015-16?

Mr Exell : Yes, I can confirm that GPEI will receive an allocation of—and I will check this if I have got it wrong—$16 million in the current financial year.

Senator RHIANNON: It was after the current financial year and also 2016-17.

Mr Exell : Correct. Actually it is $18 million, for a total of $36 million. My notes say that will be done in 2015-16 through to 2018-19, but I do understand that an amount of $15 million was provided for the 2015-16 year.

Senator RHIANNON: I missed that. How much for 2015-16?

Mr Exell : Let me go back a step. The commitment is for a total of $36 million over a period of 2015-16 through to 2018-19. This will be front loaded to support immediate targeted polio eradication activities. Fifteen million dollars was provided to GPEI for 2015-16, and another $15 million will be provided in 2016-17, leaving the difference to be provided after that.

Senator RHIANNON: So two lots of $15 million taking us up to $36 million all up.

Mr Exell : Two lots of $15 million to $30 million, and then an additional $6 million after 2016-17.

Senator RHIANNON: And that is what has been confirmed in that correspondence that we read about between DFAT and who?

Mr Exell : I would have to take on notice who that correspondent was specifically, but, yes, those are the confirmed amounts.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you confirm that there will be no further cuts to the GPEI, particularly considering the Prime Minister has expressed support for polio eradication at the CHOGM meeting?

Mr Exell : Those are the current funding allocations.

Senator RHIANNON: So there is no indication that the current funding allocations are going to be cut. That is what you are working with at the moment?

Mr Exell : Correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Good. I understand that there is also another $36 million that has been allocated to the World Bank to support strengthening routine immunisations in South-East Asia. Is that correct?

Mr Exell : That is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Will this also be used to support the introduction of inactivated polio vaccine into the region, and is this also part of the GPEI budget?

Mr Exell : It is not specifically part of the GPEI budget, but it is part of our overall support to ensure the globe, and indeed our region, is able to eradicate, in essence, polio. Again, I am not sure it will specifically support injectable IPV, but the issue is to support ongoing immunisation systems across the region. Those systems specifically support the country's own ability to maintain immunisation systems and financing.

Senator RHIANNON: When we are looking at your overall budget, does this come out of the allocation to the World Bank or out of the allocation to the GPEI for those multilateral groups?

Mr Exell : I would have to go back, check and take that on notice. It comes out of, in essence, the global health budgets that sit within my division. I could not answer as to whether it comes out of the multilateral or World Bank. We will take that one on notice.

Mr McDonald : Yes, I think it does.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks.

Senator GALLACHER: I can go to the ODA. I have got two charts here. One is the report run on 28 June 2015 at 6.18 pm, Senate estimates reporting on committed funding 2015-16 running through to 2018-19. It is a place-by-place, dollar-by-dollar committed funding chart. Then I have the one that was provided on 11 February. Is someone familiar with that?

Mr McDonald : Yes. The CFO, Mr Wood, would be familiar.

Senator GALLACHER: My first question is on 'committed'. Can we get a definition of 'committed'? Does that mean contracted to do work?

Mr Wood : The 'committed' category for this current year, 2015-16, includes actual expenditure plus committed expenditure through contracts. This is where we have a contract in place with an agreed schedule.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. I want to be very clear on that: 'committed' means already spent or contracted to be spent?

Mr Wood : Correct. And for future financial years—2016-17 onwards—'committed' relates to expenditure where we have a contract in place with agreed schedules.

Senator GALLACHER: If we do a little bit of work between the two spreadsheets, we come up with a reduction in a number of places. In 2015-16, let us look at Vanuatu on that line. In June 2015, Vanuatu was $41.16 million and in February it is slightly less.

Mr Wood : Correct.

Senator GALLACHER: Is that because of a summation? Is it because you are not at the end of the year and you have not spent all the money? What is that difference?

Mr Wood : The 2015 report captured contracts and commitments that were in place. Given that the 2016 report has a slightly lower amount, the likelihood is that some of the original funding for 2015 has been moved into a subsequent financial year. You will notice, for example, that in the 2016-17 year in the first report for 2015 there is an amount of $27 million, and in the more recent one it is $35 million. We can take on notice the precise answer to that, but that is likely what has happened.

Senator GALLACHER: I think we will need to have it on notice. I just want to understand what is happening. If we go to Kiribati, that is $18.4 million and then $14.39 million. Explain that one to me, because that is quite a substantial difference. I am now looking at money already spent and money contracted in 2015-16. Your report of 11 February 2016 shows $4 million. Is that money unspent or uncontracted or—

Mr Wood : The figure in the first report, the $18 million, was an amount that relates to commitments for the following financial year, because in June 2015 we were still in the 2014-15 financial year, so it was for future commitments. As we are now in the 2015-16 financial year we have a lower amount, so, again, the likelihood is that some commitments may have been moved, may have been shifted out or may have been deferred.

Mr McDonald : This sort of change is familiar over a period of time. Sometimes, for example, with the partner governments there are delays in the processes that mean you move some of the contracting out further. It could be a major disaster in the country, for example, or it could be things like exchange rates et cetera. But we can certainly provide the explanation for the change.

Senator GALLACHER: Looking at the Pacific regional at $205 million, in the report we have February 2016 at $159 million.

Mr Wood : Correct.

Senator GALLACHER: That is 25 per cent plus. I understand that we are not talking about exactly the same time frames—this is a progress report—but have you broken any contracts? Have contracts being cancelled or broken?

Mr McDonald : In relation to the questions Senator Wong was talking about earlier—question 13, where we were asked whether contracts were cancelled or deferred—yes, a small number have been cancelled, but there is also a—

Senator GALLACHER: Can you give us an example of one of those. You are the man on the spot, so to speak, for aid. We know that.

Mr McDonald : You have put me on the spot now.

Mr Wood : In relation to question on notice No. 13, we provided a table and I think we listed 56 agreements that have been affected, cancelled, rescoped or altered because of the budget. Within that, we did have four projects that were in the Pacific—one of which, for example, is the Australia-Pacific Technical College stage 2. The response that we will provide on notice—to the question that Senator Wong asked earlier today—will provide more details in terms of the dollars of what occurred in that case.

Senator GALLACHER: I do not know which project you are talking about, but we are not building, not assisting or not resourcing a technical college?

Mr Wood : It could simply be a movement in terms of payment dates. It may be a slightly reduced scope. In some of these cases—probably, particularly, in the Pacific, because their budget allocations were not cut—it may well just reflect a movement of expenditure.

Senator GALLACHER: Basically what we have done is looked at the two respective charts. We have highlighted the places where there has been a reduction, and that is Vanuatu, Fiji, Kiribati, Pacific regional, Vietnam, Philippines, Burma, Mongolia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Palestinian territories. Could we get an update on that—further and better detail about what exactly is going on there whether there were changes of contracts, someone was sacked, not doing something, or it is just a timing issue?

Mr Wood : Correct, yes.

Senator GALLACHER: That is in the 2015-16 space. If we could get on notice further and better details about that that would be helpful.

Mr Wood : That is fine. As you mentioned earlier, if you look at the two tables, you can often see the 2016-17, 2017-18 commitments have increased since that regional one.

Senator GALLACHER: I can see that. We have some questions on the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19. We have homed in on potential reductions. In the 2016-17 space, you have got Vietnam, Philippines and Mongolia. Is there any ready information about those, or do those have to be taken on notice as well?

Mr Wood : We will take those on notice and probably give a similar response to the information we will provide in response to question on notice 13 where we will cover—

Senator GALLACHER: Vietnam is down, I do not know, $27 million or something. No, sorry it is $52 million—

Mr Wood : No, Vietnam is down by about $3 million.

Senator GALLACHER: to $49 million, yes.

Mr Wood : We are showing an increase for 2017-18. It is a slight difference.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we get better information about the 2016-17 years for Vietnam, Philippines and Mongolia?

Mr Wood : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: And, in the 2017-18 year, Mongolia and Nepal; and, in the 2018-19 year, the cross regional. What we have done is home in on the areas that look to be down. We want to know whether that program is cancelled, the contract is cancelled or pulled out because it did not work or whether it is uncommitted.

Mr McDonald : Whatever the reason is. It could be deferral, it could be something else—delays, partner countries. We will provide an explanation.

Senator GALLACHER: And particularly where we have cancelled contracts.

Mr McDonald : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: And the reason why we have cancelled them.

Mr McDonald : Of course.

Senator GALLACHER: If we have cancelled because we have not got the committed funds, that is fine but we are cancelling for other reasons, I would imagine.

Mr McDonald : With that, question 13 covers the number of programs that have been affected re the question you asked last time, and we can provide the additional detail that you have asked for now.

Senator GALLACHER: Just before I go to Fiji and some privatisation, did anybody work out that annual rent for me, or are you going to rely on my figures? My figures are $72,000 a month and $850,000 a year.

Mr Varghese : I think we can provide you with the information you are after. I will ask Mr Nixon to respond.

Mr Sloper : I will make a comment on your last set of questions before Mr Nixon responds and that is with regard to the Pacific budgets. We will come back on specific contracts but, with regard to the APTC contract which was mentioned, we have an ongoing commitment—that is, the Australia-Pacific Technical Colleges. It is a re-profiling that occurred in consultation with the organisation. There has been no drop in funding in any of the bilateral programs in the Pacific, so it is, as Mr Wood suggested, a change between years as we are in consultation with individual countries on particular projects. We can come back on the details of that. Apart from the regional program, which dropped by 10 per cent after the budget, no other budget for the bilateral programs has been reduced.

Senator GALLACHER: Very good.

Mr Nixon : In response to your question regarding the annual rent for the Tornado building in Doha, it would be the sum of $866,718 in year 1.

Senator GALLACHER: So it is about $70,000 a month. That is $18,000 a week for 14 staff. Mr Varghese, I detected a note of exasperation that I was questioning why you actually do not get across the detail of expenditure in your department, but $194 billion comes from the PAYE taxpayers of Australia. They do not have the ability to delegate their spending. Their spending is all committed; they follow every dollar they have to spend. I find it extraordinary that we can spend this amount of money without it reaching a senior officer of the department for an examination.

Mr Varghese : It does reach a senior officer of the department. Mr Nixon is the head of our overseas property office and he holds a senior position. These matters of property contracts are also considered by a committee on new posts that is chaired by a deputy secretary. So, frankly, I just do not accept your assertion that these delegations are not exercised by appropriately senior, appropriately experienced and appropriately qualified officers.

Senator GALLACHER: You are fully backing the expenditure of $10,000 per square metre for a fit-out and nearly $850,000-plus a year for the lease of premise for 14 people?

Mr Varghese : I think Mr Nixon explained the circumstances for the post in Doha: the cost of property, the constraints on the options we had in terms of dividable space and the uses that we wished to put the property to. You may have a view about whether that is value for money or not, but he is exercising his responsibilities effectively.

Senator GALLACHER: When pressed about these matters, his response was: we are responding to a decision of government on 15 May—that is, to put a post in Doha. When we go back to test whether there is value for money, whether it is in the public interest and whether there is any income from the investment of taxpayers' money, and it does not meet all of those tests, the answer we get then is, 'It is a decision of government.' That is fine, but does anybody actually put a common-sense test on it? It is the most expensive fit-out in the history of the Public Works Committee. It is twice the cost of the Commonwealth parliamentary offices in our great city of Sydney, and I think it seems to be treated in quite a blase manner. I think that is extraordinary.

Mr Varghese : We are not treating it in a blase manner. I can assure you we do not treat it in a blase manner. Doha is a very high-cost location to set up shop.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay, I understand that, but I also understand that we do nine times more trade with Mongolia than we do with Doha. When I look to the trade figures to underpin this investment, I found $500 million-odd, most of which will be significantly reduced by motor vehicles, at $58 million; we will be back to live sheep and boxed meet and no other trade. I find it extraordinary that we can just pass that one through.

Mr Varghese : We have opened in Mongolia as well, so presumably you would support that.

Senator GALLACHER: Presumably it will not come in at $10,000 a square metre.

Mr Varghese : No, because the cost of living in Ulaanbaatar and the cost of living in Doha is very different.

Senator GALLACHER: We are not talking about people living there; we understand that. It is that the establishment costs are extraordinary, and the fact that you have to lease almost three times more space than you need is extraordinary. I do not want to delay this set of estimates. I think I have laboured that point enough.

Senator Brandis: Senator Gallacher, I think the officer wanted to add something.

Mr Nixon : As the secretary has said, Doha is a very expensive location. We took some independent real estate advice from an international real estate firm to help guide and ensure that the lease terms we were negotiating were appropriate. We also took some independent quantity surveying advice to ensure that the initial estimates around the budget for construction of fit-out, again, were reflective of that marketplace.

Senator GALLACHER: What can I say? I think my position is very clear. It seems an extraordinary expenditure of taxpayers' money which does not meet most of the tests that are applied by the Public Works Act.

Senator Brandis: Senator Gallacher, if I may: it has obviously been an expensive exercise.

Senator GALLACHER: It has not happened yet.

Senator Brandis: Well, it is obviously an expensive exercise, but what the officers have been trying to explain to you is that because of the peculiar circumstances of this post—and because, in particular, it is a very costly location, as Mr Varghese said, to set up shop—then this is going to be an expensive exercise. What the officers of DFAT, you can be reassured, have done is made decisions conscientiously in the acquisition of material, and in the entry into contracts and so on in accordance with proper process.

Senator GALLACHER: With respect, Minister, that is not what has happened. There has been no attempt to set out those circumstances prior to the notification of an urgent medium works. In fact, urgent medium works—all of this information has come about because of questions that have been asked of the department through the proposal. There was no attempt at the start to say, 'We are going into Doha, which is the most expensive real estate in the world, and these are the parameters with which we can find some accommodation'. This has all been fleshed out in a couple of hearings, so we did not get off on the right foot. Anyway, perhaps I can move on to the delivering of ODA through contractors and through a concentration of providers. Can we get a picture of what we are doing in Fiji and how that is different to the normal operation?

Mr McDonald : Yes. I will ask Mr Sloper to come forward and take you through that program.

Senator GALLACHER: Mr McDonald, is privatisation the wrong word to use in respect to the aid program? Is there a degree of privatisation going on?

Mr McDonald : I am not sure what you mean by 'privatisation', but certainly the involvement of the private sector is important. If you think back to Agenda 2030 and the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa, it was agreed amongst all member states that in order to meet the trillions of dollars required to meet the sustainable development goals there will need to be other sources of finance—domestic as well as other sources, like the private sector. Being able to partner with the private sector is an important part. Also, in terms of—as you know—the economic growth that is required for that, most of those jobs come from the private sector. That is what we are talking about, and also in relation to private partnership—private-public partnerships—and it is also what we are trying to do through our innovation work. In order to meet the goal around poverty in 2030, we are all going to have to look at much different ways of delivering the program over that period of time.

Senator GALLACHER: We have had, through my involvement in a couple of hearings and inquiries, an appreciation of that process. If you want to know what I think privatisation is: that there is an element of profit—not a bad thing—introduced into the aid program. You are no longer going to use charities, NGOs and governments, but there is an element of someone working for profit in the aid cycle. Is that what is happening?

Mr McDonald : That has been going on for some time. In order for the private sector to remain in business, they need to make a profit.

Senator GALLACHER: Are we increasing that? For-profit providers?

Mr McDonald : We are increasing the opportunity to partner with the private sector, but we are not doing it without considering whether those proposals are the most effective. We are still continuing to work with contractors, NGOs, philanthropics—there are a lot more philanthropics coming through at the moment—so partnerships in the 2030 agenda are another key aspect of being able to achieve what we want. There is a term that is used in discussions on this, which is 'beyond aid'. So it is not just about ODA; it is beyond that, and that is what we are all trying to do across the board—not just in Australia.

Senator GALLACHER: We have seen over 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 an increase in contractors. I think, in an answer to a question on notice, in 2013-14 we were at 21 per cent; NGOs were at 15 per cent, contractors at 21 per cent. Multilateral organisations are 40 per cent. So there is a shift to more paid service providers. Is that right?

Mr McDonald : I would treat the multilateral split with some caution in the sense that it depends on how the replenishments are going. If you think about even this financial year, we have had the Green Climate Fund, with $70 million, that is going to push that figure up this year. In terms of the split, the NGOs have always been around that figure; it has always been around 14, 15 per cent, so your figure there is about right. The contractors, in my mind, have always been around that 20 per cent or so figure, but we can give it to you over the period of time.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we get an update on that for 2014-15.

Mr Dawson : There was a question on notice posed about this before, which gave the figures from 2011-12 through to 2013-14. Contractors were delivering approximately 16 per cent in 2011-12, 20 per cent in 2012-13, 21 per cent in 2013-2014, and in 2014-15 the figure is approximately 19 per cent. What we are seeing is not a great difference from year to year. The proportions between different aid delivery partners remain very similar year to year.

CHAIR: Senator Gallacher, can I ask you to pause before you start on Fiji, if you can; I will come back to you. On a different topic: this year, 2016, marks the 50th year of Australia's diplomatic relations with Mexico. Could you tell the committee what is planned to recognise that 50-year anniversary.

Mr Varghese : I will see if the relevant officer is in the room—apparently not. Can we come back to that, if we can locate the person.

CHAIR: I will come back to it; no worries at all. I did want to lead into the New Colombo Plan vis-a-vis that same space, but since we are waiting for that person, I just want to go straight to the New Colombo Plan itself. Can you, or one of your officers, tell us how many students are currently participating. How does that number compare to the pilot phase?

Mr Varghese : Ms Worthaisong will take you through the figures on the New Colombo Plan.

Ms Worthaisong : To date, since the New Colombo Plan was first implemented in 2014, the program has funded approximately 10,000 Australian undergraduate students to study in the Indo-Pacific region.

CHAIR: Ten thousand?

Ms Worthaisong : Approximately 10,000. Some of those are funded under the 2016 program year, so they have not yet undertaken their study, but the funds have been issued to universities and the students. That comprises 1,300 students in the pilot year of 2014, 3,200 last year, and 5,500 have been funded this year.

CHAIR: How long is the plan funding expected to continue?

Ms Worthaisong : The initial commitment to funding was for five years. Obviously we hope that it will continue for much longer than that.

CHAIR: How many institutions and countries does this represent to date?

Ms Worthaisong : The number of eligible countries that are involved in the program is 38. So far we have sent students to 32 of those 38 countries, and 39 Australian universities have participated in the program.

CHAIR: Almost half of Australia's universities?

Ms Worthaisong : There are only 41 eligible universities—that is, the universities that are defined in the Higher Education Support Act 2003—so it is actually 39 of 41.

CHAIR: Can you tell us what, if any, has been, or is currently, the engagement of the private sector with the New Colombo Plan.

Ms Worthaisong : Absolutely. We have set up a new private sector engagement unit, and we have been very pleased with the level of engagement by the private sector in the program. We have 10 business champions who have come on board to promote the program. Those business champions hail from a range of sectors but include some very big corporates from Australia, including ANZ, BHP, QBE and a number of others. We also have some private sector sponsorship for the program. We have some sponsorship from the Bennelong Foundation, which is providing predeparture, cross-cultural training to our students before they go. We also have a program called the mobility partners program, where we encourage universities to work with the private sector so that private sector organisations support particular study experiences for students.

CHAIR: When they are overseas?

Ms Worthaisong : When they are overseas—for example, National Australia Bank has been working with a couple of universities to support particular programs offshore. We also have an internships network that we established last year. More than 160 companies—both Australian and international—have registered internship opportunities on that network. Our students can access that and then do a very wide range of internship or mentorship experiences with those companies.

CHAIR: What feedback have you had from students who have returned to Australia? Some of them would now be graduating in their courses, if they have not already.

Ms Worthaisong : Yes, that is right. We have a number of students that have returned. Around 60, from memory, of our scholarship recipients have returned to Australia. They all complete feedback reports when they get back, and we have had some really fabulous responses from them. I think 100 per cent of them have said that they have had very positive experiences, have learnt a lot about the region and found their internships to be particularly useful and relevant. Many of them have commented on their increased confidence.

CHAIR: Have any commented on the fact that they either have picked up, or improved on, language skills in a language other than English, if they have studied at universities that do not have English as their first language?

Ms Worthaisong : Many do. Not all of the students go and study language, but many, of course, pick it up incidentally. Some actually do language studies when they are overseas, and, as you say, some study in a foreign language. We do have scholars studying in Indonesia in the Indonesian language and then we have others who perhaps might be doing something like a nursing practicum, so the range of language acquisition depends very much on the kind of study they are doing. But certainly that is an advantage.

CHAIR: Is there now in place, or is there an intention to have, some sort of database so that we can keep an alumni over time of those who have participated in the New Colombo Plan?

Ms Worthaisong : Yes. We held an initial meeting with 60 of our alumni last year to determine what would best meet their needs. We have now set up a network through LinkedIn to connect our alumni. We obviously will be trying to keep in touch with them going forward to track how that experience in the Indo-Pacific is affecting and assisting their career aspirations going forward.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. How did we go with Mexico, Secretary?

Mr Varghese : We have the right person. Dr Hammer will be able to respond.

Dr Hammer : Sorry that I was out at the time that you asked the question.

CHAIR: The first question is about the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Mexico. Could you tell the committee what is planned to commemorate that anniversary.

Dr Hammer : As you know there is a lot going on between Australia and Mexico. There are a range of events planned. Prominent amongst those is a project which would involve the exchange of Indigenous artists between Australia and Mexico. So we have that coming up; we have already made the decision to go ahead with that. I know there are other things in the pipeline, but I do not have all of the details here with me. I have a pretty wide brief covering all of the Americas, but I have asked my division to come up with some more detailed information, so hopefully I will have that a bit later.

CHAIR: You are obviously aware of the Senate inquiry. You participated—thank you. There were 13 recommendations. I just wonder if the department has yet given advice to government or framed its response to that inquiry.

Dr Hammer : We are working on those at the moment. We have not completed our response. There are some for which we need to go to other agencies. We are very keen to conclude those.

CHAIR: And about the ones that do find themselves in your area—making student visas more accessible for Mexican students and e-visas—is there anything the department is undertaking at the moment by way of examining those recommendations?

Dr Hammer : Certainly we are looking at it. We need to talk to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection about those issues. One of the challenges which we do have is trying to improve the visa arrangements which we currently have. There are a bunch of cross-cutting forces within government around those—around their costs and so on and so forth—but we are working on it.

CHAIR: So we will wait for that response.

Senator LUDLAM: I am going to jump around the world a bit; I have a few things for different parts of the portfolio. I want to quickly bring you to the collapse of the BHP and Vale Samarco dam that released polluted mining tailings and destroyed townships and livelihoods in Brazil. Have we got somebody with expertise at the desk? While we were doing the Americas I figured we would stay put. When was the last time the foreign minister was briefed on the Samarco disaster?

Dr Hammer : I do not have the exact date, but she is certainly aware of it. So are the other Australian ministers—Minister Frydenberg and Minister Robb—both of whom have expressed condolences to their Brazilian counterparts.

Senator LUDLAM: As is appropriate. I understand some BHP officials have travelled to the site, but have any Australian officials done so?

Dr Hammer : I am not aware of whether any Australian officials have actually travelled to the site. I will take it on notice if that is okay.

Senator LUDLAM: I would appreciate it. I just want to go into a little bit of detail about what the official response has been. Dr Hammer, are you aware of the open letter that has been signed to the international community and to the Australian Parliament specifically on the crisis in Brazil?

Dr Hammer : I think I may have seen either a draft of that letter or the letter when it came out.

Senator LUDLAM: I will forgive you if you do not have a copy at the desk. I just want to quote from it briefly and also reference a couple of the individuals who are cosignatories. By leave of the committee I might just table that so that Dr Hammer has a copy. Have representatives of either the department or the foreign minister's office directly met with representatives of BHP Billiton since the disaster?

Dr Hammer : There may have been meetings. I am not aware of any meeting which has been held specifically on the matter of the disaster, but such meetings may have taken place.

Senator LUDLAM: Is that something you are able to follow up on for us?

Dr Hammer : Sure.

Senator LUDLAM: I want to know whether it was a meeting solely on that topic or if it came up in the course of discussions about other businesses, times, dates and participants—whatever you are able to put to us. As you can probably tell, I am trying to get a sense of whether the Australian government has done anything at all. Feel free, rather than me fishing—

Dr Hammer : Perhaps I could give you an idea of how this has been unfolding from our point of view in my division. Essentially, the CEO of BHP Billiton and the CEO of Vale—which is a Brazilian company which is part-owner of the Samarco mine—met with President Rousseff of Brazil. That meeting took place on 25 January. The CEO of BHP got over to Brazil pretty quickly after the disaster occurred. Our understanding is that there have been direct discussions going on between the companies involved and the Brazilian government. I guess, as a result of the level of satisfaction that the Brazilian government has had with those discussions we have not actually had any government-to-government discussion. We have not had any approach from the Brazilian government to discuss this issue, nor any representations or what have you. So they seem at this stage to be comfortable dealing with the companies involved and dealing with them directly. I know that the Brazilian government is seeking compensation from Samarco.

Senator LUDLAM: They are—that is my understanding as well. Has that letter made its way to you, Dr Hammer?

Dr Hammer : Yes, I have it.

Senator LUDLAM: You have it there. If you could take a very quick look at the back page and the signatories there, are you able to identify whether any representation has been made by those individuals to the Australian government, either to the department or the foreign minister's office directly?

Dr Hammer : Sure. I will have to check in relation to the foreign minister's office, but I am pretty confident that none of them have made representations to the department or the rest of the government. But I should take that on notice because I want to be sure, so I will check that for you.

Senator LUDLAM: Understood—thanks. You said you thought you might have seen a draft. Is it ringing a bell now that you have a copy to hand?

Dr Hammer : Actually, I do not think I have seen this particular letter.

Senator LUDLAM: It is addressed to the international community, but it is addressed specifically to the Australian parliament. So here we are. If you have not had time to look at it, what I might put to you is whether you believe it would be appropriate—and I suppose the foreign minister would be the appropriate individual to do so—to reply to such a piece of correspondence.

Dr Hammer : Without having properly had a chance to read the letter and see what its contents are, I would not like to chance my arm at answering that at this stage.

Senator LUDLAM: I do not know whether that is quite characterised as taking it on notice, but that is a request I am putting to the foreign minister, through you, Dr Hammer.

Dr Hammer : Okay.

Senator LUDLAM: It would be my view that an appropriate response would be a reply.

Dr Hammer : Let's take that on notice or take that as a request to the foreign minister.

Senator LUDLAM: Understood. Can I backtrack for one moment. Did you put to us before that a number of ministers, including the foreign minister, had been in contact with their Brazilian counterparts expressing their condolences? Is that the case?

Dr Hammer : Yes, that is right. My understanding is that Minister Frydenberg and Minister Robb both expressed condolences to their Brazilian counterparts.

Senator LUDLAM: This might be more sensible in the trade or industry portfolios or elsewhere, but are you aware of whether BHP has approached the Australian government for assistance in compensation?

Dr Hammer : No, I am not. I think I probably would know if that had happened, so I expect that it has not but I cannot be 100 per cent sure. Those other departments, counterpart departments, may know more.

Senator LUDLAM: Some of those hearings are occurring as we speak in other rooms. Am I able in a whole-of-government way to put that request through you to see whether requests have been made, without me chasing the individual portfolios?

Dr Hammer : Yes, certainly.

Senator LUDLAM: I greatly appreciate that. That is obviously a key issue. So that letter is now in your hands. If the foreign minister had not seen it before, I guess it will get into her hands now. Thank you for your time. On another matter, if we can bring somebody through who can speak to Indonesia. There was a report in late January that 7.30 ran on the ABC which made quite serious allegations that particular Indonesian signals intelligence agencies had installed the spyware program FinFisher on a server, the Global Switch data centre in Sydney. I wonder whether you would be able to address that issue for us—whether there was any approach by the foreign minister or the department to Indonesian counterparts when that information came to light.

Mr Cox : Not that I am aware.

Senator LUDLAM: You will no doubt be aware—and I know I have just sparked Senator Brandis's interest—of revelations some time ago now of Australian government surveillance activities inside Indonesia that caused quite a scandal and quite a diplomatic rupture at the time. Allegedly, an Indonesian government department has installed spyware on Australian servers, spying on Australians. I would find it a little bit unusual if there had not been any response at all, because the Indonesian government's response to allegations of Australian spying was very, very sharp, as you would recall.

Mr Cox : We do not normally discuss intelligence matters. It is not the practice of the Australian government to do so.

Senator LUDLAM: Has anybody approached the Australian government with concerns? The reason that I am raising this is that, if the particular agencies concerned are tracking, for example, the communications of West Papuan pro-democracy campaigners who might be resident here in Australia, their communications are potentially compromised by operations such as this. I will not ask you if you share those concerns, but what could you offer such people who are concerned that their communications might have been compromised in this way?

Mr Cox : I am not aware that I have received any expressions of concern. I am not aware of that personally.

Senator LUDLAM: Is that something you could check for us?

Mr Cox : There may be correspondence, but I am not aware of any such concerns being expressed.

Senator LUDLAM: We just run completely dead on it—nothing at all from the Australian government about an Indonesian government department installing spyware on Australian servers?

Mr Cox : As I said, I am not aware of any action being taken on that. I should add that it is an intelligence matter, which we do not discuss publicly.

Senator LUDLAM: Senator Brandis, are you able to shed any light at all on this matter?

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks for your time, Senator. It is greatly appreciated. Is this a fairly routine sort of affair? It all seems to be treated very casually. Does this happen all the time?

Mr Cox : No, I do not think my answers imply casualness. They imply the normal government policy that we do not discuss intelligence matters, and I am not aware of such concerns being raised with the Australian government.

Senator LUDLAM: Well, I am raising them now, so that is one.

Mr Cox : My response was not casual.

Senator LUDLAM: How many times can you recall there being this kind of evidence of foreign governments implanting spyware on Australian servers?

Senator Brandis: Senator, you have heard the officer's answer. It will not have surprised you, because you have participated in this estimates committee over the years. So you would know as well as everybody else in this room the questions you are asking are not questions which it is the practice of any Australian government to answer, for obvious reasons.

CHAIR: I am aware it is less than an hour before we finish in this area. Senator Gallacher, can I go back to you, please.

Senator GALLACHER: Before we go to Fiji, can I have a breakdown—and I think someone started to do it—of the proportion of ODA delivered by NGOs, contractors and multilaterals? So let's continue on.

Mr McDonald : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we also have the total amount of funding delivered by contactors in 2014-15? Do we know how much that is? Is it $200 million, $1 billion?

Mr McDonald : Mr Dawson might have that, but if it is 20 per cent of the program it would be about $1 billion, but I would have to check.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we get a 2014-15 figure, either now or on notice?

Mr Dawson : I do not have a dollar figure.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we get the dollar figure on notice?

Mr Dawson : Sure.

Senator GALLACHER: But, if we are working on the assumption it is 20 per cent of your budget, it would be close to $1 billion?

Mr McDonald : It would be less, actually, because the total is $4 billion at the moment, isn't it? No, it is $5 billion. So it is $1 billion—sorry.

Senator GALLACHER: In that amount, do we have the total number of contractors who are currently providing ODA?

Mr Dawson : I will take that on notice. We have the information, but I just do not have it immediately to hand.

Senator GALLACHER: Is it 100, 300, 1,000?

Mr Dawson : We have a large number of agreements, and the spread of them is quite a few small ones and not very many large ones.

Senator GALLACHER: The line of questioning I am going to is to try and find out who is getting the most. So it is important to know the base—100, 200 or 300. You do not have that?

Mr Dawson : I will get you the figures.

Senator GALLACHER: I want to know the percentage of ODA funds delivered by contactors and which are the three largest? I would hazard a guess that Aspen is in there somewhere, but I do not know—I am just guessing.

Mr Dawson : No, it is not.

Mr McDonald : They would not be one of our largest.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. They were the most publicised one, I suppose. Therein lies our difficulty. Who are the largest, from our point of view?

Mr McDonald : We would be able to give you the three largest ones quite quickly—more or less straightaway. I think Mr Dawson is looking for it, but otherwise we can get it quite quickly for you.

Senator GALLACHER: If we can find who the largest ones are and what sort of dollars they are looking after.

Mr Dawson : Yes. Just to go back to your original question first perhaps: as an indication of numbers of agreements, in the six months to December, there were about 254 aid procurement agreements and about 162 non-procurement agreements for the aid program, so about 416 new aid agreements entered into over that period of time

Senator GALLACHER: People could have multiple agreements, I take it.

Mr Dawson : That is correct. Let me go to your other question about the top private contractors. It changes a little bit year to year but, fundamentally, there are three contractors who have historically been the largest to the aid program and those organisations are Palladium International Pty Ltd, which used to be known as GRM; Cardno Emerging Markets Australia Pty Ltd; and Coffey International Development Pty Ltd. The percentage of the total aid funding, which is delivered through those organisations, varies between a little over three per cent to about 2½ per cent and that is fairly consistent year by year.

Senator GALLACHER: I understand what you are saying in terms of percentages, but that gives me another job to do. What I want to know is dollars.

Mr Dawson : I can give you the dollars for the 2014-15 financial year, if you would like.

Senator GALLACHER: If I could say the big three—how much per annum over the last three years?

Mr Dawson : I do not have the last three years' figures. As I said, they are relatively representative but 2014-15 financial year, the last financial year completed, Palladium International, $140.8 million; Cardno Emerging Markets, $130.7 million; and Coffey International, $117.2 million.

Senator GALLACHER: If we could get those in retrospect—

Mr McDonald : We will take the other two years on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: So if we go back for a couple of years, we will see whether that percentage of the pie is growing. Do you actually have projections on forward years already?

Mr Dawson : No. These are figures expensed.

Senator GALLACHER: So there are no contracted positions for these large providers in the forward years?

Mr Dawson : A number of these contracts will run over multiple years and will have expected expenditure in future years. Because all of the forward years' funding is not committed, I cannot give you a proportion.

Senator GALLACHER: So some of it may include money that is to be spent in 2017-18 to pick up a five-year deal or something.

Mr Dawson : Yes.

Mr McDonald : There will be contracts let continuously, so we can update that as we go.

Senator GALLACHER: Obviously, your governance testing, probity and all that are demonstrating these large organisations subject to regular audit and they have complied with all your requirements and are the preferred tenderer, so to speak.

Mr McDonald : Yes, we have a very well-established procurement arrangement, and Mr Dawson can provide further information on that either on notice or now, if you like. But we are very conscious of probity. We are very conscious of the letting of those contracts, and the monitoring and evaluation of those contracts.

Mr Dawson : If I can just elaborate on that: you mentioned preferred tenderers. None of these organisations are preferred tenderers until the tender is let and evaluated and they achieve that status at that point. We have a very serious and robust process of ongoing performance assessment measurement of those organisations—for example, we have a system for aid agreements. We look at the delivery partners for those agreements once a year. We do an assessment against a standard set of criteria. That information is published in the Performance of Australian Aid report, which you will see on the DFAT website. For the large contractors, there is a process of a strategic performance assessment, which again is an annual process for those in the top 10, and that goes through all of the work of those contractors and looks at their performance.

Senator GALLACHER: How many of these multinational organisations are headquartered offshore?

Mr McDonald : We would be talking about organisations like the World Bank—

Senator GALLACHER: No, the three big contractors.

Mr McDonald : Sorry. You are talking about contractors. I will have to ask Mr Dawson.

Mr Dawson : We can give you the ownership structure and the headquarters details for each of them.

Senator GALLACHER: Are they all international operators?

Mr Dawson : They are all international companies, yes.

Senator GALLACHER: So none of them are headquartered in Australia?

Mr Dawson : They have offices in Australia, but I would have to get you the details of exactly the headquarters structure.

Senator GALLACHER: If Senator Dastyari were here, he would ask this question: where do they pay their tax? That will tell us where they are headquartered.

Mr Dawson : That would be a matter for the Taxation Office.

Senator GALLACHER: No, it is a matter for us. If they are headquartered in the Cayman Islands, are they paying any tax? That is all. So we want to know where they are headquartered.

Mr McDonald : We will take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: In respect of the NGOs, I suppose you have exactly the same thing. They are not likely to be Australian based. A lot of them would be your biggest NGOs.

Mr McDonald : No, a lot of our NGOs are Australian based, absolutely.

Senator GALLACHER: Can we get a list of those NGOs who deliver ODA and the amount allocated to each.

Mr Dawson : Again, I can give you the top three, top five, top 10; whatever you like.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you have that information?

Mr Dawson : I have it in front of me, yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Probably the easiest way is that we table that rather than reading—

Mr Dawson : I do not have it in a document that I can table.

Senator GALLACHER: Is it a long list? How many people have we got—

Mr Dawson : For example, the non-government organisation with the largest amount expensed in the 2014-15 financial year would be World Vision Australia, and that would be a little over $50 million. The next organisation is an overseas organisation. It is a large non-government organisation in Bangladesh known as BRAC. In 2014-15, for that organisation, the aid program expensed about $48 million. For the International Committee of the Red Cross—I suppose you might quibble about whether they are classified as a non-government organisation or not—that was about $46 million. Save the Children Australia received about $37 million; Oxfam Australia, about $26 million; the Australian Red Cross, $25.8 million; Plan International Australia, $25.2 million; Australian Volunteers International, $24.7 million; an organisation in the Philippines, Philippine Business for Social Progress, $21.2 million; and Caritas Australia, $16.7 million. So, you see, most of the non-government organisations delivering Australian ODA are in fact Australian.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. Is that the full list of them?

Mr Dawson : That is the top 10.

Mr McDonald : You would remember the ANCP, the NGO program, for which we have maintained the funding close to what it was. I think it was about $130 million last year. That has about 40 NGOs involved in that program, and we can give you a complete list of those if you like.

Senator GALLACHER: What were the savings generated by the departmental staff reduction of 500?

Mr McDonald : Sorry, Senator, could you repeat that question.

Senator GALLACHER: What were the savings generated by the departmental staff reduction of more than 500 jobs?

Mr Varghese : My recollection is that the 500 figure was part of the $100 million savings which the government requested of us as a result of AusAID's integration with DFAT.

Senator GALLACHER: So it is $100 million?

Mr Wood : In the 2014-15 budget, there was a savings measure that reduced DFAT spending over the forward estimates. The four-year total was $397.2 million, and the saving in the first year was $109.7 million. So roughly over the four years it is around $100 million per annum.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay—$100 million per annum. We got to that very quickly. What has been the increase in spending with contractors? Is there a budgeted increase for spending on contractors? What I am trying to say is: have you saved money on the jobs and simply increased the contractor spend to deliver aid?

Mr Wood : I would need to come back with some specific details, but, obviously, DFAT's operating budget was cut by $100 million. In order to meet that budget cut we reduced expenditure in a range of areas. I do not have information on what our trend on contractors is, but we can provide that.

Mr McDonald : On that, earlier I think Mr Dawson said it was 20 or 21 per cent, then 19. So it stayed around about the same figure.

Senator GALLACHER: I think it went 16, 20, 21, and I think the next figure we had was 19.

Mr McDonald : I think it was 19.

Senator GALLACHER: It was reduced. So there does not appear to be a trend of job savings and extra spending on contractors.

Mr McDonald : Yes, and I think, overall, the profile is reasonably similar when you look at the multilateral spend.

Mr Wood : If I could just clarify, senator, the cuts to the aid budget were in our administered budget. The 500 staff came out of our departmental operating budget. The figures I provided to you were a cut to our departmental operating budget. That is not the aid budget that you were talking previously to Mr Dawson about.

Senator GALLACHER: Okay. Are you saying that those two budget items are separate and you never swap any savings from one to the other?

Mr Wood : The funding sources are separate.

Senator GALLACHER: So that I am perfectly clear about this, you cannot save $100 million on departmental reduction in jobs and then spent $60 million on increased payments to contractors?

Mr Wood : Not for contractors through the aid program; no.

Mr Varghese : When we were looking at how we would manage a reduction of 100 staff, it was never part of the strategy to substitute contractors for the staff positions that we effectively abolished—if that helps answer your question.

Senator GALLACHER: You would be one of the very few that would be able to achieve that, if that is correct, because that is normally what happens.

Mr Varghese : We were managing the smaller aid program, and that was why we had the scope to reduce the staff numbers.

Senator GALLACHER: Traditionally, when staff numbers are reduced, consultants and contractors go up. You are very clear on this, so that is very good.

Mr McDonald : Can I just clarify what I said before? In terms of Australian NGOs on the ANCP, there are 53 that are accessing that program at the moment. I said 40 before, but it is 53.

Senator FAWCETT: Can we just go back to our earlier discussion about East Timor? You said right at the end that the opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs had received a brief in East Timor. Could I just clarify whether that was a general welcome-to-country type of brief? Many of us, when we go on a delegation, get a half-hour or a one-hour brief that covers everything from foreign policy, in terms of relationships with Australia or other states, to sensitive issues, culture, trade et cetera. Was that the kind of brief that it was?

Mr Varghese : I would need to check this with the post, but I expect it would have been the sort of briefing that an ambassador and his team would give, which would essentially be a snapshot of the bilateral relationship, the issues in the bilateral relationship, a briefing on Ms Plibersek's program and perhaps, but I do not know this for sure, a briefing on the people that she would be meeting.

Senator FAWCETT: If she were looking to explore a major policy shift that would impact on Australia's relationship with East Timor, that is not the sort of thing you would expect to be covered in an introduction-to-country briefing from the ambassador. That would be more something that you would give here from the department.

Mr Varghese : I think if that was the focus it would be a different type of briefing, and I am not sure that our post—again, I would need to check—would have been in a position to know that that was the purpose of the visit.

Senator FAWCETT: Can you take on notice how long the briefing was and whether or not it covered the kind of detail around the legal and financial implications of that kind of policy shift.

Mr Varghese : I am happy to do that.

Senator FAWCETT: Are you aware of the role that Ms Janelle Saffin plays with the East Timor government?

Mr Varghese : My understanding is that she has been in the past—I do not know if she still is—an adviser to the East Timor government.

Senator FAWCETT: Are you aware of the policy proposal she put forward to the ALP convention proposing this change in their approach to Australia's relationship with East Timor?

Mr Varghese : I was aware from press reporting that she was involved in moving the motion.

Senator FAWCETT: Do you have any concerns with the fact that that policy position now is as a result of somebody who works as an adviser for a foreign government?

Mr Varghese : I do not think it is appropriate for me as an official to comment on the policy platform of the opposition or the means through which they have reached it.

Senator FAWCETT: Fair enough. We have been talking a lot over the last few days, between Defence and yourselves, about Russia and their role in the Middle East. One of the things that has impacted on a lot of Australians is MH17, with the loss of a lot of Australian citizens and family members. At this point in time there still does not appear to have been any justice achieved for the families. Can you give us an update on where we are at with the international investigation into MH17 and any subsequent actions.

Mr Varghese : Mr French and Ms Hand may be in a position to give you the details on where we are with the joint investigation and the various options for tribunals.

Dr French : As you are aware, the government has been working very hard to achieve accountability on behalf of the victims, and their loved ones, of MH17. You are aware, of course, that the government worked very hard, together with the other countries that are members of the so-called Joint Investigation Team, to achieve the establishment through a UN Security Council resolution at the end of July last year of a tribunal to prosecute those responsible. As you are aware, that was not possible due to a Russian veto. There have been many public statements by the government of Australia and the other relevant countries confirming the absolute commitment to achieving accountability with respect to those responsible for this act, and we are working very hard, particularly with the other four members of the Joint Investigation Team countries—ourselves, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Ukraine and Belgium—to achieve that end of accountability. There have been a number of meetings since then, and meetings are ongoing, with a view to ensuring that when a dossier of evidence is completed by the joint investigation team investigators, centred in the Hague in the Netherlands, it will be possible to transfer that dossier of evidence to an appropriate prosecuting authority that will be able to take on that dossier without delay.

Senator FAWCETT: Do you have an expected time frame for the completion of that dossier?

Dr French : These questions are primarily within the portfolio of the Attorney-General, particularly the Australian Federal Police, but I would say in general terms around the middle of this year. I cannot be definitive on that—it is not our portfolio's responsibility to have the detail on that. But that is our general expectation. Certainly we are working towards that end.

Senator FAWCETT: What support has the department continued to provide to the families that have been affected?

Dr French : That is more a consular rather than a public international legal role. I will ask my colleague to help with that.

Mr Philp : We remain in contact with a number of the families there and, as from the outset, we are there to provide them as much consular support as we possibly can to help them liaise with the various authorities—the AFP in Australia and authorities in the Netherlands—and keep them up to date with the progress of the investigation.

Senator LUDLAM: I have a couple of issues I would like to traverse. I would like to start with legislation and perhaps somebody from the Middle East desk can come forward. The Netanyahu government in Israel has proposed a non-government organisation transparency law that would force groups like Breaking the Silence to declare and detail their funding from foreign governments every time they speak with a public official or in any advertisements written or online. It has obviously sparked controversy within Israel, and the proposal has been condemned fairly unambiguously by the EU and the US ambassadors to Israel. Have any statements been made at all by the Australian ambassador?

Mr Innes-Brown : No, not to my knowledge.

Senator LUDLAM: Have any representations been made directly, rather than on the public record?

Mr Innes-Brown : No.

Senator LUDLAM: Is there any reason why not?

Mr Innes-Brown : No, we have not taken a position on the issue.

Senator LUDLAM: Why is that?

Mr Innes-Brown : Fundamentally, it is an issue for Israel. As I understand it, the legislation is still under consideration by the Israeli parliament—

Senator LUDLAM: That is my understanding too. So how do we make this judgement calls when, for example, our allies in the United States or allied countries in the EU believe it is an issue of priority and public interest—given that it relates not merely to internal matters but to perceived foreign interference in Israeli affairs?

Mr Innes-Brown : It is not amongst the issues that we deal with. It has not assumed significance for us and so we have not actually taken a policy position on it. I am aware of the issue but we have not made any representations.

Senator LUDLAM: What sort of threshold do you look at before you decide whether something is worth picking up the phone?

Mr Innes-Brown : In a relationship with any country, there is obviously a range of issues that are important. There are other issues that we take up with Israel, but we have not taken this one up. It has not assumed a great prominence here in terms of our particular interests and so we have not taken it up.

Senator LUDLAM: That is fascinating. In December last year it was reported that an Australian delegation to Israel, which included minister Christopher Pyne, Bronwyn Bishop MP, 'freedom commissioner' Tim Wilson, met with the Palestinian Prime Minister and education minister in the West Bank. Are you familiar with that delegation?

Mr Innes-Brown : Yes.

Senator LUDLAM: The parliament sends delegations of various standing overseas, and MPs and others are free to travel off their own bat. Can you describe for us the standing of that particular delegation?

Senator Brandis: I might take that question.

Senator LUDLAM: As you wish.

Senator Brandis: I was a member of that group.

Senator LUDLAM: I am sorry to leave your name of that list.

Senator Brandis: You have not made a mistake. I did not attend the meeting with the Palestinian Authority because I arrived later than that meeting. It certainly was not a parliamentary delegation. There were two ministers involved in what, to use a neutral term, we might call 'the group of visitors'—Mr Pyne and I—and during the course of our respective visits we undertook a range of official ministerial duties. We undertook our own programs but there was one common point in the program where we jointly had a meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu.

We also attended and participated in some events associated with the broader activities of the group. The group was the Australian delegation to the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue, which is a well-known and reasonably longstanding institution. It is evidently modelled on the Australia US Leadership Dialogue and these events are often described as private diplomacy.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. I think I am with you.

Senator Brandis: There was an element of a ministerial visit in Minister Pyne's program and mine. There were also backbench members of parliament, like Ms Bishop, attending the Australia Israel UK Leadership Dialogue. There were officials, like Mr Wilson, the Human Rights Commissioner, who were also there, and there were a number of private citizens there.

Senator LUDLAM: Not a parliamentary delegation then? That is the distinction.

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks, Senator Brandis, for the clarification. You were not in attendance at the meeting that I alluded to before?

Senator Brandis: No.

Senator LUDLAM: The Palestinian education minister, Dr Sabri Saidam, described the meeting as very explosive and very challenging and said that rude and blunt questions had been asked and that the delegation had false information and twisted facts. I wonder—and, again, either Senator Brandis or Mr Innes-Brown, whoever wants to take this one up—did the department do any work in retrospect to try to ascertain why the minister felt this way? It sounds like a particularly undiplomatic delegation, to complete my point.

Senator Brandis: I have seen that report. I think it is not undisputed. I was not there so I cannot really comment but Mr Innes-Brown might be able to respond more directly to your question.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes. Go ahead.

Mr Innes-Brown : We obviously asked the head of our Australian representative office in Ramallah, Tom Wilson. He has since departed, at the end of his posting. He advised that the Australian parliamentarians and officials present conducted themselves properly in those meetings.

Senator LUDLAM: It does not appear that the Palestinian side of that conversation felt that way, because it made global headlines.

Mr Innes-Brown : The other thing to note I think was that there were not just Australians there; there was also British representation.

Senator LUDLAM: That actually does not dilute the fact that the minister felt that way. If I can proceed—

Senator Brandis: Senator Ludlam, if I may—

Senator LUDLAM: Go ahead.

Senator Brandis: Mr Innes-Brown has told you that a DFAT official who was present was not of the view that there was anything untoward about the way the Australian parliamentarians conducted themselves. The DFAT official, I think we may assume to have been a neutral person—

Senator LUDLAM: Senator Brandis, do not insult our intelligence. That is ridiculous.

Senator Brandis: You seem to be assuming that a claim by someone that the conduct occurred is to be favoured over the observation of a professional officer of DFAT, who, as I say, may be assumed to be a neutral person.

Senator LUDLAM: Dr Saidam said Minister Pyne came to the meeting with a list of complaints. Is the department able to clarify what those complaints were?

Mr Innes-Brown : No. I am unaware of that particular claim.

Senator LUDLAM: Could you take on notice for us to undertake to establish what Minister Pyne's complaints were of that Palestinian minister?

Senator Brandis: That is assuming that one accepts the characterisation of what Minister Pyne's contribution to the meeting was in the terms of this particular assertion.

Senator LUDLAM: I understand that. He may have been all sweetness and light for all we know, but they were read as a list of complaints—that is a quote that I am putting back to you. So there was one representative of the department present at the meeting; was that Mr Wilson?

Mr Innes-Brown : That is right.

Senator LUDLAM: Is he still with the department or did he get suspended?

Mr Innes-Brown : No, he is.

Senator LUDLAM: His posting has changed.

Mr Innes-Brown : And I should emphasise that it had nothing to do with this incident; it was because his term came to an end shortly after this visit. But he is still with the department, yes.

Senator LUDLAM: I did not take that as an implication. What briefing was provided to the department? Maybe because I have one other quick question I want to get in, I might just ask you to take the following on notice, just in the interests of time, because the chair is winding me up. Could you provide us some information about what kind of briefing was provided by the department and whether the department can provide further information on the meeting, such as an agenda or any briefing documents that attended that meeting, and whether there was any follow-up, either with the minister or representatives at the Palestinian authority in light of his comments about the meeting?

I know that is a fair bit there, but in the interest of time I might move us on.

My final question relates to Australia's relationship with various Kurdish organisations, particularly as it relates to the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Is that your area as well?

Mr Innes-Brown : It could be, but—

Senator LUDLAM: It could be? I will put some questions and you tell me if you have—

Mr Innes-Brown : It might also be the head of the Europe division, but I will remain at the table.

Senator LUDLAM: It relates specifically to Turkey's conduct in the Syria conflict and the wider conflict spilling across the Middle East, and then of course the Australian government's relationship with various Kurdish actors in the region as well. Has the Australian government raised concern with Turkey regarding attacks on the Kurdish populations who are working against some of the very same extremist groups that ADF units are engaged in conflict with? If we are very short on time, I will put some questions on notice, but this one I would not mind a response to.

Mr Innes-Brown : Senator, could you just repeat that question?

Senator LUDLAM: You would no doubt be aware, because it is reported all over the place, that the Turkish government and Turkish military units are almost, it appears, indiscriminately attacking Kurdish targets on both sides of the border, both within Turkey and on the Syrian side of the border. I am very keen to know whether the government has raised concerns directly. I presume we consider Turkey and the Turkish people our allies in the conflict across the broader Middle East. Have we raised any concerns at all in regard to those attacks? There is one reported this morning where 60 Kurdish people were killed in Turkey by Turkish military units.

Ms Hand : We are certainly aware of the escalation in violence following the breakdown of that very fragile peace accord in 2015, and we are aware of the violence against the Turkish community and the effect it has had on the deaths of civilians and also Turkish military personnel and civilians. In terms of representations we have not made explicit representations in that form, but our ambassador, James Larsen, is in a steady and constant state of discussions and dialogue, including with the co-chair of the Kurdish party and the chair of the Turkish parliament's security intelligence committee just last week. So, this is something the Turkish government is aware of our concern about, in particular the violence, the escalation and the involvement of civilians.

CHAIR: Thank you. We will have to leave it at that.

Senator GALLACHER: Perhaps we could now go to the single facility for the delivery of Australia's bilateral aid program in Fiji. Just by way of preamble, how would the department characterise our bilateral relationship with Fiji? Where are we at these days?

Mr Varghese : I would describe it as an important relationship, a close relationship and one that has developed in a very positive direction since the elections that were held in Fiji. As you know, the foreign minister placed quite an emphasis on resetting, if I could use that word, the relationship with Fiji in the lead-up to the election. Those elections were conducted in a free and fair manner, and that provided us with a solid foundation to reset the relationship. As with any relationship, there are areas of disagreement from time to time. Fiji is no exception, but if I were to take a snapshot of our relationship with Fiji today compared with four or five years ago I would say it is a much more positive relationship.

Senator GALLACHER: So, at an official level it is on the improvement. I recollect a concern with Qantas on the lease of an aircraft. Are those sorts of areas still contested? Are large businesses like Qantas able to operate in a commercially viable manner? Is that something you are observing?

Mr Sloper : I am not aware of the specific example about Qantas, but I would say that the economic relationship is in a good state.

Senator GALLACHER: It was a lease of an aircraft or something, and they fell out over it.

Mr Sloper : Qantas has a share in Fiji Air, and there is an ongoing discussion commercially between the two companies on that. I am not aware of the specific example you are raising, but in terms of the broader economic relationship I think it is in a good position. The companies are not facing any challenges.

Senator GALLACHER: So we are basically handing over to a private bidder our bilateral aid program. Is that how this works?

Mr Sloper : No, our bilateral aid program is conducted through a whole range of partners. In line with the discussion before, that can include private contractors; that can include NGOs, both Australian and Fijian. And we also are looking to work with the Fijian government in the future, once their national development strategy and plan is finalised.

Senator GALLACHER: So, explain this proposed single facility. What does that mean?

Mr Sloper : I am not sure which particular single facility you are talking about. We are looking at a range of facilities across the Pacific in our bilateral programs. Those are intended to consolidate, if you like, our management structure around a particular sector, and we look to a company, or a consortia of companies, to take that responsibility on. It gives us greater flexibility in terms of management and more efficiencies. In the Fiji sector we are looking at that in one regard but not across the whole bilateral program.

Senator GALLACHER: How will this tender be handled? Is it a tender for the bilateral aid program?

Mr Sloper : Yes. If we go out for a single contractor or if we go out looking for a facility we go through a tender process, subject to the amount involved. It has different restrictions, but it is consistent with Commonwealth guidelines.

Senator GALLACHER: And who do you expect to apply—multinationals, NGOs, contractors or everybody?

Mr Sloper : It is an open tender. If they can meet the requirements, anybody can put that in.

Senator GALLACHER: Well, you do not actually put a tender out just guessing who is going to apply. Who is going to apply?

Mr Sloper : Normally in these cases we receive tenders from the major representatives of the organisations listed by Mr Dawson, who have experience in country or are able to draw on other partners and put a consortia together.

Senator GALLACHER: And how will the transparency and accountability be structured once you have successfully tendered this?

Mr Sloper : Be it a facility or be it a contract with an NGO or another partner, in each case we have benchmarks we build into our programs and expectations in terms of their reporting against those benchmarks. That can be for aid outcomes, but it also relates to safeguards, for example, in child protection and other areas. That is reviewed through the contract management with the partner, and we internally also do our own assessments of our aid programs.

Senator GALLACHER: Is this the first instance of an aid program being contracted out to a single service provider on this scale?

Mr Sloper : No.

Senator GALLACHER: Where else do we do it?

Mr Sloper : We are exploring that. We have a process underway for Papua New Guinea at the moment—for what is called the governance facility, which will bring together all our different governance programs and manage them on our behalf. It is part of a—

Senator GALLACHER: All the governance programs on all of the expenditure in New Guinea?

Mr Sloper : Yes, that is what we are looking at. The decision on that tender is yet to be made.

Senator GALLACHER: Fiji is not a testing ground? It is just part of—you are doing it in a couple of places.

Mr Sloper : It is part of a broader process across the department. We are trying to consolidate our management of aid programs. As you would appreciate, we have moved through a different profile in some of our programs over the past few years, so we are looking at better ways to manage that in a more effective way.

Senator GALLACHER: How does it accord with the department's aid-for-trade agenda?

Mr Sloper : Aid for trade in the Pacific is a cross-cutting issue. We do not have a specific sector in our aid investment plans just on aid for trade, but it is part of a consideration where we look at what we are doing across sectors. In the Fiji case, for example, we have an aid investment plan that we have developed, and it focuses on four areas. Gender and aid for trade are two cross-cutting issues that we take into account when we look at our specific investments.

Senator GALLACHER: And now we are really short of time, so I am going to go to another item of expenditure. I have a shredder in my back shed that cost me about $80; you are buying one that is $1 million—is that correct? DFAT is planning to source a $1 million machine to destroy classified documents?

Mr McDonald : I did read about that, yes. That was in our corporate area, which Mr Fisher is the head of.

Mr Fisher : We have a request for tender out for a machine to destroy documents, but we are certainly not spending $1 million.

Senator GALLACHER: But presumably you would have a contract at the moment whereby someone comes around, picks them up and destroys them, like our offices have?

Mr Fisher : Correct; we do. But we are seeking an alternative method.

Senator GALLACHER: You are going to bring it in-house?

Mr Fisher : That is right.

Senator GALLACHER: Is there any business case that underpins the waste disposal of confidential documents to be done in-house? You just got rid of 500 people. You would think you had less paper.

Mr Fisher : Sure.

Mr Varghese : I wish!

Mr Williams : This is testing the market. We are coming to the end of the current contract, which we are piggybacking off an AG contract, and what we are doing now is just seeing whether we can come up with an option that is better value for money. No decision has been made as to what option we prefer at the moment. It is simply about seeing what would provide the best value for money.

Senator GALLACHER: You would not be on your own in terms of size and the need to maintain confidentiality about your waste. Has anybody else done it? Or are you a leader in this space?

Mr Williams : With the destructor! I am not aware, within the Commonwealth government, of anyone utilising one at the moment, but I can take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: Is it only to destroy paper? Or is it disks and—

Mr Williams : Yes, disks, and USB—

Senator GALLACHER: Is there an item you can point us to for your current costs for disposal of classified or confidential documents? Do you know what you spend per annum now?

Mr Williams : I do, but given that we have a tender underway at the moment I do not want to mention figures, because they may influence the bids that are put in under this current RFT.

Senator GALLACHER: But I am sure the people who are going to be bidding are the ones who are supplying this service anyway, so they probably already know what I do not know, which is what your waste disposal costs are for shredded documents. Have you done a business case, or are you just thinking about it?

Mr Williams : We have certainly researched the technology and thought it was sensible to explore what the actual cost may be.

Senator GALLACHER: I have often seen large companies test something in-house, to see that it works in the market and whether they are getting value for money. Are you intending to be a provider of services to other departments, or is this going to be a new initiative that saves you some money?

Mr Williams : We have not factored in being a provider to other agencies at this stage.

Senator GALLACHER: What is the current procedure for destroying your documents, and basically how many people are involved in that?

Mr Williams : We use a company that is also used by AG's and we have someone go around and collect from various collection points the material that is to be destroyed, and that material is then taken to a site elsewhere in the ACT, where it is destroyed.

Senator GALLACHER: So we are talking only about Canberra based office people.

Mr Williams : Yes.

Senator GALLACHER: Is there only one location—forgive my ignorance—that DFAT has? You do not have any—

Mr Williams : We have currently five buildings here in Canberra.

Senator GALLACHER: So there will be some sort of movement of classified documents for shredding or—

Mr Williams : We would collect them as we currently collect them. They are brought to one point. They are currently taken off site, but this particular proposed solution would involve bringing the material to our principal building, the RG Casey Building.

Senator GALLACHER: How many current DFAT staff would be involved in the transportation or destruction of current documents?

Mr Williams : It is contracted out. We do not utilise DFAT staff.

Senator GALLACHER: You don't actually do it. Well, if you get this machine, will it has come back in? I am struggling now—if it is already contracted out, you are looking at capital investment and then you are going to employ people?

Mr Williams : As part of our new domestic security guarding contract, we would be looking to train up personnel from that domestic security company to assist us with the collection of the material and the placement of it in this particular machine.

Senator GALLACHER: So a contractor would provide the workers to collect and operate your machine?

Mr Williams : Or it may be that we utilise others to collect the actual classified material. Again, we are waiting on the proposals that come in from the various tender bids.

Senator GALLACHER: So there is a case that says it is better for you to invest in the machine and let the currently contracted operators operate it than actually let the market do that?

Mr Williams : We think, having done some research, that it is exploring whether this particular option will provide better value for money than the current option we are utilising.

Senator GALLACHER: Can't you just cost the machine and say, 'Okay, we need to get the cost of capital back, we need to have a bit of profit, someone in the industry has to compete,' and they will do it for you? If you buy the machine, you have to maintain it, you are responsible for it and you are paying people who are not yours to feed it. It seems a bit strange to me.

Mr Williams : No, I do not agree.

Senator GALLACHER: I probably would not go out and buy myself a truck and then get someone else's company to drive it and think I was going to make my return out of the capital investment in the truck when I do not control how they operate it or where they go. I am mystified at the logic behind this. It is a million dollars or it is not?

Mr Williams : No, that is a figure that has been cited. We are not citing a figure.

Senator GALLACHER: Very clearly, you are working out whether you can invest in an object of destruction, so to speak, which will be operated by your contracted people at the moment.

Mr Williams : No. We are suggesting that if we go down the route of using this technology then we would also utilise resources from our domestic security guarding contract to assist us with this project.

Senator GALLACHER: They are currently not occupied fully?

Mr Williams : No. Currently, through the evening during the night shift, the guards do go around to all parts of all buildings undertaking inspections. So as part of those routine moves through the buildings, they could also, potentially, collect the classified information.

Senator GALLACHER: So these people are all security cleared?

Mr Williams : Absolutely.

Senator GALLACHER: On their security rounds, would they just come across a container of documents and then feed the shredder?

Mr Williams : There are certain designated points. For staff in general, it would not change anything; they would still be putting this classified waste into the same classified bins?

Senator GALLACHER: It is an investigation at the moment. It is out for tender. What is out for tender?

Mr Williams : We have called for expressions of interest.

Senator GALLACHER: To supply you with this machine?

Mr Williams : Correct.

Senator GALLACHER: I do not think there would be too many people who would be in the market selling these machines.

Mr Williams : We are about to find out.

Senator GALLACHER: You are going to make some savings along the way?

Mr Williams : Potentially, it may be a better value for money solution.

Senator GALLACHER: Clearly you cannot tell us what you are currently spending because that might influence the tenders?

Mr Williams : That is correct.

CHAIR: Minister, the committee will go through until dinner at 6:30 when we will have concluded the non-trade component and we will start with trade at 7:30.

Senator McEWEN: I want to ask a few questions about the UPR of the Human Rights Council. Australia's presentation, our universal periodic review was held late last year at the Human Rights Council. Can you explain how the UPR fits into Australia's multilateral engagement with the rest of the world.

Mr Strahan : We see the UPR as one of the most important aspects of the multilateral human rights system. We make a point of attending all UPRs by other countries and we always comment, no matter what country is undertaking a review. We take our own UPR very seriously. This was our second. On this occasion we had parliamentarians as part of our delegation and that was very warmly received by other countries. They really appreciated the fact that we came with officials and parliamentarians. The UPR process is like a form of multilateral speed dating in that each country gets about a minute and five seconds to make a comment. In our second UPR, we received many comments which covered a range of issues.

Senator McEWEN: Thank you for that. Shortly after Australia's presentation to the Human Rights Council, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Mr Dutton, called the process of the universal periodic review a 'farce'. He said this shows what a 'farce' this process is. Does the department view the process as a farce?

Mr Strahan : No, as I already said, we see it as a useful process. It is the case that all members of the UN get a chance to comment on your performance. That does mean that some countries that have what we would see as very egregious human rights records take it upon themselves to comment upon us. I would say that most of the comments and recommendations that we received were constructive and worded in the right fashion, but it is a little rich when North Korea decides to give you advice on human rights. But we see the process as an important process.

Senator McEWEN: Or indeed even the United States, which still has states which murder their citizens—capital punishment; it is not just North Korea.

Senator Brandis: Are you equating the United States with North Korea? That is an extremely foolish thing to say. It is an extremely foolish thing to make that comparison.

Senator McEWEN: I just make the point that there were criticisms of Australia made by the United States, which still has the death penalty.

Senator Brandis: It is an extraordinarily foolish thing to suggest any moral equivalence whatsoever between the United States, one of the greatest liberal democracies the world has ever known and Australia's greatest ally, and North Korea. You should withdraw that, Senator McEwen.

Senator McEWEN: Australia has announced its intention to run for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018-2020. Is that correct?

Mr Strahan : Yes that is correct.

Senator McEWEN: So how do we reconcile the comments of Minister Dutton, who called the Human Rights Council process a 'farce', with the government's stated intention to become a member of the Human Rights Council?

Mr Strahan : As our minister, the minister for foreign affairs, has indicated, the government sees Australia gaining a seat on the council for the first time as being important. We believe it is in Australia's national interest to be involved in the council. It has 47 members. If you look at the resolutions that it passes, many of them are quite acceptable and are constructive. There are some which are contentious. So we see the council as being a valuable forum where human rights are discussed at the international level and it is not in our interest to step out of that process.

Senator McEWEN: Are you aware of any commentary from other nations about the comments of Minister Dutton calling the process a 'farce'?

Mr Strahan : No.

Senator McEWEN: Was Minister Dutton briefed by the foreign minister's office or the department on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the peer review process before he made his comments?

Mr Strahan : No, I am not aware of that.

Senator McEWEN: Has he received or sought a briefing since?

Mr Strahan : I am not aware of that.

Senator McEWEN: How do Minister Dutton's comments calling the process a 'farce' reconcile with the appointment of Mr Ruddock as Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights?

Senator Brandis: These are really political questions—

Senator McEWEN: Well perhaps you could answer them.

Senator Brandis: so let me deal with them. Mr Ruddock's role as human rights envoy reflects the Australian government's very strong commitment to the promotion of human rights internationally. We are also one of the great liberal democracies of the world and we should be proud of that fact. Senator McEwen, the universal periodic review undertaken by the Human Rights Council is a process to which Australia submits, in which we cooperate. It is not beyond criticism nor is it inappropriate for a minister of the Australian government or indeed any government to make criticisms of that process.

Senator McEWEN: Even to call it a 'farce', Minister?

Senator Brandis: Senator McEwen, you are the one who a few minutes ago compared the United States' human rights record with North Korea so I do not think you are in a very strong position here. The fact is Mr Dutton was talking about a particular criticism or observation of Australian policy, a policy—I might point out parenthetically—which your political party now adopts by the Human Rights Council.

Senator McEWEN: We certainly supported the intention to join the Human Rights Council but my point was that Minister Dutton's comments are certainly at odds with the intention of the Australian government.

Senator Brandis: Senator McEwen, one can participate with good faith in a process or in an institution while at the same time being critical of aspects of its conduct. You and I have been elected to the Senate. It is not at variance from our role as senators for us to be critical from time to time of things the Senate might do.

Senator McEWEN: You mentioned in earlier evidence, Attorney, that it is your department that is the lead department in the UPR.

Senator Brandis: Yes.

Senator McEWEN: You in fact organise the presentation of Australia. Have you had any discussions with Minister Dutton subsequent to his comment that it was a 'farce'?

Senator Brandis: I speak to my colleague Mr Dutton on a variety of matters very frequently but it is not my practise to disclose in public the contents of private conversations.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr French, shortly before 3:30 we were having an interchange about the issue of certain borders or assertions of an exclusive economic zone. I had a chance to read a delightful publication I have not read before called the US Maritime Claims Reference Manual, which is riveting reading. It shows that the United States is protesting three claims made by Australia. Firstly, our establishment of territorial sea straight baselines and declaration of Anxious, Encounter, Lacepede and Rivoli bays as historic bays. That was not recognised, and diplomatic protest was made in 1981. Secondly, our claim to an exclusive economic zone around the Australian Antarctic Territory, which was protested in 1994. Thirdly, our introduction, in 2006, of compulsory pilotage through the Torres Strait and the Great North East Channel. That was protested in 2006. Do you accept that the United States and other countries do not accept our assertions of exclusive economic zones?

Dr French : I would need to distinguish between very specific protests made by countries—which is, of course, always their right—and acceptance or acquiescence in the existence in general of a coastal state's sovereign rights and jurisdiction exercised pursuant to part 5 of the Law of the Sea Convention by that state. I do not think that lawyers around the world would have any other view than that states, including the United States, in the broad clearly acknowledge, through behaviour and acquiescence, the vast bulk of the areas over which Australia exercises sovereign rights and jurisdiction.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Varghese, it was a highly technical question, but do you acknowledge that, in terms of some of the assertions that Australia makes in terms of exclusive economic zones and maritime borders, it is subject to protest and non-acceptance by other nations?

Mr Varghese : Well, Antarctica is kind of a special case. I would leave that to one side, because, while we think that we have a very soundly based claim to Antarctic territory, I think it is fair to say that that is not a claim that is formally recognised elsewhere, and the Antarctic Treaty deals with that in its own terms. The point you raise about the bays is far too technical for me to comment on. Dr French is an international expert in this area, so I bow to his view. The pilotage issue—I would imagine, although I do not know—relates not so much to the mapping of our EEZs but probably a US view on what authority we have in that particular area within our EEZ.

Senator XENOPHON: This is an issue that I think Senator Madigan wanted raise and, in his absence, I raise it on his behalf. It goes to the CMATS treaty. If the CMATS treaty has served us so well, why has there been no development of the Greater Sunrise field and, to date, no revenue flowing from the field to either Australia or Timor-Leste? Resources companies have indicated that the state of the relationship between Australia and Timor-Leste does not provide administrative certainty sufficient for investment in the development of the field. A major remaining issue in that relationship is Australia's unwillingness to negotiate a sea boundary. Is that something that the department can comment on? That is based on what appears to be oil exploration companies saying that the uncertainty has actually held back investment and development of those oil and gas fields.

Mr Varghese : To the extent that CMATS deals with maritime boundaries by effectively putting a 50-year moratorium on it, I would have thought that companies would see that as providing a framework of legal certainty over what, in operational terms, would be quite a long period—50 years. The reasons why Greater Sunrise has not come into operation are probably numerous. It would depend on judgements about the global markets. There is, and has been for some time, a very strong view on the part of East Timor that the pipeline should go to East Timor, and there are technical, commercial and other reasons why that is a very complicated question. Now you have an element of legal uncertainty introduced because of the filing of an arbitration case by East Timor, which did not exist previously.

Senator XENOPHON: Going back to the treaty on CMATS, Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, article 4.6 states:

Neither Party shall raise or pursue in any international organisation matters that are, directly or indirectly, relevant to maritime boundaries or delimitation in the Timor Sea.

Yesterday at the National Press Club, the shadow foreign minister stated:

If we are not successful in negotiating a settlement with our neighbour, we are prepared to submit ourselves to international adjudication or arbitration.

In light of that statement, Mr Varghese—this is by no means a criticism of Ms Plibersek; I am just trying to understand what that technically means—would this article, or CMATS as a whole, have to be nullified before such a case could begin, from a technical point of view?

Mr Varghese : I would have to take that on notice. I do not know if Mr French is in a position to respond.

Senator XENOPHON: I am happy for you to take that on notice; it is of a technical nature. Going back to where you said the Antarctic territories are a special case, you have jogged my memory. Sir John Latham was a foreign minister in the Lyons government in the 1930s. Apparently, the papers prepared in his office in relation to the Antarctic territories and post the Mawson expedition from 1929 to 1931 have still not been declassified. It has been about 80 or so years. Can you tell me, if you happen to know, or can you take on notice: what is so sensitive about those papers prepared some 80 years ago in relation to the issue of Australia's annexation of the Antarctic territories?

Mr Varghese : I have no idea.

Senator XENOPHON: But it is a good question, isn't it? They are still relevant. It has been 80 years, and we still do not know what they are.

Mr Varghese : He was a very brilliant man. Maybe all his writings have a very contemporary feel to them. I do not know.

Senator XENOPHON: All the more reason why we should see them!

Mr Varghese : It is really a question you should address to the National Archives. The declassification of documents—

Senator XENOPHON: Although the National Archives do take advice from your department very seriously, don't they? They are guided, in many respects, by the department as to whether something ought to be released or not.

Mr Varghese : Let me take on notice whether we have expressed a view on the continuing sensitivity of those papers.

Senator XENOPHON: While we are on blasts from the past, there is also Sir George Knowles, who was the Commonwealth Solicitor-General and the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department. His memos to Sir John Latham of the Lyons government and another cabinet submission in respect of the Antarctic territories are, apparently, yet to be declassified. Could you take that on notice as well?

Mr Varghese : I will.

Senator XENOPHON: I know you do not often get requests for 80-year-old documents, but I am sure—

Mr Varghese : You have piqued my interest!

Senator XENOPHON: I am glad I have piqued something! I have one more question. It would be remiss of me not to ask about my friend Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian opposition leader who has been in jail for just over a year. I think yesterday was the first anniversary of his imprisonment. I hear concerns from Malaysian opposition figures whom I speak to from time to time about Anwar's health and the way he is being treated and, of course, about other issues that have been in the media about scandals swirling around the Najib Razak government. My primary focus at this stage is: what inquiries does the Australian government, or the department, make about the health and the treatment of Malaysia's opposition leader, who is in jail on what many human rights groups around the world say is a trumped-up sodomy charge?

Mr Varghese : I recognise your longstanding and genuine concern about this issue. I will ask Mr Cox if he is able to respond to your specific question.

Mr Cox : We continue to maintain contact with Anwar's family through our post in Kuala Lumpur.

Senator XENOPHON: How regularly? Is it every month or two, or is it every three months?

Mr Cox : It is just regular contact through the post, with our staff making contact with his family in Kuala Lumpur to ascertain his health and his general state. Most recently, Ms Bishop raised his case specifically with foreign minister Anifah in Melbourne on 2 November, when she met him there, and she has continued to raise his case with Anifah and with Malaysians that she meets as well. We do keep in touch with him, his family and his lawyers to ascertain his state of health and general situation.

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Cox. Senator Gallacher?

Senator GALLACHER: Secretary, you know from question on notice No. 123 from the previous supplementary estimates that $2.7 million was spent to renovate the ambassador's villa in Rome. One million dollars of the $2.7 million went to hiring a temporary residence for the ambassador for the duration of the renovation, while only $1.7 million went towards the renovation. We also know that in 2010 some renovations had been completed when Ambassador Vanstone was there. Are you able to confirm, Secretary, that it cost the department a million dollars of taxpayers' money to temporarily house the ambassador for two years and four months? Is that the correct interpretation of the answer?

Mr Varghese : I will ask Mr Nixon if he could respond—

Senator GALLACHER: It never came across your desk either, Secretary? It is beneath your authority level or something, is it?

Mr Nixon : Senator, the period of temporary accommodation was from July 2012 through to December 2014, so I think it was for a period that actually exceeded the works period at the owned residence. The original rationale for vacating the property was related to concerns about the residence and stability of that site.

Senator GALLACHER: What I am after is: did we spend a million bucks to house the ambassador elsewhere while we did renovations? That is the first point. Were we having to spend $35,000 a month to house the ambassador in Rome? Is that what it cost to house the ambassador to Rome: $35,000 per month?

Mr Nixon : We have provided the answer confirming what the costs of that were.

Senator GALLACHER: So it is a yes.

Mr Nixon : That is correct.

Senator GALLACHER: I appreciate that an ambassador's place must be of a suitable standard, but how do you check the market? At $35,000 a month—as I said to the secretary earlier: out of the $405 billion that is collected this year, $194 billion will come from PAYE tax. They do not believe these sorts of figures. When I have a conversation with an ordinary taxpayer, and you actually articulate that we spent $35,000 a month to house an ambassador while we were fixing the house up, they cannot comprehend these figures. Can you give any justification as to why we spend such large sums of money, and what do we spend them on?

Mr Nixon : I think there are a couple of points. The obvious one is: we are dealing in overseas environments and therefore we are leasing properties at overseas currencies, so there is always an element of forex exposure within that. The second point is that we do not actually take these properties for the indulgence of the head of mission. They are a representational asset, they are utilised to advance Australia's interests, and so these properties are really an extension of that work environment.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you go through a tender or a quote process, or is it left to you to do the job, so to speak, and then it goes back into DFAT and someone says, 'Oh well, that is fair enough. We'll just sign off on that.' Are there three quotes? Is there a tender process? Is there an assessment of what is on the market, or do we just—

Mr Nixon : The normal process would be that post would undertake a property market search, identify what options were available, go through a process of checking their suitability against various considerations and then seek to put forward a recommendation.

Senator GALLACHER: There was $2.7 million spent on renovating the ambassador's villa, but we find that only $1.7 million was on the renovation and the other $1 million was to put the ambassador somewhere else.

Mr Nixon : It was not possible to do the works with the property remaining occupied, and in the event that it was possible for the person to occupy it, its representational element would have been severely limited, so the decision was that the property was best vacated to allow the works to be done.

Senator GALLACHER: I must accept your judgement on that, but when you read through the renovation of the villa, you see 'replacement of carpets and curtains'—every household does that every now and again. You do not have to pay 35 grand worth of rent to move out while you do stuff like that.

Mr Nixon : Some of those things were replaced, or the works were taken, because it was opportune to do those whilst the property was vacant, as opposed to not do them and then impose disruption or another element of inability to use the residence for its representational purposes at a later point.

Senator GALLACHER: Well, the money has been expended. I am sure the secretary is going to say it is in accordance with all their delegation, protocol and prudent expenditure. But it looks extravagant. The average taxpayers who I listen to are not appreciative of the way we spend money in a lot of cases, and these examples just cause more and more disdain and scrutiny of public expenditure. To me, $35,000 per month—I think we could have done a better job. Over to you, Secretary, if you want to destroy my argument.

Mr Varghese : Well, Senator, it is a lot of money and $35,000 is a high rental to pay, but you have to look at the context in which this is being done. Operating an overseas network is not cheap, and in some countries it is very expensive. We do not go out and look for the most expensive and extravagant building that we can find—

Senator GALLACHER: I have got to dispute that in Doha.

Mr Varghese : Well, Senator, we do not.

Senator GALLACHER: In Doha you have.

Mr Nixon : Senator, that is not correct.

Mr Varghese : We are talking about the building which is a working asset for the Australian government—in other words, a residence that can be used for representational purposes and for all things that an ambassador needs to do to advance our national interests in the country to which he or she is accredited—in this case, in Italy. That requires a certain type of building. It requires a building with space to conduct representational functions. It requires the building to be in a location which makes sense from the point of view of inviting senior Italian government or business figures to come. If you were 60 miles out, you probably would not have too many guests. So, when you add up all of these requirements—your professional requirements for a facility which enables you to do that, a location that makes sense and that contributes to it, a high-cost location like Rome—it comes to this amount of money. I fully accept that, to the average person on the street, that is a lot of money. But I think, if you work your way through how you get to that point, there is a process behind it and there is a logic behind it and there is a serious and a defensible objective behind it.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you.

Senator McEWEN: Were questions asked earlier about the shipment of arms from Russia to Fiji?

Mr Varghese : No, we have not covered that.

Senator McEWEN: On 15 January this year, the Fiji Sun online reported that several containers carrying Russian-made weapons had arrived in Suva. That report contained a claim from Fijian parliamentarian, the opposition whip, and spokesperson on foreign affairs, Ratu Isoa Tikoca, that the consignment contained 20 containers of armed trucks and a helicopter. Has the department made any inquiries of the Fijian government regarding the contents of the containers?

Mr Sloper : Not to my knowledge.

Senator McEWEN: There has been no engagement with the Fijian government about that?

Mr Sloper : Not on that specific issue, no. We have a Defence Cooperation Program with Fiji and we exchange views on a range of issues, but I am not aware myself of any direct discussions with regard to that shipment.

Senator McEWEN: Would you be able to take that on notice?

Mr Sloper : Sure, happy to do so.

Senator McEWEN: The only other thing I wanted to go to in the last few minutes was the Expo Milano 2015. There were some answers provided on question No. 97 from the last estimates about Australia's nonparticipation in that. Could you go to that issue. The question from Senator Wong was about who made the decision about Australia not participating in the 2015 world fair. The answer was that it was a decision of the Australian government. Did the department advise the government that it should participate in the expo? Was any advice given to government by the department about participation in the expo?

Senator Colbeck: I think the question as to whether there was advice given is okay but not what was in the advice.

Senator McEWEN: Who in the Australian government made the decision in the case of Expo Milano 2015?

Mr Tranter : The decision was made by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade and Investment.

Senator McEWEN: The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade and Investment?

Mr Tranter : Correct.

Senator McEWEN: A joint decision. A joint advice to the Prime Minister who made the ultimate de