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Estimates: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 20 October 2011

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

  • Mr Dennis Richardson, Secretary
  • Mr Hugh Borrowman, First Assistant Secretary, South-East Asia Division
  • Mr Bill Tweddell, First Assistant Secretary, Americas and Africa Division
  • Ms Deborah Stokes, First Assistant Secretary, International Organisations and Legal Division
  • Mr John Pacey , Chief Credit Officer, Export Finance and Insurance Corporation

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: I have a question about Cambodia. What interaction has the Australian embassy in Cambodia or anyone in DFAT had with the relatives of the two young children who drowned, Hat Heap and Hat Hoeb? They were part of a family forcibly resettled with the railways rehabilitation project that went through about more than $20 million of Australian money.

Mr Borrowman: Senator, I would have to take that on notice. AusAID may be able to give you an answer. It is principally their carriage so they may have an answer to that.

Senator RHIANNON: I realise they have carriage of the money but my question was specifically about the Australian embassy or about DFAT.

Mr Borrowman: Yes, I understand. I would have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware that there has been no public statements by DFAT about the deaths of those two children? Is that correct?

Mr Borrowman: Again, I would have to take that on notice, I am afraid.

Senator RHIANNON: There is nobody else here who can answer that?

Mr Richardson: Not at that level of detail.

Senator RHIANNON: Could I ask a question about the damming of the Mekong. The strategic environmental assessment recommends a 10-year deferment of decisions on mainstream dams. There is an upcoming ministerial meeting of the MRC council at which I understand we will be represented. It will probably be in November this year. At that meeting will Australia join with other governments, like the United States and Vietnam, in supporting that recommendation of the strategic environmental assessment for a 10-year deferment of decisions on dams on the mainstream river?

Mr Borrowman: Again, AusAID will be able to give you greater details but in general, yes, we have called for a suspension in light of further and better environmental assessments.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. I am asking about it here because I understand this issue goes wider than just AusAID. If I am wrong, please correct me. So, further to that question, has Australia committed to fund any further studies as outlined in the strategic environmental assessment recommendations?

Mr Borrowman: I would have to defer to AusAID, Senator, I do not have that level of detail.

Read Senator Rhiannon's questioning of AusAID

[Other Senators continued the questioning]

Senator RHIANNON: I want to refer to the inquiry into Australia's relationship with the countries of Africa that the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade released earlier this year. I just want to mention a couple of the recommendations and to ask what the response is.

Recommendation 7 says:

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism should establish and fund a special unit tasked with establishing a regulatory framework model for the mining and resources sector which African countries could consider adopting according to their requirements.

Could you let the committee know if the unit has been formed and, if so, what its composition and funding is?

Mr Richardson: Forgive my own ignorance, but has the government responded to that inquiry?

Mr Tweddell: No, the government's response to the joint standing committee's inquiry has not yet been finalised. It is being coordinated by DFAT, and when it is endorsed by relevant ministers we will submit it.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you just explain the process, so that I could understand it? You are saying that you are coordinating the response at the present time; could you explain what the process is and the time line?

Mr Richardson: We will have the coordinating role in government for bringing together the bureaucratic advice that is provided to ministers for their decision making in respect of the committee's recommendations. I cannot give you the time line because I cannot tell you in advance with any certainty when the government will finally consider and make a decision on those recommendations.

Senator RHIANNON: My question in that second stage was not about the government, but when you will finalise the report that you present to the government. When will you hand that over?

Mr Tweddell: We are doing our best to get that later this year or early in the new year.

Senator RHIANNON: Was there any time requirement in the report on when you should report to government and when government should publicly release their response?

Mr Tweddell: To comply with the parliamentary procedures I think the response is meant to be tabled at the end of this year, and that is what we are trying to work to on our side.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you mean the government response there? The government should be responding by the end of year?

Mr Tweddell: We are hopeful of that, yes. As the secretary said, we do not have control.

Senator RHIANNON: No, it is not up to you!

[Other Senators continued the questioning]

Senator RHIANNON: Did DFAT provide advice to the foreign minister before the appointment of the Sri Lankan High Commissioner Thisara Samarasinghe about what was known about his role in the Sri Lankan navy and the role of the navy in the Sri Lankan conflict and any other relevant information?

Mr Richardson: We did in fact provide relevant advice to the foreign minister. We saw no reason for him to be denied agrement.

Senator RHIANNON: What date was that advice provided on?

Mr Richardson: We provided initial advice on 10 February, following consultation with the post and relevant division, as is the usual practice. There was subsequent advice, the precise dates of which I do not have. The minister gave approval for the matter to go forward for formal agrement, he gave approval on 2 April.

Senator RHIANNON: Was a briefing provided to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet or directly to the Prime Minister about this matter?

Mr Richardson: I cannot give you the precise date, but there was some. Normally Prime Minister and Cabinet is not involved in decisions about giving agreement to people nominated to be head of mission in Australia. Where you have higher profile issues that might surround a particular case, we would normally advise Prime Minister and Cabinet. I believe there was some advice provided to Prime Minister and Cabinet, but I do not have the details of that or what they might or might not have provided to the Prime Minister. I think there were questions of this matter put to PM&C the other day, and I have nothing to add to what they said in relation to whatever they did in respect of the PM.

Senator RHIANNON: What date was the advice from DFAT provided to the department or directly to the Prime Minister?

Mr Richardson: One, we do not provide advice directly to the Prime Minister on matters like that. I mentioned that I do not have the date on which we provided advice orally or in writing to Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you know if it was provided orally or in writing?

Mr Richardson: No, not off the top.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice what date that was provided to the Prime Minister? As it is just a date and that must be in a file somewhere, could that information be provided today to the committee?

Mr Richardson: Whether it can be provided I do not know, but I can certainly undertake to provide it quickly.

Senator RHIANNON: If you could provide that date. You also said that there was further advice that you provided to the foreign minister, so if you could provide that as well please.

Mr Richardson: Sure. The date of it?

Senator RHIANNON: The date, yes. Thank you. Has DFAT received a copy of the submission of the International Commission of Jurists Australia on the Sri Lanka war crimes?

Mr Richardson: I believe we do have a copy of that.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the role of DFAT when war crimes allegations are made against Australians or people temporarily in Australia or you receive a report such as the one from the International Commission of Jurists?

Mr Richardson: In this case we received a copy of a report that they referred to the AFP. The moment it is referred to the AFP, it becomes a police matter and it is for the AFP to determine how they take that forward. We would not seek to do anything that would cut across their proper role given that it was the AFP to whom that report was sent.

Senator RHIANNON: In these cases the AFP may seek advice from you?

Mr Richardson: That is entirely a matter for them. I cannot pre-empt what the AFP may or may not do.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Are you aware of reports that in September the Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Kathy Klugman, praised the Sri Lankan security forces for their work in stopping a boat leaving Sri Lanka that was carrying asylum seekers?

Mr Richardson: Yes, I am, and I think it was entirely appropriate.

Senator RHIANNON: Did the high commissioner or other embassy officials supply information to the Sri Lankan authorities to assist in stopping this boat?

Mr Richardson: There were questions directed to the AFP commissioner the other day on that. I cannot add anything to what the AFP said in answer to questions.

Senator RHIANNON: I asked the question. My question was about people who come under AFP. This question is if the high commission or other embassy officials supplied information to assist in stopping the boat.

Mr Richardson: I am not aware of any; however, I will take that on notice because I would not want to mislead.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much. What role does the Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka play in liaising, coordinating or assisting the work of AFP and ASIO, or representatives of other agencies, in monitoring people in Sri Lanka who are planning to leave for Australia and the departure of boats with asylum seekers?

Mr Richardson: Under a Prime Minister's directive, that relates to all Australians heads of mission overseas and goes back some decades. The head of mission overseas in any post is the senior Australian representative and, as such, is responsible for effective coordination of the mission's activities.

Senator RHIANNON: So, in this case, there are both AFP and ASIO, or some type of intelligence people, based in the high commission in Sri Lanka?

Mr Richardson: I am not prepared to comment on the presence overseas of officers from intelligence agencies.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

[Other Senators continued the questioning]

Senator RHIANNON: My question is picking up on the climate change issue which I understand is listed in this session. Could you update the committee on what discussions you have held with Indonesia on climate change projects, in particular the RED—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation—scheme and forest degradation.

Ms Stokes: That question might most usefully be addressed to AusAID. It involves aid funds.

Senator RHIANNON: I realise it involves aid funds but I did have questions here with regard to the relationships with the Indonesian government, which I understand DFAT has some involvement in—particularly as I have a letter here dated 20 April 2010 from the Australian embassy in Jakarta addressed to people who have concerns about the RED scheme.

Ms Stokes: So your specific question is?

Senator RHIANNON: It was just a general question. Then I will move on to the specifics. I was interested in an update of what discussions have been held with Indonesia on climate change projects and, in particular, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Ms Stokes: I do not have the detail of that, Senator.

Senator RHIANNON: I will ask a more specific question and then ask if other questions could be taken on notice, please. Did Australia participate in a meeting of the Governors' Climate and Forest Taskforce, which was held in Kalimantan in September this year, that was specifically about the RED(D) scheme?

Mr Richardson: We will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: So there is nobody here who can speak about the climate change talks that are going on in Indonesia and on projects such as the RED(D) scheme?

Mr Richardson: No.

Senator RHIANNON: I will put them on notice. I will get them all together. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: That is it, Senator Rhiannon?

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. If you can take the questions I have given you on notice and then I will supply more.

[Other Senators continued the questioning]

Senator RHIANNON: I would like to ask some questions about EFIC. Is your annual general report available?

Mr Pacey: It is expected to be submitted to parliament next week. It is currently at the printers.

Senator RHIANNON: But I understand that it was released briefly yesterday and then it was withdrawn—is that correct?

Mr Pacey: There was an error picked up at the last minute in a review, so we did a pull to get it corrected so that we did not submit a report with an error.

Senator RHIANNON: Does that mean you are pulping it or you are putting a correction onto each copy?

Mr Pacey: We decided to get it reprinted.

Senator RHIANNON: How many do you normally produce and what is the cost of the reprinting?

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

Senator RHIANNON: Could you inform the committee if EFIC has supported significant financial transactions to ship cattle overseas?

Mr Pacey: Yes, we have. We have been active in that sector. In the 2011 financial year we have supported Australian cattle exporters to the tune of A$85 million.

Senator RHIANNON: What countries have those cattle been sent to?

Mr Pacey: The bulk of those were to China in relation to dairy cattle. There were some to Russia which have been predominantly breeding cattle and there have also been two shipments to Turkey.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you saying that it is only the Turkey consignment that was for slaughter?

Mr Pacey: Yes, we had two for Turkey. One was a mixed shipment of feeder and breeding cattle and one was feeder and slaughter cattle.

Senator RHIANNON: You said in 2011 that there has been support of $85 million. Have there been similar projects in previous years?

Mr Pacey: In the 2010 financial year we supported the industry, mainly for one exporter, which was Austrex, and it was about A$15 million. Those shipments related to dairy cattle to China.

Senator RHIANNON: How much of the $85 million in this year would have been for the Turkey project?

Mr Pacey: I give approximate numbers. One of those would have been $19 million and the other one would have been a little over A$2 million.

Senator RHIANNON: Is the correction that you had to make in the annual general report related to this issue of live exports?

Mr Pacey: It was.

Senator RHIANNON: What is the correct information that you have now put into that report?

Mr Pacey: We have corrected a table to make clear the breakdown of the composition of those exports.

ACTING CHAIR: I am going to have to ask you to put the rest on notice, Senator Rhiannon, because we are so far behind, and after we come back from the dinner break at 7.30 we are in a brand new area.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. Can I just finish off that point then, please.

ACTING CHAIR: Sure.

Senator RHIANNON: So the annual general report is corrected on this issue of live exports to Turkey or the live exports overall. Did you say you have provided more detailed information, or was there a mistake?

Mr Pacey: No, we have detected a mistake, so we have provided more detailed information so it would not mislead.

Senator RHIANNON: Is the $19 million for the slaughter of the cattle that go to Turkey?

Mr Pacey: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that with the company Wellard Rural Exports?

Mr Pacey: That is correct.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

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