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Estimates: Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 17 October 2011

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

  • Senator Chris Evans, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations
  • Dr Margot McCarthy, Acting National Security Adviser

Full transcript available here.

Senator RHIANNON: Dr McCarthy, was the Australian government involved in giving advice to the Sri Lankan government or in any other way when the Sri Lankan security forces stopped a boat carrying 44 asylum seekers trying to leave Sri Lanka?

Dr McCarthy: I think that goes to a matter that might best be referred to Customs and B order Protection.

Senator RHIANNON: I asked the question because there are reports that the Australian high commissioner, Kathy Klug man, praised the Sri Lankan security forces for their work in stopping this boat. It has been linked with Australia's attempt to manage boat s coming to Australia and its interest in Sri Lankan domestic politics. As the Australian Prime Minister has given a great deal of attention to this matter lately, that is the context in which I asked the question. It is hard to believe that Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet do es not have some awareness of this issue.

Dr McCarthy : On the issue of engagement with other regional countries in deterrence of the people-smuggling trade, it is well known that we engage with regional partners, but we tend not to go into specific operational details.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you mean that you have the details but you are saying that you do not want to bring those details to this forum?

Dr McCarthy : I do not have to hand any details on the issue that you have referred to. There would be sensitivities around operational details, if that is the sort of information that you are seeking.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you inform the committee if the Australian Federal Police assisted Sri Lankan security forces in any of their operations in stopping the boats leaving Sri Lanka to come to Australia?

Dr McCarthy : I think questions about the Australian Federal Please activities are best directed to the Attorney-General portfolio.

Senator RHIANNON: What role does the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet play in the appointment of high commissioners?

Dr McCarthy : Are you referring to the appointment of Australian high commissioners to overseas posts?

Senator RHIANNON: No, sorry, the appointment of high commissioners to Australia. We have them from various countries. High commissioners—or ambassadors, for that matter?

Dr McCarthy : My understanding is that in relation to incoming high commissioners and ambassadors what is known as agrèment is provided on the advice of the foreign minister.

Senator RHIANNON: What if the person to be appointed has been accused of serious war crimes? Do you undertake any special measures? How is this managed?

Dr McCarthy : As I said, these issues are managed on the basis of advice from the foreign minister to the Governor-General on the question of agrèment.

Senator RHIANNON: That is advice to the department?

Dr McCarthy : No, on the advice of the foreign minister the Governor-General provides what is known is agrèment to countries seeking to appoint high commissioners and ambassadors.

Senator RHIANNON: So you are saying that there is no actual involvement by the department?

Dr McCarthy : It would depend on the issue and on whether the department was required to provide advice.

Senator RHIANNON: I will ask the question again, because it seems as though from your last response that there can be occasions when the department is involved. If a person to be appointed as a high commissioner has been accused of being involved in war crimes would the department then become involved or at least seek some sort of advice?

Dr McCarthy : The issue would be coordinated and managed by the foreign minister.

Senator RHIANNON: With advice coming to the department?

Dr McCarthy: The foreign minister would provide that advice primarily on the basis of advice coming from his own department. We only advise the Prime Minister; we do not advise the foreign minister.

Senator RHIANNON: No, I obviously appreciate that. I am just trying to understand how the process works.

Senator Chris Evans: I think the answer is that primarily the responsibility is with the foreign minister and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but that PM&C might provide advice to the PM if there was reason to them to get involved or matters were referred to them. But as a matter of normal procedure, carriage lies with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. If you want to pursue specific appointments then officers could advise if they have been engaged in that. But if you keep with generalities we are not going to make any progress. So if you want to get to—

Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate that, but I guess I do want to understand the generalities to understand how the current situation may have unfolded.

I would like to now move to the current situation. There was a report on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald today with regard to the current Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia. These allegations are now the subject of a submission from the International Commission of Jurists—Australian Section, and of the Federal Police. Those allegations had been made prior to the appointment. So I wish to understand what attention the department gave to this matter, considering it has been in the public domain for a long period, and what advice was provided to the Prime Minister.

Dr McCarthy : I can say that advice on that matter was provided, but we obviously do not go into the question of the advice that was provided.

Senator RHIANNON: So the advice was provided prior to the current Sri Lankan High Commissioner taking up the post?

Dr McCarthy : I do not have the detail with me.

Senator RHIANNON: That is what I understood your response indicated, but I just want to confirm that my understanding was correct.

Dr McCarthy : Advice has been provided on that matter.

Senator RHIANNON: I just want to get the time right. That was prior to the acceptance of the current Sri Lankan high commissioner in that role?

Dr McCarthy : I will take on notice questions about timing.

Senator RHIANNON: On what grounds could the Australian government withdraw the accreditation of an ambassador or high commissioner?

Dr McCarthy : That matter I think falls within the foreign minister's portfolio and is best put to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Dr McCarthy.

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