Back to All News

Estimates: Prime Minister and Cabinet

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 22 May 2012

Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee

Estimates hearings, 22 May 2012

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet

  • Senator Evans, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Leader of the Government in the Senate
  • Ms Rachel Noble, acting Deputy National Security Adviser
  • Mr Richard Sadleir, First Assistant Secretary, Defence and Intelligence Division
  • Ms Sachi Wimmer, First Assistant Secretary, Homeland and Border Security Division
  • Ms Marina Tsirbas, Acting First Assistant Secretary, International Division

Full transcript available here

Senator RHIANNON: Going back to the review of the intelligence community, why was there a six-month delay in releasing the report of the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community. I was also interested in why it was heavily redacted.

Mr Sadleir: There was not really a delay in terms of releasing the report. What happened was that the classified version of the report was completed on 1 August 2011. There then had to be a process of developing an unclassified report, which required checking to be undertaken to ensure that the unclassified report contained no sensitive or classified material. That was done pretty thoroughly, and then the unclassified version of the report was released on 25 January and, as you know, tabled in parliament on 7 February. Clearly, because it was a periodic review, it was not precipitated by any crisis or major event. A lot of the material was based on a very broad set of terms of reference, and basically that very generic material required a good deal of examination to ensure that it did not contain classified material.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for explaining the process, but it still was six months late after it was due to be released. Which recommendations will be implemented, what will the cost be and how do they relate to compliance with Australia's human rights obligations?

Mr Sadleir: On the recommendations and the related cost related, the vast proportion of that is classified material, which I cannot share in this context.

Senator RHIANNON: Can you share anything?

Mr Sadleir: I can give you a sense of those recommendations which would be characterised as being—

Senator RHIANNON: Can you share any recommendations that are in compliance with Australia's human rights obligations? Are you saying there are aspects of our compliance with Australia's human rights obligations that you cannot share, or did I misunderstand you?

Mr Sadleir: No, that was a third aspect to your question. You might recall that the report reached a conclusion that there was a good balance in that area. The review found that outcome. If I could answer your earlier question and share a couple of the recommendations which will give you an indication of the flavour. I will give you a sense of the sorts of things that came out the review. Some of the broad recommendations were the idea of developing a strategic agenda for Australian intelligence community's engagement with international partners and examining where relationships can be enhanced; refining the prioritisation and integration in the AIC to aid with resource allocation and to tackle emerging threats such as cyberespionage; increasing collaboration on support to military operations, particularly in the training for and planning of military operations; fostering cooperation within the wider national security community while maintaining the distinctive capabilities of the intelligence agencies; ensuring ICT connectivity between the AIC and various customers; deepening the relations of institutions teaching courses with national security components—

Senator RHIANNON: Do you have a cost breakdown for these recommendations?

Mr Sadleir: No, I would not be able to share the cost implications of the recommendations.

Senator RHIANNON: Is it because you cannot share it or because it has not been done?

Mr Sadleir: I think you are aware from the report that there is a broad calculation of how much the community is spending on intelligence matters—about $1 billion. As to the costing of the recommendations, no, I could not share that with you. That would fall within the classified national security realm.

Senator RHIANNON: I now want to move to another overdue report, the COAG counterterrorism review. Mr Roger Wilkins at an earlier estimates entertained us when he said that that had drifted—that was the language he used. Dr McCarthy said in the February estimates, 'The National counterterrorism committee has agreed on a list of people to be approached for the review and we are currently in the process of finalising the membership.' Have people been appointed? If so, who are they? Generally, where is the review up to because I am interested in a time line?

Ms Wimmer: On the review, the Prime Minister wrote in early April to first ministers about the review. They have all now agreed to the review and the arrangements for the review. The next step is to write to the nominated review members to get their formal acceptance to participate in the review. Once that has happened, it can begin. We are anticipating midyear.

Senator RHIANNON: Repeating the response to the question in the February estimates, Dr McCarthy said, 'We are currently in the process of finalising the membership.' In fact, it has not been finalised and you now expect all that will be in place in June?

Ms Wimmer: I would not say June necessarily; I would say midyear. We have agreed the membership; it is just a matter now of the members' formal acceptance to participate in the review.

Senator RHIANNON: When you have their formal acceptance you will then release that?

Ms Wimmer: I think so, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: What does midyear mean for you?

Ms Wimmer: Sometime in June-July.

Senator RHIANNON: Any reason for the delay? This delay is stretching and stretching.

Ms Wimmer: No. It has been a fairly long process to get the review membership right so that we had the right balance of both jurisdictions and gender and also the people with the right skills. But, other than that, it is always an interesting process rounding up state agreement.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for that. I was disappointed that the National Security Legislation Monitor would not be here. Is there somebody whom I can put questions to. In February it was indicated that Mr Walker would like a staff person for four days—this was at an earlier estimates—and some additional administration assistance. Has this been provided and, if so, for what tasks?

Senator Chris Evans: I think the committee was informed that Mr Walker had a court case on this week and that is why he was not able to attend. So I apologise for that. He had a clash; it got scheduled.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, minister.

Senator Chris Evans: Ms Noble and the other officers will help where they can.

Ms Noble: Yes, the resources for the National Security Legislation Monitor have been increased in accordance with his request and resources have been provided, I think, for, as he outlined at the last Senate estimates hearings, administrative support and research assistance to carry out his duties.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that the Prime Minister has a power to refer particular cases to him for advice. Have any such ad hoc referrals been made since the last estimates session?

Ms Noble: No, none.

Senator RHIANNON: Also, will he have a role in the proposed inquiry into certain aspects of Australia's antiterrorism laws?

Ms Noble: Yes, he will. That falls within his remit.

Ms Wimmer: If I can refer back to the last estimates: Mr Walker actually stated that he anticipated his interaction with the COAG review would be in the nature of frequent, intimate sharing of information and opinions.

Senator RHIANNON: To move onto that—and maybe this is one for the minister—it does seem extraordinary that there is a very overdue COAG review of laws and that the government is looking at another inquiry with a view to expanding powers before the COAG review is finished. Is that a fair summary of where it is at, Minister?

Senator Chris Evans: If the question is the term 'extraordinary a fair summary', no.

Senator RHIANNON: Well, is it—

Senator Chris Evans: I think you were trying to make a political point, Senator. It was not so much a question.

Senator RHIANNON: I would ask you to comment then, if that is the way you would prefer it to go. We have an overdue COAG review of laws—we have just established that—and the government is looking to another inquiry where it has been stated that it will expand its powers. Is that a fair summary, Minister?

Senator Chris Evans: I might get one of the officers to explain the objectives of both and possible claimed overlap might be the clearest way to respond.

Ms Noble: Are you referring to the work underway now to consider amendments to the telecommunications interception act and the ASIO Act.

Senator RHIANNON: No, I was referring to the one that we had just discussed, the COAG counter-terrorism review, where it was agreed that it is going a bit slower than we expected. It has not actually started. We are hoping we will hear the names in the middle of the year and then it gets going. But, in the meantime, the government has come forward with this other inquiry and with a stated plan to expand powers.

Senator Chris Evans: Which inquiry?

Senator RHIANNON: The one announced by the Attorney-General.

Ms Noble: I think that inquiry is related to considerations of amendments to the telecommunications interception act and the ASIO Act, and I think the Attorney-General's Portfolio would be a far better place to answer detailed questions about what that might entail.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes, my colleague Senator Scott Ludlam is looking after that. I was just interested in gaining the minister's response on that, but I think we can move on.

Senator Chris Evans: Senator, it is not for me to suggest the questions, but I suspect your question might go to what the involvement of PM&C is in that inquiry, and the relationship between the two. I do not want you to go away expecting that A-G's will then necessarily answer that. Maybe one of the officers can explain PM&C's perspective on that particular inquiry.

Mr Sadleir: It is a matter which is led by the Attorney-General's Department. PM&C does attend IDCs in which these three tranches of activity are being considered: the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act reform process, further intelligence legislation reform and some telecommunications sector security reform material. AGD is best placed to comment on it, but we have certainly been part of a process where it has been agreed that that will go to the PJCIS for a set of inquiries—and, as I understand it, the Attorney-General has made that public.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Because of time, I would like to move on to briefings that may have been provided to the Prime Minister about the Sri Lankan high commissioner. At the estimates in October 2011, I asked if the Prime Minister had been made aware of allegations concerning the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia that are the subject of a submission from the International Commission of Jurists Australia that has been given to the Australian Federal Police. Dr McCarthy stated at those last estimates:

I can say that advice on that matter was provided …

As there have been considerable developments with respect to the Sri Lankan high commissioner's role as naval commander in the Sri Lankan war, could you inform the committee if the Prime Minister has been updated with the latest developments. I refer here to comments that were made in an inquiry undertaken in Sri Lanka. In a representation made to the Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation appointed by the President of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia, Mr Samarasinghe, said he 'commanded the northern naval area in 2008, until February 2009'. In his words:

… before I took over at the helm until July I was handling operations at Navy headquarters.

It has also been noted in the Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, where SLA is the Sri Lanka Army and NFZ stands for 'no-fire zone':

From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ, from all directions, including land, air and sea.

Has the Prime Minister made aware that the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia handled operations at navy headquarters when the Sri Lanka Army was continuously shelling the no-fire zone from all directions, including the sea?

Ms Tsirbas: Just a point of clarification, Senator: what was the date of those references that you just read out to us?

Senator RHIANNON: One is from the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation—that is the one that was set up by the President of Sri Lanka. The commission's report was released at the end of last year, as far as I am aware, but it was expected that it would be released earlier. So you may have become aware of it earlier than at the end of last year.

Ms Tsirbas: Certainly. In relation to the advice that was provided to the Prime Minister, you may be aware from the previous Senate estimates hearing that the government drew on all relevant sources of information in reaching its decision to agree to Admiral Samarasinghe's appointment, including the UN Secretary-General's panel of experts report, which makes no reference to the admiral. More broadly, you would also be aware that the Australian Federal Police is evaluating the information contained in the International Commission of Jurists report into the allegations of Sri Lankan war crimes, which I think draws upon some of the same information that you read out to us. In relation to this, the government takes allegations of war crimes very seriously. The Prime Minister was briefed, as was outlined by the National Security Advisor at the previous hearing, on several occasions in relation to this matter. The department provided briefs to the Prime Minister on Sri Lanka on 28 March 2011, 23 August 2011 and October 2011.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you for your response. The dates that you gave were all last year. You did say she was briefed on several occasions re this matter. I have provided information with the direct quotes from the Sri Lankan government's own Commission of Inquiry into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, and also the report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka. I understand that both those reports have become publicly available since the last briefing the Prime Minister was given in 2011. Considering these developments, do you have plans to give the Prime Minister a further briefing about this information?

Ms Tsirbas: My information is that the sources of information that were drawn upon in briefing the Prime Minister included the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Expert's report, which made no reference to Admiral Samarasinghe; however, the question of whether reference was made to the other report that you mentioned, I will have to take on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: I still find it unclear. Considering the UN report came out before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation report, surely the Prime Minister would need to be updated on the latest information, which actually comes from the Sri Lankan government itself.

Ms Tsirbas: I will take that question on notice—as to whether that report was specifically referred to.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. Has the Prime Minister been made aware that both Germany and Switzerland have had their Sri Lankan High Commissioner Jugath Dias recalled after the Swiss government contacted the Sri Lankan government regarding accusations that General Dias ordered troops of the 57th Division, which he commanded, to fire on civilian and hospital targets during the army's final defensive against the separatist Tamils in 2009? Has she been made aware of this development.

Ms Tsirbas: Again, I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Has the Prime Minister been made aware that the defence adviser to the Sri Lankan high commissioner in London, Major Prasanna De Silva, is also returning to Sri Lanka? Has the Prime Minister been made aware that the Sri Lankan high commissioner was named in the Channel 4 UK documentary 'Sri Lanka's killing fields' as having allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final stages of the civil war. Could you take that on notice, please?

Ms Tsirbas: Certainly.

Back to All News