Thursday, 6 March 2014
Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee; Report
I would like to put a few things on record in relation to this report. That includes the fact that coalition members did not agree with the majority findings of this committee. I wanted to go through some of the issues that were dealt with, some of the reasons we took a very different approach, some of the hypocrisy of the Labor Party in particular on this issue when it comes to the production of documents and also the recklessness of the attitude of the Greens and the Labor Party in relation to such documents and claims of public interest immunity.
We know the recognised grounds for public interest immunity, and the dissenting report goes to this. It includes a range of things: prejudice to legal proceedings and to law enforcement investigations; damage to commercial interests; invasion of privacy; disclosure of executive council or cabinet deliberations; prejudice to national security or defence; and prejudice to Australia's international relations or relations between the Commonwealth and the states.
We heard a lot of evidence in relation to the government's views on this issue, particularly from people like Lieutenant General Angus Campbell. I wanted to go to some of the evidence that he put to the committee as to why public interest immunity was important in this case. I will come later to some of the claims of public interest immunity that were made by the former government which I would submit to the Senate were of a far less serious nature and could only be characterised in those circumstances as being completely political. This goes to the hypocrisy of the Labor Party on this issue. Lieutenant General Campbell outlined the importance of confidentiality in regards to Operation Sovereign Borders when he said:
These documents may reveal the location, capacity, patrol and tactical routines relevant to Navy and Customs vessels and air assets.
He further outlined:
Such information can undermine our tactical advantage over people smugglers who seek to use this information to avoid or trigger detection or to precipitate a search and rescue response. Information of this type can also undermine our ability to protect illegal maritime arrivals from the practices of people smugglers and other serious criminal activities. Finally, it can undermine more generally the effectiveness of Australian assets to maintain maritime security awareness in the broad sense.
Lieutenant General Campbell also said:
Secondly, the kinds of documents that are sought, from my perspective, may enable an exploitation of confidential methodologies and procedures used by Navy and Customs vessels and assets. Information about the arrival of ventures, including the timing of the arrival and the composition of passengers, can be used by people smugglers—and has been used by people smugglers—to provide proof of arrival and the basis of payment, provide a basis for further positive marketing of their business and undermine communication strategies aimed at potential illegal immigrants.
He made a very compelling case, in my view, about the importance of not releasing these documents.
You can understand that the Greens, who have never been and never will be in government, want this. But it is not clear to me why the Labor Party—who were in government recently and apparently aspire to one day be back in government—would want such information in the public realm. Why would a party aspiring to government even consider having documents such as these, which, Lieutenant General Campbell has made crystal clear, undermine our tactical advantage in dealing with people smugglers and put our personnel at risk, put in the public realm? Lieutenant General Campbell goes on:
Finally, these documents may impact upon Australia's relations with foreign states and damage those relationships, undermining the potential for international agreements and cooperative behaviours and also the working relationships necessary between operational agencies in relation to safety of life at sea or generally on-water cooperative operations.
He makes a very compelling case.
When we think about the disgraceful attacks we have seen from the Labor Party on Lieutenant General Campbell, there are a couple of points that need to be made. Lieutenant General Campbell is doing a fine job in the service of the Australian people in the task that he has been asked to do in stopping the boats. I think the attacks are even more disgraceful because Lieutenant General Campbell has made it very clear—publicly on the record and many times in the committee—that it is critically important to the success of Operation Sovereign Borders that the information flow is controlled and that it is not given to the people smugglers. He has made that clear, he said that is his advice to government and the government has followed that advice.
So, when we see these kind of attacks from the Labor Party on Lieutenant General Campbell, we can only assume that they are suggesting that he is not sincere in that belief. I believe he is sincere in that belief, I believe he has given his best professional advice and I believe that best professional advice has been taken by the minister of the day in implementing this important policy. So all of these claims that somehow Lieutenant General Campbell has just been put in a bad position by the government and is somehow being politicised by the government are wrong. It is the Labor Party that has politicised his position. He is doing a fine job. The important point here is that he has given the advice and he has formed the view. This is what he is told the committee—that he has formed the view that this is critical to the success of Operation Sovereign Borders. I, for one, accept his assertions. I, for one, accept his evidence as being truthful and as being completely valid. That is why the minister has taken that advice and that is why we are seeing success. That is one of the reasons we are seeing success.
When Lieutenant General Campbell has appeared before the committee, he has emphasised many times that this is an important aspect. There are a whole range of aspects in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders and why it is working, but the control of information is a critically important point, and the point was made by Lieutenant General Campbell on a number of occasions. I think he has been subjected to some unfair attacks. We have seen some of the ridiculous questioning from the Greens on these issues, including references to fictional, TV programs, which I think is unbecoming for senators.
We heard from the Clerk of the Senate, and I also thank the Clerk for her contribution to this inquiry. She said:
There are parliamentary mechanisms, however, such as the receipt of evidence in camera or the provision of confidential briefings, which balance the right of the body of elected representatives to know against the public interest in that particular information remaining confidential.
Mr Morrison has provided regular briefings. He has also offered confidential briefings to the Labor Party and the Greens. As I understand it, no member of the Greens has taken up that offer. The shadow spokesman from the Greens has been offered a confidential briefing. If you are generally interested in getting the information, wouldn't that be at least a first step to acquaint yourself with the facts? But the Greens have not bothered. So I can only suggest that this is merely political. They are not really interested in the information; they are more interested in making a big deal of the fact that they cannot get the information—even though they have been offered confidential briefings in relation to it. Minister Morrison has provided regular briefings on a number of aspects of this.
I want to touch on the hypocrisy of the Labor Party on this issue in relation to their performance in government when it comes to public interest immunity claims and failure to provide documents. I asked a question of the Clerk on the claims in relation to the 42nd and 43rd parliaments. In evidence to the committee, the Clerk of the Senate stated that 'it was not uncommon' for ministers to refuse orders for the production of documents and:
It is certainly a fact that there is a degree of noncompliance with orders for production of documents.
I would suggest that that may be an understatement. I also asked a question about how many times in the 42nd Parliament the Labor Party did not comply with orders for the production of documents. In the 42nd Parliament there were 63 orders for the production of documents, 33 of which were not complied with. The orders not complied with included documents on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the NBN, the Oceanic Viking, the Home Insulation Program, the mako shark, the porbeagle shark, grants for sports facilities, chemotherapy treatment and budget cuts. In the 43rd Parliament there were 53 orders for the production of documents, 26 of which were not complied with. There were nine orders relating to the mining tax and three on live cattle exports. There were orders relating to the NBN, the Home Insulation Program—the list goes on and on.
We have a situation where the Greens, who always call for information, have not taken some of the confidential briefings that were offered to them. We have had a compelling case put by the government, and by Lieutenant General Campbell, as to why this would put people at risk and undermine the effectiveness of this policy. I put it again to Labor senators: what do you have to gain by seeing this information in the public realm? Why would you want to arm the people smugglers with this type of information? It is well recognised that this type of information has often had public interest immunity about it. I commend the dissenting report to the Senate. (Time expired)