Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


Special Purpose Flights; Order for the Production of Documents

3:43 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

Special-purpose aircraft are an important asset available to the Australian government and the government of the day. I would contend that at times they have been arguably underutilised by different governments. We are a G20 country. We're the 13th largest economy in the world, but we happen to be the most remote, the most distant, of those large economies. So using the SPAs is something we should acknowledge and something we should support our ministers and the Prime Minister to use, particularly for their international duties. But with that acknowledgement comes the importance of accountability for the use of special-purpose aircraft as well.

Reporting on SPAs has contained a costings approach that, frankly, I find somewhere between curious and dubious at times. It's a costings approach that creates multimillion dollar price tags, as was just referred to, and therefore a political deterrent to the use of those aircraft. The real test of transparency around special-purpose aircraft, a real test of accountability, shouldn't be some abstract dollar figure but, instead, if the flights are being used appropriately. That's where the importance of guidelines around the use of flights is critical.

We have released the February 2013 guidelines, which make clear that special-purpose aircraft can be used, but needing to be taken into account are factors, including the availability of flights on major domestic airlines, what alternative transport options are available and the reasons those alternative transport options are unsuitable.

We can only assume those 2013 guidelines remain in effect, because the government has only referred to the existence of draft guidelines being in existence, aside from these 2013 lines. Yes, the government has released a version of those draft guidelines to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. As a member of that committee, I have viewed those guidelines. I take my responsibilities as a member of that committee seriously. Membership of that committee is governed by obligations under the Intelligence Services Act. So, without revealing the contents of what was provided in that committee hearing, I do make two observations.

The first is that nothing in those draft guidelines in themselves is sensitive, nor would prevent their release to this Senate, nor their release publicly. They are no more sensitive than the previous guidelines that have been publicly released.

The second observation I would make is that the government has applied, in the reporting on special-purpose aircraft use that has been released, a greater level of restrictions and removal of information than was actually recommended in the security advice. Indeed, you don't need to be a member of PJCIS to know that, because there was released to the Senate a briefing paper of the security coordination group, dated 22 February 2023. This paper importantly identifies that the names of some passengers should be redacted, whereas what we've seen is that there are no names of any passengers provided in what has been released to the public or the Senate.

Importantly, this security advice, as well, has a statement:

The review focused only on security considerations surrounding the special purpose aircraft guidelines, and did not address accountability and transparency considerations.

These are recommended to be addressed by other government mechanisms before the special purpose aircraft guidelines are formalised and publicly released.

This advice was received in February. It's now October. What has the government done about the 'accountability and transparency considerations' that its own security agency identified needed to be considered as part of the guidelines?

We take the security advice seriously, but there's an inconsistency between security advice that is being applied to special-purpose aircraft but is not apparently part of considerations for IPEA in the reporting of commercial travel services, which you would think would reveal a greater level of pattern-of-life activity. So there are inconsistencies from the government in their approach, there has been a failure to respond to their own department recommendation around transparency and there is a failure to provide accountability to this Senate. That's why the government needs to be far more open about what is happening with the special-purpose aircraft.


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