Monday, 16 March 2009
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. I refer to a request I made under freedom of information for documents relating to the Oceanic Viking’s trip to observe Japanese whaling during the summer before last and a request for the release of the tapes of the whaling. The government, in its refusal to release those tapes, said that the Japanese government had been upset by the release of a short amount of video and that the government did not want to upset the Japanese government by the release of a further video showing its harpooning, killing and flensing of whales in and outside Australian waters. How on earth could the government refrain from releasing video material of Japanese whaling because it might upset the whalers?
Senator Brown, can I indicate that I will take the question but I believe the decision on the FOI request is in the Minister for Home Affairs’ portfolio, which I also represent, just for future clarification. I am advised that there was a freedom of information request in relation to footage taken last year.
The footage from the Customs and Border Protection Service and the application for freedom of information in relation to that footage, through you, Mr President to Senator Brown, is a matter within the Minister for Home Affairs’ portfolio because Customs is within the Home Affairs portfolio. That was the explanation I was giving. The actual decision not to release was made by Customs. In relation to that footage, I understand that media outlets have sought release of all footage from the Customs and Border Protection Service under freedom of information. It is the case that Customs has declined to release the footage. This is a decision consistent with previous government statements on this matter. The senator may recall that, in February 2008, the government did release limited footage because it was overwhelmingly in the public interest, but the advice the government heeded at the time was to restrict the amount released to protect any future legal action. I again reiterate that Australia’s position on the issue of commercial and so-called scientific Japanese whaling is clear: the government remains absolutely opposed to it. We have taken unprecedented steps to see it end through a range of strategies, including high-level diplomatic engagement and advancing a comprehensive reform agenda through the International Whaling Commission. Obviously, freedom of information decisions can be reviewed by the agency involved, by the AAT or by the Ombudsman. I again confirm in relation to that refusal— (Time expired)
Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The response from the minister for the environment’s department includes this statement:
The Japanese Government expressed through diplomatic channels its regret that a small number of whaling images were released … and requested that the Australian Government deal with the issue calmly so as not damage the bilateral relationship.
Therefore, the government decided it would obsequiously refuse to release the full film of the whaling. I ask the minister: who made that decision? Was it not the minister for the environment? Was the Prime Minister involved? And why did the minister for the environment take five months to relay this information to me after the decision was made?
Through you, Mr President, I would take on notice the last part of Senator Brown’s question about the time frame. I do not have any information on that. In relation to the decision, I reiterate the advice with which I have been provided, which is that the decision not to release the footage was a matter for Customs and is consistent with previous government statements on this matter. I also understand that the refusal was based on sections 33 and 37 of the Freedom of Information Act. Section 37 includes reference to information related to the conduct of an investigation and, under section 37(2)(b), prejudicing the effectiveness of lawful methods of investigation and detection. As I said, the advice I have been provided with is that the decision not to release the footage was a matter for Customs.
Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. It says explicitly, under ‘Reasons for the findings and decisions not to release that footage’ that the documents affected national security, defence and international relations, but nothing whatever to do with Customs. It goes on to say:
The further release of images or data would adversely affect the confidence Japan would have in our diplomatic efforts to achieve an end to scientific whaling. Such releases would also likely harm Australia’s interests in a range of areas where we cooperate with Japan.
Is this not an obsequious decision by the Rudd government to back down at the first bit of pressure from Japan because it simply did not like the bloody business of whaling and the pictures of it being released to the world public?
I do not accept Senator Brown’s interpretation of the decision. As I have said, the decision not to release was a decision for Customs. I again say that the government did release footage in February 2008 because it was overwhelmingly in the public interest, on advice that the government heeded on that occasion to restrict the amount released to protect any future legal action. The Australian government’s position in relation to whaling remains absolutely clear. We remain opposed to it and since coming to government we have taken unprecedented steps on the diplomatic front and also through the International Whaling Commission to progress this issue and to demonstrate our opposition to commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling.