Senate debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


Special Purpose Flights; Order for the Production of Documents

3:37 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I note the order for the production of documents No. 309. The Senate, in relation to that, agreed:

… security agencies are best placed to complete threat assessments in relation to the security of politicians and their families;

I also note that, in the same order, the Senate also agreed that the Minister representing the Minister for Defence must comply with the order 'to the extent such information can be provided consistent with advice from security agencies'. I can confirm that the order was complied with consistent with the terms agreed to by the Senate. Further, I note the status of the order, as recorded in the document compiled by the Department of the Senate, is 'Order complied with'.

For the additional information of senators, I can also advise that, consistent with the order for the production of documents No. 311, the government has provided a copy of the revised draft special-purpose aircraft guidelines to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security along with a confidential briefing with agencies that inform the special-purpose aircraft guidelines. I thank the Senate.

3:38 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm actually the President.

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, President. I note the response from the minister.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you moving to take note of the response?

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

There was a complete failure on the part of the minister to engage with the issue that a majority in this House took issue with. The original order for the production of documents included all guidelines in relation to special-purpose flights. This is a matter of significant public concern. There were millions and millions and millions of dollars of now secret flights taken by Defence Minister Marles and other senior ministers. I note, in saying that, that in fact the foreign minister, who you would think would be at the top of the list for special-purpose flights, given the nature of the portfolio, is a relative minnow in this space.

The ministers that have been taking millions and millions of dollars worth of flights start with the defence minister, and the defence minister is refusing to say where those flights began and where they ended. The notional argument about not providing that information is that 'somebody in the AFP has got a concern that it might disclose a pattern of life'. These are meant to be special-purpose flights—extraordinary flights—not standard flights. It's not a taxi from Geelong to Sydney. They're meant to only be special-purpose flights. If they're showing a pattern, get a commercial flight, because commercial flights are designed for where there is a pattern.

So we've had the government refuse to disclose where the flights began and where they ended and refuse to disclose the advice on which that was based. Then we had the defence minister say to the parliament, in answer to questions in the other place—it was put on the record—that the government is fully complying with the guidelines when it comes to the disclosure of special-purpose flights. That's what Minister Marles said: 'The government fully complies with the guidelines on special-purpose flights.'

We found out through this OPD that the only guidelines that are in place are now a bit over a decade old and that those guidelines require six-monthly disclosure of all the information, which Minister Marles has refused to do. So, on the one hand, he said in answers to questions in the other place that the government has fully complied with the guidelines. Then we found out through the OPD and the documents that were produced under Senate order that the only guidelines that are in place are those guidelines from more than a decade ago, which require the full disclosure of the flights. Then we found out that there are in fact draft guidelines. The OPD required the production of all guidelines. That includes draft and final guidelines.

So we got a response from the government to the OPD that refused to provide the draft guidelines. Then we found out that the government, whilst insulting the Senate and not providing it to the Senate, did indeed provide those draft guidelines to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security—a gross discourtesy and flouting of the authority of the Senate. The government has said they can choose who they produce the draft guidelines to. They've chosen to provide them to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and they've thumbed their nose at the Senate. Then the response from Minister Wong didn't even mention it. It's a contemptuous response from the leader of the government in this chamber. It's utterly contemptuous of the Senate. It's an utterly, shamelessly contemptuous response from the leader of the government that doesn't even mention the core issue—the failure to produce the draft guidelines. What on earth could be the secrecy of draft guidelines? (Time expired)

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.

3:48 pm

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

I remember the Labor Party going on about the last election, because this blue team over here had no transparency, didn't want to know about accountability and had no integrity. I tell you what? By gee whiz! Oh, my goodness me! What a let down! You took a promise to the Australian people about accountability, integrity, trust and transparency, and it's all blown out of the water already. It's absolutely amazing!

This is absolute rubbish, if I've seen anything on special-purpose-aircraft flights. I don't give a stuff about your guidelines, to be honest with you, because this is rubbish. Unless it is a national security factor, there should be no reason to hide the names of those people that were on those aircraft. There is absolutely no reason for that, apart from your lack of accountability over here in the Labor Party. That's what you promised at the last election. By the way, the Australian people had faith that you would produce that this term. You have failed to do so. They lost the election as part of that, but you have not been able to stay on the line and deliver what you promised to the Australian people.

In absolutely blows me away when you talk in this place about national security. You have an absolute lack of understanding of it. Like I said, there is absolutely no reason for your name not to be released if you are on a special-purpose aircraft, unless there is a national security issue. That is rubbish. It's taxpayers' money that you're using to fly. They want to know who is in there and why they're in there. That's what they want to know. You are flying around this country in those aircraft and you still can't be transparent about it. Goodness me. What a disgrace this Senate has become because of both the major parties. You wonder why Australians have absolutely no trust in us and have no respect whatsoever for us here. I thought you people were coming here to restore those values in the Australian people, and you have failed to do so. Why does that not surprise me?

This is rubbish having to waste time talking about getting a passenger manifest basically so that people can see what is going on. You can't do that? It's an absolute disgrace. In the meantime you're using guidelines and are chucking them over here. Do you have any idea of the look out there across this country today? Do you have any idea what they're thinking? I can tell you now.

You keep doing this. This is great for the next federal election. People have had enough. They have absolutely had enough of this. You had an opportunity to be open and honest with the Australian people over something so simple, but you blew it with this. Once again you're no better than the blue team, and that's why they lost the last election. I'm sure the Greens want some more members here in the Senate. JLN is going in all states in the Senate next time round in the federal election. You might want to do what you promised the Australian people and be transparent and honest. There's not one excuse—and don't use the excuse of national security—why these names cannot be out there.

Senator Wong wasted 10 minutes of taxpayers' money and time today coming in here with some drivel. It was absolutely rubbish. It's a disgrace. You have a good think about that because, quite frankly, we're going to keep coming. There is no reason to hide who was on those VIP flights. If you can't tell us, I have to ask: what are you hiding? Have we had too many family members running around? Have you had people on there that you don't want others to know you're associated with? Have we got union members or golf buddies? What's going on here?

Anyway, you let us all know when you're big enough to pass those manifests over so that we can see who was on those flights, instead of trying to hide everything under a rock. It is not helpful in this nation. That is why they have no trust in us. Quite frankly, I don't blame Australians. I wouldn't have any trust in us either, and I don't. Start being transparent and start getting the job done.

Question agreed to.