[Extracted from Finance & Public Admin Senate Hansard, 10 February 2003, pp.48-61]
CHAIR-I call the committee to order and call the witnesses from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I warmly welcome Senator Hill, the Minister for Defence, Mr Metcalfe and officers from the department. Senator Hill, do you wish to make an opening statement?
Senator Hill-No, Mr Chairman.
CHAIR-We will start with general questions from Senator Faulkner.
Senator FAULKNER-I have a question or two arising from an answer to a question on notice about a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cable in relation to the SIEVX-that is, F&PA No. 134, to identify the question number for the benefit of Mr Metcalfe. Where in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was that particular cable received, Mr Metcalfe? I note that the former secretary to the department, Mr Moore-Wilton, was one of the list of recipients and that the Prime Minister is a listed recipient. Mr Moore-Wilton is listed with the word 'action'. I do not know if that is different from a range of others. Mr Metcalfe, can you help us, please?
Mr Metcalfe-My understanding is that all cables to the department are received within the International Division of the department, which has the necessary communications contacts with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In this case, a copy would have gone to the then secretary, and a copy would have gone to the relevant area of the department responsible for dealing with the issues associated with illegal immigration.
Senator FAULKNER-Do we know when the cable we are referring to was received? We know when it was sent.
Mr Metcalfe-I imagine it was received soon thereafter. We would have to check as to precisely when it was received in the department and when it was passed on-along with many other cables, I suspect-to the action area, which was in the Social Policy Division.
Senator FAULKNER-The People Smuggling Task Force is not specifically identified in relation to the action or recipients of this particular cable, or at least I was not able to identify it. Is someone able to tell me whether the task force would have received a copy of this?
Mr Metcalfe-I can speak as a former member of the task force in my previous department. To my knowledge, the task force was never identified as a particular entity for the receipt of cables; rather, the constituent members of the task force would have received relevant cables in their normal course of action. For example, there is probably a copy here that would have gone to the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, and I would have seen that copy. The copy that came into the Prime Minister's department would have been dealt with by the people involved with the task force in that department.
Senator FAULKNER-The cable's classification is 'restricted', which is basically the lowest classification.
Mr Metcalfe-That is correct.
Senator FAULKNER-So we can say that it did not go to the People Smuggling Task Force. We can also say that it may have come across the desk of individuals who may have been members of or who were attending task force meetings. Is that the status?
Mr Metcalfe-That is correct. There was no address as far as cable distributions to the task force as an entity, but the key people on the task force would have received the cable, as you can see from the distribution list. At the back I think we have the department of foreign affairs version of the cable, and the personal names that appear there are essentially the senior officers within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The cable would have gone to other departments and agencies such as Coastwatch, Immigration and so on.
Senator FAULKNER-If you look at the second sentence of the cable, at the start of the summary, it says:
The SIEV is believed to have foundered in rough seas to the south of Sunda St within the Indonesian maritime search and rescue area of responsibility.
From your knowledge, would you agree that that area is in international waters?
Mr Metcalfe-I do not think that sentence allows you to draw a conclusion as to exactly whose territorial waters it was or whether it was international waters; it simply says that it was south of the Sunda Strait-the key passage between Sumatra and Java. And it was certainly within the Indonesian maritime search and rescue area.
Senator FAULKNER-Let us go to a more specific reference in paragraph 6 of the cable, which reads:
The exact position of vessel at the time of sinking is unknown, but it is judged as no further south than 8 degrees south latitude on a direct line from Sunda St to Christmas Is.
Does that help?
Mr Metcalfe-Again, I do not have the information in front of me as to where Indonesian waters started or finished or what were international waters. The cable says that it was eight degrees south; I just do not know where that puts you on a map. I do know that other committees have extensively looked at the position and the location of the vessel, but this was a report contemporaneous with the initial reports of the rescue, I think, based on some debriefings from some of the other passengers. At that time, this was the information we have as to where it had occurred, but I suspect that the parliament has heard a lot more information and opinions as to exactly where the vessel was.
Senator FAULKNER-Yes, but now we have a copy of the cable as a result of the answer to a question on notice that has only effectively just been received that lends further evidence to the fact that this vessel sank not in Indonesian waters but in international waters and that this information was passed to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. That is why I am interested in understanding what happened to the cable once it got there. You say that it would have gone to the appropriate area. Is it possible to track down which PM&C officers would have had responsibility for dealing with this cable?
Mr Metcalfe-Certainly we can undertake to try to find out precisely who saw it and when. A restricted level cable of this nature would be logged as to where it was sent to, precisely who saw it and precisely the time they saw it. I will just have to check back and see whether there is information that goes to that degree of specificity.
Senator FAULKNER-What about Mr Moore-Wilton's copy of the cable? What would happen there? Would it go directly to him, would it go to an executive assistant or what?
Mr Metcalfe-It would go to his executive assistant, who would then forward the cables on to him. Just because his name is mentioned does not mean that automatically he would see the cable. As you can imagine, there are hundreds of cables every day about many different subjects. So we would have to check specifically as to whether this particular cable was seen by him. Ms Halton was the relevant executive coordinator and chair of the task force at the time. Similarly, her executive assistant would have received a copy, and I imagine that she would have seen it. The officers within the Social Policy Division who were supporting the task force I imagine would have seen it. To the extent we can, we can try to track down who saw it and when they saw it.
Senator FAULKNER-So what are we to make of the fact that all of these cables have Mr Moore-Wilton noted as an action officer-that he does not see them at all?
Mr Metcalfe-I am not saying that; I am just saying that we would have to check, because there are many cables and only a small number would require the personal attention of the secretary. Just because someone in the classification area within Foreign Affairs decides that something needs to be actioned by the secretary does not mean that it necessarily needs to be actioned by the secretary. That decision is taken within PM&C.
Senator FAULKNER-But you surely would accept that this is an issue that became very prominent during a highly sensitive period of the political cycle-namely, during an election campaign-about a matter that received a lot of comment and more than a little notoriety.
Mr Metcalfe-It certainly was a very significant issue when it happened. I do not want to get into a discussion about whether something did or did not happen, because I was not there at the time and I cannot answer directly. But I can certainly check as to who saw it. It is very likely that Mr Moore-Wilton would have seen the copy-he was certainly closely interested in these issues-but I would need to take that on notice.
Senator FAULKNER-We do know of course that during the campaign the Prime Minister said on Radio 6PR with Paul Murray on 23 October 2001 that the vessel sank in Indonesian waters. We know he said the same thing on 23 October in the announcement of the government's border protection policy at Observation City, Scarborough. We know the date of this cable. Even if those two comments about the vessel sinking in Indonesian waters predate the receipt of the cable, the Prime Minister's repeating that the boat sank in Indonesian waters to Liam Bartlett on Radio 6WF on 24 October, on the Today Show on Channel 9 on 29 October 2001 and in his address to the National Press Club during the question and answer period just a couple of days before the election, on 8 November 2001, certainly do not. On each of those occasions, Mr Howard said again and again that the sinking of this boat occurred in Indonesian waters, when there was a cable that went to him-to the Prime Minister's office-and to the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet saying that was not the case.
Mr Metcalfe-It certainly says that the vessel sank in the Indonesian search and rescue zone.
Senator FAULKNER-We know the difference between Indonesian waters and the Indonesian search and rescue zone.
Mr Metcalfe-I am just making the observation that the cable is quite clear. I do not know what other information was available to people at the time, but I understand the information in this cable was provided following a debriefing of some of the survivors. I do not know if they knew precisely where they were, but the cable says they were eight degrees south, in the Indonesian search and rescue zone. So I do not know where that really leaves us, Senator, apart from the fact that it was in the Indonesian search and rescue zone.
Senator FAULKNER-It leaves us is with a cable that contradicts what the Prime Minister said throughout the election campaign, and that was certainly received by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Prime Minister's office. That is where it leaves us. That is why I would like to know- and I appreciate and accept you do not have that information to hand-who actually received this cable; when it was received by the department and, if possible, by the Prime Minister's office; and then what happened in terms of this cable being brought to the attention of senior officials in PM&C and also the Prime Minister's office. I am sorry to have to ask you that information on notice, Mr Metcalfe. I know that you were working in another department during this period, but I suspect there is no other officer here who can assist us. If there is, by all means-we would love to hear from them.
Mr Metcalfe-No. I think the relevant people, those involved in the issue, have now moved on elsewhere.
Senator FAULKNER-Yes, I know. That is nearly everyone, isn't it? Everyone has moved on elsewhere.
Mr Metcalfe-It is the nature of careers that people move on.
Senator FAULKNER-Not on this occasion.
Senator ROBERT RAY-It is a conspiracy, Mr Metcalfe!
Senator FAULKNER-No, it is not a conspiracy-
Senator ROBERT RAY-It is a reward for effort.
Senator FAULKNER-Yes, it is a deliberate tactic.
Senator BRANDIS-Maybe your answers have not moved on!
Senator FAULKNER-It is just a deliberate tactic-and fair enough. That is the advantage of incumbents. Even Mr Moore-Wilton has moved on. He was the last card in the deck, and now he has gone. Everyone has gone to greener pastures-everyone who was involved in this lie and deceit during the last election campaign.
Mr Metcalfe-I can simply repeat two things. Firstly, to the extent that I can assist the committee by taking on notice the detailed handling of the document, I will. Secondly, I know that extensive evidence has been given to other committees about the location of the vessel, but this cable quite clearly indicates that this vessel was in the Indonesian search and rescue zone of responsibility.
Senator FAULKNER-But why did it take the department so long to cough this cable up? That is something I hope you can help me with, Mr Metcalfe.
Mr Metcalfe-Ms Belcher might be able to assist me on this. My understanding is that it was originally asked about halfway through last year and that Ms Halton undertook, or possibly undertook, to provide the cable during one of her appearances before the certain maritime incident inquiry. We had this cable with us when we were here at estimates back in November and were prepared to table it at that stage. But, I think in a brief conversation we had, you said, 'No, I am happy to take it on notice.' So that is what we did and we have provided it on notice. Ms Belcher can advise as to why it was provided at this particular stage.
Ms Belcher-There was in fact an administrative oversight initially. It had been taken on notice by Ms Halton and it had not been brought to attention at the right moment to ensure that you received it before the committee's reporting date. It was identified just as we were coming into the November hearings and we brought it with us then. There was an issue that caused a slight delay after that. On looking at the cable, in my case, for the first time, I wondered why particular material was being proposed for deletion and I questioned that and the material was released. There were some minor delays, but at no stage was there, as far as I am aware, any intention to cause a deliberate delay.
Senator FAULKNER-So you are satisfied, Ms Belcher, that the deletions from the cable are appropriate.
Ms Belcher-I do not know what is in the blacked-out bits. I have been given reasons from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that I have accepted at face value. Other officers in PM&C have seen those parts. The only way to explain it is to be absolutely explicit: the list of addressees was initially deleted and I questioned that.
Senator FAULKNER-The list of addressees was initially deleted?
Mr Metcalfe-Someone originally proposed that in providing this cable to the committee not only should there be deletions of the areas within the body of the cable where there is a deletion made but also that the address list at the back-which I think probably mentions a lot of names of officers in Foreign Affairs-be deleted. Ms Belcher queried this and, upon reflection, the advice was that there was no need for that to be deleted. It is not an issue that goes to the content and there was an administrative process to make sure the committee got the fullest possible version of the cable, which you now have.
Senator FAULKNER-But isn't the embarrassment with the addressees that it includes Mr Moore-Wilton and the Prime Minister? It contains in a cabled dated 23 October 2001 a clear indication-regardless of what you say about the Indonesian search and rescue zone, because everybody knows that the Indonesian search and rescue zone goes further south than Christmas Island; that has got nothing to do with where the boat sank or whether it was in Indonesian or international waters and the Prime Minister consistently misled on that issue right through the election campaign-
CHAIR-Senator Faulkner, that is not for you to question.
Senator FAULKNER-I beg your pardon.
CHAIR-That is not a question; that is the statement.
Senator FAULKNER-Thank for your intervention, Mr Chairman.
Senator BRANDIS-It is not only a statement but in breach of the standing orders about casting reflections on members of other parliaments.
CHAIR-Senator Faulkner understands that.
Senator BRANDIS-No, it is not nonsense, Senator Faulkner. You know the standing orders as well as I do.
Senator ROBERT RAY-You said 'mislead not deliberately'. Why don't you catch up on Senate practice?
CHAIR-Order, Senator Ray! Senator Faulkner, you have the call.
Senator FAULKNER-Can you rule on that point of order and then we will move on?
CHAIR-That is out of order.
Senator FAULKNER-Exactly. Thank you.
Mr Metcalfe-Can I respond to Senator Faulkner's question. From what I understand, this initial view about deletions of names was a view within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where the cable had come from. You would be hard pressed to ascribe any motivation there to delete the former secretary's name or the Prime Minister's officer's name or whatever because, frankly, cables are available to senior people. I suspect it was probably just a pro forma type thing, 'Let's just blank out the names on the back of all of those DFAT officers who were mentioned.' It was because Ms Belcher very properly undertook her role in assisting the committee as fulsomely as possible that allowed the committee to see those names. So there was no conspiracy. I suspect it was somebody in Foreign Affairs doing what they think was right and we overruled them.
Senator FAULKNER-The point remains, Mr Metcalfe, that somebody proposed a deletion for the recipients of the cable, including the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, for action-that is, Mr Moore- Wilton-and the Prime Minister. That is a fact of life. This cable is very important in correcting the misinformation that was provided by the Prime Minister in relation to the vessel SIEVX sinking in Indonesian waters, a statement that he repeatedly made during the election campaign. That is why it is significant.
Senator BRANDIS-That is not a question; it is the rearticulation of an assertion that has been disputed by the witness.
Senator Hill-And it is not the only evidence; it is another piece of material.
Senator FAULKNER-So you know why that names-
Senator Hill-No, of course I do not, but I also recall the relevant times being advised that it was understood that the boat had sunk in Indonesian waters. Subsequent to that, I can remember that there were confusing accounts, and here is another little piece of evidence.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-It is not in the least bit confusing.
Senator Hill-It depends whether you have already made up your mind.
Senator FAULKNER-You cannot help us with this, thank you.
CHAIR-Hold on, Senator.
Senator FAULKNER-He was not asked a question. He is now just editorialising, saying he cannot help us and doing it at some length.
Senator Hill-I was musing in the same way that Senator Faulkner was musing.
Senator ROBERT RAY-Musing but not amusing.
Senator FAULKNER-Ms Belcher, what was the administrative oversight you were referring to?
Ms Belcher-Simply that Ms Halton had taken a number of questions on notice and this one was overlooked when we were trying to tidy up that part of the questions taken on notice.
Senator FAULKNER-Have you drawn Ms Halton's error to her attention?
Ms Belcher-It was not Ms Halton's-
Senator FAULKNER-No, of course not! Whose was it?
Ms Belcher-She was no longer in the department.
Senator ROBERT RAY-Anastasia had moved on.
Ms Belcher-When she took questions on notice, it was up to PM&C to follow up those questions, not Ms Halton.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Ms Belcher, before you go further, I think you have a misunderstanding of what occurred in PM&C, and if you were not involved at that particular period that might be understandable, but a look at the committee's records at this stage will show us that the committee sought, through Ms Halton at the last hearing she attended, a copy of the 23 October DFAT cable and that we received an answer from PM&C, 'I understand PM&C is considering this request in conjunction with DFAT.' That was the answer we received to the question asked of Ms Halton halfway through last year. The concern we have is why the request for that was not responded to further than this answer on notice-that we were in dialogue with DFAT-until Senator Faulkner raised it again in estimates, and finally last Monday we get this document.
Mr Metcalfe-I am sorry to interrupt, but that was precisely what we pointed out before, that Ms Halton had taken it on notice, it had been handled by the department-
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-And responded.
Mr Metcalfe-It was responded to in the sense that we are thinking about it, but what then did not happen and what Ms Belcher has identified is that we did not go from thinking about it to saying, 'This has got to come back to the committee.'
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-So that is the administrative oversight?
Mr Metcalfe-Precisely. As I said earlier, we in fact had identified that by the time of the previous estimates and when it was raised-I forget exactly whether Senator Faulkner raised it or whether we raised it, or when it was raised-Senator Faulkner said, 'I'm happy for you to take it on notice.'
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-This was at the estimates time?
Mr Metcalfe-That is right, in November, and that has brought us to today. The only thing that has changed between November and now is that there is this issue about the deletion of the names. Even if you subscribe to conspiracy theories, which I do not, if we had provided you with a copy of the cable with addressees deleted, I think I know what the first question would have been-'Who did it go to and when?' I do not see that that was really going to get us anywhere and it was precisely, I suspect, because Foreign Affairs were routinely looking at the issue, whereas Ms Belcher, who understood the importance of the matter, overrode that and made sure that the committee got the fullest possible version of the cable.
Senator ROBERT RAY-Let us get the time lines right. In relation to the oversight following Ms Halton's evidence which was picked up in an estimates committee in November, what was the cut-off date then for taking that question on notice and providing it?
Ms Belcher-I think it was 3 January.
Mr Metcalfe-It was 17 January.
Ms Belcher-I am sorry, 17 January.
Senator ROBERT RAY-When was the answer provided?
Ms Belcher-3 February.
Senator ROBERT RAY-You may have partly answered this, but what was the reason for the gap between 17 January and 3 February?
Ms Belcher-Only that there were people on leave who were not able to clear the bulk of the answers coming to the committee, and that was part of the bulk of the answers.
Senator ROBERT RAY-We had a discussion with the Clerk of the Senate this morning about this. I am trying to establish whether the delay was caused at a departmental level or a ministerial/prime ministerial office level. We would like to know this because sometimes we blame departments, and then we find the questions sitting in a minister's office for weeks or months at a time. Other times we like to blame departments-'blame' is the wrong word, but we like to upbraid departments occasionally for this. This is why I want an answer in this case.
Ms Belcher-There are always some dangers in being specific about particular questions, but in this case, once the people clearing the answers returned from leave, it was cleared very promptly; it was not delayed.
Senator ROBERT RAY-Correct me if I am wrong, but don't people normally take leave over Christmas? Didn't you factor that into your 17 January deadline?
Mr Metcalfe-Yes; and, indeed, a lot of questions taken on notice were answered on 3 January because some of us did not have leave over Christmas. Essentially, as information becomes available, it is sent up for clearance, and it was cleared quite quickly as it was sent up.
Senator ROBERT RAY-Maybe it would be easier if we shifted the estimates dates to fit in with you. In this case it is not that massive, but often all these answers to questions on notice flood in during the first sitting week when senators, who have just come back, are diverted with a whole range of other activities. We are expected to reabsorb, analyse and get questions ready for the first day of estimates.
Mr Metcalfe-We are very sensitive to that. Certainly the majority of answers to questions we took on notice were provided well within the return date. Some were provided after it and a small number were provided on Friday. We will always try to do better.
Senator ROBERT RAY-I would rather you be insensitive and deliver the answers than sensitive and not. It would be a better result from our point of view.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Ms Belcher, going back to the oversight that you identified following Ms Halton's evidence to the CMI committee, were there other oversights that PM&C identified?
Ms Belcher-Not that I am aware of. I do not work in the area that was looking after the inquiry or has any responsibility for it, but I do not believe there were any other outstanding issues.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-How was it that you were aware of this particular one before the November estimates?
Ms Belcher-An officer of the Social Policy Division drew it to my attention on the afternoon that we were to appear at estimates.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-This was the only one that was raised with you on that occasion?
Ms Belcher-Yes, that is right.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Who was the officer?
Mr Metcalfe-Mr Jamie Fox.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Mr Fox, was PM&C aware of any other oversights following Ms Halton's appearance before the CMI committee?
Mr Fox-As the head of the National Security Commission Taskforce, I am currently off-line but at the time you are talking about I was the Assistant Secretary, Education and Immigration Branch. The answer is no. We were not made aware of any other oversights. You also asked how Ms Belcher became aware of it. I drew the oversight to her attention, because we had had a call from the committee secretariat earlier that day advising us.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-That they wanted a copy of that?
Mr Fox-They pointed out that we had not provided the answer to that question at that time.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-And that was the only matter raised by the secretariat?
Mr Fox-Yes, as far as I am aware.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-That is your understanding?
Mr Fox-Yes. I did not take the call, one of my staff did; but that was the only one that was drawn to my attention.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Can you explain why the email logs that were provided to A Certain Maritime Incident Committee did not detect this cable? You may or may not recall, Mr Metcalfe, that some of the copious amounts of material that the committee sought were the PM&C email logs.
Mr Metcalfe-The logs.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Yes. I am asking if there is an explanation for why those email logs would not have identified this cable.
Mr Metcalfe-A cable is not an email; it is a cable.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-So it would not have been emailed to any recipient within PM&C?
Mr Metcalfe-The email is an unclassified system or there are some security features about it. Foreign Affairs cables are treated differently. As I said at the outset in response to Senator Faulkner, the cables essentially come through the international division of the department from Foreign Affairs. They are on a quite discrete system to the email documents.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-So you would be confident there would not have been a declassified version emailed within PM&C?
Mr Metcalfe-To be confident, I would want to check, but there is nothing that I have that would indicate that this cable document would have somehow transformed itself into an email and been sent around other than through the cable network, which is quite different to the email system.
Mr Fox-That is certainly my recollection, but we will confirm that.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-One other outstanding matter from Ms Halton's evidence was a question by Senator Faulkner, asking to be provided with a copy of the advice provided to the Prime Minister on 24 October. The committee at no stage has received an answer to that question. Ms Halton answered a slightly different question-I do not have the exact reference number because it is not included in this compilation of all of the answers to questions on notice-which was:
Which agencies provided the information that SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters?
The answer was:
As I indicated in providing evidence on 30 July 2002, this information can only be provided by the author of the brief, who is currently overseas on long-term leave. PM&C has attempted unsuccessfully to contact the officer who prepared the brief and, therefore, I am unable to provide any further information.
Is PM&C now able to provide some further information?
Mr Metcalfe-Not here at the table today but, if you are asking us to take that on notice, we could take that on notice.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-I am asking a bit more than whether you will take it on notice. I am asking what work has been done within PM&C to provide a more satisfactory answer to that question than simply 'the author is overseas on long-term leave'.
Mr Fox-Senator, we had not interpreted that answer as requiring further work; therefore, we have not done any work since that time, but we can certainly do so. I can explain what steps were taken that led to that answer, but we have-
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Yes, I would appreciate that for starters.
Mr Fox-We attempted to contact the officer who is overseas.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Who was that officer?
Mr Fox-The officer was Margaret Wildermuth. We attempted to contact her at that time-we were unable to do so; she had recently left the country-and we have not attempted to do so since then.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-So there has been no further follow-up on this issue since that time?
Mr Fox-That is correct.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-So are you aware that a question on notice of Senator Faulkner's to 'please provide a copy of that brief' has not been responded to?
Mr Fox-No. As I indicated, we regarded that question as being finalised. Certainly as far as I am aware, as I said earlier, when the committee secretariat contacted us just before the last estimates, the only matter that was drawn to our attention was the one that we had discussed as an oversight.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-This is obviously a further oversight, not necessarily identified by the secretariat at the time, now being identified by us, which is that there is this outstanding question of Senator Faulkner's to 'please provide a copy of that brief'. As I understand the situation, PM&C would have themselves identified all of the questions. It was not a secretariat role; it was a departmental role. And it seems, for one reason or another, that Senator Faulkner's request for that brief has been overlooked.
Mr Metcalfe-It may be semantics, Senator, but it sounds to me on the face of what you have read-and this is the first time I have heard it-that a person could reasonably say that that has been answered. It may not have been to the satisfaction of the committee, but that has been answered. If this committee is now saying that it would like that matter pursued further-
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Yes.
Mr Metcalfe-then we will take that on notice.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-With respect, a different question was answered. I will read you the question again:
Which agencies provided the information that SIEVX sank in Indonesian waters?
It is a very different question to, 'Please provide us with a copy of the brief that was prepared and given to the Prime Minister on 24 October.' That is the outstanding question, and that is the one that we want an answer to. We want an explanation for why it was overlooked.
Mr Metcalfe-I have already said I will take that on notice.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Thank you.
Senator ROBERT RAY-Could I just ask about the blanked-out areas in the cable that was sent. You are not going to tell me what they are, but who made the decision to blank them out? I may have missed this before I came in.
Mr Metcalfe-I think Ms Belcher indicated that they were made within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Ms Belcher-Yes, I think Foreign Affairs advised us that the reasons for removing some of the material were that disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to national security, defence or international relations, that it could disclose the existence or identity of a confidential source of information or confidential methods of operation of law enforcement agencies, and that it may prejudice the enforcement of the law. On that basis, they blacked out those sections.
Senator ROBERT RAY-They are obviously not grounds that I will dispute, but I am wondering if there is any methodology available in government to have someone apart from the person that recommended that it be blacked out-such as the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security-review those decisions. We do not want to do it, obviously, but we are also aware that from time to time in government-not necessarily recently-things have been blacked out for motives other than the ones that you have said, Ms Belcher. I am not doubting the motives, but is there any methodology anywhere within government that would mean that, when documents requested by a Senate committee have deleted areas, for whatever reason, someone else, who is regarded as an independent person, is around to verify that?
Ms Belcher-I am not aware of the inspector-general's having been asked to perform that role.
Senator ROBERT RAY-I am not saying they have.
Ms Belcher-I can see no reason, if an independent review were required, for him to be asked to do it. When documents were being looked at for presentation to the Senate select committee, we ensured that there was some consistency in approach so that PM&C looked at the documents not just from the viewpoint of the content of the material, but Government Division assisted with the broad categories of correct exemptions, if you like. We gave advice where there was doubt about whether this could really be said to be prejudicial in some way. In the end, it really has to be the people who can make a judgment about the extent of damage-so people in Foreign Affairs who say this really would prejudice our relations with another country are more able to do so than, say, Government Division.
Senator ROBERT RAY-I accept that.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Ms Belcher, can I go back to the document you were aware of in November, just to clarify in my mind what deletions we are talking about. Had we received a copy of the document then in its less fulsome sense, what further deletions would have been on it?
Ms Belcher-You would not have received the names of the addressees.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Any of them?
Ms Belcher-Any of them.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-So it was not just an issue of the DFAT addressees, it was all addressees.
Ms Belcher-Yes, the names of all addressees had been deleted.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Was that the only issue of deletion that concerned you at that time?
Ms Belcher-Yes, because, as I said, I had not actually seen the content of the other material that had been blacked out. I had left it to our policy officers, in consultation with DFAT, to judge whether those should come out. I did not ask to review those.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Was there any dialogue post November about those additional deletions?
Ms Belcher-Yes. I did not undertake those discussions myself; they were undertaken by the relevant division with Foreign. I do not think Foreign particularly wanted the addressees revealed, but I could see no basis on which they should be deleted. I have listed reasons that I have been given that I found acceptable, in the sense that they were substantive issues. No reasons were given for deleting the names of addressees, and I could not think of any valid reason.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-I am sorry, you moved on in your answer there away from the other areas of deletion-you yourself are not familiar with that dialogue?
Ms Belcher-No, I am not.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Is there another officer present who was?
Mr Fox-I have seen the original cable.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Can you tell us why the other deletions were maintained?
Mr Fox-I think Ms Belcher gave you the list of the reasons for those deletions.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-No, she gave us a list of the reasons for the deletions of the addressees, didn't she?
Mr Metcalfe-No, it was the substantive paragraphs.
Ms Belcher-The ones that went to national security.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Sorry, I think I was distracted at the time. Could you go over those again for me, please.
Ms Belcher-Okay. The reasons are: 'disclosure could reasonably be expected to cause damage to national security defence or international relations'; 'release of the material may disclose the existence or identity of a confidential source of information or confidential methods of operation of law enforcement agencies'; and, lastly, 'disclosure may prejudice the enforcement of the law.'
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Are those respective reasons for the different blackouts or do they all apply to all of them?
Ms Belcher-I really would have to go back and ask about that; I do not know.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Do you know, Mr Fox?
Mr Fox-I cannot tell you that. I do not have the original in front of me. I would have to check that.
Mr Metcalfe-At the risk of speculation, I suspect the first deletion on page 1, paragraph 1, would probably have indicated where the information came from. So the information about risking sources and that sort of thing would be pertinent to that. I suspect the information on the back after paragraph 12 is some commentary from the post which may go to the issue of the nature of the source and so on and so forth. So it would be sensitive law enforcement cooperation. Beyond that I would not be able to comment without rereading the original cable.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Why were those deletions the subject of further dialogue as well? I can understand the addressees, and we have heard from Ms Belcher about why she felt that it was appropriate that the addressees be included, but I am not clear from the PM&C end as to why the other deletions were revisited.
Ms Belcher-They were not. It was only the addressees part that was revisited.
Senator JACINTA COLLINS-Okay. I think we misunderstood each other earlier there.
Mr Metcalfe-Essentially, we saw that the content of the cable proper, which is an issue that goes to law enforcement and international relations, was in the purview of the originating department. This was a Foreign Affairs cable given to us by Foreign Affairs and they are the competent authority to ascertain whether the deletions should be required. The issue of the action list was something on which Ms Belcher exercised some commonsense.