I, too, rise to speak to this motion. I wish to just pick up on a couple of points that Senator Patrick raised. He talked about the IGIS and he talked about the processes that are in place, so I’d like to touch on a couple of those and then move on to talk a bit about our relationship with East Timor and the very strong basis Australia has in that relationship.
The issues around disclosure were well explored in the report by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security on the impacts of national security legislation on freedom of the media. Whilst it is not directly on this case, it goes to many similar issues, and I would encourage anyone who has an interest in these issues, and in why there are some matters that are not placed into the public domain, to read that report and understand many of the considerations which executive government—whether the Labor Party or the coalition—has in deciding what is or should be made public. So that’s one fact.
There is another fact for governments—and this is recognised by all governments around the world; it’s even recognised by many of the civil society players who came and gave evidence, including evidence about media freedoms given by members of the media. There is information which a government should hold secret, and there is the protective framework around protecting information that gives information certain levels of classification. Now, if that is going to have effect, what that means is that people who are officials of the Commonwealth have a higher duty than people in, perhaps, the media or the general public to protect that information to which they are given privileged access, because if they don’t fulfil that obligation of protecting that information then the framework and the basis upon which government can hold information classified is compromised. And so, importantly, is the trust of allies, who are prepared to cooperate with Australia on the basis of the fact that we have a system to protect information that is sensitive and classified and may go to national interest issues. If that system is not upheld and protected, then our own government and our own national interest are compromised, but so too is our relationship with, and the trust from, other partners who we work with. As a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and also someone who served in Defence for over 22 years as a full-time officer, I recognise the incredible importance of trusted relationships with allies. So all of that goes to having frameworks which are effective and have integrity because they are maintained.
We recognise, though, as a country, that there are times when either individual or collective things happen which the Australian public would think are not appropriate. There is a method; Senator Patrick mentioned this. Through the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, people who work within our intelligence agencies have the option under the Public Interest Disclosure Scheme to highlight, to an independent authority who has the ability to investigate, actions that they believe are disclosable incidents. Section 29 of the Public Interest Disclosure Act gives a long list of things, which I won’t run through here, that are disclosable. It then talks about things that are not disclosable just because somebody disagrees with a policy or an action et cetera of government—again, the list that people can refer to is laid out there. But the important part that I think needs to be highlighted here is that, once an eligible person makes a disclosure to a proper authority, they are provided with legal protection from reprisals that result from that disclosure. So there is a process. If the process is followed and if everything is in accordance with the requirements of the legislation as to what can be disclosed and why, then they are provided with legal protection. Without commenting on the court case that is occurring at the moment, I just want to highlight the fact that action has been taken. The legislation is designed so that someone who has a valid concern and has abided by the process will be provided with protection. I will leave my comments there on that matter.
I think it’s important that the Australian public have confidence that people who work within our agencies, whether Defence, ASIO, ASIS or the Australian Signals Directorate—a range of bodies who work on behalf of the Australian population dealing with sensitive issues—are charged with an obligation to protect. There are criminal penalties that they are liable to if they make unauthorised disclosures. But we do provide avenues, whether through the Ombudsman for some or through the IGIS, the independent Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, for people in relevant agencies whereby they can make those disclosures. If they make those disclosures and they have not done anything else, then they are protected legally.
In terms of East Timor, I think it is appropriate that we highlight the fact that Australia has a deep partnership with East Timor at a range of levels, at person-to-person as well as government levels. I think the visit by Prime Minister Morrison and Foreign Minister Payne in August 2019, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the referendum that led to their independence and also to bring the Maritime Boundary Treaty into force, opened a new chapter in Australia’s relationship with Timor-Leste. There is a high level of engagement. There is a focus on cooperation, including ongoing humanitarian support—whether that’s in things like the floods that were there in April or in supporting Timor-Leste with the response to COVID-19. Australia continues to fund a range of humanitarian and other support as well as providing goods in the humanitarian effort in relief supplies, including medical things such as oxygen during the COVID crisis as well as fresh water and evacuation centres, and facilitating and funding access by NGOs like the World Food Programme to assist those people who are affected.
So there are a range of measures that Australia is taking in the current environment, particularly renegotiating the bilateral boundary, which I think has been an important reset in that relationship with Timor-Leste. Timor-Leste ministers and officials have publicly acknowledged and thanked Australia for our support, and Timor-Leste’s appreciation has been conveyed to our Minister for Foreign Affairs by their minister for foreign affairs. As well their Prime Minister has expressed his thanks to our Prime Minister for that ongoing support. They recognise that the prosecutions here are a matter for Australia under our law. But those prosecutions have not prevented the substantial improvement in the bilateral relations which have taken place in recent years.