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What’s up in Senate estimates? Leaks, Lloyd and loquacious witnesses spark early clashes

The fun started early as the post-budget Senate estimates hearings kicked off this morning with the highly-scrutinised head of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, fronting up at 9am.

One thing he wanted to get out of the way early was a blanket answer to the inevitable questions about The Sunday Telegraph political editor Annika Smethurst’s recent report suggesting national security officials were considering electronic surveillance of Australians by the Australian Signals Directorate.

“Without confirming or denying the existence or content of the specific documents which the correspondent claims to have seen, I can inform this committee that I have not proposed, nor would I ever propose, that ASD’s powers be expanded in the way described in this false reporting,” Pezzullo said in his opening statement, before being interrupted by chair Ian MacDonald.

The senator was concerned that the DHA secretary’s contemptuous response to the report was getting a bit beyond the purpose of an opening witness statement and asked how much longer it would go on. Only two paragraphs, he was told, before Pezzullo continued.

“The only matter in issue, in terms of potential new powers and functions, as the Minister for Home Affairs has since indicated, is whether ASD’s capabilities could and should be employed in the disruption of cybercrime where the whole, or parts, of the relevant cyber network are hosted on Australian telecommunications infrastructure,” he said. “And secondly, whether ASD’s capabilities could and should be employed in the active defence of certain critical national networks.”

That’s about all the head of the new national security department wanted to say, “as the specific details are highly classified and, in the end, will be matters for ministers to determine” – a pretty reasonably response to leaked information.

Pezzullo added a further assurance that DHA, under his leadership, would never propose “unchecked data collection powers in relation to Australian citizens” for ASD. He said it could collect data on citizens under “extremely limited and controlled circumstances”, however, and later added that a criminal investigation into the leak to Smethurst is underway. Under further questioning by Labor’s Murray Watt as The Mandarin approached deadline, he referred back to a joint response to the article from himself, Defence secretary Greg Moriarty and ASD chief Mike Burgess.

Watt disagreed with the secretary’s strong and rather black-and-white opinion that the entire article was completely wrong. Pezzullo maintained that the real idea is to stick the cyber spies from ASD onto criminals like child pornographers and allow them to attack the infrastructure they use, not to collect intelligence.

Later, Pezzullo said that if the senators wanted to ask about whether he and his public service colleagues had discussed something similar to what the disputed report described, they would have to join him for a top-secret briefing in a secure facility.

The complex machinery-of-government change to establish Home Affairs cost about $5.5 million, according to the secretary’s testimony — well under the $10m upper estimate he gave in the last round of hearings — and Pezzullo was also grilled about another proposal to give the Australian Federal Police the power to question people about their identity in airports, as they can with drivers.

This proposal was recently discussed by his erstwhile offsider Roman Quaedvlieg, the former Australian Border Force commissioner who previously rose through the AFP ranks to be the ACT police chief, in an interview with The Saturday Paper. Quaedvlieg had some issues with the proposal but mostly, he feels it has been poorly communicated.

Lloyd vs Wong and DPS security troubles

Elsewhere, a news report from The Canberra Times is likely to add fuel to the next round of Senator Penny Wong’s ongoing back-and-forth with Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd, regarding his relationship with the Institute of Public Affairs.

A freedom-of-information rejection hints that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is looking at the matter. PM&C reportedly told the newspaper that two emails related to the matter exist in secretary Martin Parkinson’s inbox, one five pages long and another 30 pages, but they are being kept confidential to allow “an investigation of a breach, or possible breach, of the law” to run its course.

Another interesting issue likely to come up across several committees is security gaps in APS agencies, in overseas missions and inside Parliament House.

The house on the hill is undergoing “the most comprehensive series of capital works” since it opened, in the words of Senator Scott Ryan, who is representing the government alongside DPS secretary Robert Stefanic. The committee was only just getting to concerns from some of its security guards about how suspicious substances are dealt with, reported recently by Buzzfeed News, as we hit publishing time today. Essentially the department does not agree with the claims and is very dismissive of the story.

That article was followed up with another this morning, alleging some security officers felt “intimidated” by their superiors’ efforts to find the source of the leaks and a reminder that speaking to the media could result in criminal charges. New claims about what was said to security guards following the report were contested by the DPS officials.

Stefanic said he had spoken to AFP commissioner Andrew Colvin on Friday, but there is no official investigation into the security officers disclosures to Buzzfeed. DPS officials generally denied the claims in both articles more than once. The hearing continues, but another member of the press gallery noticed it was engrossing viewing among the building’s uniformed officers:

Senator Ryan said security upgrades to improve the building were going well and the budget-week influx of people was less chaotic than he had feared.

Earlier, the hearing spent a long time discussing a new cleaning contract signed on May 10. “My department has managed this process lawfully and in compliance with both the spirit and the intent of the Commonwealth Procurement Rules,” Stefanic said in his opening statement, going on to describe some of the broad reasons why the company Dimeo ACT got the contract.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.