Budget Estimates Thursday 30 May 2013 - Legal and Constitutional Committee
Senator LUDLAM: What would the funding and staffing allocations for the agency look like if we compared your budget with the financial year 2001?
Mr Irvine : I would have to get that figure; I do not have that figure for you-
Senator LUDLAM: Is it in the magnitude of a four- or fivefold expansion?
Mr Irvine : I have figures back to 2005-06.
Senator LUDLAM: That will do for a baseline for the purposes of the discussion.
Mr Irvine : It was roughly $175 million at that time.
Senator LUDLAM: According to the discussion you just had with Senator Brandis, you are up to $328 million now. Is that right?
Mr Irvine : For 2012-13 it is $337 million.
Senator LUDLAM: It has roughly doubled. How about staff?
Ms Hartland : I only have the staffing figures back to 2007, but it was around 1,300 at that stage.
Senator LUDLAM: I do not wish to detain us here too much further, so I wonder if you would provide us with some figures on notice for 2001, because I suspect we will find that the order of magnitude increase is quite severely higher come 12 years later.
Mr Irvine : I am absolutely certain that that is the case, and it is entirely explicable in terms of the need of governments of the day to respond to a new and very substantial threat.
Senator LUDLAM: For the purposes of this discussion about resourcing, which Senator Brandis has pursued fairly exhaustively, and remaining with budget and staffing at the moment, do the resources of ASIO compare with the height of the Cold War, say, using 1983 as an example?
Mr Irvine : Making all sorts of allowances for inflation and everything else-
Senator LUDLAM: Staffing numbers do not inflate.
Mr Irvine : I imagine that they are substantially greater, but you have to remember that in 1983 ASIO was essentially a small, single-issue organisation. It was not dealing with threats to the lives and safety of Australians that subsequently emerged in the late 1990s and in the first decade of this century.
Senator LUDLAM: You would not concur that the national security threat to Australia at the height of a Cold War nuclear arms stand-off between two superpowers, in which Australia was intricately enmeshed, was much higher then than it is now?
Mr Irvine : No, I do not subscribe to that view at all. The nature of threats changes. During the Cold War there was one form of security threat dealt with by ASIO, as opposed to all of the rest of government, which essentially related to espionage and sabotage.
Today we have similar levels of concern about espionage and sabotage as we had then-details will differ, but in principle we have similar concerns-but today also we now have very substantial concerns about terrorism, which, in a sense, represents a more direct threat to individual Australians and the lives of Australians than some of the wider issues of the Cold War which were being managed in a whole variety of other ways.
Senator LUDLAM: I think this would be a conversation worth exploring in a bit more detail later, because I do not necessarily accept your position there. I will move on. I am just wondering, Mr Irvine, if there is a reason why you did not mention the issue of the apparent or the alleged lifting of the floor plans for your new building in your opening-or perhaps you did and I missed it.
Mr Irvine : On that subject, the Prime Minister and the Attorney have already made it very, very clear that we are not going to comment on intelligence matters and operational intelligence matters, neither to confirm nor deny, for all the well-known reasons.
Senator LUDLAM: We have had these sorts of exchanges a fair number of times since you first started coming to these.
Mr Irvine : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Mr Irvine, this was screened on Four Corners. It would appear, then, that the only voice that has really been absent in the debate since this was broadcast to the whole country is yours.
Mr Irvine : That is, in one sense, a frustrating element of my job, but it is a necessary element of my job, that we incur all sorts of risks if intelligence operational matters are aired in public. Can I just assure you, though, that I am satisfied that the security of the ASIO building is, and will be, meeting the very, very high standards that are required of a building of that nature.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Is it reasonable to say that ASIO's information security protocols and internal procedures are probably among the most stringent of any government agency in the country?
Mr Irvine : Necessarily, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: I would have thought so.
Mr Irvine : There are a few other agencies as well.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay, but they would all be in the Australian intelligence community sort of tier?
Mr Irvine : Mostly.
Senator LUDLAM: I would have thought so. Mr Irvine, I believe you are on the record as supporting a national data retention regime in which all Australians' private telecommunications exchanges would be stored for a period of up to two years.
Mr Irvine : Our organisation has made submissions to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security to that effect, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. If ASIO is not able to keep track of the floor plans of its $600 million building, how can we trust intelligence, security and policing agencies to maintain the records of the entire Australian population for a period of two years?
Mr Irvine : That is a very neat way, if I may say so, of trying to get me to comment on an operational intelligence and security matter-
Senator LUDLAM: Not at all.
Mr Irvine : which I cannot really do. I have given you an assurance that the ASIO building is of the highest security order, and I am confident of that, and I would expect that that confidence should be reflected in the confidence of the Australian public for ASIO to maintain, as it has always maintained, the security of the information it holds, including the security of the information it holds on Australian individuals.
Senator LUDLAM: Some of the information that you hold has been broadcast by Four Corners as being allegedly in the hands of Chinese hackers.
Mr Irvine : And, again, I am not going to comment on that.
Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Last night, in a different portfolio session, it was revealed that an agency within the portfolio responsibility of the Attorney-General is filtering online content from viewing by Australians. Is ASIO that agency?
Mr Irvine : Sorry, could you ask that question again, Senator?
Senator LUDLAM: I was referred last night, by Senator Conroy, from the communications hearings to this committee because apparently ASIO participated in a meeting on 22 May convened by the broadband department to discuss the use of section 313 notices to block internet content from being viewed in Australia. It was revealed that an agency in this portfolio was also using these notices to block internet content. Is ASIO that agency or not?
Mr Irvine : I am not going to confirm a particular incident, again under our 'confirm and deny' policy, but it is open to ASIO to use, or to seek under ministerial direction to use, section 313. If you asked me whether or under what conditions I would seek action under section 313, my immediate response would be that it would be something that was a significant and probably relatively immediate threat to security and lives.
Senator LUDLAM: To me that does not sound like a reason to block content. We had a bit of explanation, which was quite helpful, from the Federal Police this morning, where they were explaining how they used to use these notices to knock out sites that were firing malware into, for example-
Mr Irvine : I think, given ASIO's responsibilities, you could draw your conclusions that, if we were to use it, the immediate example that would come to mind would be an extreme terrorist site that was-well, I believe it would have to be exercising a very significant and immediate influence.
Senator LUDLAM: A proximate threat.
Mr Irvine : The other issue about blocking in the terrorist area is: what do you actually block?
Senator LUDLAM: I could put that question to you. We could have this discussion all day. If you want to, in about 15 minutes, or probably 15 seconds, online you could find the manufacturing instructions for putting a nuclear weapon together.
Mr Irvine : Yes.
Senator LUDLAM: There is a lot of material online that arguably breaks various forms of local and international law. Is ASIO blocking that kind of content to Australian users?
Mr Irvine : The answer is no. But, if we felt a need to, section 313 is available to us.
Senator LUDLAM: That is certainly my reading of the definitions under the TIA Act as well. I believe you might have just breached your longstanding commitment to neither confirm nor deny anything. Have you just denied that ASIO has used or is using these notices to block content?
Mr Irvine : I am not confirming or denying that.
Senator LUDLAM: You came awfully close to it just then. I will leave it there.