CHAIR: I call back to order the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee's public hearings for budget estimates for 2014-15. We are currently dealing with group 3, which incorporates national security and criminal justice and the Australian government disaster financial support payment. Senator Ludlam, you have 15 minutes.
Senator LUDLAM: Will Mr Wilkins be back or should we just start with you, Senator Brandis? I am going to traverse a couple of areas that might move into the area of responsibility of ASIO and possibly even the Department of Defence.
Senator Brandis: Well don't, because they are not here.
Senator LUDLAM: I recognise that, Senator Brandis—thanks heaps. I recognise that this is possibly a bit of a cross-portfolio issue, but it will be fine if you constrain yourself to your area of responsibility. It relates to a US drone strike that killed two Australian citizens—or one Australian citizen and one dual citizen—late last year in Yemen, on 19 November, I think. Senator Brandis, when did you hear of that strike?
Senator Brandis: I cannot comment on those matters; you know that.
Senator LUDLAM: Why is that?
Senator Brandis: Because I cannot; you know that.
Senator LUDLAM: Are you just refusing to?
Senator Brandis: I am not at liberty to.
Senator LUDLAM: Why? Spell it out for us.
Senator Brandis: Under the conventions and practices of the parliament. If you do not know that, you should and now you do.
Senator LUDLAM: Did you have any role in informing the families subsequent to that strike that killed two Australian citizens?
Senator Brandis: Me personally? No.
Senator LUDLAM: Did the department?
Senator Brandis: I do not think so.
Senator LUDLAM: Mr Wilkins?
Mr Wilkins: I am sorry, what was the—
Senator Brandis: Did the department have any role in informing the families of two Australians killed in a drone strike?
Mr Wilkins: Apparently it was police and consular officials, not this department.
Senator LUDLAM: Are you aware whether the families were sworn to secrecy on being told of those strikes?
Senator Brandis: No.
Mr Wilkins: No.
Senator LUDLAM: Do the Attorney-General's Department or you, Minister, have any visibility at all of these matters?
Senator Brandis: I do not quite know what you mean by the term 'visibility' in that context.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you share any responsibility? I presume, if I take this up with ASIO, that they have a role. The Department of Defence presumably has a role.
Senator Brandis: I do not know. We do not comment on these matters.
Senator LUDLAM: Just because you do not feel like it?
Senator Brandis: No, because, as I pointed out to you, these are national security matters and we do not report to this parliamentary committee in open session in relation to that. If you were a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, they look at these national security matters with more particularity in camera than this committee can, for obvious reasons.
Senator LUDLAM: Staying away from that particular operation, what is the Australian government's understanding of the legality under international law of these strikes against various people in various parts of the world?
Senator Brandis: The breadth of your question makes it impossible of an answer because there are different circumstances in each case, I assume.
Senator LUDLAM: So when I am specific you cannot answer; when I am general you cannot answer either.
Senator Brandis: If I may finish my answer, please: nevertheless, I am not aware that the Australian government has a view of legality of these matters in any event.
Senator LUDLAM: Are you comfortable that they are legal under international law—given that two Australian citizens were blown away in one of these strikes?
Senator Brandis: I am not commenting on the matter.
Senator LUDLAM: I am presuming that, if the Chinese government had assassinated two Australian citizens, you would have a view. You would be putting that out there.
Senator Brandis: You can assume that, but I am not expressing any views—nor would it be appropriate.
Senator LUDLAM: That is fascinating. Does the Australian government have any evidence that these two men were, in fact, terrorists?
Senator Brandis: I refer you to my earlier answer.
Senator LUDLAM: Wow. Is the Australian government aware of how many civilians have been killed in these drone strikes in various parts of the world?
Senator Brandis: I do not think so.
Senator LUDLAM: Not interested?
Senator Brandis: This has nothing to do with Australia.
Senator LUDLAM: Are you aware of whether the Pine Gap base in Central Australia plays a central role in the targeting of these strikes?
Senator Brandis: No, and if I were, I would not be commenting on the matter.
Senator LUDLAM: But that would be something to do with Australia, would it not?
Senator Brandis: I am not aware and, if I were aware, I would not be commenting on it.
Senator LUDLAM: I guess it is better to just not be interested in it at all.
Senator Brandis: It is probably better not to ask questions that you know cannot be answered in this forum.
Senator LUDLAM: You could choose to answer these questions in this forum.
Senator Brandis: No, I could not choose to answer these questions in this forum. If you do not understand that, you do not understand a pretty important principle that governs the operation of this committee.
Senator LUDLAM: I think I understand it pretty well. I can take these questions up with Defence, but did you or your department take this matter up at all with your counterparts in the US after it came to your attention that Australians were involved?
Senator Brandis: I will not be disclosing to you or to Senator Waters what matters I discuss with my counterparts in the United States.
Senator LUDLAM: If Australian civilians were involved who were not accused or suspected of being involved in any terrorism related activities, would the Australian government's position be any different?
Senator Brandis: That is a hypothetical question.
Senator LUDLAM: Better hope it stays that way! I am getting nothing, Chair, so I will leave it there.