Senator David Shoebridge – Estimates questions relating to defence exports to Israel

Photo of Senator David Shoebridge
October 25, 2023

When it comes to the current conflict in Israel-Palestine, the bombing that we’re seeing in Gaza, is there any assurance you can give that none of the more than 300 defence export permits that have been granted for exporting weapons to Israel—none of that material—is currently being used in Gaza?

CHAIR: Thanks, Minister. You’ve got just one more question, Senator Shoebridge.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: When it comes to the current conflict in Israel-Palestine, the bombing that we’re seeing in Gaza, is there any assurance you can give that none of the more than 300 defence export permits that have been granted for exporting weapons to Israel—none of that material—is currently being used in Gaza?

Mr Jeffrey : On the 322 export permits for military and dual-use items that you have referred to: during that time period the export permit process did not go to lethal equipment. As to the lethal munitions and military equipment that Israel is using in this conflict, it has a very large indigenous defence industry and, of course, a very strong bilateral defence industry relationship with the United States. Australia’s permit process, as I’ve explained, would relate to military and dual-use items. Again, I’m not going to go into the details of the permits themselves, but those permits would involve things like radios, body armour, software, vehicle parts—sporting equipment too, Senator. It’s anything on the defence strategic goods list.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Jeffrey. Senator Lambie, you have the call.


CHAIR: Senator Shoebridge, you have the call.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I might return to defence exports. Mr Jeffrey, I think you said there were 322 defence export permits in relation to Israel between 2017 and 31 March 2023. Is that right?

Mr Jeffrey : Sorry, the question was?

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Were there 322 defence export permits in that period?

Mr Jeffrey : That figure of 322 was based on a question on notice, which I think you—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It was more based on the answer, and that was 322.

Mr Jeffrey : The answer is what we provided. That is correct.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: And there were 23 this calendar year up to the 31 March 2023. Is that right?

Mr Jeffrey : Senator, David Nockels will correct me if I’m wrong. This calendar year, 41 defence export permits were granted.

Mr Nockels : If I could just interject, when you asked that question, at the time it was 23. Subsequently, it is now 41. Obviously, when we responded—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I perfectly understand. So the figure, as we are here today is an additional 18, which brings us up to 41. Is that right?

Mr Nockels : Defence exports is correct. And apologies, it is quite complex. There are tangible exports—things across the border—and then there are intangibles that entities will still need a permit for. So when you include intangibles in the figure, it is actually 52.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Okay, so 52 defence export—

Mr Nockels : So far this year.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Of the numbers provided on notice to question 1901, were they tangible and intangible?

Mr Nockels : They were tangible and intangible going back to 2017, I think the date was.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: So, consistent with the pattern of numbers you have provided in answer to questions on notice to date, there were 23 defence export permits granted to Israel up to 31 March. If we take it up to date, it is actually 52?

Mr Nockels : That is correct.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Have any been granted since 7 October?

Mr Nockels : I would have to take that on notice and I would have to check.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Are there any pending applications?

Mr Nockels : Again, I would have to take that on notice and check.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Whether it is Saudi Arabia, Yemen, West Papua or Gaza, what checking is being done on the ground that weapons supplied by Australia are being used in accordance with the laws of war?

Mr Jeffrey : Senator, again, apologies, but careful with the language. These are defence export permits for military and dual-use items, so not necessarily weapons. In terms of what checks we engage in, obviously we have different legislative criteria we need to check against to grant a permit. We need to be confident on each of these criteria if we are to grant this permit. Sometimes deliberation on granting a permanent can be intensive and take some time, to the frustration of industry. That is because these judgements are not always easy and they depend on gathering a lot of information. That information will include, for example, consultation with Attorney-General’s Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Only because time is short, I am asking about once the dual-use and/or weapon has been exported and is in the third country. I’m not asking about the permit; I’m asking about what checking is done once it is in their hands.

Mr Jeffrey : The export control regime, as legislated in Australia, does not apply extraterritorially.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: So nothing?

Mr Jeffrey : We don’t have a remit to seek to control the good once exported. That informs the risk appetite when we consider any defence export permit. It will be an important part of how we ultimately assess—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: So, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or—to list some other countries where these exports have been made—the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel or the Philippines, regardless of where the weapon and/or dual use equipment is provided, once it’s offshore there’s no checking, no review, as to whether or not it’s used in accordance with the permit, let alone in accordance with the rules of law.

Mr Jeffrey : That’s not quite correct. While the export control regime doesn’t exist extraterritorially, if there is credible evidence that defence exports from any country have been used to commit human rights abuses, that will inform how we deliberate on decisions on future permits. As you would be aware, Senator, permits are not permanent; they exist at a point in time. If we conclude and if there is credible evidence that human rights abuses are being committed by an armed force of an end-user country, that will inform how we make the decision.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But there’s no-one looking. It’s no one’s job to check. If there happens to be someone blowing the whistle in another country, you may do something about existing and future permits, but there is no systemic check at all as to how Australian weapons and dual-use exports are used. There’s no-one in Defence checking.

Mr Jeffrey : No, that’s not correct, as I said. We take into account evidence, and that evidence can come from anywhere—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: No, that’s at the time you issue the permit. I’m talking about after the permit is issued, when it’s in the hands of the third party. You just made it clear in your answers it’s not Defence’s job. I’m not asking about the permit process. I’m asking about once it has been issued and the weapon is in the hands of the third party.

CHAIR: Senator, I think Mr Jeffrey is trying to answer your question. Could you allow the witness to answer your question. Mr Jeffrey.

Mr Jeffrey : Senator, I take issue with your characterisation of the process. Yes, the defence export control regime doesn’t exist extraterritorially, but we are concerned with how destination countries might use military equipment or dual-use equipment. How countries or forces use this equipment does inform any future decision on permits. Just because it doesn’t exist extraterritorially doesn’t mean that our posted network does not also report on human rights abuses and report to Defence on defence industry matters. We watch it closely. As I said, that’s one of the reasons why some of these decisions can take a very long time and require a lot of information.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: There is no obligation on those third countries to report back about use under the system, and there’s nobody within Defence whose job it is to track that use. That is true, isn’t it?

Mr Jeffrey : If your question relates to once it’s left our shores—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Which it does.

Mr Jeffrey : and the department being able to say with categorical assurance that that good has not been used in a certain way, the only you’d be able to achieve that is by ensuring that there are no exports to that country.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You say ‘with categorical assurance’. It’s a hear no evil, see no evil situation. Far from categorical assurance, there’s not even a reporting obligation, and there’s no-one going and tracking it at all. That’s the system. There is no tracking.

Mr Moriarty : The judgements are made prior to the permit being issued.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Correct.

Mr Moriarty : That is when we take into account information from a whole range of sources: our diplomatic network, our partners and allies, our intelligence services and the information we have from previous history. You asked before about judgements about the potential use, all of those factors flow into a decision about whether to issue a permit or not. It is completely incorrect to say that those issues are irrelevant or a minor consideration in these issues, as Mr Jeffrey’s just—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: It is just the system doesn’t look at it. It doesn’t look at it. You issue the permit and then wash your hands of it. That is the process here.

Mr Moriarty : That is not correct.

Senator McAllister: I think we are going around in circles because the officials have provided you with advice about the process, which includes extensive consideration of a broad range of information from a broad range of sources prior to issuing the permit. They have also indicated that permits exist at a point in time and that future permits are conditional again on an examination of the evidence and the information before them. I do not think continuing to characterise their evidence incorrectly is going to allow us to make progress in understanding.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Secretary, I asked earlier what if any assurance can be given on the now 350 defence export permits that have been granted to Israel since 2021. What assurance is there that none of the weapons or dual-use materiel that has been exported under those permits is being used in Gaza at the moment by the Israeli military? A fair characterisation of the situation is no-one is looking, no-one is checking and there is no obligation on the Israeli defence force or the Israeli government to report back. That is a fair characterisation, isn’t it?

Mr Moriarty : No, we have a body of information about the way in which the Israeli defence force has conducted itself and how it has in many cases used materiel that is acquired from us. There is a known history of some of that. We are also getting information from a range of sources about how materiel might be used, so I think it is not correct to say that we just wash our hands of it. We are in a constant situation where we seeking to understand so that the decisions that we make can be informed by the best information we have at that time about the circumstances.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: To be clear—

CHAIR: Thank you, Senator Shoebridge. I have to stop you there because I have to hand over the call.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I have one more question on this. When it comes to the 101 defence export permits that were granted to Indonesia in 2021 and 2022 and heaven knows how many since, did any of them relate to the Steyr rifles, examples of which have been found in West Papua and have been used brutally against the West Papuan people? Did any of them relate to that?

Mr Jeffrey : I will take that on notice.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Van, you have the call.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard