Senator James Paterson – Estimates question to the Department of Home Affairs regarding pro-Palestine rallies

photo of Senator James Paterson
October 23, 2023

I’d like to take up where we left off in my previous bracket, in relation to events in Israel and the implications for Australia. When and how did the department become aware of the planned pro-Palestinian rally in Sydney on 9 October, the one that was initially at the town hall but ended up at the opera house?

CHAIR: I’m going to share the call back to the coalition, with Senator Paterson.

Senator PATERSON: I’d like to take up where we left off in my previous bracket, in relation to events in Israel and the implications for Australia. When and how did the department become aware of the planned pro-Palestinian rally in Sydney on 9 October, the one that was initially at the town hall but ended up at the opera house?

Ms Foster: I’ll ask colleagues if while we’re speaking they can try and find that information for me. Obviously, the primary responsibility for those issues lies with ASIO and state and territory police.

Senator PATERSON: It would be good if you could provide that on notice. Did the department provide any advice to the minister about these planned rallies or other rallies?

Ms Foster: Again, I’ll ask staff to confirm this. I think I’m getting a shaking head. No, we would obviously expect that advice to come from law enforcement agencies.

Senator PATERSON: The minister would not have been warned about the potential for the rally to become antisemitic?

Ms Foster: I can only answer on behalf of the department. Whether or not the minister was getting advice from other sources or other agencies, obviously, will have to be directed to them.

Senator PATERSON: The department doesn’t have any visibility of advice provided by agencies to the minister?

Ms Foster: I don’t know whether we see all advice that’s provided to the minister. I’d have to check that.

Senator PATERSON: Can someone assist with that question? That’s a process question. Surely someone here can clarify that?

Mr Smyth : We certainly have activated procedures in relation to what occurred on the 7th. We were informed about that late that evening, and then DFAT sent out a message on the 8th as to what was happening. There would have been information that flowed into and out of our Centre for Counter-Terrorism Coordination. We also, obviously, collaborate very closely with our colleagues in ASIO, the AFP, and state and territory law enforcement agencies. I’d have to check as to whether or not that initial information around the rally and the potential for violence at that particular protest was provided to the minister’s office. Could I take that on notice and get back to you?

Senator PATERSON: Yes, please. This engages two functions of the department: the counterterrorism function, which you’ve talked about, and the social cohesion responsibilities of the department. I know these are issues of concern to the minister, and what I want to understand is what advice was provided to her about that in advance of those events and also subsequent to the events. We all saw those scenes. They were very distressing. I’d like to know if and when the department coordinated advice, including from agencies, about those issues.

Mr Smyth : I’ll take that on notice, if I may. There is some advice that is, obviously, classified in nature in relation to some of those issues. As to time and if there was particular advice, I will take that on notice.

Senator PATERSON: Does the department have ongoing concerns about the safety of Australians and our social cohesion arising out of those rallies?

Ms Foster: I think the questions about concerns about ongoing safety to Australians are best directed to Director-General Burgess.

Senator PATERSON: I will also ask him some questions, but the policy responsibility for counterterrorism rests with the department.

Ms Foster: In terms of the social cohesion aspects, absolutely, we remain extremely concerned about the potential for social cohesion within Australia to be adversely affected by both events happening overseas and responses in Australia. We’re working extraordinarily hard to try and understand where those things might play out and what we can do to respond to those and to get ahead of those in the work we’re doing with communities.

Senator PATERSON: What, if any, specific actions have you recommended to the government to address it?

Senator Watt: I think we’re getting towards the point of the content of advice provided to ministers. As you know, public servants don’t provide answers to that effect in estimates hearings. It’s one thing to be asking about timing of advice provided and those sorts of process questions, but the content of advice has always been off limits in estimates.

Senator PATERSON: I’m not sure you accepted that when you were on this side of the table, Minister.

Senator Watt: I didn’t like it, but unfortunately that was the way it was.

Senator PATERSON: In any case, let’s try and ask it in a way that’s easier for you. Has advice been provided to the government about specific actions that can be taken to address these issues?

Ms Foster: I tried to indicate before that we had certainly proposed a number of actions that might form part of a government response. That was an iterative process, with input from many people, and the government issued a statement some days ago with a list of its proposed response.

Senator PATERSON: At one of the rallies in Melbourne, a protester took with him a portrait of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the listed terrorist organisation Hezbollah. Is that of concern to the department?

Mr Smyth : Any promotion or display of terrorist organisations and what those organisations represent is obviously of concern to us, but I would refer you to ASIO and law enforcement agencies in relation to whether or not such activities breach particular laws.

Senator PATERSON: I will be asking them about that too. It’s been reported in the media in the last few days that two mosques in Sydney held commemorations for deceased fighters for Hezbollah. Again, it’s a listed terrorist organisation. Is the department concerned about that?

Mr Smyth : We are, and appropriate agencies were informed of those particular events.

Senator PATERSON: I might pursue that further with ASIO and the AFP. Chair, I’m in your hands as to whether I should start on a new topic.

CHAIR: You should keep going, Senator Paterson.

Ms Foster: Senator Paterson, before we leave this topic, I undertook to get back to you with the minister’s first public response.

Senator PATERSON: Yes, please.

Ms Foster: As I said to you earlier, on the Sunday after the attacks, the minister contacted me, Mr Smyth and DG Burgess to ask us to consider what domestic issues might arise and what precautionary action we should be taking. Her first tweet on the subject was on 9 October.

Senator PATERSON: That was the Monday?

Ms Foster: That’s correct.

Senator Watt: That obviously followed public statements by other ministers, including the Prime Minister, which occurred on the Sunday, from memory.

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