Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding Defence communication with the Prime Minister about the evolving conflict situation in the Middle East; and communication with the Israeli Defence Forces

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
October 25, 2023

Thanks to the department and Defence Force officials for being with us today and for your opening statements. CDF, have you had the chance to brief the Prime Minister on the evolving conflict situation in the Middle East?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks to the department and Defence Force officials for being with us today and for your opening statements. CDF, have you had the chance to brief the Prime Minister on the evolving conflict situation in the Middle East?

Gen. Campbell : Yes, I have, as part of a whole-of-government process.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So you haven’t briefed the Prime Minister directly one on one; it’s been part of NSC or other deliberations?

Gen. Campbell : I’ve offered my advice to the Prime Minister.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When and in what format has that occurred?

Gen. Campbell : Through advice to our Deputy Prime Minister—my responsible minister—and through the NSC process.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of direct communication with the Prime Minister, when has that occurred?

Gen. Campbell : As I say, through the NSC process, when I have directly spoken to him.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That’s the where. My question was on the when.

Gen. Campbell : On the occasions when NSCs have been held.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When have you had the chance to brief the Prime Minister?

Gen. Campbell : Just give me a moment and I’ll check our dates and times.

Senator McAllister: Senator Birmingham, I think you’re straying into areas where the Senate has not historically pressed for an answer. The activities of cabinet, in particular the national security related activities of cabinet, are not generally broadly discussed.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m not seeking to discuss the content of deliberations in NSC or of cabinet in general. It’s a pretty precise question. It is 17 days now since the situation occurred. It’s a pretty precise question about when the chief of Australia’s Defence Force had the opportunity to brief the Prime Minister of Australia. I would have thought it was pretty sensible just to answer that directly, and we can move on.

Gen. Campbell : I have directly briefed the Prime Minister during the National Security Committee cabinet meetings that have been held. In terms of dates, those are, I think, the responsibility of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to release or not.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How long after 7 October did you first brief the Prime Minister?

Gen. Campbell : Because of the way this conversation has unfolded, I would be answering the former question, which I have said I’m not the appropriate authority to answer, by answering the current question. I think we are where we are.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: By implication from your answer, the first occasion on which you briefed the Prime Minister was via NSC; is that correct?

Gen. Campbell : Yes, that’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are NSC meetings the only occasions on which you’ve directly briefed the Prime Minister?

Gen. Campbell : That’s correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you; I appreciate that. You referenced in your opening statement the three operations that Australia has longstanding engagement in across the region—Operation Fortitude, Operation Paladin and Operation Mazurka, each with implications there—and you provided assurance in terms of the safety of personnel in those operations. What is the impact of the conflict on those personnel and their responsibilities?

Gen. Campbell : Operation Mazurka is our contribution to the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai. Clearly, that operation is made more difficult by the situation on the Egypt-Israel-Gaza border areas. It is a matter of the commander of the Multinational Force and Observers attending to the security settings of that force, so it can continue to undertake its duties. It is in a more a challenging setting. The personnel on Operation Paladin are in the UN Truce Supervision Organization, operating on the border areas of Israel and neighbouring states.

Air Vice-Marshal Chappell : Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

Gen. Campbell : Israel, Lebanon and Syria. And the last, Operation Fortitude, is the UN mission for—I have to get the name of it right.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The UN Disengagement Observer Force.

Gen. Campbell : That’s the one, thank you—UNDOF.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Here to help!

Gen. Campbell : In both cases, UNTSO and UNDOF, they are similarly under a heightened security environment able to continue their duties but with more attention to the fragility in the security setting and the ease with which it may escalate or be adversely affected by miscalculation or misadventure.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You have personnel in the region in those circumstances that you’ve just described, in terms of the heightened level of challenge and threat they are facing. You’ve outlined the announcement today in terms of additional aircraft positioning that has occurred. Given it’s 17 days since the assault by Hamas was undertaken, and well over a week since the first airlifts of Australians were occurring, what has prompted the prepositioning of additional aircraft in the region now that wasn’t necessitated or thought to be required a week or two ago?

Gen. Campbell : I describe the first phase of Op Beech as being focused on the concern for the Australian nationals seeking to depart Israel. In the early days, that was where our attention was focused.

The next stage is, as it is has been described, contingency, preliminary planning and positioning to continue to provide that assistance but with a capacity that might enable additional effort if additional effort were required. I do not wish to characterise additional effort. It’s simply that we’re in a situation in which a conflict has broken out, that conflict is potentially in its early stages, and there are many Australian nationals in and around Israel, the Palestinian territories and the immediate adjacent nations.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks, CDF. I appreciate why you would draw the line there. In terms of contingency planning, has Defence been asked to look longer-term in terms of Australian potential to participate in or provide assistance to whatever missions may be necessary? We’ve outlined already the three different types of what could broadly be called peacekeeping or type missions in the region. Many would hope that something similar may be necessary down the track in terms of international cooperation in the region. Is that type of contingency work underway?

Gen. Campbell : I’m not quite sure what you mean. Certainly, we are working with international partners who similarly have concerns for their nationals. We’re working in close coordination with them. We maintain a series of contingency plans and branches and sequels, as they are described, with regard to our own contributions to operations throughout the world. Those are active, and they are regularly and consistently refreshed. So, in terms of understanding our continuing contribution to Mazurka, Fortitude and Paladin, they are part of that process. Have I covered the area that you were speaking to?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Sort of. I’m just looking a further step down the very uncertain path that lies ahead. In terms of contingency, should multinational force be called upon to operate in ways after this conflict to seek to preserve peace, to restore order, to achieve rebuilding and to ensure observance of whatever truce or otherwise might be achieved, what type of contingency work is being undertaken in relation to those sorts of longer-term scenarios?

Gen. Campbell : Thanks. I understand what you mean now. First, what we are doing now is cooperative, non-combatant, assisted evacuation under civil-led arrangements. What you are talking about is the setting beyond the conflict. That, ultimately, would be a national and international policy question. If the Australian Defence Force were in any way part of that, we would be a subsequent component to that consideration, which I think is certainly not in my bailiwick. Given that we’re at the early stages of this conflict, I think we have a little time to run, and it would be in Australian and multinational policy environments that that would be considered.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What contact has there been between the ADF and the IDF over the last couple of weeks?

Gen. Campbell : Other than through our operational engagements through those three operations I mentioned, which occur at a local tactical level, engagement with the defence official who is given responsibility for engagement with Australian defence from Israel, there hasn’t been a senior ADF to senior IDF engagement in recent times.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Can I take from that that there has been no request from the IDF for any particular assistance from the ADF?

Gen. Campbell : No.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has there been an offer extended by government of any assistance in terms of intelligence, knowledge or otherwise from the ADF to the IDF?

Gen. Campbell : Not from the ADF to the IDF, but I think what you are asking is a wider whole-of-government question, which is again more appropriately a policy question.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay. Thank you.

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