Senator Simon Birmingham – Estimates questions regarding the Government’s immediate response to Hamas’ attack on Israel

photo of Senator Simon Birmingham
October 23, 2023

Perhaps I’ll start with the horrific terrorist attacks that occurred on 7 October. When and how was the Prime Minister made aware of those attacks?

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, I acknowledge the statement you made at commencement when I was elsewhere, in terms of your words in relation to the conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas at present. I also acknowledge the very appropriate response given by my colleague Senator Colbeck at that time. I want to go to those events and some of the related aspects. Perhaps I’ll start with the horrific terrorist attacks that occurred on 7 October. When and how was the Prime Minister made aware of those attacks?

Mr Dewar : I can take those questions. We heard from DFAT’s Global Watch Office, which is the 24/7 facility in DFAT, about the events initially. DFAT provided, I think, a situation report and some initial lines. We passed them to the Prime Minister’s office late on the Saturday evening.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is there something more precise than ‘late Saturday evening’, Mr Dewar?

Mr Dewar : I’ve got it as quarter to 11 on Saturday evening.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was there contact from PM&C to the Prime Minister’s office prior to 10:45 pm on Saturday evening?

Mr Dewar : No, I think that was the first contact.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It seems to be quite a long lag from a departmental perspective. The attacks themselves, I think, began, or were initially reported, around about 2.30 pm Australian eastern time on the Saturday afternoon of 7 October.

Senator Wong: I thought it was later than that. I thought it was slightly later. But my recollection is—I probably shouldn’t do this, should I, without checking?—that the initial reports were of missile attacks.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, missile attacks came first and were reported around then.

Senator Wong: My response was at 7.46.

Mr Dewar : We had that initial contact from DFAT, including from the watch office and the situation report, and we passed those on to PMO as soon as practicable after we’d received them.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When did PM&C receive notification from the DFAT Global Watch Office?

Mr Dewar : We’d had a telephone call earlier in the afternoon. I’m just checking the timing of that. It was just before 4.30 in that afternoon.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It was a call just before 4.30 on the afternoon of Saturday 7 October. What steps or advice does PM&C take after receiving a call of that nature?

Mr Dewar : We were talking with DFAT, and then we made sure that, when we’re aware of when advice was coming out, we were in a position to forward that on to the Prime Minister’s office, so they were aware.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did you provide any notification to the PMO subsequent to that notification from DFAT around 4.30 pm or was there no contact between PM&C and the PMO in the time between 4.30 pm and the receipt of what I assume was a more detailed situational analysis from DFAT at around 10.45 pm?

Mr Dewar : I think that’s correct. I’ll just check with Mr Collingburn—unless there were any other interactions you’re aware of, Mr Collingburn?

Mr Collingburn : What Mr Dewar said is exactly right.

Mr Dewar : So 10.45 was the first one.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was there any contact from PMO to PM&C asking for alert or update or information as to what was unfolding and what was going on?

Mr Dewar : No.

Mr Collingburn : No, not during that period, no.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Minister, did you have contact with the Prime Minister during that time frame?

Senator Wong: I’d have to take that on notice. We spoke the next morning, I know, but I’m trying to recall if we spoke that night. Is that what you’re asking?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes.

Senator Wong: I’d have to check. I’ll see what I can provide. I’ll come back. My recollection is that GWO was seeking to ascertain—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: GWO, the Global Watch Office, for those following at home.

Senator Wong: DFAT was seeking to ascertain what had actually occurred. That’s the time frame between the initial contact and the sitrep. That’s what they would have done.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I appreciate that that, of course, is an ongoing exercise as well, particularly on days such as the tragic explosion of the hospital, where there are times where it takes time to assess what has occurred and appreciate—

Senator Wong: There is a lot of information that’s made public, as you know, which may not be correct and needs to be verified before there’s a response.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Indeed. There was also, though, a very increasing wave of information and reporting of the attacks—the initial missile attacks, the subsequent ground incursion and, during the course of the day, the horrors attached to that ground assault launched by Hamas, which, by the time nightly news bulletins were reporting and so forth, was a significant global lead story. I’m surprised if there was no contact either from PM&C to PMO, and perhaps even more surprised if there was no check from PMO to PM&C to say: ‘What’s happening? When are we going to get some information on this very significant unfolding global event?’ The evidence appears to be that, until 10.45 pm that night, there was no communication between PM&C and the Prime Minister’s office.

Mr Dewar : My evidence is that we provided that situation report, that update, at 10.45 that evening.

Senator Wong: If you look at the evidence that has been given, there are things which are reported. We seek to verify them. We seek to provide a sitrep which governments can then act on. That is an appropriate way to handle these things. I think I issued a statement, that I was soon criticised by your leader on the evening—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: At 8.16 pm?

Senator Wong: 7.45, I think.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think it was 8.16 eastern.

Senator Wong: Okay.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Maybe it was 7.45. Apologies if I—

Senator Wong: 7.46 is on this time line. Look, there’s nobody who doesn’t condemn the attack, Senator. I think that I responded initially. My recollection, and I will check this, is that at that stage we hadn’t had the full first sitrep. My recollection is that the full scale of what had actually occurred and details about incursion and hostages was not confirmed until much later. Just to remind us all—I was only reminded of this yesterday—the initial report was the rocket attacks.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, you’re right in terms of the initial reports. By the time we got to that early evening time frame, the horror of what was unfolding was being more widely reported.

Senator Wong: The evidence that was given just now—what was your evidence about the first sitrep?

Mr Dewar : The first situation report was 10.57.

Senator Wong: 2257.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The first situation report?

Senator Wong: Yes. That delay would reflect work on the ground to ascertain precisely what could be verified. The sitrep obviously is what governments then look to in terms of considering how to respond.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I appreciate that. There is a need for—

Senator Wong: Particularly these days.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: as much diligence and thoroughness in preparing that information as possible. My surprise, as I said, was that there wasn’t some communication earlier, notwithstanding that work still needed to be done, but that, whilst that work was being done, as it was clear that this was a very grave incident, as it was clear that this was an incident now dominating global media coverage and commentary, there wouldn’t be some communication with or from the Prime Minister’s office until quite late on Saturday night.

Senator Wong: The evidence from Mr Dewar is that the advice was provided at 10.45.


Senator Wong: Yes. So you’re saying they should have provided it earlier?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m not saying the written advice itself, but the absence of any communication until PM&C goes to the PMO and says, ‘Here’s the brief. Here’s the analysis that DFAT has prepared,’ and that there was no check earlier as to whether that was coming, no request earlier as for what is actually unfolding in the Middle East, what steps might the Australian government, the Prime Minister, be needing to consider or take—none of those things occurred. Not from the earliest reports of 2.30 pm; the later reports in terms of the ground incursion and invasion; the obvious work of DFAT, which at least by 4.30 pm had identified this to be a significant event—

Senator Wong: No.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: that prompted them to ring the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. That was the evidence, that at around 4.30 pm DFAT contacted PM&C, but there was nothing proactive from the Prime Minister’s office at all, and they just received the PM&C brief at 10.45 pm.

Senator Wong: I’m not sure of the political point you’re making.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think we’ve established the time line at least of Saturday evening.

Senator Wong: It would not be unreasonable to await the sitrep. It was appropriate for me to provide a response to the initial reports once we had at least ascertained some aspects of it. Obviously the full horror of what had actually occurred was not verified at that point, in terms of information to the Australian government. But it is not unusual for PM&C and the Prime Minister’s office to await the sitrep, because that is the assessment of what Australia has assessed has actually occurred—that’s not very eloquent.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I understand it in terms of being aware, Minister, but the fact there seem to be—

Senator Wong: People worked as quickly as they could. Remember, this was unfolding on the day it happened. Remember that with the time zone difference—I think this was all the same day in Israel.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, it was early morning in Israel.

Senator Wong: Early morning and then, from memory, evening or night-time. I’m sure that all parts of government that were able to were contributing to bringing that sitrep together on that Saturday night Australian time.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m sure DFAT and PM&C, in terms of bringing that together, did so. But it doesn’t take away from the fact there was seemingly no communication—you’ve taken it on notice as to whether you were in touch with the Prime Minister at all but no communication—between the Prime Minister’s department and the Prime Minister’s office during that day until all of that thorough work by PM&C and DFAT had been concluded. I find that surprising, given the scale of what was unfolding.

Senator Wong: Can I just make this point. I know you’re trying to do it in a nice way, but everyone condemns this. Everyone was horrified. I will check what was occurring, but we were seeking to ascertain what was happening on the ground. My recollection also is that there was obviously a lot of—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Public-source information?

Senator Wong: public-source information which could not be verified. My recollection also is that the information that was coming from more authorised sources was, obviously, constrained for a period of time. That’s probably a discussion I’d have with you separately.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Stepping forward from provision of that report—to be clear, was it provided to PMO at 10.45 or at 10.57?

Mr Dewar : There were two. There was a response holding lines and a situation report, and they were about 10 minutes apart. That’s what I’m referring to. The holding lines were at 10.45, and the sitrep was at 11.02. They were both coming out of the DFAT Global Watch Office to us.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Are you able to provide a copy of the holding lines? I appreciate the sitrep may contain sensitive information. The holding lines were obviously intended for public dissemination.

Senator Wong: We’ll take that on notice.

Mr Dewar : I don’t have any of those with me.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What steps are taken thereafter by the government, in terms of the appropriate response and need for response by the Australian government?

Mr Dewar : That evening, DFAT activated its call unit. I’d have to refer you to DFAT for the details on that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The crisis centre?

Mr Dewar : I think there’s a difference between the call unit and the crisis centre. I’d ask DFAT to—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay, we’ll take that elsewhere.

Mr Dewar : That was late in that evening. Then overnight there was another sitrep and some updated talking points prepared, and we provided them to the Prime Minister’s office.

Senator Wong: The second sitrep, in the morning, was more detailed. From recollection, I think that was the verification of hostages. I’m just remembering, in hindsight, some of the information was not in the public arena and was not verified.

Mr Dewar : The situation report was provided to the Prime Minister’s office at 6.54 on the Sunday morning, and the talking points at 7.02.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Just so that I’ve got it right and for anybody else who may be following: in terms of the first sitrep and talking points, they came the other way around—the talking points were sent at 10.45 pm and the sitrep at 10.57 pm?

Mr Dewar : Correct.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Then, in the morning, the second sitrep—

Senator Wong: The first sitrep was more limited, for some of the reasons which we can talk about.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Yes, as you would expect. The second sitrep was at 6.54 am, and—

Senator Wong: No; for the second sitrep I have 5.41. Is that not right?

Mr Dewar : I’ve got 6.45 it was provided by us to PMO.

Senator Wong: Sorry. At 5.41, that was the Global Watch Office sitrep, which would have gone to—


Senator Wong: me, Defence et cetera.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And it went from PM&C to the PMO at 6.45?

Mr Dewar : No, 6.54. I don’t have what time we received that sitrep.

Senator Wong: I’ve got a note as to when it was sent, which we need to check. I think it was really at this stage that the full scale and horror of the attack became clear. That’s when it was confirmed about the incursions, a number of people having been killed and injured, and the fact of hostages having been taken into Gaza.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was the Prime Minister advised at some stage as to when he should make a public statement? You referenced your public statement earlier, Minister.

Mr Dewar : The Prime Minister issued a tweet on the Sunday morning. I’ve got it at 6.23.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That was prior to his office receiving the second sitrep or the updated talking points.

Mr Dewar : From PM&C, yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was that tweet, that communication, prepared in consultation with PM&C or drafted by PM&C?

Mr Dewar : I’ll ask Mr Collingburn if he’s got any other information, but I don’t believe so.

Mr Collingburn : No, it wasn’t.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Next steps: DFAT has activated its call unit or the like. You’ve updated a further situational report and talking points. What are the next steps in terms of the Australian government response?

Mr Dewar : We provided an update to the Prime Minister’s office about the intentions for the day ahead, in terms of when we expected situation reports and talking points to be readied on a roughly twice daily schedule. We provided that update and then provided those talking points and so on as they came out throughout the day.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Were any other actions undertaken or initiated at a PM&C or whole-of-government level?

Mr Dewar : Under the Australian Government Crisis Management Framework, DFAT is the whole-of-government agency that leads on international crises. DFAT having activated its call unit, its next stage was then to make the decision to activate its crisis centre and then actually activate the crisis centre. I don’t have the details of that, but that was happening in the course of the Sunday.

Senator Wong: What do you mean by ‘anything else’—what contacts were made et cetera? There was outreach to—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I’m certainly going to go to contacts and those sorts of things, but I’m also looking, in that sense, for when and what efforts were put in place in relation to repatriating Australians and when and what steps were taken in terms of consideration of national security aspects. Some of those, in particular repatriating Australians, I was largely intending to leave for DFAT, but I’m at least wanting to understand—

Senator Wong: I’ll tell you what: we certainly acted far quicker than your government did when you closed the borders.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We can debate that in other places if you like, Senator Wong.

Senator Wong: Those responses around consular matters obviously are a matter for my department in another context on Thursday. What are you wanting from Mr Dewar now?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In part, I was wanting to understand if there were other steps that PM&C took or led upon. Mr Dewar was clear about the provision of twice-daily briefings and talking points. He has now referenced the lead agency role of DFAT. Were there other elements—in terms of the implications for Australian national security settings, terrorist concerns or other safety and security concerns as they relate to Australia—that required actions not led from the international response by DFAT but led by PM&C or other agencies of government?

Senator Wong: Or Home Affairs.

Mr Dewar : I’d say two things. There are obviously a range of agencies, such as ASIO, that look at the domestic threat picture in Australia. I’d have to refer you to them for their detailed timings and then to Home Affairs for that broader domestic security response.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Does PM&C marry the advice—sorry, marry the device—of agencies together—

Senator Wong: That sounds like anti-marriage equality—’marry advice’ and the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I think they were canines rather than devices, but neither of us need to relive that debate, Senator Wong!

Senator Wong: Yes, sorry. Let’s not do that. Marry up?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Does PM&C marry up the advice of agencies in terms of DFAT’s work on the international scenario and the domestic threat advice in what is provided to the Prime Minister at some point? You’ve giving twice-daily briefings to the Prime Minister on the international situation. When do the domestic implications start to fold into that?

Mr Dewar : What I’d say is that we, PM&C, very much rely on the expertise in the key agencies to provide us with the input, and then we make sure that the Prime Minister is briefed for meetings and engagements as required. So that’s our role. But, in these sorts of situations, obviously we need to be very careful as we need coherent advice across government, so that’s why it’s clear who is the lead agency—for example, DFAT in the international side—so that there is one clear, coherent source of truth coming forward, and then we make sure that that’s been provided to the Prime Minister.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When did the Prime Minister receive briefing or advice on the domestic threat elements or concerns?

Mr Dewar : Senator, I’d—

Senator Wong: You’re asking again—it goes to the content of the advice, doesn’t it? But let me take it on notice and see what I can provide.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You’re not able to? Mr Collingburn looked like he was pointing to a very specific line there.

Senator Wong: I’m not sure I want it in the public arena. I’m happy to have a discussion with you. Let me just take some advice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you. Outside of DFAT’s lead role internationally, were any task groups or other steps taken or formed across whole-of-government to coordinate the response of government to this crisis?

Mr Dewar : The other one that was utilised was the National Coordination Mechanism. I think the Minister for Home Affairs may have spoken about that, but Home Affairs is the lead on that. Home Affairs leads, but it can bring in domestic security agencies and state and territory first responders as required, depending on the nature of the event, and policy departments within states and territories as well.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Who is empowered to initiate the National Coordination Mechanism?

Mr Dewar : I’ll have to confirm, but I think Home Affairs are the ones who are the lead on the National Coordination Mechanism.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So the home affairs minister or—

Mr Dewar : I don’t think it needs to be at ministerial level. I think that can be convened at officials level. Sorry, it definitely can be convened at officials level. I don’t know if there’s a requirement for a ministerial agreement to that. I’d have to defer to Home Affairs.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: When was the Prime Minister advised of the decision to initiate the National Coordination Mechanism?

Mr Dewar : I’d have to confirm that. I’ll have to check.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is there a day, even if there isn’t a time?

Senator Wong: He’s just checking.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of advising the PM for events, meetings, engagements, those other roles of PM&C, as this crisis further unfolded: on what occasions did PM&C have cause to provide advice to the Prime Minister for domestic related events that he was undertaking—engagement with community leaders, vigils or otherwise that he may have been attending, those types of what would be routine event briefs or meeting briefs but specific to events that relate to or followed on from the terrorist atrocities?

Senator Wong: This is not a security question? This is a question of: did PM&C provide any brief to the Prime Minister before he did various community meetings and outreach?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Community events, discussions with community leaders—

Senator Wong: So it’s not a question about what security briefings he obtained?


Mr Dewar : I will have to take that one on notice. We were providing regular updates, as I said, that had both the situation reports and the whole-of-government talking points as well. We were providing them to the Prime Minister’s office. I will have to take on notice if there were specific other briefs for events we were providing.

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham, it is time to rotate the call again. Senator Waters has been waiting for more than an hour, albeit it was her colleague’s turn before yours. Can I give you a wind-up—I can see the witnesses are conferring.

Senator Wong: We’ll check in the break.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Having had the wind-up call: when did the Prime Minister first engage with Jewish community leaders in Australia?

Senator Wong: That PM&C are aware of?

Mr Dewar : I’m not sure if colleagues from the social policy division have anything to add here in terms of community engagement. I know the Prime Minister spoke to the Israeli ambassador to Australia, who was in Israel at the time, on the Sunday morning.

Ms Hefren-Webb : I believe the Prime Minister met with Jewish leaders in St Kilda on the 11th. I will just confirm that—sorry, 17 October.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That’s the first record PM&C has?

Ms Hefren-Webb : Yes.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In fairness to the Prime Minister, given that’s 10 days after the atrocities took place, can you take on notice and check with the PMO when the Prime Minister first engaged with Australia’s Jewish communities and their leaders after those shocking events on 7 October, please?

Mr Dewar : We’ll see what we can find out.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you.

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