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Christine Milne: Did DFAT brief the PM on the search for MH370? [Estimates]

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Christine Milne 22 Oct 2014

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, uses senate estimates to ask officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) if it was their department who briefed the Prime Minister on the search for MH370.

Senator MILNE: I want to ask about the Prime Minister's trip to China in April this year, in which it was reported that he had a private meeting with the Chinese president in order to brief him, in part-presumably they raised lots of matters-on the search for MH370. I want to ask whether you can confirm that the Prime Minister did have that private meeting with the Chinese president on 11 April this year, how long that meeting went for, what time of the day it was and whether MH370 was discussed. Maybe you can start with that.

Mr Varghese : I will ask Peter Rowe to add something if there is anything to add. Yes, it is the case that the Prime Minister made a visit to China in April and did meet with President Chi Jinping. I do not know whether I would characterise the meeting as a private meeting; I think it was an official meeting. My understanding is that the Prime Minister did take the opportunity at that meeting to brief President Chi on developments in relation to MH370, which of course was an issue of very high interest to the Chinese leadership. I do not have the date of the meeting, but I am sure we can get that.

Mr Rowe : Offhand, I cannot remember what the actual date was. It was towards the end of the visit.

Senator MILNE: According to the reports it was 11 April. Can you confirm that that took place? Also, what time did that meeting take place? Were there any officials present at that meeting?

Mr Rowe : As the secretary said, it was not a private meeting so much as an official meeting-private in the sense that only relevant people would have been there on both sides, including the ambassador and various Prime Minister's advisers.

Senator MILNE: Could you provide a list of who was there in support of the Prime Minister on the Australian side of the meeting? Who prepared the brief for the Prime Minister for that meeting and the speech he made in China on 11 April?

Mr Varghese : Can I make one observation. I think questions relating to the Prime Minister's travel ought to be directed to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It is not our practice to release details of conversations between heads of government or, indeed, to release details of participants in discussions with other heads of government.

Senator MILNE: I can appreciate that, but I have asked the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet who provided the briefing to the Prime Minister in relation to the details of MH370 and they said that they did not. Somebody obviously did and I am trying to establish whether DFAT provided the briefing to the Prime Minister on the details of MH370 on the basis of which he then briefed President Xi Jinping.

Mr Varghese : I am happy to take on notice whether or not DFAT provided a separate briefing to the Prime Minister for that meeting on MH370.

Senator MILNE: Thank you-please establish for me whether it was DFAT who briefed the Prime Minister on the details. Would you be able to indicate whether that briefing was prepared in consultation with the chair or members of the joint coordinating group here in Australia, which was headed up by Angus Houston? I would like to know if he was consulted in the briefing. Also, I would like to know what critical detailed analysis of the information was conducted before the Prime Minister told the President of China, 'We've narrowed the search area and we're very confident the signals are from the black box.' Can anyone shed any light on how the Prime Minister came to make that statement in China?

Senator Brandis: Perhaps I can be of assistance. First of all, most of what you have asked is, as Mr Varghese has pointed out, best asked of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to the extent to which it is a proper question. Secondly, much of the information that you have identified in your question would appear to me to go to the content of advice to ministers, in this case the Prime Minister, and, as you ought to know, is not allowable. We will take the question on notice and we will respond to that much of it as is (a) relevant and (b) permissible.

Senator MILNE: Surely, Minister, in China, a country where about 154 of the people who died in MH370 were citizens, the Prime Minister ought to have had a substantial reason for telling the Chinese President, 'We're confident the signals are from the black box.' I am trying to establish who provided the Prime Minister with that briefing and whether the joint task force had been consulted before he made that statement.

Senator Brandis: Your state of mind and the reasons you are asking the questions you are asking or making the statements you are making are really of no interest to me. I have told you we will take the question on notice and we will respond to that part of it that is (a) relevant to this committee and (b) permissible.

Senator MILNE: In relation to the issue of the ISIL terrorism that is going on in the Middle East, has the government met with officials from Kuwait or Qatar in relation to implementing strong anti-money-laundering or counterterrorism financing regimes? Have we actually met with officials from either of those countries in relation to that matter?

Mr Varghese : I do not know whether our ambassador for counterterrorism is in the room. If he is not, I will take the question on notice. We regularly discuss counterterrorism issues with governments across the world, including in the Middle East. As to whether we have had detailed discussions in relation specifically to the question you raise, I will see whether Mr Armitage is in a position to respond to that.

Mr Armitage : As the secretary said, we have had discussions with the countries in the region. In terms of the precise details in relation to Kuwait and Qatar, I would need to take that on notice. But our general representations to the countries in the region have obviously covered the question of support to ISIL in all its various forms. In implementing the UN resolutions, particularly 2170 and 2178, which impose obligations on member states to disrupt and prevent sources of funding to ISIL, we have obviously raised that with the countries in the region.

Senator MILNE: I can assume from your answer we have raised it with both Kuwait and Qatar?

Mr Armitage : I will need to check on both those countries.

Senator MILNE: Okay. Given that the United States has now sanctioned a number of Qatari and Kuwaiti nationals and NGOs in recent months for their role in providing cash and arms to terror groups associated with ISIL, has the Australian government done the same? Have we actually sanctioned any Qatari or Kuwaiti nationals or NGOs in relation to that? Are there any sanctions currently in place?

Mr Varghese : I think we would have to take that on notice. Obviously, if any of those are listed under the sanctions committee of the Security Council, we would, as we are obliged to, impose sanctions. Whether we have done so and if we have gone further than that I would have to take on notice.

Senator MILNE: Yes, if you would not mind. Also, can you tell me if it is under active consideration, or are you saying that it is a matter of course? It is just a matter of identifying them?

Mr Varghese : If it is a decision of the sanctions committee, we would do it as a matter of course. We would execute that position, as we are obliged to. We do have a capacity to impose additional sanctions, and that would depend on the evidentiary basis for it.

Senator MILNE: I guess what I am asking is: is there any active consideration of that? Is there any investigation into that?

Mr Varghese : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator MILNE: Okay. In relation to the same question, one of the other things that various countries are trying to do is choke off oil sales and sales of refined petroleum, because obviously that is where a lot of the money to those groups is coming from. Has Australia done anything in that regard-maybe notifying Australian businesses or importers of the need to take particular care to follow the source of these products and where they are coming from?

Mr Varghese : Again, we will have to take that on notice.

Senator MILNE: Okay. Thank you.


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