Second reading speech, Defence legislation Amendment (Parliamentary Joint Committee on Defence) Bill 2024

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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30 May 2024

I am pleased to present the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Joint Committee on Defence) Bill 2024.

The Albanese Government is committed to transparency and accountability. In a Westminster style democracy such as ours, the Parliament plays a crucial role in providing this by scrutinising and debating the decisions of the Executive Government and the implementation of them by departments and agencies. 

This scrutiny is important in ensuring the best decision-making, the most efficient and prudent use of taxpayer funds, along with a more informed Parliament and, by extension, public. 

The Senate Estimates process has provided useful and necessary scrutiny of Defence – particularly major capability projects – over the years, and it will continue to do so following the establishment of the PJCD. 

But in the challenging and complex strategic circumstances we find ourselves in, it’s necessary to ensure the Parliament can also examine these projects and Australia’s defence strategy in greater detail and in a classified setting, with the appropriate safeguards in place. 

This Bill addresses that gap, injecting greater parliamentary transparency, accountability and oversight of the Defence portfolio by establishing a Parliamentary Joint Statutory Committee on Defence, or PJCD. 

The establishment of the PJCD implements a recommendation of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s Inquiry into international armed conflict decision-making, following a referral from the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence. 

The Inquiry was initiated to deliver a commitment in the Australian Labor Party’s National Platform. 

The Government acknowledges and thanks the Chair of the Inquiry, the Member for Bruce for his tireless work on the Inquiry and in helping bring the PJCD into existence. 

This is not the first time a committee recommended the establishment of a statutory committee dedicated to Defence, but it is the first time a government has taken it up. 

The PJCD is modelled on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

It will supersede and enhance the Defence related functions currently undertaken by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. 

The PJCD will be able to receive and consider classified information in carrying out its oversight functions, ensuring it has the information it needs to conduct effective scrutiny of Defence and its portfolio agencies, and strengthening government decision-making on defence and strategic policy.

Importantly, the Bill establishes appropriate safeguards that balance the Government’s commitment to greater public accountability and transparency for Defence, and the necessary protection of information provided to the PJCD to ensure Australia’s national security, and that of our international partners, is protected.

The PJCD will have oversight of the Australian Defence Force, the Department of Defence, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and certain Defence portfolio agencies, including the Australian Submarine Agency, Defence Housing Australia and the Australian War Memorial. 

The Bill sets out its functions, including: 

  • considering publicly released documents dealing with Australian defence strategies, planning and contingencies, such as the biennial National Defence Strategy; 
  • scrutinising Australia’s defence capability development, acquisitions and sustainment, including the Integrated Investment Program; 
  • examining and being appraised of war or warlike operations and ongoing conflicts, in the event of a decision by the Executive to enter into armed conflict, and;
  • monitoring the involvement of Australian defence agencies in significant non-conflict operations domestically and internationally. 

The Committee can receive referrals on matters from Ministers and either House of Parliament. It can also inquire into any matter it might determine relevant to its oversight functions on its own initiative. 

In recognition of the significance of establishing a Royal Commission, the Committee will be responsible for monitoring and reviewing on an ongoing basis the Australian Government’s response to the findings of any Royal Commission inquiries relating to Defence. 

To ensure the independent regulators in the Defence portfolio are able to fulfil their statutory functions, the Committee will also consider the operations, resources, independence and performance of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, and, once established, the Australian Naval Nuclear Power Safety Regulator. 

This is modelled on the relationship between the Australian National Audit Office and the Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit in the Public Accounts and Audit Committee Act 1951. The Committee is not able to direct the regulators, nor review their activities or investigations, in carrying out this function. 

The new Committee’s functions will not extend to matters that fall within the purview of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security within the Intelligence Services Act 2001. This includes oversight of the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation and the Defence Intelligence Organisation, which will continue to report to the PJCIS. 

The existing arrangements for Defence oversight by the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, including the examination of legislation and of the Defence budget through the Senate Estimates process, remain unchanged. 

Similarly, the establishment of the PJCD doesn’t prohibit other Committees, such as the Joint Statutory Committee on Public Accounts and Audit, from examining Defence matters as part of its functions.

Instead the PJCD will complement these existing arrangements by scrutinising matters such as the Integrated Investment Program in a classified setting.

As with the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, will appoint up to 13 members to the Committee, comprised of no more than seven Government and six non-Government members from both Houses of Parliament.

The arrangements for information handling are closely modelled on those that apply to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Committee proceedings will be conducted in a private and appropriately secure setting, unless the Minister has authorised public hearings, with the exception of the Committee’s consideration of the annual reports of defence agencies. 

The Committee will be able to request and receive classified information and briefings in order to perform its functions. For certain categories of protected information – for example, specific information about highly sensitive military capabilities, tactics, techniques or procedures – the Minister would need to authorise the production of the information to the Committee. The Minister would also need to authorise any subsequent disclosure by the Committee of that information, including in reports to the Parliament. 

If necessary, to prevent a witness from disclosing operationally sensitive or other protected information, the Minister can issue a certificate to prevent the provision of such evidence or documents.

Given the protections in place to facilitate the provision of information to the Committee, it is not intended that these powers be used as a routine matter of course. Rather, the intent is that they are used in rare circumstances to protect the most sensitive information and capabilities, of which disclosure to the Committee would cause significant harm. 

This Bill sets out a range of criminal offences intended to deter members of the Committee, their staff, staff of the Committee, and other persons who receive protected information in connection with the performance of the Committee’s functions, from disclosing or publishing information without specific authorisation from the relevant Minister. 

There are also offences to ensure the protection of witnesses requested to give evidence or documents to the Committee. 

The offences and penalties in the Bill are reasonable, necessary, and proportionate, ensuring the Committee can obtain the information necessary to apply proper scrutiny and oversight to the Defence portfolio, while helping to ensure the protection of this information.  

Where relevant, the offences are consistent with principles set out in the Review of Secrecy Provisions conducted by the Attorney-General’s Department in 2023, and the Guide to Framing Commonwealth Offences.

This Bill and the establishment of the PJCD represents an important step forward in Parliamentary accountability and transparency for Defence, and I commend the Bill.

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