The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, uses estimates to ask the President of the Senate about the ban on facial coverings in Parliament House galleries.
Senator MILNE: Just to follow up on Senator Leyonhjelm's questions: in the meetings that you had with the Federal Police and ASIO, had matters related to sponsored passes and escorted passes-the (a) and (b), in other words, on your information circular-been discussed?
The PRESIDENT: There were a series of meetings that went over a period of weeks and then, on top of that, the implementation of the security task force, and ASIO and the AFP were present at, I think, virtually all of those meetings. These matters have come up in a general context, and different subgroups of the task force are attending to aspects, particularly involving the DPS, in relation to passes. So, yes, the matter has been raised, but I cannot specifically say where and when. As you would appreciate, I will not be going into the detail of the matters discussed at those meetings.
Senator MILNE: I just wanted to establish that, in the draft advice that you would have received and on the back of the Federal Police and ASIO, the issue of the passes in both categories had been raised previously, as you have just said. Was the issue of facial coverings ever raised by the Federal Police or ASIO?
The PRESIDENT: I think that it is probably appropriate that I do not comment on the details of those conversations and those briefings, the majority of which occurred in secure briefing rooms, so that in itself would indicate that these matters should not be discussed outside of that area. But, in general, in the task force meetings, all matters of security are considered and have been considered.
Senator MILNE: What I am trying to establish here is that-from the evidence that the Black Rod has given-in the meeting that occurred at some time after 10 o'clock on 2 October, in the draft that was provided to you, there was no reference to covering of faces, or face coverings, and that the Presiding Officers made that decision. If that was something that had been part of the discussions, you would assume it would have been brought forward as part of the draft. Had you had any discussions with the Speaker of the House of Representatives prior to coming to this meeting in the Speaker's office sometime after 10 o'clock on the 2nd with regard to the issue of facial coverings?
The PRESIDENT: I have had many discussions with the Speaker in relation to all security matters and that would include facial coverings.
Senator MILNE: So you had had a discussion with the Speaker prior to that meeting on facial coverings?
The PRESIDENT: Yes.
Senator MILNE: What was the nature of those discussions?
The PRESIDENT: I am not going to discuss the nature of the discussions that I have had with the Speaker in relation to those matters.
Senator MILNE: In the meeting that you had that morning where point (c) was added, was it your idea to add that or was it the Speaker's idea to add that?
The PRESIDENT: In relation to the entire circular, it is the responsibility of both Presiding Officers to sign off on every point, including the third point, and that was discussed at that meeting. That is as far as I wish to take the matter in relation to the discussions concerning that particular security circular that was issued that day.
Senator MILNE: Let me put it another way. Had you and the Speaker made a decision to ban facial coverings prior to going to that meeting in the Speaker's office at which all the other people were present?
The PRESIDENT: The answer to that is clearly no.
Senator MILNE: You had not made that decision beforehand. Can you tell me whether you had had any correspondence or contact with anyone from the Prime Minister's office prior to that meeting in the Speaker's office with regard to the issue of facial covering?
The PRESIDENT: No, I had not.
Senator MILNE: Did you have any contact with any other minister or ministerial office prior to that meeting?
The PRESIDENT: No, I had not.
Senator MILNE: Since you had had no contact from the Prime Minister's office, do you know if the Speaker had had discussions with the Prime Minister's office?
The PRESIDENT: That is a matter for the Speaker. Can I just indicate that the Speaker and I, with the Prime Minister's office, the Attorney-General's Department, Prime Minister and Cabinet, ASIO and AFP, have determined that all initial communication concerning security will be directed to the Speaker's office. This makes perfect sense-the Speaker is the chair of the task force. Rather than having both Presiding Officers constantly being informed of the same thing, it goes to one particular office and then the senior staff of both offices communicate regularly on those matters. All original communication would go to the Speaker's office.
Senator MILNE: So on that basis, if a decision on banning facial coverings was under active consideration in the Speaker's office, that would come by way of communication with, did I hear you just say, your senior staff?
The PRESIDENT: That is right. If we need to meet, our two senior staff members would communicate and we would meet. The Speaker and I meet on an ad hoc basis. We have probably met more so in the last few months due to security arrangements rather than other matters, but we meet on an ad hoc basis and our staff are in constant contact in relation to these matters, or the Speaker and I would talk if we needed to.
Senator MILNE: In relation to the Speaker and you discussing the issue of facial coverings, over what period of time have you been discussing that?
The PRESIDENT: It is in the mix of everything and it is not a focal point. In fact, it would be a very small aspect of our overall discussions and that would have occurred over a number of weeks.
Senator MILNE: Since it was a small part of your discussions and since you, as the Presiding Officers, made the decision to add the issue of the facial coverings on that day, what changed for you and the Speaker such that you then, without the advice or recommendation of the security committee, arrived at that decision and clearly put it to the meeting?
The PRESIDENT: We were clearly of the view, based upon the advice that had been received, that a disruption was going to occur in Parliament House that day. The advice included the fact that it would be a group of people-I think the figure of 10 was used-and that some of them may be male, wearing concealing garments. The best and the most immediate response was to enable us to ensure the identity of those people in the public gallery. I think that was a prudent decision for that particular day. Let's bear in mind that it was the last sitting day of a session, it was an interim measure and it was going to impact on Parliament House for one day. That is exactly what that decision, in effect, did. The Speaker and I have since met, yesterday, to revise that interim decision, which we have done, and that has become public this morning.
Senator MILNE: Why would you change the whole arrangements when you had clearly been given advice that there may be a disruption in one of the galleries on that day? Why didn't you just take some anticipatory action with security in the gallery on that day rather than change the rules in the way that you have now made permanent changes to the rules for security passes? Why would you make a permanent change to the rules when you anticipated there was going to be a disruption in one place on one day?
The PRESIDENT: The nature of the information received indicated there were going to be people who had their faces covered. That was the interim, immediate arrangement that we made, never intending it to be permanent, so we could then seek further advice and further information and come up with what we now have as a second interim position. We will still seek further advice and the current interim arrangements may or may not continue. It would depend on what happens over the next short period.
Senator MILNE: This really does not make sense to me. Was the ban on the passes, therefore, only for that day as well?
The PRESIDENT: It was an interim decision and we have continued that interim decision. That interim decision lasted until 8.30 this morning, and now we have a further set of measures that are in effect until such time as any other changes are made. In relation to security, it is a fluid beast. Security changes rapidly and we have to be responsive.
Senator MILNE: With the issue of the passes, there is a rationale for it. The decision was made on the basis of advice from the committee put to you as part of that debate with the presiding officers. This third point was something that you and the Speaker determined yourselves.
The PRESIDENT: As we did the first two points. We were not completely devoid of any involvement in the first two points. All three points were agreed to and discussed and debated by the Speaker and me as well as others.
Senator WONG: That is not the evidence.
Senator MILNE: Did you seek advice from anyone in that meeting on the morning of the 2nd as to the efficacy of introducing such an interim measure with regard to facial covering? Did you seek advice from anyone expert in security at all?
The PRESIDENT: Advice, as I indicated earlier, has been oncoming on a regular basis. This particular measure occurred and the meeting occurred just after noon. Question time was commencing at two. I think you could appreciate there was a degree of urgency in coming up with a temporary measure, which we did.
Senator MILNE: But I am asking: who with any sort of expertise in security imagined that this was a good idea?
The PRESIDENT: We had people from the Department of Parliamentary Services, part of whose titles and roles is security management of the building.
Senator MILNE: But we have already established that they do not have any expertise in security as such.
The PRESIDENT: That was only in relation to the Black Rod and the Serjeant.
Senator MILNE: Who advised that this action on facial coverings was the appropriate way to deal with an anticipated disruption in one of the galleries?
The PRESIDENT: As I indicated earlier, I am not going to go into the detail of the discussion of the advice provided.
Senator MILNE: But we have not been able to establish there was any advice at this point, other than you and the Speaker reaching this decision, and that the Speaker has predominant responsibility and that is passed onto you. I have not heard any clarity here as to any advice other than from the Speaker.
The PRESIDENT: Advice was given to us and we acted upon that advice in that discussion in that meeting.
Senator MILNE: That is as far as I can go.