Chapter 2 - Attorney General's portfolio
This chapter summarises areas of interest and concern raised during the
committee's consideration of the additional estimates for the
Attorney-General's portfolio for the 2006-2007 financial year.
Attorney General's Department
The committee sought information regarding consultation between the
Attorney General's (AGD), the Minister, or the Attorney-General, and the
Exclusive Brethren in relation to the family law reforms and exemptions from
anti-discrimination legislation or the Family Law Act 1975.
The committee notes that AGD has subsequently provided the committee with a
response on issues which were unable to be answered at the hearings.
The committee examined the rollout of Family Relationship Centres (FRCs)
by the Department. The committee heard that there are currently 15 FRCs in
operation in various locations around the country and that 25 more are due to
commence operation by 2 July 2007.
Committee members also questioned officers on staffing levels, locations of
FRCs, and services provided.
During the hearings, officers raised concerns about providing
information on the grounds that the same information was not provided pursuant
to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
In 1999 the Senate adopted the following test of relevance for questions in
Any questions going to the operations or financial position of
the departments and agencies which are seeking funds in the estimates are
relevant questions for the purpose of estimates hearings.
To this end, information provided to the committee during estimates is
different to that which would be provided under a FOI request. While there may
be some areas of overlap between FOI exemptions and the public interest grounds
that the committee recognises as a basis for not providing information during
estimates hearings, the committee can choose to request any information within
the boundaries of the test adopted by the senate. The committee would therefore
be concerned if FOI restrictions were adopted by agencies as the standard for
evidence provided through the committee to the Parliament.
The committee received an update on the implementation of the national
Document Verification Service (DVS). Officers provided the committee with a
copy of the evaluation of the prototype document verification service. The
committee also heard that the national DVS would not be ready by the time the
proposed government 'access card' was due to begin operation.
Senators were interested in the budget allocations for legal aid, in
particular allocations for Indigenous legal aid. Officers told the committee
that the budget for 2006-07 is just over $155 million, an increase from just
over $148 million in the 2005-06 period.
Committee members sought information about Mr David Hicks. Issues raised
- the conditions of his detention;
- time frame for laying charges against Mr Hicks;
- time frame for the commencement of court hearings; and
- the frequency and purpose of consular visits. 
During the hearings, some officers were asked questions relating to
bills before Senate committees for examination. The Chair reminded senators and
officers that the Clerk had advised that while questions at estimates had a
very wide ambit:
Where a bill is before a Senate committee, this means that the
Senate has given that committee the task of conducting an inquiry specifically
into that bill. This indicates that an intention that any inquiry into the
provisions of the bill be conducted at hearings and meetings of the committee specifically
designated for that inquiry, and not pursued at estimates hearings which
interested senators might not be able to attend and for which there is usually
no notification of such specific subject matters of inquiries.
The committee agreed to direct its questions to the relevant inquiry.
Australian Customs Service
The committee examined the Australian Customs Service (ACS), at length,
on the implementation of the Integrated Cargo System (ICS). In particular,
Senators questioned officers on issues arising out of the Australian National
Audit Office's (ANAO) report into the ICS such as:
- the approval process;
- how the ICS project was managed;
- details of variations to the initial contract; and
- compensation paid to businesses adversely affected by the disruption
of cargo movements which resulted from failings of the ICS.
Officers told the committee that all the ANAO report's recommendations
had been accepted and ACS was implementing a number of changes, such as the
appointment a new deputy chief executive officer, in response to the ANAO
The committee also sought details on the ACS Coastwatch program.
Officers provided the committee with details of the air surveillance program,
in particular allocated flying hours. The committee heard that there can be
discrepancies between the planned number of flying hours and the actual number
of hours flown based on factors such as staff and aircraft availability,
weather conditions, and seasonal workloads.
Australian Federal Police
Senators sought clarification from the Australian Federal Police (AFP)
on a number of allegations made in the media relating to the theft of military
equipment. The AFP gave the committee an update on the background, progress,
and number of investigations related to the allegations.
The committee also questioned officers on:
- costs of an AFP deployment to Afghanistan;
- the AFP's role in the implementation and use of the proposed
government 'access' card;
- assistance given to the Vanuatu police to search the vessel
Retriever 1 (the crew of this vessel allegedly assisted Mr Peter Foster to
enter Vanuatu without a visa);
- the current status of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon
Islands (RAMSI) mission including the loss of the Fijian police contingent.
Senator Marise Payne
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