Attorney-General George Brandis. Photo: Andrew MearesAttorney-General George Brandis has said he cannot say how often he is asked for advice on Islamic State because his department receives so many letters relating to national security issues.
Labor senator Jacinta Collins asked Senator Brandis how often he received letters “seeking advice about contacting IS” during senate estimates in May.
Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis asked the Attorney-General in a letter last October whether it was legal for him to contact IS. The department responded almost a month later with a standard reply about the Criminal Code. Months later, Monis – who had sent many letters to ministers in recent years – held customers and staff of the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place hostage. Three people, including Monis, died in the attack.
The Attorney-General’s department this week responded that in the last financial year, “almost 40,000 items of correspondence” to ministers in the Attorney-General’s portfolio had been processed on a range of national security matters.
The letters, from both individuals and groups, included whether it was legal to take “certain action” relating to terrorist organisations including Islamic State.
“Due to the volume and various matters covered by this correspondence, the Attorney-General’s Department is unable, without expending considerable time and resources, to advise how many of these letters may have included a request for advice about contacting this organisation.”
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus, QC, said: “The Attorney-General has still done nothing to change his handling of correspondence of national security concern despite Prime Minister Tony Abbott announcing a higher threat level in September last year, and despite attention having been drawn to the inadequate handling of Monis’ letter.”
Such letters were “something you would have thought should have put the Attorney’s office and department on inquiry that this is something that required special attention. That’s what didn’t happen in the case of Mr Monis”.
Senator Brandis has said that department staff did not regard Monis’ letter as a threat, or him as a person of concern.
Senator Collins said the Attorney-General and his department were avoiding answering the question and “ducking for cover”.
A Senate committee is preparing a report on the Attorney-General’s department’s failure to pass on Monis’ letter to a joint Commonwealth-NSW review into the siege. The department took three days to correct the record, leaving it until the end of a sitting fortnight, when no questions could be pursued on the matter in Parliament.
A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General’s department said that it had received about 7 per cent more letters last year than the previous year.
“Each item of correspondence received by the portfolio ministers and the department is carefully assessed. Departmental officers liaise with other government agencies, including law enforcement and security agencies, where an item of correspondence raises concerns,” she said.
Department secretary Chris Moraitis previously told the Senate committee that the department was “overworked” around the time the letter was received. He said he had discussed with other senior staff possibilities around restructuring the department “to better reflect national security, cyber security and emergency management”.
The spokeswoman would not be drawn on whether the department needed more resources, saying : “The department processes all correspondence within available resources.”
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