Canberra: The media were briefed about Australia’s proposal to consider moving its embassy in Israel to occupied Jerusalem before defence force commanders were ordered to conduct a review of safety, evidence to Senate estimates on Wednesday revealed.
The chief of the defence force, Angus Campbell, told the foreign affairs and defence estimates hearing that it is better practice for the military to be told before the media about factors that influence “force protection measures”.
The comments are likely to embarrass the Morrison government over the haste of the announcement, although Campbell insisted that Australian forces were safe at all times and force protection measures were judged appropriate.
Guardian Australia reported on Thursday that spy agency Asio warned that the announcement of the proposed embassy move may “provoke protest, unrest and possibly some violence in Gaza and the West Bank”.
On the evening of October 15 the Australian, Fairfax Media and the Daily Telegraph published reports that Australia would consider moving its embassy. Scott Morrison made the announcement on October 16, just days ahead of the October 20 by-election in Wentworth.
Greg Moriarty, the defence department secretary, told estimates that he first became aware on October 15 that the prime minister “was intending to make some comments” about the location of the embassy and would announce a review of the government’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal.
Hugh Jeffrey, the first assistant secretary of international policy, said the department was informed to “give us the time to direct a review to make sure that we had the appropriate measures in place for our personnel deployed in the region”.
The vice chief of the defence force, David Johnston, who was the acting chief at the time, said he became aware “that night” on October 15 and on the morning of October 16 — before Morrison’s press conference — he directed commanders to conduct a force protection review. Johnston said reviews occur “very dynamically — it does not take us long”.
The Labor leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, noted the media reports were public the night before and asked if the media therefore found out before commanders ordered to conduct the review. “If that is the timing of the announcement then yes,” Johnston conceded.
Guardian News & Media Ltd.