Monday, 15 September 2008
Return to Order
by leave—I rise to speak in relation to the motion put by Senator Milne pursuant to standing order 164 and passed by the Senate on 3 September 2008. The motion relates to a document entitled The strategic review of climate change policies prepared for the government by Mr Roger Wilkins AO. Unlike in the previous debate, I acknowledge that that document does exist. The document discussed in the previous debate did not exist.
I am advised by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, who I represent in the Senate, that the purpose of the Wilkins review was to assess the appropriateness, efficiency and effectiveness of the Australian government climate change programs and to develop a set of principles to assist in the assessment of whether climate change programs will complement the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, known as the CPRS. The review has been prepared as an input in developing the government’s climate change policy, including the forthcoming CPRS white paper. There are very important policy matters that require detailed consideration and analysis and which contain matters subject to cabinet consideration. As such, I am advised that the document is protected by cabinet-in-confidence. I wish to also inform the Senate that I am advised that the document in question included advice to ministers to assist in the deliberative processes of government. In accordance with long-standing practice, the review is therefore subject to a claim of public interest immunity.
The government have not come to this decision lightly, as we strongly endorse the open and transparent functioning of our parliament. We come to this position on the basis of extensive precedent, including precedent from the previous government, where advice to government of a similar nature—that is, for the purpose of the government’s deliberative processes—has not been provided on an order of the Senate.
It is prudent to look at several of these precedents. The first, interestingly, relates to a request by me to obtain a report presented to the former government by the Superannuation Working Group in 2002. Senator Troeth, who responded on behalf of the government on that occasion, made the situation very clear when on 29 August 2002 she read by leave a statement by Senator Coonan in which she informed the Senate:
The report has been received by the government and is being examined and considered. The report itself and any measures the government may propose to implement to improve prudential safety of superannuation will be considered by cabinet. At this stage, the report is clearly part of the deliberative process of government.
I accept the need for the Senate to access certain information if it is to perform its proper functions. I understand and believe in the important principles of transparent democracy and accountability. I am also aware of my responsibilities as a minister and the need to consider whether disclosure of information would be contrary to the public interest. There is a balance to be struck which properly addresses the tension between these competing principles.
Having considered these principles and responsibilities in the circumstances at hand, I have determined, on balance, that it is not in the public interest for the Superannuation Working Group report to be laid on the table at this time.
A further example was seen on 11 March 1999, when Senator Ian Macdonald, referring to the Hawke report into Airservices Australia, stated:
The former Minister for Transport and Regional Development, Mr Sharp, instructed the then Department of Transport and Regional Development to prepare the document for the purposes of cabinet deliberation.
It is a document that has underpinned confidential cabinet deliberations and relates to a subject that is still under government consideration. As a result, it would not serve the public interest for me to table the report in the Senate.
Again this highlights the clearest precedents used in this place. Again, on 24 September 2001 former Liberal Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Hill, declined to provide documents on the basis:
The documents are in the nature of, or relating to, opinion, advice or recommendation obtained, prepared or recorded in the course of, or for the purposes of, the deliberative processes involved in the functions of the government whose release would be contrary to the public interest.
Finally, there is a fourth precedent. Let us turn to the very correct advice, I have to say, offered by former senator Ian Campbell, who said on 28 June 2001:
Disclosure of such documents would discourage the proper provision of advice to ministers. Were the government to disclose such information, it may prejudice the future supply of information from third parties to the Commonwealth.
No truer words by former senator Ian Campbell. It was very prudent advice he gave to the Senate on that occasion and the government will adhere to the same precedent because his advice on that occasion was sound. It is correct. Although it may now be forgotten by some in this chamber, it is a long-standing Senate practice.
I do wish to take this opportunity to draw the Senate’s attention to the real issues at play in relation to climate change. The Labor government through both the Prime Minister and Senator Wong, the Minister for Climate Change and Water, have from day one been fighting to ensure that the legacy of inaction from the now opposition on climate change is overcome. The government is preparing Australia for the challenges of the future by tackling climate change and securing our water supplies. Australians know that acting now on climate change is the responsible thing to do and we cannot afford to waste any more time. So, for the reasons that I have outlined and for the four precedents over a number of years that I have quoted, the government does not propose to provide this document to the Senate.