Thursday, 1 December 2016
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
To take note of answers to questions asked by opposition senators to Senator Brandis.
As the President has indicated, this is likely to be the last day of this parliamentary year. That being the case, I know that there are a number of traditions that are observed on the last sitting day. Most importantly, to thank all of my colleagues in the Senate and the various staff members who keep his place running. I want to place on record my gratitude for the assistance that they have provided me and my staff as a new member of this place. I also want to acknowledge those who occupy special roles in this chamber, in particular the President and Deputy President, for the great work that they have done. Again, as has been observed, this is likely to be the Clerk's last time in this chamber. I do want to record my thanks to her for the fantastic service that she has given this chamber over the years.
There are other important roles in this chamber that it is important to acknowledge on the last day of the year as well. It would be remiss of me to not recognise Senator Macdonald, who often goes by the title of the Father of the Senate. Some of us, with Christmas coming, prefer to think of him as a certain relative who shows up to Christmas and is not really that welcome. I would never think that myself, spending so many wonderful hours with him in committee meetings! I would also like to acknowledge the conspiracist-in-chief, Senator Roberts, for his contributions over the course of this year, particularly on Twitter.
But there is another important tradition that it is important to observe on the last sitting day—that is, valedictory speeches. Just before Senator Macdonald gets excited, I am not giving my own personal valedictory speech. I intend to be back here to work with him so cooperatively next year. To the contrary, I do want to give a valedictory speech on behalf of one very long-serving senator who is leaving the chamber today. Unfortunately, that senator has omitted to give his own valedictory speech, so the responsibility falls to me to deliver it on his behalf. I am, of course, referring to the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis! Look, a valedictory speech is obviously supposed to traverse the achievements of someone over their parliamentary career. With Senator Brandis, someone as accomplished as him, there really, really is a long list of accomplishments to recognise.
It will be interesting to see how many I can fit in in the remaining time that I have. I would like to return to one of the early stages of his career in 2004, when Senator Brandis called then Prime Minister John Howard a 'lying rodent'. It was a beauty, and I know Senator Cameron has often referred to that one. In 2006, Senator Brandis achieved the rare honour of becoming a Queen's Counsel barrister, the highest honour a barrister can receive, despite having been overlooked by the bar association when he was last a barrister and not having practiced for six years. In 2006, he tried to stop the distribution of a children's book because called Robert Menzies a 'tyrant'.
If we jump ahead to 2013, he was forced to pay back over $15,000 after using entitlements to attend a wedding and then refused to apologise for it. He got accustomed to spending taxpayers' money. In 2014, he spent $15,000 on some custom-built bookshelves that were too big to move into his new office. They were a very good use of taxpayers' funds! In 2014—it was a great year for him—he tried to amend section 18C, something that we are hearing a bit more about again. Of course, he recognised the very important human right to be a bigot. He has always been a defender of those kinds of human rights. He also thought it was important to recognise the human rights of people being tortured when, in 2014, he did not want to explicitly ban the torture of foreign spies.
He got his own rights bestowed on him in 2014—and I know Senator Collins is very interested in this—when he became a member of the Savage Club, an exclusive men's only club. I have it on good authority that there may not be a Savage Club in London, but there certainly is in Wellington. Perhaps he might be headed for the High Commission of New Zealand rather than London! In 2014 again, who can forget that he could not explain what metadata was. I would really like to recite the quotes from that interview, but I do not have time. He was censured along the way, he misled the Senate and then, most seriously of all, in 2015 he committed a criminal offense—a very serious thing for an Attorney-General to do. I am talking about him wearing that grey jumper! That crime against fashion that Senator Brandis committed, which we will never forgive him for!
But we should, of course, turn to this year, because it is important to go out with a bang in your last year and has he gone out with a bang this year! In May, he issued a directive that the Solicitor-General was no longer allowed to provide independent advice. In July, he was forced to reappoint commissioners of an inquiry after appointing the wrong people two days before. In September, he stacked the independent AAT with Liberal Party mates. In October, he misled the public about the Solicitor-General's advice. He then was caught on camera calling his LNP colleagues in Queensland 'very mediocre'. We wish him very well in his retirement! (Time expired)
I too rise to take note. I would like to join in the spirit of those opposite in this taking note and take the opportunity to thank many people. First of all, again my behalf, a very deep and profound thank you to the Clerk, Dr Rosemary Laing, for her guidance and support and her leadership of her team, who I have found to be most instructive and helpful in their roles. Dr Laing, good luck in the future. I know you will be ably succeeded by your current deputy. I would also like to thank the Black Rod's Office, who again have been highly professional in their conduct and the support that they provide this chamber. And it certainly would not be a thank you without thanking all of the attendants here who do an amazing job on our behalf and never miss a beat. Back to you—thank you. We are very grateful for the wonderful work that you do so professionally on our behalf.
I would also like to thank many of my colleagues in this place, and particularly many of you on the other side of the President's chair. What is a shame is that, quite often in this place, all that the public sees is what they see through media reports and also in some of the television reporting of some of the more sensational things in this place. But one of the joys I have had in this place is working with many of you on the other side and on the crossbench on the many committees that we work on, and I just wish that some of the amazing work that we do do together is more widely reported because I think it might help to provide people with a little more appreciation of what we do get done in this place.
I am particularly thinking of the work that the Community Affairs committee does. That committee has had some of the most confronting inquiries that I have attended. Some of the evidence that we have had has really shocked me to the core on many, many issues, but I do want to thank people like Senator Moore and Senator Siewert for their support and guidance. We delivered and tabled a report yesterday on the very fractious issue of Lyme disease and the many thousands of people in Australia who suffer because of a label. I do just want to acknowledge that. I also want to say to all Australians: my hope is that next year you will hear a little bit more about the things that we do get done in this chamber, in particular, the inquiries and reviews that we do. I see Senator Urquhart here. I am very grateful for working with her on committees and for her guidance and support when I started off as a committee chair—it was greatly appreciated.
In particular, I would like to acknowledge the new members of the crossbench who have worked very closely with all in this chamber to deliver what I think has been quite a profound change from the last parliament. Obviously, in the 45th Parliament, it has not always been a very pleasant experience working in this chamber or on inquiries, but I have to commend and thank all of you on the crossbench for your engagement, because we have been able to get through and deliver a significant amount of reforms on behalf of the nation. I would say that having a more diverse view, representative of our broader community, has only enhanced what we do here in this chamber. So I would like to thank all of you for bringing that richness and diversity of thought and opinion, and I think it bodes very well for next year in terms of what we can do on behalf of the nation.
I think that the amendments that have been brought through to legislation in recent weeks have actually made the legislation stronger, and, ultimately, the fact is that we have delivered for this nation. I think everybody in this chamber should return home to their families, their friends and their local communities very proud of that fact. While it has been robust in this chamber, nobody should confuse the robustness of our discussions here with chaos, because we have got things done. I think that robustness has been very, very good for Australian democracy. We have had a few ding-dongs in this chamber and outside, but we have been able to get together in the best interests of all Australians. On that note, I wish everybody here a very Merry Christmas, particularly to all the staff who support us. Thank you.
I would like to join with other colleagues to say thank you to the Clerk of the Senate—I am sure that this last question time would have been quite memorable for her! But it is the festive season, so we have to talk about the gift that we have from Senator Brandis that keeps giving over and over again. I think it is probably the Christmas gift of all Christmas gifts, because what we have seen from Senator Brandis since he became the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Attorney-General is a reinforcement of how out of touch he really is. He is incompetent and we know he misleads—some people may even say he lies. The amount of gaffs keep building up day after day when it comes to the leader of the government in this place.
It was not that long ago that Mr Turnbull knifed Tony Abbott, and he did that while giving a commitment and a promise to the Australian people that he would lead an agile, innovative, 21st-century government. Well, we have seen from the leader of the government in this place anything but that. I would not go as far as Senator Watt did to actually make any comments about the good senator's dress sense, but I do recall seeing the photo of that jumper, and it still haunts me! But what we will talk about today is the fact that the Prime Minister gave a commitment to the Australian people that he was going to be better than Mr Abbott. But what we have seen now is that it is not just those on this side of the chamber who have lost confidence in Senator Brandis but also those on his own side.
People in the community are asking me, 'How many more stuff-ups will this take before Mr Turnbull actually sacks Senator Brandis?' We know that that is not going to happen, because it is the spirit of Christmas. We know that the Prime Minister will wait until he is out of parliament, and then he will do what he has done before, and that is he will have a reshuffle. And, yes, we have seen already that Senator Brandis is more than willing to throw his former colleagues under the bus, because it was only this week when it all unravelled—the rorting, the dishonesty around what happened in Western Australia and how the Attorney-General tried to insist that the Solicitor-General go easy when putting his case in relation to the Constitution and the taxation that was in question. We know that there are still a lot of questions in the Senate inquiry into the $300 million. It is not $300—we are talking about $300 million. That has really drawn Senator Brandis's integrity and honesty into question, so I am looking forward to that.
We know that what he wanted to do, and what he did was throw Joe Hockey under the bus—that is what he did with his colleague. When I was out on the doors this morning I was celebrating the fact that it was almost 5½ months ago that I came into this chamber and said, 'Adios, amigos' to the three Tasmanian amigos in this place. In the spirit we are in now, with the festive season, I was going to bring my sombrero into the chamber, but, out of respect, because I knew you were going to be in the chair, Deputy President Lines, I did not want to do that today.
There is no doubt whatsoever that the Prime Minister will have a reshuffle. It might not be before Christmas, but I suspect it will be, because it will allow the new ministers to come to terms with their new responsibilities. I wanted to say 'Adios' to George Brandis as well.
I am sorry, Madam Deputy President, I know my phone is not supposed to be ringing in here, so I had it on silent, but I have got a call coming in from London. I do not think it is for me—it is for George Brandis, and it is from Alexander Downer—
Senator Brandis—it is Alexander Downer. I think he is feeling a little bit uncomfortable. The call is coming in from London. I hear that that is not just a whisper in this place; it is almost a fact. I would like to say: travel safe, get on your horse and, once again, get outta town!
My colleagues on the other side started off so well, particularly Senator Watt. I would like to support his comments and also those of my colleague Senator Reynolds in thanking the many people who make this place work; clearly, the Clerk first and foremost amongst them. Unfortunately, the comments then descended into what you could only call an imputation on the character and conduct of Senator Brandis, when the question was actually around the government and what it has achieved around economic progress and stability.
One of the things I think Senator Reynolds mentioned that is really important is that much of what is occurring in this nation that is positive and good often goes under the radar. We have the headline things. We have seen the $20 billion of savings, the super tax reforms that have saved $6 billion, and the securing of the borders and the fact that we have stopped people drowning at sea. We have closed down detention centres and we have got children out of detention. Many of those things are in the headlines, which is great. But there are other things that never quite make the headlines.
A lot of the work that goes on in this place, as Senator Reynolds pointed out, does occur in a spirit of bipartisanship. Just today, for example, we passed the Criminal Code Amendment (High Risk Terrorist Offenders) Bill 2016, another measure to secure our nation. The bill was referred to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which I am pleased to be a part of. The committee worked in a very bipartisan manner to deal with a range of difficult issues and with concerns that were raised by stakeholders. We worked diligently to come up with a solution which is balanced and which provides the options needed by government and agencies to deal with those who present unacceptable risks in our community, but with appropriate safeguards so that we remain the kind of nation that we want to be.
That leads me to another committee, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which I have the privilege to chair. The Human Rights Subcommittee, chaired by my colleague and friend in the other place Mr Kevin Andrews, has just received a reference to look at human rights, particularly article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which looks at freedom of religion and belief, and that is particularly appropriate as we come into this Christmas season.
As we get to enjoy Christmas here in Australia and everything that goes along with it, I would ask members in this place and those who are perhaps listening to the broadcast or reading the transcript to bear in mind that, right at the moment, members of the Australian Defence Force are engaged in a war in northern Iraq to free the city of Mosul. In that region, the world has seen one of the worst genocides that have occurred in many years. Yazidis, Christians and some Muslim minorities have been systematically persecuted. Men and boys have been arbitrarily killed and women have been sold off for slavery on the basis—the discriminatory point—of their religion. In fact, Christians—it may surprise many people to hear it—are now the most persecuted group in the world. Where there is religious based persecution, Christians are the most persecuted group in the world.
As we come into this Christmas season, one of the central parts of which is remembering the birth of Christ and the start of the Christian faith in the world, can I encourage those of you of that faith to be open about what you are celebrating. Do not feel constrained by political correctness to talk about 'Xmas' or to not sing Christmas carols. Be open. Celebrate the freedom that we have in this country, that men and women in uniform have fought and died for over the years so that we have the freedom to have faith and belief and conscience. Whether you have a faith or you do not, or whether you want to change your faith, we have those freedoms here, which people in other countries do not have.
As we enter this Christmas season, not only should we reflect on the achievements of the government and not only should we thank the members who work in this chamber, as well as Hansard and Broadcasting and the people who make the place run; can I ask you to think on those big things—those significant things about our globe, about the global population and the values that we hold dear and should be prepared to argue for in this place and, where necessary, to fight for, literally, in global conflict. With that, I take note of the answers given and I wish my colleagues and staff a very merry Christmas.
I too want to echo the sentiments of other senators in thanking the staff. As a new senator, I have found them particularly helpful, so it has been a really welcoming start. One of the things I am really disappointed with in starting in the Senate is that I thought I would be looking forward to hearing from one of Queensland's finest legal minds, but after five months I can report that I am bitterly disappointed in what I have seen from Senator Brandis. The performance of the senator has indeed been very mediocre—not only today in answering the questions that were put to him in question time but since the election and throughout his political career.
Senator Watt attempted to go through a litany of the senator's errors. He did a pretty good job, but I think there were some that he missed. I am going to mention some of them. Senator Watt mentioned the $15,000 bookshelf to show how learned the senator was. I do not think he got to the disgraceful episode of the senator's reading poetry during an estimates session. Senator Watt mentioned the 18C changes and the senator's statement about the right to be a bigot, which has set off a very unsavoury debate in this country. He mentioned the poorly treated President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs. He also mentioned the senator's claim that he had consulted with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, before establishing the Don Dale royal commission, when no such consultation occurred. Then there were the false claims to have consulted with the Solicitor-General; that relationship was so strained that the Solicitor-General was forced to resign. This week we saw him throw Joe Hockey under the bus over the Bell litigation and the dodgy deal with the Western Australian government. This has all been very mediocre from the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who has been a ball and chain around the Prime Minister's leg for so long now. Surely that chain is going to be cut over the Christmas break.
The question that people are asking is: where will Senator Brandis end up? Let's go through some of the options. He could go to the Netherlands for a well-earned break and maybe catch up with his good buddy former senator Brett Mason! I do not think that is likely, given that he rolled him out of the Senate only a couple of years ago. He could go to Washington and catch up with his former mate Joe Hockey, but after his performance this week—where he threw Ambassador Hockey under the bus—I think that is unlikely. The other problem with the US is that, as Senator Roberts knows, they are very much cracking down on elites, so Senator Brandis would not be welcome in America at the moment. It looks like London is the destination, and it looks like Alexander Downer will be the victim of Senator Brandis being dumped from the Senate! I am sure he will be able to keep himself busy with the bookshelves, the plays in the West End et cetera.
Let's look at his legacy. This is something that is really important. At a time when politicians are treated with great cynicism, what we have seen from Senator Brandis and his performance since I have been in this place—both in this chamber and also in Senate committees—has only added to that cynicism. Senator Brandis has had very serious questions to answer, but we get obfuscation and failure to answer adequately. I am sure he goes back to his office, high-fives his staff and says: 'We nailed it today. We got through another question time.' But the damage to his career, the damage to this government and the increase in public cynicism are things that we all have to deal with. When looking at his legacy, it is really important to see the whole picture. The performances that we have seen here and during questioning in the Senate committee process leave a lot to be desired. As a result, all politicians feel the increase in public cynicism that is caused from performances such as that we have seen from Senator Brandis.
Once again, I want to thank all staff in this chamber and in the parliament for being so welcoming of a new senator. I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. Senator Brandis, I hope you enjoy a white Christmas!
Question agreed to.