Thursday, 16 February 2017
Questions on Notice
In accordance with the resolution of the Senate, I provide information in relation to responses to three categories of questions taken on notice, or, in the third case, documents ordered to be produced. The notice lists in paragraph (a) 57 questions on notice. I can advise the Senate that, of the 57 questions taken on notice by me, either in my own capacity as the Attorney or as minister representing the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, 45 of the questions asked of me in my capacity as the minister representing the Prime Minister have been tabled, three questions asked of me in my capacity as the minister representing the foreign minister have been tabled and nine questions are awaiting a response.
In relation to the answers referred to in paragraph (b), 139 questions were taken on notice by me at the supplementary budget estimates, including the spillover day in December. Two of those questions have been withdrawn. Of the 137 relevant questions, answers to 103 have been tabled; 34 are awaiting response. In relation to the documents referred to in paragraph (c) of the resolution, all of those documents have been produced.
I will make a couple of observations about the compliance with these orders. My officers have checked the statistics very carefully. Both I personally and ministers in this government generally have a much better record for timely compliance with the time limit for responding to questions taken on notice than was the case for ministers under the previous Labor government. It is, I think, understood as a matter of common sense that on occasions, particularly with long and complex questions which involve departments assembling a large body of material, not always will the time limits be able to be met. But of course a best endeavours attempt to meet the times limited should be made and it is made.
The other observation I would make to you, Mr President, is that, in particular in relation to questions taken on notice at estimates hearings, there is an expectation and a custom that those answers should be provided in a sufficiently timely manner in advance of the ensuing estimates hearing, so that senators pursuing matters of interest to them in estimates will have plenty of opportunity to consider those answers before the ensuing estimates hearing. In this case, the vast majority of the questions taken on notice at the supplementary estimates, including the spillover date, have been tabled a fortnight before the next estimates round.
There is absolutely no comparison whatsoever between this government's and my compliance with that obligation and the default of compliance which we well remember during the time of the previous Labor government. Mr President, as you know, during the time of the previous Labor government, I was the shadow Attorney-General, and the Attorney-General's portfolio was represented in this place by Senator Ludwig. It was the most common thing in the world for the answers to questions taken on notice at previous estimates rounds to be tabled in bulk the night before that estimates round or on the morning or not at all. It was the most commonplace thing in the world for that to be done. It was the standard procedure.
I was not the shadow minister for the finance portfolio, but I have taken out the statistics of Senator Wong's compliance with her obligations when she was the finance minister. Since Senator Wong tabled this motion and I anticipate she will be the Labor Party spokesman on the matter, this was Senator Wong's record: of the 975 questions that Senator Wong took on notice in the relevant period, 772, or 79 per cent, were late; 221, or 23 per cent, were late by over two months; 179, or 18 per cent, were actually answered after the ensuing estimates round had begun; and 16, or two per cent, were never answered or were answered after the ensuing estimates round was over.
I anticipate that Senator Wong, having made such a song and dance about this matter with the resolution that she has tabled, is going to say that there has been default of compliance by me, to which the answer is twofold. Firstly, there has been substantial compliance and, secondly, the extent and sufficiency of compliance has been vastly better than was Senator Wong's when she was the respondent to questions asked in estimates rounds.
That the Senate take note of the Attorney-General's explanation.
I am sorry to disappoint the Attorney-General, but Senator Wong is not speaking on this motion. Instead, I am very happy to do so myself. I am a very big fan of the Attorney-General's work, so I am always happy to speak on him. I am not sure about other members of this chamber, but over the Christmas break I certainly reflected on the past year and made a number of New Year's resolutions. I suspect many other people in this chamber did the same thing. But it would appear that there is one person in this chamber who did not make a New Year's resolution to become a better person, and that person is the Attorney-General, Senator Brandis.
Any of us who were here last year in 2016 will remember the series of scandals involving the Attorney-General and the continued contempt that he displayed towards this chamber, towards his role as first law officer and towards the people of Australia in general. Time does not permit me to go through every example, but there were the scandals involving his treatment of the Solicitor-General, his treatment of the president of the Human Rights Commission and his involvement in the Bell litigation scandal. So I really thought that over the Christmas break Senator Brandis would reflect on himself and come back as a different person, determined to improve his behaviour, but it would appear that the answer to that is: no, there was no reflection and there was no resolution to be better.
Only a week or two ago we saw media reports that Senator Brandis has still not complied with an order of the Federal Court of Australia, which he oversees, to produce his diary. So we see continued secrecy and contempt not just for the people but potentially of the court system of Australia in relation to his diary. As of I think earlier this week—possibly even yesterday—he had still not complied with an order of the Senate to produce documents in relation to the Bell litigation. That has finally occurred, and as of last week he had an incredible 205 answers to questions on notice which were still outstanding, some going back as far as the estimates held in February last year, more than 12 months ago. Members on my side will know that I am also not a very big fan of the minister for immigration, Peter Dutton. But I will at least give him credit for the fact that he only has three answers to questions on notice outstanding, in comparison to the Attorney-General's 205.
I do acknowledge that the Attorney-General has now finally tabled some answers to those questions on notice. Of course, that was only in response to the motion that we moved, and you really would not think that the Senate would have to take this step to move a motion to get answers to questions on notice. However, despite the Attorney-General's attempts, there are still a number of questions on notice that senators have asked of him that remain unanswered, most particularly the questions that were asked about the dodgy appointments he made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal last year. Mysteriously, he still does not want to tell the Senate about the background to those appointments of LNP cronies.
I really would expect better of the first law officer of Australia. It is a role from which we expect the utmost integrity and fulfilment of the law. Unfortunately, this year appears to be a reflection of last year, where we instead have an Attorney-General with complete contempt for the Senate and complete contempt for the law. It is no wonder that his colleagues still continue to talk about how soon it will be before he goes to London.
Question agreed to.