Monday, 18 June 2007
Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008
Consideration in Detail
Consideration resumed from 14 June.
Prime Minister and Cabinet Portfolio
Proposed expenditure, $289,439,000.
I refer the parliamentary secretary to the 1 June Liberal Party fundraiser at Kirribilli House and to the Prime Minister’s response in question time last week, where the Prime Minister assured the House that there were guidelines governing the use of official residences. When were those guidelines developed, have they been amended and can a copy be tabled?
My intention would be in summing up at the end to address all of the questions that have been raised. Those that I can answer here, I will answer here, and I will take the others on notice.
The Prime Minister stated that he had oral advice in relation to the use of Kirribilli for the Liberal Party function on 1 June. Why was oral advice necessary, who requested that advice, who provided that advice, when was that advice provided and can the parliamentary secretary perhaps table for the benefit of the parliament any evidence of that advice? I refer also to the 1 June function and ask the parliamentary secretary: who catered for this function? I also refer to the Prime Minister’s statement about reimbursement of additional costs for this function and ask the parliamentary secretary: what was the actual cost of this function? I refer also to the 1 June function and ask: were any departmental staff in attendance and, if so, what functions did they perform?
The Prime Minister wrote a letter to the Leader of the Opposition on 14 June, in which he revealed that the Liberal Party had paid back money to the Commonwealth for three other functions. Can we be provided with a cost breakdown for each of those functions—food, drink et cetera and the number of people in attendance? How were the costs reimbursed by the Liberal Party calculated? Has the same methodology been used for each of the four functions that have been identified? You might want to answer them now.
I do not know when the end is, of course. A sensible way to handle this, given the number of questions, is for me to respond towards the end of the allotted time, taking into account any questions that are asked not just by the member for Grayndler but by any other members as well. Those that I can answer here, I will answer here. Those that I can take on notice, I will take on notice.
Yes, of course they are within the portfolio of Prime Minister and Cabinet, but that is the bracket of questions on the 1 June function. Perhaps if the parliamentary secretary—
Madam Deputy Speaker, you did articulate my intention quite accurately. I will just repeat for the member for Grayndler what I just said two minutes ago: it was my intention, towards the conclusion of the allotted time, which he will know is 45 minutes, to make any remarks I wish to make in response to remarks made by those opposite, to answer any questions here and to take any questions on notice.
With respect, this is the most nonsensical and least useful set of procedural arrangements I have ever seen in this consideration in detail of proposed expenditure. It is true that it does not need to be a table tennis match backwards and forwards, but when there is a series of questions on a similar matter—
No, I am speaking about the way these matters are being considered—for example, when I do get up to speak to the portfolio, it will be nothing to do with these matters.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This is precisely our point. I do not know what the member for Fraser is going to raise—that is why I proposed, given the choice, that it would be sensible to address all of the issues raised in one section at the end. That is why—
I just want to speak on this matter of how these particular consideration in detail arrangements are being handled. I have never heard or seen a set of arrangements so designed to prevent people getting information rather than to facilitate them. It is true that the parliamentary secretary should be entitled to expect members to say, ‘I have concluded all the questions I have on that particular section,’ and then expect the parliamentary secretary to respond. I realise the standing orders cannot force him to respond, but it is the only sensible, reasonable and normal thing to do—for example, I have some questions to raise about COAG. Why you would want to answer COAG questions in the middle of questions about Kirribilli I cannot imagine.
So it is perfectly reasonable for the parliamentary secretary to say at the end of five minutes, ‘Is that the end of all the questions in that area?’ and if not for the person to go on until they are concluded. It is totally unreasonable to say, ‘Go for 40 minutes and then I will tell you what I am going to say about Kirribilli, about COAG’—about any other matter that someone might come along and raise. So let us try and get the procedure a little more cooperative, get all the questions in one particular section and then get such responses as we have and then go on to the next section, and I think we might do a bit better.
Regarding COAG, these are questions that could have been asked of Treasury or Finance or PM&C because they overlap, but we do not want to do it three times so, with respect to the parliamentary secretary, I will raise them here because they do relate to the responsibility of Prime Minister and Cabinet with regard to federal-state relations—federal-state relations more broadly and to some extent COAG in particular. I want to try and get from the department and the parliamentary secretary some sort of understanding of what action the government has taken with regard to the several independent reports that have come forward identifying the massive waste of taxpayers’ dollars involved in unnecessary duplication of administration and particularly in relation to the manner in which specific purpose payments are managed and the duplication that is envisaged.
Not all of the assessments provide figures. The one that does is the report by Access Economics commissioned by the Business Council of Australia, which says in its report that the cost to the federal government of administering grants to the states—that is specific purpose payments over and above the costs of either the states or the federal government directly funding and running the programs themselves—is $861 million, and overlap and duplication in areas where both the states and the federal government are operating at the same time is $913 million. And there is also an analysis of cost shifting from the states to the Commonwealth and vice versa.
Then there are some other numbers which lead to the BCA Access Economics $9 billion figure for economic costs. I do not want to refer to the $9 billion figure, firstly, because it does not all relate to costs to government—some of it is just costs to the economy—and, secondly, because I am not sure that I agree with all the analysis. But it is a very powerful estimate. Even if we say it is double, that Access Economics has doubled the actual number, the overlap and duplication cost is $860 million. Let us say it is only $400 million and the second area of overlap and duplication is $900 million. Let us say it is only $450 million—that they once again got it totally wrong—we are talking about cost to the taxpayers of about $1 billion. There is no sign of any action by the government to save any of that money.
The state heads of treasury have got together and looked at the way in which specific purpose payments are administered. They have said there are problems with specific purpose payments—lack of flexibility and efficiency incentives, duplication of roles and responsibility, costs of compliance and administration—and we have seen examples raised by Allen Consulting of specific purpose payments that cost more to administer than the value of the grant. They have had lack of consultation and blurred accountability.
Then we had the report of Allen Consulting into, amongst other things, specific purpose payment arrangements. They raised a whole series of problems about the inefficiencies generated by excessive attention in specific purpose payments for control of inputs instead of control of outcomes, which is hard to define—outputs at least. We get excessive regulation and detail at a massive cost to the taxpayers at both levels—and they are the same taxpayers—and to the economy as assessed by Access Economics. I wonder whether the department and the two associated departments engaged in this—but I will ask it in the context of PM&C—have focused any attention on this and whether they have done anything to seek to save this money. (Time expired)
Madam Deputy Speaker, you know that I am well-known for cooperation. Given the fact that we have had two contributions, that there will be a third and that the time allotted for the debate is about another half an hour, I will take the opportunity to respond to the first two sets of questions now that I have heard them and then we can move on from there.
The member for Fraser, who has just completed his remarks, referred to a number of reports and a number of claims in the reports. He mentioned Access Economics and Allen Consulting. The Leader of the Opposition is on the public record on the Jon Faine program in Melbourne. He said that he thought there could be major savings in the health portfolio, an interesting claim to make and one that this side of the House notes very carefully. I am not aware of any material that this department could provide. I will not waste the time of the Maim Committee other than to say that I will take all of his remarks on notice and to the extent that I can answer them on notice, I will do so.
With respect to the member for Grayndler’s long series of questions which have been read into the Hansard, can I again say I will certainly take those on notice and to the extent that I can provide any information, I will. I have no material that would enable me to add to what the Prime Minister has said in the House. I refer the member for Grayndler to a number of points the Prime Minister made in the House about the costings, the advice and the sequence of that. As I said, I will happily take his very specific questions on notice and to the extent that I am able to provide an answer, I will.
I point out to the member for Grayndler that it is interesting that he is raising these questions in this debate when he did not raise them in the House today. I also make the point that, when the member for Grayndler and those opposite spoke about these issues, they merely confirmed to the Australian people their complete inability to make policy in key areas that are of vital importance to the Australian people.
The member for Grayndler will also know from following debate in the House of Representatives that the issue of Kirribilli was well highlighted by a number of government ministers, the Prime Minister included, particularly with respect to its use by former Prime Minister Hawke and former minister Graham Richardson. He would note that passages were quoted from a book by Marian Wilkinson entitled The Fixer: The untold biography of Graham Richardsonunless I stand corrected.
The member for Grayndler listened to those quotations which confirmed that, unlike the function the Prime Minister hosted which was not a fundraiser, the fundraising at Kirribilli occurred solely under Prime Minister Hawke and that the figures that were expected—if I remember the quotes from Marian Wilkinson’s book The Fixerwere $10,000, $20,000 or up to $100,000. The House should note that the member for Grayndler has not, to my knowledge, said one thing about his view on that matter. Have you criticised former Prime Minister Hawke or former Minister Richardson? No. There is silence. That absolutely highlights the complete hypocrisy of the member for Grayndler and of those opposite when they talk on this issue.
I am pleased that we have at least had some engagement from the parliamentary secretary. However, we have had no defence with regard to the facts around the 1 June fundraiser held by the Liberal Party at Kirribilli. It is interesting that, in his defence of the Prime Minister, the parliamentary secretary has again asserted that this was not a fundraiser even though the Prime Minister said at his press conference last Thursday that it was. Indeed, the business observer registration form for that function indicates that, for the payment of $8,250, the only functions that cannot be bought into—that is, through additional tickets open to people who do not pay the full amount—are morning tea with chiefs of staff, the Senate afternoon tea and of course the Prime Minister’s welcome reception at Kirribilli. With all due respect to our good Senate colleagues and the chiefs of staff, the big attraction is pretty clear. If you add up the cost of the additional tickets that are available for each of the other functions, even if you went to two at one time, you would pay a total of $1,300. So an additional $6,950 can be seen as being paid for that Kirribilli function alone.
I also note that it is argued that people were somehow there at the invitation of the Prime Minister. However, the registration form makes it very clear that forms had to be returned with payment to the federal council’s secretariat by Monday, 30 May 2007 and that all cheques had to be payable to the Liberal Party of Australia. That is the key problem here—that you have a function at Kirribilli House that is open to anyone who can afford the $8,250 fee. We were told that some $5,186.78 was returned—that is, for food, $2,128.50; beverages, $1,476.52; casual staff, $829.57; and hire charges, $752.19. That was stated in the parliament on Tuesday, 12 June. It is interesting that last Thursday the Prime Minister stated that additional money had been paid back by the Liberal Party, for security. In the letter to the Leader of the Opposition on 14 June, the Prime Minister stated, ‘$5,186.69, and an additional amount only advised to my office today of $312.45, that being for security.’ My question is: at what time was that additional $312.45 paid for security, was it only last week and, going to the other functions that have been held, when were the payments made for the 1999, 2002 and 2005 functions?
Can I first address the long preamble or the remarks of the member for Grayndler before the question. I point out that, in his latest and last contribution, he again illustrates and highlights his utter hypocrisy on this issue and the Labor Party’s hypocrisy on this issue. He cannot bring himself to mention the names Bob Hawke and Graham Richardson and the fundraisers that are detailed in Marian Wilkinson’s book The Fixer. He greets this with complete silence as if he has never heard of former Prime Minister Hawke or former Minister Richardson from his own state.
My understanding is that the member for Grayndler should have no difficulty criticising former Minister Richardson. But let me just point out again his complete inability to criticise, even in the mildest sense, what can only be regarded as an outrageous misuse by that former Labor minister and the former Labor Prime Minister. Let us recall the details in that book, which were relayed to the House last week, of $10,000, $20,000, $30,000, maybe even $100,000 back in 1987. What would those dollars be worth today, 20 years on? They would be worth significantly more.
I neglected to mention the other feature I recall from that revelation last week in the House of Representatives that, specifically, those guests invited to that dinner were asked not to provide the cheques to the Australian Labor Party until after the election—I will stand to be corrected, but I think the book also said this—thereby ensuring that some disclosure provisions could be circumvented. I think that is what the book said. At that time, I am not sure who the federal director, or in Labor’s language their campaign director, was; but it may well have been—and I will stand to be corrected—the member for Fraser in 1987. Is that right? The election was in July. So we have a situation of great hypocrisy here.
It is very interesting. The member for Fraser was their campaign director. This money was raised. It is not in dispute. But the member for Grayndler cannot even bring himself to mildly criticise let alone mention this. We now know, through confirmation from the other side, that the member for Fraser was spending the money that was being raised, at the very least. I think that, when he interjected, he said that the money would not have come to the national head office of the Labor Party. That raises all sorts of other questions, doesn’t it? I tell you one thing, Member for Fraser: in 1987 I was 20 and in 1987 the member for Grayndler would have been about 30—or am I being cruel?
The member for Fraser would remember everything, so maybe in the adjournment debate he could mention that. In regard to specific questions on the cost of security for this function and for previous functions, I do not have any information I could provide. You have put those questions into the Hansard. I am not sure whether you have asked them on notice. Whether you have asked them on notice or not, I am happy to take them on notice; and any information that can be provided in the normal way will be provided.
My questions go to the statements of the Prime Minister just last week when he said, last Thursday, that Liberal Party functions were not held at Kirribilli House or at the Lodge. I refer to revelations on the weekend that, indeed, the Prime Minister hosted a function for the federal executive of the Young Liberal Movement of Australia on 18 October last year. Why did the taxpayer pick up the bill for this function? How does it differ from the 1 June fundraising event at Kirribilli where $5,100—now $5,400—was repaid by the Liberal Party? What was the cost to taxpayers of this event? How many Young Liberals were in attendance at this function? When did the Prime Minister seek advice on who should pay for the function? Was advice sought prior to the 18 October function, or was it sought last week, perhaps even on Saturday, as a result of inquiries which were made? How many other Liberal Party functions have been held at the Lodge and Kirribilli House for which taxpayers have paid the bill? Could the parliamentary secretary table the details of each of these functions, what they cost the taxpayers, who was in attendance and any advice which suggested that it was appropriate that taxpayers pay the bill?
I also refer to the Prime Minister’s A guide on key elements of ministerial responsibility of December 1998, which states:
Ministers are provided with facilities at public expense in order that public business may be conducted effectively. Their use of these facilities should be in accordance with this principle. It should not be wasteful or extravagant. As a general rule, official facilities should be used for official purposes.
What was the official purpose of the Young Liberals function? What was the official purpose of the four Liberal federal council fundraising events that were held at Kirribilli House and the Lodge? A further question is in respect of legal advice with regard to the clear breach of the Commonwealth Electoral Act that has occurred as a result of these fundraisers being held at Kirribilli and the Lodge: has the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had any role in considering the legal advice in respect of the use of Kirribilli and the Lodge? Also, has the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet had any contact with the Australian Electoral Commission over this matter and, if so, what has that contact consisted of?
Again there is a whole series of questions there. Let me deal with some of the last questions first. On the issue of legal advice with respect to electoral donations, which I think was the import of the member for Grayndler’s question, he stated that there was legal advice of a clear breach. That is not correct. There was legal advice, as is my understanding from watching news reports last Thursday evening and reading press reports on Friday, obtained by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Or the Australian Electoral Commission said that they had obtained legal advice and the AEC had determined its position. When the member for Grayndler says that in his view there is clear advice I think he is referring to the advice obtained either by himself or by the opposition. That is my understanding. I know that those opposite have sought advice. I saw advice littered through the papers on Saturday from one person whose name I recognise: Anthony Lang. Unless he is someone with the same name as a very well known and longstanding member of the Labor Party, then it is the same Tony Lang from Melbourne. The point I am making is that I am sure those opposite will get legal advice, but the Australian Electoral Commission—an independent agency—has determined its position on this matter.
With respect to your specific questions about any contact the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet may have had, I am not aware of any. Obviously if I have anything to add to that, I will let you know. With respect to your other request to table details of who, when, where, how and at what time, it will not surprise you that I do not have anything to table. I am not aware of any of the details of the matters you raise or request.
As to your generic questions about the news stories in the weekend papers about members of the Young Liberal Movement having dinner at the Lodge, I simply point out to you that, naturally, when a Prime Minister occupies the Lodge—as Mr Keating, Mr Hawke and all of those before them did—they are entitled to have people visit and attend. If the member for Grayndler was being at all level headed and sensible he would recognise that point. As to his very specific questions, I am not aware of any of the detail. To the extent that I am able to provide him with detailed answers, I will do so in the normal way. I will treat them as questions on notice and any replies that are forthcoming will be provided in the normal way.
On behalf of the opposition I say to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister that the opposition has no disagreement with the idea that the Prime Minister is entitled to have people visit and attend the prime ministerial residences. We do take issue with the fact that there are two residences—unlike what other Prime Ministers have seen fit to do—at extraordinary cost to the taxpayer. We have a problem with the undermining of the very principles of disclosure in the Commonwealth Electoral Act and the use of the national estate for fundraising purposes by the Liberal Party. That clearly is what has occurred with these events. With the 2005 and 2007 invitations, the program outlined four business observers. In 2005 it makes it clear that the fee of $7,500 is a conditional amount to attend the fundraising function at the Lodge. In 2007 it is $8,250 at Kirribilli House.
It is clear that, unless there is payment made for the hire of the venue, the concern is that having such a fundraiser at Kirribilli House saves the Liberal Party money—compared to if they had to hire a private venue—and therefore increases the amount of money made from that fundraising activity. The reason that disclosure of gifts is there is to stop people donating and not disclosing through the normal processes. It is quite clear that the figures, which go to $9 a head for food and some $6 a head for drinks, for the Kirribilli House fundraising function—which has become known as the cash-for-canapes affair—are simply totally inadequate. Anyone who knows anything about Sydney prices knows that. The Prime Minister was given the example in the parliament of the restaurant Guillaume at Bennelong, just across the harbour. The starting price there is $60 per head, and that excludes alcohol and venue hire.
The concern here, as I think Australians know, is that to get food and drinks for that price they would have had to have caught the fish out of the harbour themselves—and perhaps hopped the fence and shucked a few oysters themselves. That simply is not the case. That is why we are asking for the real costs of that event. We reiterate that to the parliamentary secretary. I am surprised that he has not had a single answer prepared on any of this—this has been a prominent issue for nine days now and yet the representative of the Prime Minister, before this session of the Main Committee, has not been able to provide a single figure. So I ask again: what were the real costs of the 1 June cash-for-canapes function held at Kirribilli House to raise funds for the Liberal Party?
I am happy to receive exactly the same questions from the member for Grayndler five minutes or so after he last asked them and I am happy to give him the same answer. I will take the opportunity though to correct a couple of other statements he made. I think he indicated earlier that the Australian Electoral Commission had not received legal advice. I will read from the statement released by the AEC last Thursday. It says, ‘Legal advice provided to the AEC.’ So clearly—
Mr Deputy Speaker, it is quite clear what the member for Grayndler is seeking to do. These issues were so serious to him that he did not ask a single question in question time. He was told by his tactics group—
that he would have to take it all up here. The Prime Minister has addressed all of these issues in great detail. I will finish where I started on this. The more the member for Grayndler talks, the more he confirms that those opposite have no serious policy plans for the Australian public. We know that the member for Grayndler has been spending all of his time researching catering menus around Sydney. We are sure that he is an expert in that field and we are sure that he and some of his colleagues have spent every minute of every day researching various menus for various catering facilities. But the issues he raised have been answered. He cannot hide his complete hypocrisy on this issue—his failure to mention former minister Graham Richardson, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and their outrageous fundraising and attempt to avoid disclosure at that time, with hundreds of thousands of dollars. As we have discovered tonight, the member for Fraser was the campaign director of the Labor Party at that time. It simply does not wash.
The member for Fraser has asked a whole host of questions. Many of those questions have been asked and fully answered in the House. To the extent that any new information can be provided, it will be provided—and he knows that. This whole issue speaks for itself. I am sure he will have further questions. I thought he would have raised them today in the parliament or at his morning doorstop interview, but of course he did not. He has asked all of his questions and, to the extent that any information can be provided, it will be provided.
I refer the parliamentary secretary to the comments made by the member for Moore, who is here in the chamber. I think that if any illegalities have been created then they should be investigated. That has certainly been the concern of the Labor Party—that there has been a breach of the Australian electoral law. I refer also to the comments by Mr Bodel, the Australian Electoral Commission official in charge of funding and disclosure, who made it clear that he believed there was a case worthy of an investigation on whether there had been a failure to disclose. Later on, he was reported as saying that he had basically been told to shut up on this issue. Can the parliamentary secretary assure the parliament that the Prime Minister’s office or any other minister’s office has not been involved in the attempted intimidation of the AEC? We note that, between the Prime Minister giving his press conference just prior to two o’clock last Thursday and the 6 pm news, the AEC released a statement saying that they had received advice—which of course had been foreshadowed by the Prime Minister in his press conference—and that that advice was from the Solicitor-General. Will the Prime Minister’s office ensure that there is no intimidation of the AEC or its officers over this issue and allow for the proper consideration of the independent legal advice which has been provided to the AEC?
The member for Grayndler’s questions could be easily answered if he would just take the trouble to read the statement from the AEC on the morning of 14 June, in which the AEC announced that it was examining any potential disclosure obligations under the Electoral Act in relation to a function hosted by the Prime Minister and noted suggestions that the government may have attempted to silence or constrain the AEC in its responses to the media on the issue. The statement says:
“The AEC takes its integrity and independence very seriously and I want to make it quite clear that no attempt was made by the Government or anybody else to influence the AEC in its response to this issue,” Electoral Commissioner, Mr Ian Campbell said.
The member for Grayndler asked the question, but he is obviously not interested in the answer. Obviously, he has not read the press release. It continues:
“Contrary to some media reports, the AEC Director of Funding and Disclosure, Mr Kevin Bodel was not asked by the AEC or the Government to “shut up” regarding these matters.”
This is a press statement. I would say lots of things about the member for Grayndler, who I have known for a few years now, but I would never say that the member for Grayndler is not capable of reading a media statement. I think he has read the media statement and he has read what has been said by the Electoral Commission. And when he chooses to ignore it, he is simply casting aspersions on the Australian Electoral Commission. If he wishes to do that, he should do so in another place.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Proposed expenditure, $3,724,746,000
Thank you to the member for Brisbane for indulging me in this section. My question is to the Attorney, regarding a very welcome $200,000 in the budget for a feasibility study for a new Family Court in Newcastle. My question is: Attorney-General, given the discussions you have had on numerous occasions with the legal fraternity and the Family Court registry staff in Newcastle, what impact will this further study have on bringing about a new Family Court facility in Newcastle and on attaining a Federal Court in Newcastle?
I do not have any precise briefings on the issue but, as I understand it, we make a commitment in budgets for specific proposals which are a known quantity. I know that needs have been identified by the local profession and have been mentioned to me by the Family Court and the Chief Federal Magistrate. There are issues about accommodation in the context of the adequacy of the present accommodation and the term of the present commitments. This is about ensuring that there is resourcing to make the further judgements as to what is required and about ensuring a proper recognition of the court’s needs. When an appropriate proposal is developed, I am sure it will be something that the government will want to support.
My second question is: Attorney, given your powers in terms of appointing the federal magistracy, was there an allocation in the budget for any performance review of how the federal magistracy are delivering services in federal courts, their suitability and the way they are taking on some of the complexities of their new roles? If so, what methodology and processes are in place?
Others might be interested in this answer. We have a Constitution here in Australia and there is a doctrine of the separation of powers. I have sometimes wanted to look at the performance of a number of our courts, and I have wanted to help the parliament to obtain information about performance so that some objective measurements could be made. I am told that there may be some willingness to look at some of those issues in a generic form, but they are matters about which the courts have a very strong view. So I would have to say that there are no specific proposals for the sort of monitoring that the honourable member suggests is possible.
But what I can say is that, if you want to use some anecdotal evidence, the Magistrates Court has been extraordinarily successful. There has been an enormous shift in the matters that are being dealt with in family law generally from the Family Court to the magistracy. There is some data published about the extent to which requests are made in particular jurisdictions for matters to be transferred from one list to another. I notice that the member for Brisbane is in the chamber, and he may want to speak later. I saw some figures for the Brisbane court which demonstrated that the requests to the magistracy ran into many hundreds. The requests to go back to the Family Court were about a quarter or even less than that on the information that I had seen. I get anecdotal information as well from practitioners about how the federal magistracy is performing with very high levels of productivity. When you have the profession in some areas speaking with their feet, it suggests that it is doing very well.
A further point is that these comments should not be seen as a reflection on the Family Court, which, in our expectations, is expected to deal with the more complex and more difficult issues. One would expect that the workload of the matters that are more complex and more difficult might demand more time and certainly greater deliberation than less complex matters.
The only other point I would make is that in Newcastle, as you would be aware, a person who had been a magistrate was seen fit to be promoted to be a judge in the Family Court there. I understand that she has been very highly regarded, both as a magistrate and now as a Family Court judge. I might say that she is not alone. There are a number of others who were similarly able to be successful magistrates and whose qualities were later recognised in an appointment to the Family Court bench.
I will commence by asking the Attorney to comment on a couple of matters associated with the resourcing of ASIO and the skills set that exists within ASIO currently—in particular, the capacity for foreign language skills within ASIO and whether or not there is provision to deal with an expansion of the foreign language skills. Also as part of that broad question, what initiatives are on foot to encourage recruitment in ASIO of people from non-English-speaking backgrounds in particular? I would be interested in the Attorney’s comments on that field.
I understand you may hold it high, but I suspect that he is going to be disappointed. But if he were to be so rewarded, he would find himself pressed by somebody from this side of the House on those same issues and be in the unfortunate position of not being able to elucidate very fully. There are good reasons for that. As to issues that go to security agencies and the way in which they are resourced to carry out particular functions and the skill sets that they have, to discuss those would, I think, prejudice security. I am perfectly happy for the honourable member to be briefed on those matters separately, but I do not think it is appropriate to canvass them in a broad-ranging debate, save to say that the importance of having linguistic skills is not something that escapes the attention of others. That is all I would want to say.
I thank the Attorney. I will not press the point. I understand what he is saying. I might avail myself of his invitation. A related and not quite so sensitive issue within the A-G’s broad portfolio is Federal Police numbers. Debate has arisen today—or it has been heightened today, I should say; it has not arisen just today—about the adequacy of our Federal Police numbers. I would appreciate the Attorney’s assessment of the adequacy of our existing Federal Police numbers and what measures he thinks may be needed to improve the availability of AFP personnel to do what is an increasing list of jobs that we as a parliament and as a community expect of them.
Can I say firstly that I have been personally greatly impressed with the quality of leadership and direction that has been given to the Australian Federal Police by Commissioner Keelty. I think his reappointment for a second five-year term was evidence of the confidence that the government has in his leadership and in the senior executives within the Australian Federal Police. I will get you a detailed briefing on the actual numbers. I probably had it for question time but I did not bring it with me in the folder that I have. Somebody has gone to see if they can retrieve it.
My recollection is that there has been very considerable growth in resourcing of the Australian Federal Police. The way in which those resources are deployed, of course, presents some very significant management challenges for the commissioner and his management team because the work in relation to Commonwealth issues has been growing in complexity and number. Some of them, we understand, in relation to pornography and paedophilia, which I mentioned today, are matters with which the Australian Federal Police, given the volume of complaints, may have some difficulty. There are other areas in which the Commonwealth is expected to be involved in enforcing laws. We resource the Australian Federal Police in this budget to be able to deal with copyright issues, because they have not been seen as a priority matter before.
The counterterrorism role is a very significant one to which the Australian Federal Police have responded very fully. The large number of overseas deployments have put them under very considerable pressure. Traditionally, there have been overseas deployments. The Cyprus one would be well known for the fact that Australians have participated in it over a long period of time. That has given the opportunity not only for the Australian Federal Police but also, in a number of cases, for senior police from our states and territories to participate offshore. I think Nick Kaldas, who is assistant commissioner in New South Wales and deals with counterterrorism issues in the New South Wales Police force, was a person who spent a good deal of time seconded to deal with policing issues in Iraq. So over a period of time I think we have been well served by the Australian Federal Police.
But the complaint, I gather, is that some would argue that, in a policing model, more of the functions that in the Australian Federal Police have been performed administratively should be performed by commissioned officers. I am not making those decisions, but I am not sure that that is necessarily the case. But it is the complaint, particularly of the association or the union representing police that, if you look at the state police services, they have a larger proportion of commissioned officers. I think they were talking about 80 per cent in some of the statements I saw and they suggest that the Australian Federal Police is something of the order of 60 per cent. I think that does reflect the fact that some tasks can be undertaken by people who are not necessarily sworn officers and the capacity of the service is not necessarily reduced.
At the moment there are quite significant challenges that the Australian Federal Police face in recruiting staff. I know that there are reports that they have been poaching staff from state and territory police services. It is the case that, as part of its staffing for both the international deployment functions and aviation security, we have advertised quite extensively and have sought to fill positions in that way. But, in relation to the actual strategy, and the proportion that are commissioned and the proportion that are undertaking other tasks, I will get the honourable member a further written brief.
Before I call the member for Brisbane, I do apologise: I took advantage of my familiarity with the Attorney-General to make comment in his speech which I am certain could be interpreted as showing partiality from the chair.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your restraint and great demonstration of impartiality, which I suspect I would not have been able to rise to. I want to follow up on that last point. It would be useful, I think, if the Attorney-General, in providing the answer to that earlier question, could make clear the number of sworn police officers as opposed to people in other positions within the AFP—which of course now includes the Australian Protective Service. On that point, I also seek comment from the Attorney-General about the role of the Protective Service personnel in overseas deployments and indeed whether or not the Attorney-General thinks that it is desirable for the AFP to have within its overseas contingents, in places like the Solomon Islands, a mixture of Protective Service staff and sworn officers. While we are on the subject of the AFP, I also invite the Attorney-General to give us some idea of when he thinks the government will finally have sufficient numbers of personnel to meet the Wheeler recommendations for airport security. There is, as I understand it, still a shortfall in those areas—that is, for response teams at the airports from the Federal Police and Protective Service. I am not sure whether he will have that on hand. He might also care to take that on notice.
Yes, I will take that on notice. Let me just say that, in relation to the way in which I would approach the issue of resourcing, say, in a place like the Solomon Islands, I would take professional advice as to the requirements, particularly in relation to the risks that are involved. I have some familiarity with this. I have a daughter who actually went to the Solomon Islands as a public defender. She was there at a time when there was perhaps not as much tension and difficulty as there is now. I think, in relation to those issues, there has to be a very clear view that, while one asks questions and probes in relation to these matters, in the end it has to be a professional judgement as to those deployments; and I would leave them in the hands of the commissioner.
On a slightly different matter, I seek the Attorney-General’s advice as to what action is planned to be taken this year in relation to security measures in federal courts. There was some reference at the commencement of this debate about some court activity not related to security. Could the Attorney-General provide some advice on what measures, if any, are planned to be taken this year to enhance security at the various federal courts around the country?
We saw security issues as being matters that the courts had to operate as part of their core business. My understanding is that there is screening—at most courts I am aware of—in relation to ingress and egress, to the point that I find I am frequently subjected to it when I want to visit my office at Elizabeth Street in Sydney.
The point I would make in relation to those matters is that it is a core business. I was very much involved as the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on the Family Law Act back in the seventies when people whom I knew well were threatened—I notice that the honourable member for Prospect has joined us—and I can truly say that Ray Watson lost his wife tragically. He was a student of my father’s at Penrith High School. I knew him as an adviser on family law issues to former Attorney-General Lionel Murphy. David Opas, who was shot, I used to brief when I was a young solicitor in Sydney. Richard Gee, whose home was bombed, was a specialist adviser to the select committee that I chaired. So, from time to time, issues do arise in relation to the safety of our judicial officers, and we regularly make proper risk assessments in relation to those matters as we do in relation to other office holders. Certainly, in the present climate, the security measures which the courts have been putting in place have been seen as being measured and appropriate. The courts take advice from the PSCC on what is required and, as part of their core business funding, they are expected to implement them.
That is an important point. It is not a political point, as both sides of the chamber are concerned to ensure the security of our courts and that those who service them are protected. But, in some respects, I would have to say that I did not get an answer to my question at all. I got a nice bit of political speak that handsomely took up 2½ minutes of the time remaining but said nothing about any additional measures that might be afoot for the year ahead. So I assume that there are no additional measures afoot for the year ahead. If there are, I am sure the Attorney will correct me, or one of his advisers will set me straight. So I will leave that area, given that I have about two minutes left. If the Attorney can add to it, I am sure he will do so, using up the two minutes.
Would I allege that against you, Philip? Another matter that I want to raise is the newly created AusCheck. The government said that they were going to establish AusCheck back in December 2005. It commences in July this year. Would the Attorney comment on why it took 1½ years to get AusCheck up and running? But, more to the point in terms of its future and the budget at hand, how many employees does the Attorney anticipate AusCheck will have? Can he provide details of whether they will be full time, part time or casual? Also, I note that the AusCheck website talks about providing ‘capacity to be used for other background checking purposes’. How many employees does the Attorney anticipate will be tasked on those other background checking purposes? Has the Attorney got in his mind a particular area that might fall within that very broad category of ‘other background checking’?
My understanding is that, if we were to extend the operation of AusCheck, we would have to amend the act. Initially, we envisaged that we might be able to do that by regulation. But, as part of the Senate review, I gather that is one of the adjustments we made. I have just had a nod that indicates that my recollection was reasonably correct. So there is nothing proposed at the moment, and you will hear about it if we bring forward legislative amendments that seek to expand it. I will try and get the numbers for you, but I think the delay reflects a lot of the nature of parliamentary democracy where issues are debated, committees review and you have to get legislation through. You do not start to budget and appropriate money to carry out particular purposes until you have a proper lawful basis for doing it. I will also get you advice on what the courts are doing in relation to security matters. But I emphasise again the point that I made: security for the courts is core business.
We started rather late. I am loath to cut off the member for Brisbane but we have a finite time line. It is really a matter between yourself and the other shadow ministers to decide whether you want to take a couple more minutes.
I am happy to furnish any additional information that he seeks from me provided it is reasonable and appropriate.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Finance and Administration Portfolio
Proposed expenditure, $661,821,000
I would like to ask the Special Minister of State when he or his office became aware that the AEC director of funding and disclosure, Mr Kevin Bodel, told the Australian that the use of Kirribilli House for a fundraiser ‘does appear to be a gift in kind of a venue’. When did he actually find that out and under what circumstances?
I am not sure that Kevin Bodel actually made that statement. I think the member for Bruce was quoting from a newspaper article, so he is assuming that something written in a newspaper article was what Mr Bodel said. I am not sure that that is the case. Irrespective of that, late on the afternoon prior to the publication of that article on 14 June, that is, on 13 June, my understanding is that the journalist who wrote that article told the Prime Minister’s press office that she had a quote from the Australian Electoral Commission stating that the use of Kirribilli House may be required to be disclosed. We knew that could not be the case because the AEC, as far as we were aware, had not asked for any information regarding this particular aspect, therefore it would not make a definitive statement like that. My office contacted the AEC after receiving that information from the Prime Minister’s press office to determine whether that was truly the case. My office was told that the journalist in question asked a hypothetical question—Kirribilli was not mentioned—about the disclosure of buildings in relation to events for fundraising. The officer, Kevin Bodel, provided an answer based on the hypothetical question. The journalist then went on to ask questions about Kirribilli. Kevin Bodel, I am informed, told the journalist, ‘Well, we would need various information before we could make any comment about Kirribilli.’ My office was concerned that a journalist was writing a story that included a quote that was contrary to what the AEC said was the way in which the conversation between them went.
Minister, can you explain or shed light on the follow-up comment that was attributed to Mr Bodel:
Basically, I’ve been told to shut up.
Was that advice from your office or from the Electoral Commissioner?
I cannot shed any light on that particular comment. Certainly, Mr Bodel was not told any such thing by me or my office. I did not speak to Kevin Bodel myself. I only spoke to the commissioner much later in the evening, when, I think, the story was already filed. I also should emphasise that, in making the inquiry about this story that was going to be published the next day, my chief of staff spoke to the Electoral Commissioner first and, subsequently, to Kevin Bodel. But I cannot shed any light on that comment, and I once again refer the member for Bruce to the very definitive statement made by the Electoral Commissioner. This continual questioning by the member for Bruce here and through media releases indicates that he does not believe the Electoral Commissioner, and I think that is appalling.
We have a situation in which there are two versions flying around, and I think it is in the public interest to try to ascertain exactly what did occur. If there was confusion that might have led to the situation developing as it has then we ought to try to get to the bottom of it. On that point, though, are you saying quite definitively that you have checked and confirmed with your chief of staff that no direction was given and that no discussion occurred around the need to not say any more until the position was clearly understood from the commissioner’s point of view or anything like that?
Absolutely. At no point did I or my office make any comments about what the Electoral Commission can or cannot do or say. They are a very independent body. I deal with the Electoral Commission almost every day of the week, as the Australian Electoral Commission and the Electoral Act come under my responsibilities as Special Minister of State. As the Electoral Commissioner’s statement indicates, they are independent and they certainly received absolutely no direction whatsoever. I say once again to the member for Bruce that the Electoral Commissioner could not be clearer than he was in the statement in this regard. There were no questions, muddying or anything like that. The statement that he made was absolutely clear cut. The continual questioning of this by the member for Bruce simply says to me that he does not accept the statement made by the Electoral Commissioner—and he should.
Special Minister of State, when did you first seek legal advice on whether the Prime Minister’s decision to gift Kirribilli House to the Liberal Party on 1 June might constitute a gift under the Electoral Act?
Minister, are you aware of whether the Liberal Party or the government had previously sought legal advice on this matter, given the fact that clearly a decision was taken some time ago in some circumstances to repay some money around other functions?
We made sure that the Electoral Commission could ask any particular questions if they needed any information, because the commissioner made a statement earlier in the day—I think this was on the 14th—that they would seek legal advice. We certainly ensured that the AEC got any information that they needed to be able to get that legal advice. I should also point out to the member for Bruce, to save him some questions perhaps, my understanding is that the government, via the Prime Minister’s office, I think through the Attorney-General’s, obtained their own legal advice from Mr Burmester. And the AEC, quite independently, obtained their own legal advice.
There have been a number of comments made—most recently by the member for Grayndler in the previous part of this appropriation debate in the Main Committee. From what I heard him say, he seemed to think that the AEC’s advice was the same as what the government got. That is not the case. The Attorney-General obtained advice directly from Mr Burmester. The AEC, independently, had already instigated the processes to get their own independent advice from the Australian Government Solicitor, and they in fact received that advice prior to even seeing the Burmester advice.
So there are two separate sets of legal advice as you understand it: the Burmester advice and also the advice from the AGS. What I would be interested in asking about is: what were the actual ‘available facts’ that the Electoral Commission was using to advise the AGS with respect to the basis for them making their finding?
As I pointed out to the member for Bruce, the Australian Electoral Commission is a totally independent body. I, quite appropriately, would not be privy to any briefings that the Australian Electoral Commission would have given to its independent legal advisers. I am sure it provided them with the facts around the matter. Some of those facts, I think, may be different to what the member for Bruce has provided in terms of his so-called independent legal advice as well. I suspect that the member for Bruce might have told the Labor Party’s independent legal advisers that this was a fundraiser, and they may have ruled in relation to that. But the Prime Minister has made it very clear that this particular thing that happened at Kirribilli House was not a fundraiser. I am sure that would have been part of the information that the AEC worked on. As I said, the AEC is an independent body and it is not appropriate for me to be privy to that information.
With respect to the Burmester advice, were you consulted about that and do you have a copy of it? In order to ensure there is no confusion in the public arena, would you undertake to release the Burmester advice, that being the relevant advice that the government received? Would you be willing to approach the AEC and ask them to release their advice in order to ensure full public disclosure, as I have done?
I think it is a series of ‘nos’ in answer to that question. I think if I said ‘yes’ to any of those things, I would be attacked by the member for Bruce for interfering in all sorts of processes—which is what he would normally be doing.
Absolutely not. The Prime Minister and the Attorney-General sought advice; there was no need for me to be involved in that. I have responsibility for the Electoral Act. Others are responsible for interpreting these matters, which they do quite independently, as has been the case with all of the legal advice. I think even you, Mr Deputy Speaker Kerr, would be a bit horrified at some of those sorts of suggestions.
I take it, therefore, that you are unable to provide a costing for the legal advice in respect of Mr Burmester’s opinion. I imagine that you are not able to, but I will ask that question anyway. I imagine also, given your earlier comments in relation to the AEC, that your answer would be the same, and I understand that.
I understand. I thought I would ask just in case. The other question I have in this respect is: has the minister or his office had any discussions with the AEC re the legal opinion that they are now in receipt of from the Labor Party and also, as I understand it, from Bob Brown in the last day or so with respect to alternative views on this matter?
No, not at all. I have not had any contact or conversations. All I have seen are the press statements by the AEC in relation to receipt of the Labor Party’s advice and the fact that they would investigate it.
No, because that is not my role at all; it is up to the Australian Electoral Commission. I should also reinforce the fact that neither has my office had any discussions about the AEC looking into that advice.
I would like to explore with the minister some different matters regarding the department of finance’s role in overseeing government expenditure generally. I draw the minister’s attention to page 1022 of this year’s Budget Paper No. 1, which indicates that expenditure across departments would be $49 billion. Last year’s equivalent Budget Paper No. 1 at page 1023 indicated that at that point the forecast expenditure across departments would be $54 billion. So expenditure has come in $5 billion under what was expected in last year’s budget papers. I want to explore with the minister whether that is a real change or whether there has been some change in the methodology of accounting practices that would account for that difference. If there have been changes to the methodology, could the minister inform the House of what those changes and their implications are? If there have not been changes in methodology and it is a real difference, perhaps the minister could indicate what has caused that very significant variation over the last 12 months.
I am afraid that I do not have that level of detail and I would not try to make something up along the way; that is for sure. I will certainly ensure that the member is provided with an answer to those particular questions.
I understand that and I thank the minister for taking those questions on notice. I suspect that answers to the following questions might be in a similar vein, which I understand and completely accept.
I draw the minister’s attention similarly to the line item ‘whole-of-government and interagency amounts’. This year’s budget paper shows that to be a negative amount of $9.82 billion, but the estimate in last year’s budget paper was for there to be a positive $122 million at this point of the cycle. So again we see a $9 billion shift, which is a significant amount of money in anybody’s book, without any explanation that I can see in the budget paper or any other public explanation from the government as to why that has changed. I imagine there has been some change in accounting methodology, but could the minister take on notice whether that has been the case? Could he take on notice particularly whether there has been a change in methodology and, if so, what that change in methodology encompasses and what the difference is? If there has been such a change, could the minister provide, within the best of his department’s ability, a profile of departmental expenses based on this new methodology or classification over the last three financial years?
Yes, we will have a look at that. As to the first part of that question, once again, I cannot provide an answer here and now, but I am sure we can provide an explanation for that. As to the second part, I will say yes, but I will put a rider on that: provided it is a reasonable thing to actually put together for the member.
I thank the minister for that response which is completely understandable. I would now like to turn to the issue of annual appropriations for depreciation, particularly of information technology expenditures. Could the minister confirm that, under the accrual budgeting mechanism, agencies are provided with annual appropriations to cover depreciation expenses of information technology? In addition, could he confirm whether they are separately allocated money to upgrade their IT and other assets, but particularly their information technology assets? Could the minister also confirm what programs the Department of Finance and Administration has in place across the government to ensure that there is no double-dipping—that is, that departments and agencies are not receiving funds for depreciation which are meant to, over the long term, deal with issues of replacing equipment on a rolling basis as opposed to major upgrades? What mechanisms are in place to ensure that there is no double-dipping? Can the department provide the total amount of actual depreciation expenses for each year since 2000 funded through the price of outputs appropriations and other appropriations, including through additional estimates? The last part, clearly, the minister will need to take on notice. Perhaps he may have some information on the earlier parts of the question, or he may wish to take it all on notice.
With respect to the earlier part, I think it can be taken as read that all capital assets are depreciated, so depreciation certainly relates to that. But, for any new bids, individual departments have to go through the normal budget process. What I can say is that we are spending a lot of money on ICT. I have a fair responsibility for IT areas, particularly through AGIMO, and there is some substantial investment in ICT right across government, particularly in my e-government strategy and the work that we are doing there. The benefits have been seen in this town particularly from government investment in ICT. As to the last part of your question, yes, I will have to take that on notice.
I appreciate the minister’s answer and I would appreciate it also if he could provide more information on notice in relation to the earlier parts of the question. I would like to ask the minister about something I noticed in the budget papers which I would have thought was unusual; I would ask for the minister’s clarification if he is able to give it. In relation to the AusLink strategic regional program supplementary funding—in particular, the allocation of $250 million in 2006-07 for the AusLink strategic regional program—the budget paper says this:
The Programme provides funding for road, rail and intermodal projects in Australia’s regions that will support the growth of regional industry, respond to structural change, or strengthen local social and economic opportunities. The fiscal impact over three years, 2007-08 to 2009-10, is due to funds being fully expensed as projects are completed.
It could be that that is all perfectly normal and maybe I have misunderstood it, but if I have read that correctly—I mean that genuinely—that would put the cash and accrual accounting mechanisms out of kilter which I would have thought would be very unusual. Is the minister aware of the issue? If cash and accrual have been put out of kilter, what approval processes were put in place for this and was the National Audit Office consulted?
I will have to check the detail of that. I know the program well. It is a great program, particularly for members who represent electorates in rural and regional areas. In the latter half of 2006, either $120 million or $150 million was spent on the program. I cannot remember exactly what it was. I know there were applications for substantially larger amounts of money than that—about tenfold.
That was the reason the minister responsible, as part of the budget process, sought an expansion of that particular program. In doing so, part of the additional funding was made available in this financial year. There were projects that had already been submitted and assessed as being appropriate but they could not be funded because there was not enough money originally allocated last year. There was an extra $250 million that could be spent. In explaining those differences, I am not exactly certain whether that affects what the member is talking about in this cash accrual aspect, but I will check it.
I appreciate the minister’s response and look forward to a more detailed answer. There could be a perfectly legitimate and reasonable explanation and I have misunderstood it. On my reading of it, particularly the sentence ‘The fiscal impact over three years 2007-08 to 2009-10 is due to funds being fully expended as projects are completed’, it is very unusual in that normally funds are expended when they are spent.
Another matter which the minister has more direct responsibility for is the government fleet. Is the minister able to provide, either now or on notice, information on the government fleet—in particular, the number or percentage of the government fleet that is able to use ethanol, how many of the fleet are fitted out to use LPG, and whether the minister has any knowledge or is able to ascertain a breakdown of those questions in relation to Comcar, the SES cars that are part of the government fleet and the private plated vehicles? I am not interested in individuals or parties, only a total. Does the minister have any information on that?
Just before I come to that, referring back to the AusLink question, to clarify the problem that you are misunderstanding: revenue in 2006-07 is acquitted in further years. My information is that they are not out of kilter, but we will give you the full detail of that. The only thing I can say off the top of my head about the fleet is that 85 or 90 per cent of the fuel that Comcar purchases is E10. That is gradually worked up as new stations are located so that Comcar can access E10. I think the use of E10 is highest in Canberra.
With respect to the other fleet, I am sorry, but I do not have those figures off the top of my head. I am not sure to what extent they have been compiled because, as you would be aware, it is up to individual drivers as to where they buy their fuel. You would have to sort of bring it all back together, and I am not sure whether that has been done or not. For the figures with respect to the number of LPG vehicles, I would have to check that as well.
Proposed expenditure agreed to.
Remainder of bill—by leave—taken as a whole, and agreed to.
Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.