Monday, 8 February 2016
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and goes to whether he has complied with the Prime Minister's Statement of ministerial standards. On the official Chinese visa application form for his secret trip to China—
Government members interjecting—
Just before I call the minister I am going to ask the member for Isaacs to repeat the question. I am going to ask those on my right not to interject. I am going to ask the member for Isaacs to repeat the question. I want to hear it without interjection. There were some words I did not hear.
My question is to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and goes to whether he has complied with the Prime Minister's Statement of ministerial standards. On the official Chinese visa application form for his trip to China, what reason did the minister declare was the purpose for his visit: official visit, tourism, non-business visit, business and trade, or work?
Before I call the minister I am going to point out at the outset that questions of this nature are problematic, and I am going to explain the thinking that I have. Standing orders make it very clear that ministers can only be asked questions about matters for which they are responsible. The Practice also makes it very clear that ministers cannot be asked questions about former ministerial responsibilities that they have had. It makes that very clear indeed. In fact, the member for Isaacs on 23 November asked questions of the former Special Minister of State specifically making a hook to the minister's ministerial responsibilities as Special Minister of State which is why on that narrow basis I allowed the questions. With respect to the ministerial code, the minister responsible for that is the Prime Minister. At this point I do not think the question is in order, but I am happy to hear from the Manager of Opposition Business.
Thanks very much, Mr Speaker. It is rare—it happens a few times each year—that we have a situation where there is a question as to whether or not a minister has been in breach of the code. Parliament must be able to examine that and there is no way of examining that without asking questions of the minister himself, otherwise we would be in the absurd situation of being allowed to ask only the Prime Minister information that could only be known by the minister himself. So we are in a situation where the only way the minister can be accountable to the parliament as to whether or not he has acted in accordance with the ministerial standards is for the question to be allowed.
Mr Speaker, given that the minister was travelling privately to China at the time, this is not a matter that is within his ministerial responsibilities. How he filled out any particular form is not the business of the opposition or, in fact, the government.
Ms MacTiernan interjecting—
As you pointed out yourself, the ministerial code of conduct is a matter for the Prime Minister, not for the individual minister, so it is not possible—and nor is it appropriate, quite frankly—for the minister to answer this question. It establishes a very significant precedent, which is that members or ministers travelling on their own expense can be asked questions about their travel, whether it is overseas or domestic. This is a fishing expedition. This parliament is not a court of law. It is a parliament of the people and, therefore, this question is quite inappropriate. If the opposition want to ask the media to ask the member the question and he chooses to answer it, that is another matter but the chamber is not a place for cross-examination of ministers on areas that are not within their ministerial responsibility.
Clause 2.20 of the Statement of ministerial standards goes quite specifically to certain actions that can only be conducted in the official capacity of the minister. Therefore, we need to be able to ask when he said this was private whether or not he engaged in activities described in 2.20 of the Statement of ministerial standards. There is no other way of the parliament being able to examine this.
Mr Speaker, that point of order by the Manager of Opposition Business is an absolute red herring. If the opposition want to pursue this particular matter they have to pursue it outside the parliament and, if the minister chooses to cooperate, that is an entirely different matter. If they want to ask questions about the ministerial code of conduct then they need to ask the Prime Minister. If a precedent is established today that a minister can be asked a question about a private trip overseas, that is a very significant departure from the standing orders.
Opposition members interjecting—
Mr Mitchell interjecting—
Mr Speaker, on one final point of order: the clause that I am referring to, which leads to why the parliament must be able to pursue this, says:
A Minister shall not act as a consultant or adviser to any company, business, or other interests, whether paid or unpaid, or provide assistance to any such body, except as may be appropriate in their official capacity as Minister …
Ms Henderson interjecting—
The member for Corangamite will cease interjecting.
Mr Dreyfus interjecting—
The member for Isaacs will cease interjecting. I have obviously given this careful consideration and I have examined the practice carefully. For anyone who examines the practice carefully, on page 555—and I just happen to have it with me—they will see that it says, 'A minister may not be asked a question about his or her actions in a former ministerial role.' However, in a case when a minister has issued a statement referring to earlier responsibilities a question relating to the statement was permitted. There has been one case of that, in 2006. Beyond that, questions have not been allowed. That is certainly the practice and the history, I can assure the House, from the best of my research.
Whilst I want to see questions asked and answered, if this question had been asked some time ago, when the minister had different responsibilities, it would, clearly, be in order. But the minister responsible for the code of conduct is the Prime Minister, and it is the Prime Minister that makes the determination on whether ministers have complied with it. Having heard that patiently, and I apologise for detaining the House for so long, I am not going to allow that question and will move to the next question.