Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Questions without Notice
Members of Parliament: Staff
My question is to the Prime Minister. It's been reported that the alleged perpetrator against Brittany Higgins used 'at least two detailed references' to secure a job after leaving the Morrison government. Did any minister or ministerial adviser give the alleged perpetrator a written or verbal reference?
First of all, in terms of an issue not raised by the Leader of the House but about whether we can ask about ministers giving references or not, there have been a number of occasions, as you'd be aware, over the years where a minister providing a reference has been the subject of serious prosecution of issues within question time. The issue that the Leader of the House raised, on whether or not that would reasonably be something that the Prime Minister would have personal knowledge of—given that we're now in the second week of inquiry of this particular issue, I think it would be extraordinary for the Prime Minister to not have knowledge of this.
I just say, before I rule on this, the point about whether the Prime Minister would be capable of knowing or not is irrelevant, because questions are asked and either ministers have knowledge or they don't. That's just the way it is. There's no reasonableness test in that regard. I've have been very liberal—very liberal, indeed—in terms of questions so far relating to a private member, that being the member for Hughes, and those questions have just been on the right side of the line because they have related to the member for Sydney's questions. In particular, they've related to previous answers, and, because they've done that, that has broadened things to quite a degree, and it's broadened it for the Prime Minister to deal with those matters. The fundamental issue is the question of ministerial responsibilities, and the writing of references goes to the working relationship people have had. Ministerial responsibility, at that point, in a technical sense, wouldn't exist, I don't believe. I'm still happy to hear from the Manager of Opposition Business.
In terms of what someone does when they provide a reference, they're not simply providing a reference themselves as friends of somebody. If a reference is provided by a minister then it is treated differently because of their role on behalf of Australia, for which they are accountable here. That's what a ministerial reference is. Similarly, if it's someone from within a ministerial office, it has to be a reasonable line of inquiry for us to pursue whether or not the name of the government of Australia has been used to assist this individual getting a job.
Mr Speaker, I agree with your assessment about the relationship between a minister and a staff member who became a former staff member. But, leaving aside that issue and your preliminary view on that, what the Manager of Opposition Business did just then was reframe the question. The question was, 'Did any minister or ministerial adviser give the person in question a written or verbal reference?' At that point you've got a question about whether or not a staff member gave a former staff member a reference, potentially written or verbal, with respect to a job outside government. Even if a minister were to try and inquire as to whether or not that had occurred, there would be no mechanism by which you could properly receive an answer. It's just actually not possible to answer that question, I don't think.
Honourable members interjecting—
I think we're ready to move on if people can stop interjecting so I can actually rule on things. The point the Leader of the House made may well be a valid one, but it doesn't mean that a question can't be asked or is out of order if it seems highly unlikely in some circumstances it's possible to get an answer. Questions can be asked. I am going to allow the question, but I think both the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business have pointed out, probably quite helpfully for people watching and for members of the House, the potential limitations of sufficiently being able to answer it.
I have no knowledge of any such references. As I have stated in the House previously, as far as I'm aware, the only minister who had knowledge of an alleged sexual assault in relation to this matter was Minister Reynolds. So that—
Honourable members interjecting—
The next person who interjects will be ejected. As I've said on a number of occasions, interjecting during times like this when you're expecting me to listen to the answer is completely counterproductive. Do you know what it does? It leads to a very long dissertation by me that wastes question time for your colleagues. Can I be more clear?
I'm not aware of any such references and certainly in relation to staff members I would have no knowledge of that, of course, or indeed in relation to ministers. I fear that the imputation of the question is that ministers had some knowledge of an alleged sexual assault and, from what has been declared in both this chamber and the other, it has been very clear that Minister Reynolds was the one who had knowledge of that event.