Thursday, 18 March 2021
Questions without Notice
Members of Parliament: Staff
My question is to the Prime Minister. Thirty days ago, the Prime Minister told this House that he asked his former chief of staff, one of the few people he's ever shown empathy for, to verify what his office knew about the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins only metres from where he works. Mr Gaetjens reported his findings on the Prime Minister's sports rorts within two weeks. Why is this report, about the Prime Minister's staff, taking so long, and will the Prime Minister release this report when it is received?
Just before I call the Prime Minister, I'm just going to say to the Leader of the Opposition, if it hadn't been he as Leader of the Opposition asking the question, I would have simply moved to the next question. Whilst questions can have preambles, that character inclusion really is inappropriate. And we're not going to have questions where there's a commentary about the person being asked the question. So I'm going to ask the Leader of the Opposition to rephrase his question.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Thirty days ago, the Prime Minister told this House that he had asked his former chief of staff to verify what his office knew about the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins only metres from where he works. Mr Gaetjens reported his findings on the Prime Minister's sports rorts within two weeks. Why is this report about the Prime Minister's staff taking so long? Will the Prime Minister release this report when it is received?
Mr Speaker, clearly the first part of that question is out of order, because it is not within the Prime Minister's responsibility to comment on behalf of the head of his department.
Opposition members interjecting—
No, just pause for a second. As I've said, interjections are disorderly at all times. But, when you're expecting the chair to listen to the point of order and rule on the question, I'm inclined to say to those on my left, if you create a wall of noise when I'm trying to rule on it, I'll just go to the next question. Really, it's the most counterproductive thing you could do. The Leader of the House will be heard. He will be heard now in silence, just as the Manager of Opposition Business is. The Leader of the House, if you could start again.
Under standing order 98, the Prime Minister does not have responsibility for answering a question that is outside of his responsibility. The fact is that the departmental secretary has a process underway, and the question goes to the timing of that reporting. That is not possible for the Prime Minister to answer. It is a question for the secretary of the department, perhaps in estimates, but not in question time to the Prime Minister. That part of the question should be ruled out of order.
Just while we're trying to deal with this, the member for Goldstein is lurking, ready to ask a question. It's not going to happen straightaway. If you want to stretch your legs, do it outside. Otherwise, take your seat, please. You won't be asking it, if you keep doing that. The Manager of Opposition Business.
I'll go directly to the standing order that the Leader of the House referred to. He referred to standing order 98, where the limitations on what you can be asked are found in subsection (c), where there's a list of three things: public affairs, administration and proceedings. Proceedings in the House is the first part of the question, because it references what the Prime Minister previously told the House. In terms of public affairs, I think it would be hard to argue that the government response to the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins has not become part of public affairs. In terms of administration, if there is any part of the administration of government that the Prime Minister should have a level of responsibility for, it is the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. We have previously had questions about all parts of the bureaucracy. If a question about the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is out of order, then there's actually not much you're allowed to ask about.
I'll just rule on this now so that we can move on, having heard both points of order. I appreciate the point the Leader of the House is endeavouring to make, but there is a long history of allowing these questions, even where, I have to say, in fairness, they might be difficult or impossible to answer. They can be asked, but, if they're unanswerable at this point, that's something that will become clear in the answer. And certainly the one thing we all agree on is that the last part of the question is clearly in order, because that's directly within the Prime Minister's purview. So I call the Prime Minister.
As I've indicated to the House before and I'll indicate again today, this work is being done by the secretary of my department. It's being done at arm's length from me. I have no involvement in that process, and nor should I. That would be inappropriate. The secretary should conduct his inquiries as he sees fit and without any interference or any involvement from me as Prime Minister. That would be highly inappropriate.
He has not provided me with a further update about when I might expect that report, but I have no doubt the opposition will be able to ask questions of him in Senate estimates next week, which is the appropriate place where those matters can be raised with the secretary of my department. Yet again we see the rather personal, sledging way the Leader of the Opposition is asking this question. He wishes to get into this, whether it's me or, indeed, by trying to undermine the credibility of the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He's undertaken personal attacks, which is his form.
On our side of the House, we will take a different approach. We will appoint people as secretaries of departments because of their credibility for those jobs, whether it's Secretary Pezzullo or former Secretary Moraitis, who once sat opposite each other in opposition in Kim Beazley's office. They are fine public servants and fine secretaries. Secretary Kennedy worked for the last Labor government and is a fine public servant doing a fine job. We will put people in those jobs because they have the credibility and the experience and the professional expertise to do those jobs.
In the last 12 months, our public servants have done an extraordinary job in supporting our government, whether it's been through Border Force and the work done by Secretary Pezzullo, or through Secretary Kennedy and the amazing job Treasury has done to support the Treasurer and me in putting in place JobKeeper, or, indeed, through Secretary Gaetjens, who has led our Public Service through one of the most impressive times in their performance in the Commonwealth's history. If the Leader of the Opposition wants to get himself into a character assessment—
I'll just ask the Leader of the Opposition to resume his seat. There are a number of elements to the question. I've allowed the Prime Minister to go down the track he's gone down for very good reason—because the question did have an inference in it, which itself could have been ruled out of order on a strict reading of the standing orders, about the secretary of his department.
Mr Albanese interjecting—
It did, when it asked why the sports rorts inquiry took two weeks and why this is taking so long. If he's doing the inquiry, well, that is an inference. I'm allowing the—
Mr Albanese interjecting—
And he's responding to it. I mean, I didn't write the question. He's responding to it. The Prime Minister has the call.
If the Leader of the Opposition wants to get into a character assessment contest with the secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, he won't come up very well on that one. He's saying he wants to be in a character assessment test with me. I'm happy to accept that challenge. I'm happy to have my character as an individual in this place and my personal conduct matched against this Leader of the Opposition's any day of the week.