Wednesday, 24 March 2021
Questions without Notice
Parliament House: Access
My question is to the Prime Minister. Last night the Senate heard that on 26 March 2019, just three days after the reported sexual assault of Brittany Higgins, Finance advised the office of the former Special Minister of State, now the immigration minister, that Senator Reynolds' suite had been accessed after hours. As a matter of government policy, is the Special Minister of State told about after-hours access to every ministerial office on every occasion? And why was the minister told on this occasion?
Opposition members interjecting—
No, members will not interject. I'll make it very clear that I will make use not only of 94a, depending on whether the members have been interjecting continually, but of naming a member. The Leader of the House has the call, on a point of order
Mr Speaker, I refer to the statement you made just before question time in relation to this matter, which is currently under investigation by the Australian Federal Police. The police commissioner has made very public his views in relation to this matter. I think, in the spirit of your words before question time, that the opposition should reflect on this question and on the words of Commissioner Kershaw and, frankly, move on to the next question.
Opposition members interjecting—
I'm just going to say that as I deliberate on this point of order, members interjecting not only do not help but they're making it almost impossible. They are not making a valuable contribution. I am labouring the point: can I be any clearer? Members interjecting and who have been interjecting, do you need any clarification? Am I signalling well enough what will happen? The Manager of Opposition Business has the call on a point of order.
To the point of order raised by the Leader of the House—and I refer also to your statement earlier today, Mr Speaker. The question that's just been asked goes directly to matters that were asked in Senate estimates yesterday and which were allowed in Senate estimates yesterday, the Senate having received the same advice as what you've received today.
I respect that we don't take notice of the other place, but the context of that question, word for word in terms of those issues, is that they were all allowed within the parliamentary committee yesterday. I certainly don't take your statement today as meaning that we cannot ask questions relating to the government's response to the various investigations that are taking place. I would simply remind us of the long history, that while this is the first time—and you referred to it—that this particular crime has happened within the parliamentary precincts it is not the first time there has been a criminal investigation into what might have occurred within the parliamentary precincts. It has happened with respect to the use and uploading of documents from computers within the building and it has happened with respect to phone calls being made when they ought not to have been made to the media concerning an AFP raid. So the concept of it happening within the parliamentary precinct itself is not new, and the question simply goes to the government response subsequent to what the AFP is directly investigating.
I thank both the Leader of the House and the Manager of Opposition Business. I won't read the statement again. I would encourage members to familiarise themselves with it. I made it just before the 90-second statements started. There are a number of aspects to the statement. The point I would just emphasise is that it's a statement I made obviously after considering the conventions and the practice but also the discussion that the President of the Senate and I had with the AFP, where they made the point that 'commentary and reference to facts in issue'—and this is their words—'can complicate the investigation'. I am now ad-libbing, of course. The point of the statement was members have freedom of speech and parliamentary privilege here in this chamber but they also have responsibility. Members shouldn't think that some things they say might not prejudice an investigation, so I'm making that point to all members.
With respect to this question, I have a different problem with it—that is, as a matter of responsibility. Without going through all the details, in terms of access to offices, let me just state what I am sure most members know, that that's a matter for the presiding officers. The way access to offices works is simply that if members of staff require access to offices out of hours for your office, member for Sydney, if they're employed on your staff and they have a pass, they're given access. That is important information. In terms of whether the Prime Minister has got a capacity to answer that, that can't prevent the question being asked, but I'm just pointing out, just as a matter of administration, if I heard the question rightly. Yes, the Manager of Opposition Business?
Just to assist, if I may, the question goes specifically to the Department of Finance advising the office of the former Special Minister of State and to that policy, not to the policy of the access itself.
Mr Speaker, the question goes to: As a matter of government policy, is the Special Minister of State told about after-hours access to every ministerial office on every occasion? And then the final sentence of the question is: Why was the minister told on this occasion? What makes this occasion unusual?
What I'm going to point out is the government can't have a policy because it's administered by the Department of Parliamentary Services, whether they have got one or not. On terms of out-of-hours access, that's true. I'm going to allow the question but I'm just pointing out what I think is an important fact. I mean, the government has some responsibilities, of course—many. But when it comes to Parliament House and access out of hours, the policy is actually the policy of each individual member and senator. Each member employs staff, they issue them with a pass and they're granted automatic access. Okay?
An honourable member interjecting—
That's right but, as a matter of course, every time someone comes into the building after working hours. As I've said, I'm just trying to make the practical point. I'm allowing the question but just pointing out the difference in administration. The Prime Minister has the call.
Without repeating some of the matters that have already been raised regarding what the Secretary of the Department of Finance has already said in evidence to the Senate Economics Committee, where they said they had been advised by the AFP that caution needs to be exercised in responding to questions regarding these matters. They have said in their own statement that they have been advised they should not go into the events of that time, particularly while this investigation is ongoing. What I will undertake to do for the member is to provide a response to that in writing to the House after taking further advice on these issues to ensure that I would not say anything here that might compromise any other investigation. I think that would be the responsible thing to do.