Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Matters of Public Interest
I will start where the minister finished and it is a pity that he did not actually finish where I am going to finish. I have never seen a greater example of a government trying to defend itself and, in relation to this matter that ostensibly is the reason for the discussion, I am not entirely sure why they would be seeking to do so. This is a government that in a very short period of time preaches transparency and practises very little. I do not know why the minister would come in here today and, while talking about a serious matter such as this ANAO inquiry, try a cheap shot. That gives me the opportunity to reply, which I am not going to take up because, quite frankly, I cannot be bothered to talk about some of the extraordinary lack of transparency over the activity going on in relation to just one matter, Julia Gillard’s so-called education revolution and the complete and utter farce in relation to the provision of facilities in schools. I am not going to buy into that. But I will buy into one other thing though. Why the minister keeps banging on about a disclosure bill when the minister is not prepared to address the campaign finance reform issue is, quite frankly, beyond me and I will again put on record that the coalition is completely and utterly committed to comprehensive campaign finance reform.
I want to get back to the matter that the minister should have stuck with when he sought time in the chamber today—when he actually took away from his own colleagues time for a matter of public interest debate—and that is in relation to this inquiry by the ANAO. I do agree with the minister on one matter—that, given that this matter is an audit in confidence, we have got to be extremely careful about what discussions we have. But what I will say is that we have a system whereby there is a wide possible range of interpretations that can be placed on the ordinary words of a given entitlement. Indeed, if you go back to the early eighties, to the discussions in Senate estimates committees, you see that lack of clarity of interpretation has been the real issue. The complicating factor with all this is that the executive actually lacks the constitutional authority to make authoritative pronouncements on the legal meaning of terms in an act or a regulation. That is the exclusive preserve of the courts.
In gratuitously, and I think regrettably, making some sort of attempt to have a whack at what was done during the last government, the minister fails, quite frankly, to acknowledge that indeed we as members and senators were required to put in place a set of principles to address this lack of clarity. There has never been any endeavour elsewhere by the ANAO, the Remuneration Tribunal or others to provide this clarity, which ultimately is the domain of the courts. From discussions involving Australian Democrats, Liberal Party of Australia and Australian Labor Party members and senators, we were required in effect to actually put in place a set of rules by which we could at least have some self-regulation in the absence of any definitive interpretation of what various words meant.
I am very supportive of the role of the ANAO. If they are able to provide the department of finance with definitive advice in relation to interpretations, then no-one would be more grateful than I and, I suspect, my colleagues. But I repeat that there are conventions in place that have determined the outcome of interpretations as to the printing allowance. I welcome ANAO involvement, if they are able to provide greater definitions. The fact is that we—and I mean ‘we’ collectively—were required in 2003 to at least put in place some principles that parties, members and senators knew applied. Those have been standing since 2003 and people have been operating on the back of that. If there is going to be more guidance in relation to that, then I think the group of people who would welcome it most are, quite frankly, the people who are required to operate under that loose set of guidelines.
I welcome this. I should publicly acknowledge, which I am happy to do, that I received a similar letter from the ANAO. I put on the public record that, on the basis of convention, legislation and previous determinations, I believe that was within entitlement. But, if there is going to be some further clarity of that, I think the people in both this chamber and in the other place would be extremely grateful.