Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


Assistant Minister for Health; Censure

4:17 pm

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | Hansard source

As I was saying, the band is back together. Those of us on this side knew that Labor and the Greens were continuing to secretly cohabit. I know those on the left of politics around Australia will be rejoicing for this reunion.

The other interesting thing about the debate we have heard this afternoon is the deployment of Senator Faulkner. The Labor Party think, 'In case of emergency, break glass and deploy Senator Faulkner!' Whenever an argument is failing, they roll out Senator Faulkner to try and lend some of that well-honed gravitas to the argument that is before the chamber. We saw that today. Senator Faulkner was in high dudgeon, doing his very best confected-outrage routine. We know when we see Senator Faulkner mounting an argument in this place that Labor have effectively given up the case that they are prosecuting.

If Labor had their hearts in this—if they believed for a second the argument that they are seeking to put in this place—why would we not have had a single frontbencher other than Senator Wong? Senator Moore spoke on the suspension motion. I acknowledge Senator Moore's contribution there. When we move down the line, was Senator Conroy going to participate? I do not think so. I really do not think Senator Conroy would be in a very strong position to contribute to this debate. Perhaps Senator Polley could have spoken? I will let that be a rhetorical proposition! Senator Cameron?—again, I do not think so. I guess colleagues are getting my point: there are not too many options on the front bench on the other side when it comes to people to prosecute cases. When an argument is particularly in trouble they bring back Senator Faulkner. We saw that today, so we can put that aside.

There have been some very serious allegations made today against Minister Nash. She has been accused of misleading the Senate. She has been accused of failure to comply with an order of the Senate. She has been accused of a failure to account for her actions. They are serious allegations and they should never be made lightly in this place. As Senator Brandis said, to impugn someone's motives, someone's behaviour or someone's conduct without being able to back that up is a very serious thing to do. It is an appalling thing to do.

What we have witnessed in the course of this debate is that the goalposts have continually moved, in terms of what it is that minister Nash is supposedly guilty of. The goalposts keep changing. I must say I have been following this debate in this place, in estimates and in question time, very closely. I have found it extremely difficult to work out what the precise charge against Minister Nash is. This first that was levelled was the question of whether there was a delay between the first question that Minister Nash answered in question time and when she came into the chamber to provide additional information that she thought was appropriate and necessary.

Labor have been getting hysterical. They have been hyperventilating over the fact that Senator Nash came into the chamber on the same day. I would have thought that it was a minimum standard that a colleague comes into this place on the same day. The time period that elapsed was six hours, and we are meant to gasp that there was a six-hour gap.

I would encourage colleagues who may not have been in the community affairs estimates committee last week to refer to the Hansard evidence of Senator Stephen Parry, the Deputy President of the Senate. An unusual thing happened in that Senate estimates hearing. Senator Parry sought the opportunity in that committee to make a statement. Usually, as we know, the format for estimates is that questions are asked and answers are given. Senator Parry sought the indulgence of the committee because he wanted to assist in their deliberations—and I acknowledge that Senator Faulkner and Senator Wong provided Senator Parry with that opportunity. What Senator Parry wanted to do was to forensically go through that six-hour period which Senator Nash supposedly was using to not come into this chamber. I refer colleagues—it is well worth reading—to the Hansard of the community affairs estimates of Wednesday, 26 February 2014. Senator Parry went through the pattern and the flow of what happened in this chamber on that day and made it very clear that Senator Nash availed herself of the first practical, reasonable opportunity to provide additional information to this chamber. I know colleagues around this room hold Senator Parry in some regard, and Senator Parry did a very forensic job at analysing the pattern and flow of that day. So I think we can put completely to one side that argument that Senator Nash in some way delayed providing information to the Senate. She takes her responsibilities very seriously, and she took the first appropriate and reasonable opportunity to provide that information.

Then there is the issue of the failure to comply with the Senate order, which, I guess, is the latest charge. The first charge was the six-hour delay; this failure, supposedly, to provide information to the Senate chamber is the latest charge. Senator Nash did respond to the order of the Senate. We all know in this place that, when you respond to an order of the Senate, those who put in the request might not necessarily like the way that you respond. They might not necessarily like the content of your response to the Senate, but the fact is that Senator Nash did respond to that order of the Senate. As to her response, which was in relation to documentation related to with Mr Furnival, her former chief of staff: I am pretty unsurprised by the content of her letter. I quote: 'The correspondence referred to contains information relating to the personal affairs of an individual staff member. It was provided to me on a confidential basis and it is not the practice of either past or present governments to divulge personal information about individual staff. I have outlined the relevant undertakings to the Senate previously and I refer honourable senators to the relevant Senate and estimates Hansard.' That is an entirely appropriate approach. Staff members of members and senators are entitled to some confidentiality about their particular circumstances. They are not members of parliament; they cannot defend themselves in various forums. So I think it is an entirely orthodox approach that Senator Nash has taken in responding to the order of the Senate.

The other allegation which, I guess, has been thrown about—between the first charge of a delay in providing information to the Senate and the last charge of failing to respond to an order of the Senate; the accusation that has bounced around between those two goalposts—has been that of a conflict of interest. I have listened closely to Senator Nash and I believe that appropriate steps were taken to deal with potential conflicts of interest. In any ministerial office there are a range of potential conflicts of interest. What matters is what steps are taken and how those are managed. We know that there were steps taken towards divestment and that there were appropriate undertakings given. So I struggle with the proposition of a conflict of interest.

Then, between those two goalposts I mentioned before, we have had thrown around the issue of disclosure. Has Minister Nash appropriately disclosed all that she needs to? Minister Nash has answered question after question in this chamber during question time. Minister Nash answered question after question, hour after hour, in the community affairs estimates committee. And today, where Minister Nash, in the debate about the suspension of standing orders, did not shy away from rising to her feet and making her case—she had no hesitation at all. She has taken every opportunity to provide a full account of herself.

I guess what this debate really comes down to—and I think it is something that we probably would all agree with—is that public life is a test of character, ultimately. The conduct of senators in this place is a test of character on a daily basis. The conduct of ministers in their roles is, on a daily basis, a test of character. I have no doubt that Minister Nash, as a senator, passes the test of character in terms of her behaviour and conduct. I have no doubt that Minister Nash, in her capacity as a minister in the execution of her duties, passes that test of character. But, when it comes to a test of character in the conduct of one's duties as a frontbencher, I want to draw a contrast between Minister Nash as a frontbencher and Senator Conroy as a frontbencher. I think we all recall Senator Conroy in the immigration estimates committee, where it is now a matter of record that Senator Conroy accused Lieutenant General Angus Campbell AO DSC of being engaged in a political cover-up. I witnessed Senator Conroy warming up for that particular activity in the communications estimates hearing, where he accused Dr Ziggy Switkowski of being a liar, of misleading the Senate and of being in contempt of the Senate. So, if we are going to compare the conduct of frontbenchers as a test of character, I will put Minister Nash up against Senator Conroy any day of the week.

I cannot help but think, knowing how fond Senator Conroy is of Jack Nicholson movies, having cited A Few Good Men, that in the immigration estimates hearing he was combining two other Jack Nicholson roles—Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestsuch is his fondness for Jack Nicholson movies. I refer to Senator Conroy to make the point that those opposite throw words around like confetti. They forget that words have meaning. That is why we saw Senator Conroy, in the communications estimates hearing, talking about Dr Switkowski lying, talking about Dr Switkowski being in contempt, talking about Dr Switkowski misleading the Senate: lying, contempt, misleading. Here today, we are again seeing that pattern of throwing words around as though they have no meaning. This time we are seeing the word 'censure'—this chamber seeks to censure Minister Nash for the charges laid out by Senator Wong. I point out to those opposite that words do have meaning. You cannot just walk into a Senate estimates hearing and accuse someone of being a liar. You cannot just walk into a Senate estimates hearing and accuse someone of misleading the Senate. You cannot just walk into a Senate estimates hearing and accuse someone of being in contempt.


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