Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Statements by Senators

Abbott Government

12:55 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | Hansard source

The Abbott government's failings are widely known in the community. There are the broken promises and the cruel cuts to health, pensions, education and superannuation. There is the callous disregard for the welfare of ordinary Australians. Then there is the incompetence and the dysfunction which we see on display so often, including in this chamber. And there is the profound and public disunity in the most senior ranks of the government. Really, never has a government let down so many Australians so quickly after being elected, and on such a comprehensive range of issues.

Today I wish to focus on the Abbott government's contempt for fundamental principles of transparency and accountability in Australia's democratic system. In our system, the government of the day, the ministers and the Prime Minister, are accountable to the Australian people through the parliament. Yet the Abbott government routinely treats this parliament, and this Senate in particular, with contempt. When senators ask questions on behalf of the public in question time, we see ministers stonewalling and blustering. We saw an example of that yesterday with Senator Ronaldson. When senators seek information through questions in writing, we see ministers failing to respond within the time limits set by the Senate. And when they do finally respond, instead of being honest and clear, we see obfuscation, evasion and sometimes outright deception.

Before the election, Mr Abbott promised to deliver accountable government. He said, 'We will restore accountability and improve transparency measures to be more accountable to you.' He said that government should be 'transparent and open'. These have turned out to be yet more broken promises from a Prime Minister and a government whose list of broken promises continues to grow and grow and grow.

The responsibility of the executive government to the people's elected representatives in parliament is a cornerstone of our system of democracy. In that system, this chamber, this Senate, has a particularly important role to play. In the modern political environment, where the government of the day typically has the numbers in the House of Representatives, the Senate is a critical institution of accountability. Yet the Abbott government acts as if it thinks the Senate should be a rubber stamp for the executive. It is a fundamentally antidemocratic attitude, an attitude which you can see on display from ministers on the other side.

The Senate is one of the most important mechanisms by which the executive government of the day is held accountable. As written in Odgers', the functions of the Senate include:

To probe and check the administration of the laws, to keep itself and the public informed, and to insist on ministerial accountability for the government’s administration.

I repeat: 'and to insist on ministerial accountability for the government's administration'. One of the important ways the Senate fulfils this role is through the right of senators to ask ministers questions, whether by way of questions without notice, in question time, and through written questions on notice. Questions on notice are an important vehicle for senators to seek information and to hold ministers accountable. Under the standing orders, ministers are required to answer questions on notice within 30 days. Yet, under this government, long delays in responding to questions have become commonplace and a way of evading scrutiny.

Over the period from November 2013 until the end of 2014, coalition ministers failed to answer an extraordinary 585 questions on notice within the 30-day deadline—that is, 36 per cent of questions asked by senators. The worst offenders when it comes to failing to answer questions have included the Prime Minister himself and the Attorney-General. In the period to the end of 2014, the Prime Minister failed to answer 173 questions on time—around a third or 35 per cent of the questions directed to Mr Abbott. The Attorney-General's figure for the same period was around 30 per cent. The average number of days Senator Brandis took to answer questions on notice in the Attorney-General's portfolio was 86 days.

Across all ministers, there are currently 330 questions from senators which have not been answered, and the majority of these, some 261 of them, the answers are overdue and some are very overdue. Senator Ronaldson seemed miffed yesterday when opposition senators laughed when he said he would take a question on notice. Perhaps it is because he has still not answered questions on notice that he was asked on 30 January 2014.

All too often, when ministers in this place finally deign to answer questions, their answers are not answers at all. A good example is the Prime Minister and his representative in this place. The answers provided, or the non-answers provided, by Senator Abetz on behalf of Mr Abbott are some of the most extraordinary answers to questions I have ever seen. I have asked on a number of occasions the minister to confirm the widely-known fact that the Prime Minister's chief of staff attends cabinet. I know it, the ministry knows it, the government backbench knows it and anyone who has read a paper in this country in the last 12 months knows it, but the Prime Minister's office refused to allow Senator Abetz to confirm it. We kept getting a refusal to answer that question. What you read in the papers is more informative than the Prime Minister's representative was prepared to provide to the elected representatives in this Senate.

Recently, in answer to question no. 1616, Senator Abetz even refused to disclose whether the Cabinet Secretary attends cabinet—that is, the person who, according to the Cabinet Handbook, 'generally attends all meetings of the Cabinet and the Cabinet committees'.

Consistent with this contemptuous approach to accountability is the government's approach to freedom of information. I have encountered the same stonewalling as other FOI applicants. I do not know if journalists and other applicants share my experience in this, but I would like to know if anybody else has received anonymous correspondence in response to an FOI request from FOI officers in the Prime Minister's department. That is right: the Open Government Unit in the Prime Minister's department corresponds with me anonymously—I do not even get initials! I get an anonymous FOI response to an FOI application. Really, it would be laughable, if it were not so serious. I suppose it is no surprise, when the Public Service Commissioner describes the FOI laws as 'pernicious'.

It is critical that the Public Service and the Parliamentary Service understand the role they play in this accountability. In relation to the latter we have had the regrettable circumstances of the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services providing misleading evidence to a committee of this Senate. There are a number of other examples of poor accountability to which I would make reference, but I will only speak of one. At an additional estimates hearing of the Finance and Public Administration Committee on 23 February, I asked a deputy secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ms Kelly, some questions about the appointment of a new secretary. I got answers, but one month later Ms Kelly, the deputy secretary, wrote to the committee saying her evidence was wrong. It took her one month to correct the record, and, even when she corrected the record, she did not provide the correct answer. All I got was a letter saying, 'Oh, my evidence was wrong,' but no answer.

It is not an acceptable standard from the Public Service, and I make it clear that I will not accept it, nor will the Labor Party. I have outlined just some of the examples of the track record of an arrogant and incompetent government, which wants to hide from the public. It is part of a wider pattern of behaviour on the part of this government and ministers, such as the attempts to cut the funding of non-government organisations or the outrageous treatment of the Human Rights Commission by this government. We see it over and over again: the Abbott government's way is intimidation and intolerance, reprisal and vendetta.

I say this to the crossbenchers, to journalists and to members of the public: you do not have to accept this behaviour and these low standards, and you should not. As Leader of the Opposition in this place, I make it very clear, that we do not, and we will not, stand in the face of this conduct and we will be consistent in pursuing not only this government over its broken promises but also the important principle of accountability in this chamber.


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