Tuesday, 17 October 2023
National Disability Insurance Scheme; Order for the Production of Documents
ROBERTS () (): Unfortunately, we are here again for yet another slap on the wrist. This government continues to defy the orders of the Senate. There is no other word for this behaviour. It is contempt. It's time that the Senate started treating contempt with real punishments. Orders for the production of documents are a vital part of our democratic process. The Senate is constitutionally superior to every law or excuse that government might try to use to justify not handing over documents.
Right now, we're stuck in an ineffective cycle. The Senate makes an order demanding that the government table documents. The government may have a different opinion, yet these orders are not optional. They're Senate orders. The government defies the Senate anyway and refuses to hand over the documents. The Senate makes even more orders, rejecting the excuses from the government and affirming that the documents must be produced. The government yet again ignores the Senate's orders. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called contempt. We must punish it as such. Instead the minister is hauled in here for 15 minutes to give more excuses, and everyone lines up to give them a slap on the wrist and call them a naughty boy or a naughty girl. At the end, the minister sits down pretty chuffed with themselves because they haven't had to hand over any documents and haven't suffered any real punishments.
I say to the coalition and to the Greens: if you are serious about orders for the production of documents, about the explanations, about transparency and accountability, about being the house of review and about serving the people, bring on a contempt motion against the minister. We don't need a referral to the Privileges Committee to tell us whether it is contempt or not. The minister is now in direct defiance of multiple orders from the Senate. Bring on a motion of contempt or censure, and you will have our support.
I foreshadow that I will be introducing, before the end of this year, a confidential process to review documents where any public interest immunity is raised, such as these documents. Public interest immunities are raised on the basis that sensitive information should not be released to the public. Whenever the government makes that claim, it needs to be assessed. Senators should assess public interest immunity claims. That assessment can be done confidentially so that the public interest is still protected. I'll say it again: that assessment by the senators can be done confidentially so that the public interest is still protected.
To this end, I will be proposing an amendment to standing orders in relation to orders for the production of documents. This would trigger a formal process whenever a minister wishes to raise a public interest immunity claim. This process would require the relevant minister to explicitly outline to the Senate the actual harm that they say would flow from releasing information to the public, who we are supposed to serve. The minister would then be required to confidentially produce the documents to a Senate committee, where the documents would be made available only to senators for confidential viewing purposes. The Senate chamber as a whole would be able to confidentially make an assessment of the public interest immunity claim and whether or not there is any merit to it. If the minister does not comply with the process, it will be very obvious that the public interest immunity claim is not genuine. The Senate can then be more confident in applying sanctions such as censure and contempt. This would be fair to everyone.
This government continues to show callous disregard for the orders of this Senate on behalf of the people we represent. It's time the Senate punishes such behaviour appropriately. No more slaps on the wrist. Instead enforce the will of the Senate, acting on behalf of our constituents, the people of Australia.
Question agreed to.