Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Answers to Questions on Notice

Questions Nos 223, 224, 225, 226, 227 and 234

3:04 pm

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

Mr President, under the 30-day rule contained in standing order 74(5), I seek an explanation from the Assistant Minister for Health for her failure to answer questions on notice Nos 223, 224, 225, 226, 227 and 234, asked on 20 February 2014, relating to the conflict of interest at the heart of her office, and related matters.

3:05 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

In response to Senator Wong: due to the large number of questions which have been received by my office, I can advise Senator Wong that my office and my department are working hard to finalise these answers and that they will be with her as soon as possible.

I would also take this opportunity to point out that the majority of the questions on notice which were submitted by Senator Wong prior to Senate estimates I have subsequently answered and responded to, both in Senate estimates and in the chamber.

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister's explanation.

The minister has come into this place and provided an unacceptable explanation for her failure to answer these questions. These are legitimate questions about how she dealt with a conflict of interest that was at the heart of her office—and I am not surprised that she is leaving the chamber, because it is consistent with the way in which this minister has dealt with this chamber on this issue of the conflict of interest at the heart of her office; and it is consistent with the misleading of this chamber on more than one occasion—from a government that was supposedly going to be transparent and accountable we see, in practice, that this is a government which stonewalls, which obfuscates, which refuses to be up-front and which refuses to be transparent.

The conflict of interest in the minister's office has cast a shadow over the ethical standards of this government. The response of the assistant minister to public concerns has been arrogant stonewalling. Her refusal to account for her actions has made a mockery of the Abbott government's claims that it would be an accountable government. The series of questions on notice to which I referred today were put on notice on 20 February. They ask for simple, straightforward, factual information; information about how the minister complies with the government's ministerial standards and information about how she ensures her staff comply with the government's standards for ministerial staff.

It is simply not acceptable and certainly a little unbelievable that the minister has failed to answer these questions after 30 days. We know that this assistant minister can move very quickly when she wants to. Look how quickly she moved when the Australian Food and Grocery Council asked for the health star rating website to be taken down. One phone call from the food industry lobby and the website was down within hours. There was a flurry of phone calls from her office to the department to get the website down. When it comes to responding to lobby groups' concerns, she is all action. But when it comes to responding to concerns about her conduct, there is no action at all. Everything grinds to a halt. The shutters come down. The lights go out. No-one is at home. This is the opposite of accountability in government. This is a minister who has already been censured by this Senate for refusing to comply with an order to produce documents. Now she is compounding that refusal by refusing to answer questions on notice. It is obstructionist behaviour. It is evasive behaviour. I will submit that it is untrustworthy behaviour. It shows contempt for the Senate and for the public.

What are these questions that the assistant minister finds so hard to answer? Why is she so stumped by them? These are questions for which the answers would be readily available in any government that was functioning properly and that was committed to accountability. The first question on notice, No. 223, seeks details about the process the minister followed in appointing her chief of staff. When did she seek the Prime Minister's approval? Did she advise the Prime Minister of Mr Furnival's interests? On what date did Mr Furnival commence as her chief of staff? Are we in this chamber to believe that the assistant minister's records are in such disarray that she cannot even say on what date Mr Furnival started working for her?

Question on notice 224 asked about the statement of interest required from staff. I asked whether or not the minister required her staff to do what is required under the statement of ministerial staff standards, and that is to submit a statement of interests. I asked when Mr Furnival submitted his statement and what that statement disclosed. One would have thought that she would be able to answer a question about whether or not her staff in fact complied with the standards the Prime Minister has set. It is not complex. It does not require the scouring of hundreds of pages of records or delving back into ancient history. The obvious answer—and I am still waiting for the minister to answer the question—that one could draw is that the minister is simply refusing to answer the question because the answer is, no, she has not ensured that her staff have complied with the statement of standards.

Question on notice 225 asked about the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation in December 2013. These were simple questions about one day and one meeting. These were simple questions about who attended the meeting and why there was a failure to declare the interest in a lobbying firm. The assistant minister chaired this meeting. It appears she is not able to recall which staff were there. She is not able to find her records about one meeting and respond on that point.

Question on notice 226 asked whether or not Mr Furnival, as the assistant minister's chief of staff, received hospitality gifts or sponsored travel in relation to his employment and also asked questions about the assistant minister's current staff receiving such things. These are matters that the government's statement of standards for ministerial staff requires staff to declare. So what I am asking is: under the declaration that her staff have to engage with, can she please tell us what has been declared? One would not have thought that was a difficult proposition. A government complying with its own standards would have no trouble in answering this question.

Question on notice 227 asked whether or not any of the minister's current or former staff have a direct or family interest in the food, tobacco or alcohol industries. Again, that is something that would have to be disclosed in the statement of interests required under the government standards for ministerial staff. I would have thought that, if the minister is properly managing her staff and her office and ensuring that there are no conflicts of interest in this role, she would have had no trouble in answering this question.

Question on notice 234 is a question as to whether or not the assistant minister has agreed to any of her staff maintaining outside employment or involvement in a business or retaining a directorship. It goes on to ask a number of other questions. These are straightforward, factual questions about management of conflicts of interest within the minister's office. A conclusion that can be drawn from the minister's failure to answer is the one which I think is demonstrated by her answers today—that she simply failed to manage the conflict of interest in her office.

I would also make the point that there has been a rejected freedom of information request from me and also a journalist which has been reported. That freedom of information request relates to a letter that the minister gave evidence about at Senate estimates. Let's recall that, in all of the debate, dispute and discussion about this minister's behaviour, her single item of defence has been that she required her chief of staff to give undertakings about how he would address the conflict of interest. She told Senate estimates that these undertakings were set out in a letter from her chief of staff outlining the measures that would be taken to avoid conflicts of interest between his business affairs and his ministerial staff role. This is a letter that is central to the defence that this minister has put to this chamber. It is central to the defence about how she ensured that the statement of standards applicable to ministers and staff was complied with. One of the reasons she was censured was her failure to produce this letter.

I can now inform the Senate, as I flagged, that the minister's department or office have refused to provide access to the letter under the Freedom of Information Act. In a letter to me, the department said: 'The document requested is neither an official document of the minister nor a document of an agency.' So the letter that the minister says sets out arrangements to avoid a conflict of interest at the heart of her office is not an official document. This is the letter that is at the core of the assistant minister's defence. She claims it proves she was managing the conflict of interest in her office, but she refused to produce it and now her own department says that it is not an official document of a minister.

This freedom of information refusal simply casts further doubts on the minister's claims. This is a letter which her chief of staff provided as part of his employment to ensure there was no conflict of interest and to ensure she was complying with the Prime Minister's code of conduct. Now we are told it has no official status. It is apparently in some grey zone, perhaps the same grey zone as all of this minister's other non-responses to questions and all of her misleading statements to the Senate. You have to ask, if it is not an official document, what is its status? Is it written on the back of a napkin? Is it scribbled on the back of a coaster? Why is the minister fighting tooth and nail against producing it?

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Does it exist?

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

I will take that interjection. Maybe it does not exist at all and that is why cannot be produced. The Prime Minister promised before the election that he would lead a government that would be accountable and transparent and he is not delivering on that promise. The Assistant Minister for Health's failure to answer these questions is just the latest example of how this is a government that is not doing what it said it would do. It is a secretive government and it is an arrogant government. It is a government that refuses to be accountable to the public for its actions.

We have had the Assistant Minister for Health, with a conflict of interest in her office, misleading the Senate and refusing to answer questions. We have had Senator Sinodinos refusing to explain his involvement in Australian Water Holdings. And we have had the Prime Minister refusing to be upfront about what he knew in both of these matters. One minister has gone, another has been censured and a chief of staff has quit over a conflict of interest. We now have absurdities like the letter which the Assistant Minister for Health claims shows how she was managing a conflict of interest, but which her department says is not an official document.

We have absurdities like the acting Assistant Treasurer, who is also the Minister for Finance, put on hold changes which are the responsibility of the Assistant Treasurer and where the Assistant Treasurer stood aside yet he is still the Assistant Treasurer even though his job is being done by the acting Assistant Treasurer. The Prime Minister is leading a secretive, slipshod and arrogant government.

3:17 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to contribute to the debate to pay tribute to Senator Nash, the way she has handled the portfolio and the way she has answered questions. It is so different to the previous government; we are still waiting for answers about Copenhagen and what happened at the climate change conference there. I am still waiting for a number of questions that I put on notice to the previous government. Yet the hypocrisy of the Labor Party shows through and here is a motion moved 30 days after.

I think the record will show that Senator Nash, in responding to the inquiry by the Leader of the Opposition—who I might say read every part of her speech, and I would suggest to the Leader of the Opposition that she get a new speech writer—explained to anyone who wanted to listen that her office was very busy. I heard her say that they were actually working on the answers to those questions. I also heard her say that most of the questions were asked by Senator Wong at estimates and were either answered there or taken on notice there. Since that time, there have been other questions.

I wanted to put just a modicum of fact into that bile filled speech from the previous speaker about someone who I think is doing a magnificent job as a minister. I have to say as well, it is refreshing how open the Abbott government has been and how accountable it has been in all of the very important and serious matters that it has been involved in. I have been here for a long while now—some say too long. I have sat through the Hawke and Keating governments, I have sat through the Howard government and I have sat through the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. There is a pattern that I have noticed over those years with Labor: how they run the union movement, how they run the Labor Party in New South Wales, how they looked after Mr Thompson and how they looked after Mr Williamson. These two icons of the Labor Party are now facing criminal charges and jail, but they looked after them and kept everything secret even from members of the HSU, the union that was paying for Mr Thompson's theft. Unions and the Labor Party itself were hiding Mr Williamson.

I have noticed over the years that Labor governments follow the New South Wales Labor dictum of keeping everything secret. That way, you never get into trouble. Unfortunately, things do come out, as we have heard. Senator Dastyari will know, because he was around in part of the cover-up, and my namesake—I am embarrassed to say that he is my namesake—will know how the Labor Party looked after these people, covered up for them and were never accountable, not even to their own members and not even to the union members who were paying them.

I have seen this over many years. It is the Labor way to cover-up, obfuscate and never answer a question. We think question time these days is a bit rowdy when you hear the opposition catcalling, but at least at question time now senators are getting answers to questions. I well remember when this matter was first raised with Senator Nash. I thought to myself, having been around for a while, 'Do not say anything, take it on notice, go and look at it.' But immediately Senator Nash got up and gave an explanation on the very first day. I thought, 'That is the sign of a very, very good minister.' A good minister is someone who is across the portfolio and able to deal with all of these issues.

I might say that in the substantive part of her portfolio she is doing excellent work, such as in rural and regional Australia and I guess elsewhere as well. I just want to answer Senator Wong's accusation of 'an arrogant stonewall'. Well, that Labor leader using 'an arrogant stonewall' as a description just fades away to stupidity when you actually hear what the answer was. The department has been very busy. They have had an enormous number of questions through estimates, not about this issue but about real issues in the portfolio, and they are, obviously, giving attention to them. Senator Nash did say that they were working on the answers, so they are going to come, unlike the answers to the questions on Copenhagen which we are still waiting on. As the minister said, she had already answered many of the questions at estimates. I wanted to make sure that anyone who might be listening to this debate is not confused by the tirade that we just heard from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

Question agreed to.