Monday, 2 March 2015
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Australian Human Rights Commission
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.
If there was ever a confirmation of a decision by the Senate to censure a minister, it was Senator Brandis's performance in question time today. Here we have a minister who is dismissive of the important question of ministerial integrity. We have a minister who threw his secretary to the wolves at Senate estimates and who did not even have the courage of his own convictions to go and front the President of the Human Rights Commission and say that he had lost confidence in her and he wanted her to move on and that a job would be available if she moved on. He did not have the courage to do that, so he sent the secretary of his department. If ever you could see by the look on anyone's face that they had landed themselves in real trouble, it was the secretary of the department, Mr Moraitis, who was sitting there looking so uncomfortable. He wanted to be anywhere but in Senate estimates.
When you look at what has happened, it was a concerted and organised attack on a woman of significant integrity: the President of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs. What Senator Brandis did was to unleash the attack dogs on President Triggs. That was supported by the shock jocks on the radio, supported by News Limited, led by The Australian, and led at the estimates committee by the Bjelke-Petersen-era bovver boys, Senator Macdonald and Senator O'Sullivan. They were there—
I withdraw. It was pursued by the bovver boys of the Bjelke-Petersen era, out there thinking they have gone back 30 to 40 years; they can treat people with absolute contempt; and they can do whatever they like. That is the position that was set about by Senator Brandis in his attack on the President of the Human Rights Commission.
Senator Brandis prances around the place preening himself continuously. Well, there is not too much prancing and preening going on at the moment, as the Federal Police will be lining up to ask him detailed questions on why oh why he sent his secretary off to get a commitment from the President of the Human Rights Commission to give up her position in return for another position somewhere else, simply because Senator Brandis does not like the President of the Human Rights Commission and does not like the Human Rights Commission as a body. And he is not on his own there. It is the whole conservative coalition. They do not like the Human Rights Commission. They do not like the president of that commission. This was too smart by half by Senator Brandis, and there are further questions that will need to be asked. It is untenable for a minister to send his secretary to offer up an alternative job to the President of the Human Rights Commission because that minister and the coalition do not like the individual that is in the position and do not like the commission itself.
When you saw what has gone on and you saw the estimates hearing, you must have been appalled. Everyone was appalled, looking at what was going on there. This was from Senator Brandis, who was a so-called moderate in the coalition in the past. This is where the moderates are in the coalition now: prepared to attack the female president of the commission because they do not like her, and they sent out the bovver boys to attack her mercilessly. This is not what democracy is about, and Senator Brandis has lots of questions to answer. He has failed to answer them. There is no doubt that the censure was an appropriate censure, and this minister is not fit— (Time expired)
I also rise to take note. What we have just heard from Senator Cameron is exactly what has been wrong with this whole debate and what happens when you play the men and not the issues at hand. First of all, I would like to correct his statement that the bovver boys of Bjelke-Peterson were unleashed. In case he has not noticed, in my case he has the wrong sex, the wrong state and the wrong era. That aside, let's get on to the facts.
I am entitled to hear what the point—
Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting—
Senator Macdonald, you are not in the chair. I do not need your assistance. Senator Cameron has risen to raise a point of order and I will hear it.
Thanks, Deputy President. I apologise if I did not include the senator in the bovver-boy attacks. You are not the same sex, but if you want to be a bovver boy or a bovver girl, that is okay.
Instead of playing the men, the hypocrisy in what I just heard from those opposite is breathtaking. On the one hand they are saying that the government and the Attorney-General are besmirching the reputation of the President of the Human Rights Commission simply because she is a woman, but, in the same breath, they are absolutely besmirching the reputation of the secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, who is a man of total integrity and respect.
If that is not enough, this morning I was delighted to rise and speak in support of the Attorney-General on the censure motion. What I pointed out are the very uncomfortable truths for those opposite. I went to the hearings last week, with the Human Rights Commissioner and commission staff, wanting the answers to two very simple questions, I thought, that had not been clear. The first was: when did they decide to have this inquiry? As I said previously, I came out with four distinctly separate answers over the space of 12 months. That is not exactly the clarity you would expect from those who were giving evidence. Then, as to why they decided to have the inquiry, there were seven separate answers and at least four contradictory answers were on the same page of Hansard. So the two key questions that I think every taxpayer, not just those in government, deserves to have answered were not answered: when did they decide to hold the inquiry and why did they decide to hold it?
Somewhat amazingly, Human Rights Commission staff, including the president, raised two completely new and different reasons for holding the inquiry. There was a range of reasons in the testimony in November, there was the clarifying statement in December to clarify the November advice, and then the opening statement provided a number of reasons why the inquiry was held. Then, somewhat extraordinarily in evidence on the day, Operation Sovereign Borders popped up its head as a completely new reason for having the inquiry. It had never been mentioned before. Not only did Sovereign Borders come up but it changed four times: yes, it was; no, it was not; yes, it was; no, it was not; yes, it was. Almost all of those were in the course of one page of Hansard. There is the third question that now needs to be answered and was not answered in the seven hours of testimony.
Even more extraordinarily, in my mind, is that not only did Operation Sovereign Borders poke its head up but the issue was initially raised by the president that it was Operation Sovereign Borders that resulted in the drying up of information to the commission. Guess what? That evidence changed seven times as well, by my count, over the course of the testimony from the Human Rights Commission. Not only did it change but it transpired that there was drying up of information from Sovereign Borders and then there was not; then it went back to the caretaker period, then it went back to before the caretaker period, then it went back to Sovereign Borders and then it went back to the caretaker period—back and forth in the course of a single day of testimony.
So, by my reckoning, instead of having two key questions to answer—why was it called and when was called—we now have two whole new questions to pursue. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than, when the Human Rights Commission reappears before the estimates committee, us getting very simple and very clear answers to those questions. Until we get those answers, it is not a matter of playing the commission or the commissioner. This is a taxpayer funded organisation and there are many things the commission could have inquired into regarding the human rights of Australians. We have review on at the moment of young people in nursing homes, domestic violence and why— (Time expired)
I too rise to take note of answers given today by Senator Brandis, specifically dealing with Professor Triggs, who is the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. The answers given today were completely unsatisfactory. I am a member of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. I sat there for hours of questioning of Professor Triggs by senators. Can I say that I have never seen, in the nearly seven years I have been here, such an attack on a statutory officeholder during estimates. We all know that through estimates things can get a bit uptight. In fact, I have been in some Senate estimates hearings where the chair has closed down estimates so that people could catch their breath. None of that was forthcoming through estimates. While he was chair, Senator Macdonald was taking points of order on himself and deeming them out of order. It was a pretty bizarre day, all in all.
One thing that confuses me is that the secretary of the department was sent along by the Attorney-General—who obviously did not want to do the work himself—to make three points to Professor Triggs. There seems to be a debate—the word 'inducement' has come up and been knocked back. Maybe it was an incentive. I am not sure what word people want to use. I am very concerned about the fact that the Attorney-General thinks you can say to someone, 'I've lost confidence in you but here's another role we think you'll be good at'—and I would be pretty shocked if the general public think the two are not linked. In the Hansard, even the secretary of the department seems to think they are linked. I quote:
Senator WONG: I am suggesting to you that you knew perfectly well that the two propositions—the resignation and the offer of a new position—were linked.
Mr Moraitis : I did not know whether there was an express linkage. All I was asked to convey was that there was a lack of confidence.
Senator WONG: Sorry, what was your answer?—'I did not know if they were expressly linked'.
Mr Moraitis : I did not think there was an express linkage.
Senator WONG: Did you understand there to be a linkage?
Mr Moraitis : As I said, my view was that one could not fulfil the second legal role while doing the first.
Senator WONG: So, they were linked?
Mr Moraitis : One would follow from another, possibly.
It is all there in the Hansard. It is on page 54 if you are interested in looking at it.
I think so, Senator Conroy; it is absolutely guilty as charged. It was quite disheartening to see through that whole estimates—and we have heard Senator Brandis say here today that he is not impugning the character of Professor Triggs—that the Attorney-General just sat there and let other people destroy Professor Triggs's professional standing and impugn her motives and competence. Others set out to destroy her reputation and the Attorney-General did nothing to defend her. I think that is beneath the position of the Attorney-General. He came in here early today during the censure motion—which was won—stating that he was not attacking Professor Triggs's character. Well, let me say that they were. It shows us what sort of a government we have got. It shows us that the government are the ones who are damaging the reputation of the committee. Minister Brandis and the coalition government politicised the whole Human Rights Commission and the position of the president. It was not the position of the president that did that, it was the government. They have used these unfounded and unfair attacks to save their own political skins simply because they did not like the report that came down. It is beyond belief. I have had so many people make comment to me since the estimates about the chair could just sit there having a go at what is in the report— (Time expired)
This debate so far today has lacked a couple of inconvenient truths—inconvenient to the Labor Party. Senator Conroy today in question time was asking about the role allegedly offered to Professor Triggs. If Senator Conroy or Senator Cameron had been in the hearing, they would have understood what happened.
Then you would know, Senator Bilyk. Here is what happened. The Attorney said, 'I'd like to tell you this,' and the secretary said, 'I'll tell you this.' At that moment in the committee hearing Mr John Reid, who I understand is the senior officer in the International Law Division of the department, lent across and said to both the minister and the secretary, 'Don't say it'—I do not know that he said that, but he gave advice. As a result of that advice both the Attorney and the secretary said, 'Sorry, we've just been advised we cannot mention this.'
Further to that—in another inconvenient truth for Senator Conroy—Professor Triggs indicated that she knew what the position was. That is why she did not ask the secretary and that is why the secretary did not tell her. She knew what the position was. I do not know what the position was. The secretary, the minister and Professor Triggs know what the position was, but nobody else does. The minister and the secretary and, I assume, Professor Triggs were advised by Mr Reid not to make that public.
Senator Brandis indicated that he did offer a private briefing to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Any substantive and serious Leader of the Opposition in the Senate would have accepted the invitation so she could have found out what it was all about. I have to say that the behaviour of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in that hearing was absolutely appalling. On no fewer than four occasions did I as chair of that meeting have to ask Senator Wong to remove herself from the hearing because of her continual and continuous interjecting. And the same, I might say, went for Senator Hanson-Young. In this whole hearing it was very evident that there was a concerted attempt by Senator Bilyk, Senator Wong, Senator Collins, Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Wright to shout from each end of the Senate table and interrupt the testimony of witnesses and people asking questions.
Another inconvenient truth that Senator Conroy and the Labor Party have glossed over—and senators on the other side who were there should be aware of this—is that the evidence to the committee was that Professor Triggs actually asked the secretary to ascertain what Senator Brandis and the government thought about her chairmanship of the Human Rights Commission and about the Human Rights Commission. She asked the secretary to go and ask Brandis what Brandis thought about her. Brandis responded to the secretary, and the secretary then told the President of the Human Rights Commission. So it is an inconvenient truth for the Labor Party that Professor Triggs actually initiated this and asked for it. As Senator Reynolds has been mentioning, one of Professor Triggs's comments related to—
Professor Triggs allegedly said that the information was drying up. I cannot understand that because, as chair of that committee, we had had umpteen different inquiries into various aspects of the migration legislation. At every one, I venture to say, we would ask the department how many kids were in detention, how many had been released and when they expected the kids to be out of detention. This is the crucial point: this government has got rid of the kids out of detention. The whole incident is an indictment of the Labor Party.
1 want to conclude by telling something to good old Senator Cameron, who I do not think has ever bothered to bother about the truth of anything. He calls me a bovver boy of the Bjelke-Petersen regime. Senator Cameron might like to know that I was one of Bjelke-Petersen's greatest opponents.
that other people were present for. And, unfortunately, I am not as well versed in the events of that day. I am not going to comments on the events of that day because I was not there. I think there is a very important issue at the heart of this report that I want to draw some attention to. I feel it is unfortunate that the debate and incidents around what has happened with Professor Triggs has detracted from what, I think, is a very important report. There are elements of the report that are worthy of discussing here.
I want to begin by saying that it is a good thing that there are fewer children in detention at this point in time, as there has been in other points in time. That is a good thing. What not is a good thing is, unfortunately, a lot of these children have been in there for a very long period of time. I personally believe that any opportunity to shine a light on how we deal with this complex and difficult policy matter is a actually good thing. The work that the Human Rights Commission has done and its role in highlighting some of this should actually be congratulated. I have read the report and I have gone through the recommendations. I do not necessarily agree with all the recommendations, but I think they are an important part of the public policy debate.
When you come to this chamber in the way that I have come to this chamber, it is very difficult not to have sympathy for the plight of a lot of the people and a lot of the children who are in detention. As a lot of people know, and my friends in this chamber know, I came to Australia when I was five years old. My parents were political dissidents in Iran. We had a very difficult story and we had a very big struggle to actually come to this country. We came under a different migration program. As I have said to others at different points in time, we could easily could have come under a refugee style convention. I would not have thought any less of my parents if they had chosen to flee the regime and come through other means.
There is a really difficult issue at the heart this—that is, how do you provide a fair and equitable system? How do you make sure you are doing the right thing by these children who are in detention and, at the same time, provide the necessary deterrent? No-one wants a situation where there are people risking their lives by taking unnecessary risks and where there are incidences of things like drownings at sea. This is a real issue that we have to confront and deal with. This is not an easy part of the policy debate. This is a hard issue in which we are trying to balance two very important principles.
When I look at the stories and at the incidence of the 161 children currently in detention, quite a few of them were actually born not that far from where I was born. Quite a few of those children are actually Iranians. Several of them were from a few hours where I was born and the part of Iran that I came from. This country has given me an incredible opportunity in the short period that I have been here—the 26 years that I have been in this country. I know that there are many other migrants in this chamber with different backgrounds and different migrant stories. In one way or another, apart from, perhaps, Senator Peris, we are all one or two generations away from being migrants. For a lot of us, it is a very, very difficult issue.
Professor Triggs should be congratulated on the report she has produced. She is a person of utmost integrity. Shining a light on these issues is a good thing. It should be encouraged. I think this is not an easy debate for us to have. There is actually a lot of quality in the recommendations she has put forward. Again, l do not agree with all of the recommendations. I am not necessarily sure that going down the path that she recommends at every instance is necessarily the right thing to do in a public policy sense. But I do believe that at the heart of all this, at the heart of this debate and at the heart of this report, there is a very important issue. The actions by Senator Brandis in making this entire debate about the professionalism of Professor Triggs, which I do not think should be in question, has detracted from the real debate we should be having and it is not an easy debate—that is, how do we do the right thing by these 161 children who are still in detention?
Question agreed to.