Senate debates

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Answers to Questions

3:04 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.

Today was an opportunity for the government to back in constitutional recognition. Senator Wong asked Senator Abetz questions about constitutional recognition today. We have heard and all recall that the Prime Minister has said that he will sweat blood to achieve this goal. Today was an opportunity for Senator Abetz, representing the Prime Minister, to repudiate sections of the Liberal Party who are not coming along with the stated Liberal intention. It is very unfortunate that this motion is to be moved at the Western Australian conference this weekend:

That the Liberal Party of Western Australia oppose any move to recognise a single race to the exclusion of all others in the body or preamble of the Commonwealth Constitution.

Today was an opportunity for the Leader of the Government in the Senate to repudiate that position, to slap it down. This was a chance to ensure that the argument was made that we do support constitutional recognition, that we will work together across the aisles to ensure that constitutional recognition is achieved. Senator Abetz missed that opportunity today. He should have shown the leadership that Senator Wong invited him to show and said that the motion that is coming before the WA branch this weekend is wrong and given the reasons why it is wrong, but he did not take that opportunity.

Mr Abbott, with the support of Mr Shorten, is working towards achieving a referendum in 2017. That will be the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum. We have to work together to achieve that goal. Today was an opportunity missed by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

The opportunity was then offered from Senator Wong to Senator Abetz to repudiate the words of Bill Hassell. Again, that opportunity was missed. Mr Hassell has said that Mr Abbott had seriously misread the mood of the party and was in for a rude shock when he attends the conference in Perth. We need to make sure that he understands that language like that will not encourage the community to come with us on this road to constitutional recognition. Again, Senator Abetz missed that opportunity.

Today a meeting was held between Indigenous leaders and the Prime Minister. Hopefully, that is another step forward towards the goal of constitutional recognition. But to achieve constitutional recognition, we have to take every opportunity to make the argument, to make the case and to bring the community with us. That is why it is disappointing that we have had in this period of time the bizarre spectacle of what has now been called 'Vegemite gate'. I asked Senator Scullion what evidence he had that Vegemite was being used to brew alcohol in Aboriginal communities. Senator Scullion said that he had been to Mornington Island—a place that I have visited many times, Senator O'Sullivan. Potentially you could tell us how many times you have been there as well.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have been there twice.

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

Good, tell us about it. He said he spoke to the council and to others about the problems that Mornington Island experiences with illicit use of alcohol. The council had told him that people were using Vegemite to do that. He is quoted in inverted commas on the ABC website as saying:

I have seen first-hand the impact of home brewing which included Vegemite as an ingredient and many community members have told me about the problems it is causing.

So he went and Mornington Island and someone told him it was a problem but did he ask his department? Did he actually ask for any scientific evidence? He did not. Dr Claudia Vickers was asked by the ABC whether this was possible thing to do. She said:

It is not impossible, but it is highly, highly implausible.

She said:

There is nothing alive in the Vegemite that you can use to make beer with.

As you will remember from when we were children, it is yeast extract; it is not live yeast. It is highly implausible that it could occur.

Senator Scullion has a department. I would suggest to him that he starts to use the information that that department can find for him without just making up the story to fill in the time, frankly. (Time expired)

3:10 pm

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today, colleagues, we saw an absolute new low. I am telling you, I looked up and saw the snake's belly while I was listening to that question about Mornington Island.

Senator McLucas interjecting

I have been there, Senator McLucas. I have been there and heard the same evidence. You need to go and check your Hansard against his Hansard. The minister did not mention the council in his answer and it was the only thing you quoted. He talked to you about the police. He talked to you about the community organisations. We went to a health centre—I had two visits there. Two long days I had on Mornington Island and, I tell you, your question should have been to the minister: what can I do to help the minister in dealing with the very serious alcohol problem on Mornington Island? But you had no interest in that. Your interest would have been reflected in your question. What do you want to do? You want to diminish the efforts that are coming out of that two-day visit where the minister kindly came along with our assistant health minister. These are two serious people who took a very serious interest when I raised with them the problems on Mornington Island.

If you have been to Mornington Island, I accept that. I ask you now, next time you get up to make a contribution, what did you do about what you saw? The problems are still there. What did you do when you were in government? You are a senator based in northern Queensland. This is a very vital part of your constituency. So the next time you get an opportunity, why do you not lay down what you did when you were in government for the poor people of Mornington Island.

The circumstances over there are not Third World; they are fifth world, sixth world on Mornington Island. There were 200 offences before the court over the course of one week. I took a great deal of interest in this. I sat there with a fellow—I cannot think of the fellow's name—who has got a PhD and is doing continuing work there in a community role. We went through the court list and were able to determine that something like 180 of those offences would not have occurred had alcohol not been involved. It is a horrific problem.

You heard the minister say to you that he does not know—

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

What are you doing?

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You chose to ignore this. This is a very vexed question. You chose to ignore what he said—that the Vegemite may be having a placebo effect or that they may be convinced it has a function that it does not. I am telling you the Vegemite is going in. You should be interested about how we might educate the people on Mornington Island if the Vegemite is not working. These are people who have got seven times the capacity to have concerns about their kidneys. Families are being separated because of these home-brews. They are being separated from their families and are off to Townsville never to come home—some of them do not have the capacity. This is not a Greyhound bus ride, as you ought to know being from North Queensland.

I think that was a new low that question today. Did it have any interest in the people of Mornington Island? No it did not. Did it show any interest in how we might be able to support this minister and the Assistant Minister for Health after their visit there to do something about this atrocious situation? No it did not. It was just a collage of cheap shots directed at our minister, who works very hard in this place. He is a very genuine, very decent man. I am telling you, this is one area—

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

There is far too much interjecting happening. I call the Senate to order.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me take a deep breath. Work in Indigenous affairs, can I say to you, needs to be absolutely above politics in this place. Stunts like today, questions like that—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Stunts like Vegemite.

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me finish speaking. I know you do not like what I have got to say. Indigenous affairs in particular, when we are seeing the absolute terrible crisis we have in these communities, ought to be above politics in this place. I ask you and invite you the next time you craft a question for the minister or anyone else in the space of Indigenous affairs, you need to ask yourself: does it meet the test of making a positive contribution to progress in the efforts of the government in this space? Because this was a disgrace.

Senator Lines interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a disgrace today and—no, you can holler as much as you want, Senator Lines. I have been there. We are doing things with Mornington Island. I was on the phone with them this morning, not even knowing this question was coming up, continuing—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a hero!

Photo of Barry O'SullivanBarry O'Sullivan (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There you go, Senator Lines,—through you, Mr Deputy President, that is your contribution: referring to someone as a hero. You have zero interest, and you should not be here as a result.

3:15 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

We get so excited to have a chance to contribute. In terms of the question we asked today to the minister about the NDIS, it is interesting to find out that at no time do we have any commitment about the timing of the NDIS rollout. There is no question about commitment, and there is no question about the process involved in actually negotiating the NDIS. In his response the minister gave very useful information about the way the process needs to happen, which is that we have to have the federal government working with every state and territory to negotiate an outcome and bilateral agreements. All the same, this is exactly how the NDIS is structured to operate. When we were in government, with the support of the opposition in launching the NDIS, we knew what the structure was going to be. It was going to be a series of bilateral agreements so that, by 2019, we could come to a national plan across our nation which effectively looked at the needs of people with disabilities. There is no question about that.

We have had quarterly reports since the introduction of the NDIS, which talk about how the NDIS is progressing, the number of people receiving packages, the average cost of the packages and the timing of the introduction. It is all there in those quarterly reports and, of course, the minister comes in, as he ought, and tells us what is happening as we receive a quarterly report. With the first couple, the minister took great pride in saying that there could be some problems here and that they were going to fix them, and there has been the introduction of efforts. Yesterday, in response to a question from Senator Siewert, the minister talked about the policy changes that had been implemented. That is all fine. He said that this is what has to happen and that the program was going to evolve and we would work it through. The minister again today said that there was absolute commitment to the NDIS. We acknowledge that, we celebrate it and we share it. There is absolute cross-party support for the NDIS. The questions were in full and on time.

Yesterday and last night in the media and again today, the minister has responded with absolute commitment to 'in full', but there is no explanation and no commitment to 'on time' and no acknowledgement if there is a problem with the timing or that there could be a problem with the timing. It is really important that the minister and the government understand that this is a commitment that has been made in the budget papers and in public statements by the Prime Minister and others in the timing of the NDIS rollout. At no stage has there been any acknowledgement that there could be a problem with it, just evasion. It could be nothing but a deliberate evasion because the question was followed up a number of times in this place and also in media coverage. Instead of actually answering the question, the minister has consistently ignored that part of the question and moved on to talk about how committed the government is to having the NDIS.

Believe me, it is people in the community who are watching what is happening with the NDIS. There was so much hope and so much pride in people with disabilities across this country or in people who were working with people with disabilities when the government—their government—made the statement that everyone in this parliament was committed to the NDIS. There was genuine hope that this was finally going to be an effective response to needs that had been identified over many years. Consistently, people are asking what is happening. People are going to fora all over the country. In every state and territory there are people who gather together regularly to review what is happening with the NDIS and to plan what is going to happen in their jurisdiction. They have an effective and extraordinarily responsive network where they share knowledge, they share ideas, they share hope and indeed, at times, they share frustrations because, as the minister said today, this is a difficult and complex program. But it is no more difficult and complex now than it was when the NDIS was officially put into place. It is no more difficult and complex in terms of what will happen than when the promises were made that there would be a certain date of completion. In the budget papers only this year there was a reaffirmation of a timely implementation of this program. We will continue to ask, the community will continue to ask and probably the media will continue to ask because they know they have an audience for this question: when will the commitment to the timeliness of this program occur, and when will we work together on it? (Time expired)

3:20 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers to questions. I cannot believe the quality of questions that came from the other side of the chamber today. Firstly, let me address the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. This is already delivering over $100 billion in annual revenue—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Edwards, the motion before the chair is answers to all questions asked by the opposition. I believe that the question you are referring to was asked by the Australian Greens. Unless I am wrong, that was my recollection.

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Minister for Employment) Share this | | Hansard source

They are the opposition, are they not!

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Do not be cheeky, Senator Abetz.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There is plenty in the opposition questions that I can work with if you would prefer me to—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Edwards, if you would take your seat. Senator Whish-Wilson.

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, a point of clarification: it was actually a Dorothy Dixer from their side that was asked on that issue.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I can move on to shipbuilding, which was asked by Senator Conroy. I can also talk about their shrill note of indignation. I can talk about Senator Moore's contribution with regard to the NDIS, and we can talk about the vacuous nature in which they come to this chamber.

With the NDIS, they sat sneering when we won the election because they had no idea how they were going to implement the NDIS with their budget hurtling into massive deficit, annual deficits, and a record budget blow-out like this country had never seen. They had no idea how they were going to deliver it. They thought they had laid landmines for Minister Fifield for time immemorial. Unfortunately, over on this side we have some idea of how, in an industry or a health community, we deliver things on time and on budget. Even though when you ask your question you have no clue on the other side, Senator Fifield went along and constructed how he will deliver it on time and on budget.

Now I refer to the question from Senator Conroy. He was out there this morning on Adelaide radio with Leon Byner, selling his mistruths about what happened. It is absolutely empty, because he is dealing with a Defence Teaming Centre report, which is funded by the state Labor Party. Defence Teaming gets its funding from the South Australian Labor government. It also gets snatch-and-grab funding that is also provided by the South Australian Labor government. So why wouldn't it be in his interest for the representatives and the Defence Teaming Centre to come out and talk about what is not going to happen? It is not backed up by any facts. There is a nice glossy brochure with some nice visuals, I admit. It looks good.

The $39 billion project has been delivered to South Australia, and the Prime Minister has been down there talking to South Australians about this wonderful Defence project. Just remember that this is the first time ever in our nation's history that we have had a continuous shipbuilding program. This is, for the first time, a program that will deliver a renewal of the entire naval fleet. And yet they in Labor in South Australia seek to diminish this, and media outlets, for whatever reason, do not check the veracity of the claims of these people, who are a partisan organisation. Not for one moment do I believe that their motivation is to give people of South Australia the assurance that they deserve about a commitment.

The Prime Minister has been down there, as we know, in South Australia—my home state and your home state, Senator McEwen—reinforcing his commitment to the shipbuilders. And what do we have? We have this cynicism about what you can and cannot do. Get behind the workers down there at Osborne. Give them a chance. Give them a chance to prove themselves. Those people deserve every little bit. But all the time you are backgrounding and undermining every part of the process.

This competitive evaluation process which will roll out will be like the one that is going on with the submarines now. Its credibility is increasing day by day. The government should be very proud of it, and the people of South Australia should be very confident that the Prime Minister will back in this competitive evaluation process to a successful conclusion.

3:26 pm

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of answers to questions from us, particularly to Senator Abetz on the disgraceful comments made by Mr Hassell from the WA Liberal Party. Again Senator Abetz just failed to answer our questions on whether the Prime Minister would repudiate the views of Mr Hassell and indeed the motion that is going to be put to the state Liberal Party, which says that we should not recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our Constitution.

Let me just take a few moments to spell out, to people watching and listening, the disgraceful comments, the racist comments, that have been made by Mr Hassell. He said:

I don't think the Australian people will support it however they dish it up … and however much of our money they spend trying to jam it down our throats …

He did not stop there. He went on to say:

This is a moving feast—every time you deal with one issue such as Aboriginal land rights through the Mabo decision, they're onto the next …

How insulting. 'They're onto the next.' Who does he mean there—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? He then goes on to say:

… with a new demand, a new claim.

In here today, the Abbott government absolutely failed to put the Prime Minister's repudiation of those statements and those attitudes on the record. Significant numbers of senators in this place will attend that conference on the weekend. Let us see how they vote on that issue, because I can tell you that Mr Hassell is the number cruncher in WA, and their preselections rely very heavily on Mr Hassell and others.

But why should we be surprised about what Mr Hassell says? What is happening in Western Australia under the Barnett government to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is a national disgrace, despite Senator Scullion coming into this place and bragging about his truancy efforts in the Kimberley in Western Australia and how much they are getting kids back to school. Yesterday the state Attorney General released the report of attendance at Western Australian schools. Every public school in Western Australia was measured against a similar report in 2009. Both of those reports span the period of the Barnett government. Do you know what it says? Not one single improvement—not one single improvement! In fact, there are five schools in the Kimberley where there are truancy officers where 50 per cent of Aboriginal kids, who make up almost 100 per cent of those schools, are at severe risk. So, despite Minister Scullion trying to tell us that somehow his truancy program is working, it is not. And who is saying that? The Liberal Attorney General in Western Australia is saying that the WA Department of Education has no idea, no strategy and no programs addressing truancy. And they are public reports, both of them spanning the period of the Barnett government. It is because racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people pervades the Barnett government, led by Mr Hassell.

But let us not stop there. Aboriginal incarceration rates are something I have spoken about over and over again in this place. Aboriginal people are six times more likely to commit suicide than non-Aboriginal people in—where do you think that might be? Again, in the Kimberley, on the watch of the likes of Mr Hassell, the Liberal Party and the Liberal government in Western Australia. Not only is that an appalling statistic and an absolute tragedy for every family involved in a suicide; it is the highest rate of suicide in the world. And what do Mr Hassell, the Liberal Party and the Barnett Liberal government do about that? They do nothing—because that rate is going up and not down.

But let us not stop there. Let us look at juvenile incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids in WA. On any night you choose, one in every 77 Aboriginal boys in WA will be in detention. What kind of statistic is that, when those kids make up just six per cent of our population in Western Australia? Again, where is Mr Hassell's resolution on that? Where is the WA Liberal Party on that? Where is the Barnett government on that? They are nowhere. They allow these racist statements and comments to be the topic of discussion at their conference on Saturday, which the Prime Minister will attend and on which in here today Senator Abetz absolutely failed to back the Prime Minister.

Question agreed to.