Senate debates

Monday, 4 December 2017


Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee; Report

5:48 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee on the conduct of a minister, together with the Hansard record of proceedings.

Ordered that the report be printed.

by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you wish to make a contribution, Senator Macdonald?

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

Yes, Madam Deputy President, I do want to speak on this report to highlight the futility of this particular inquiry, entirely political in nature. I've said in this chamber on many an occasion now, I am distressed at the way that this Senate is being used for a purely political process and purpose. There is no other reason—no policy content. It is pure and raw politics by the Labor Party and their mates in the Greens. I'm particularly upset about this approach by the Labor Party and the Greens of the last few years because it diminishes the Senate.

Senate committee reports, when I first came here many, many years ago, were actually dealt with seriously. They were usually unanimous reports. The committees would meet, they'd argue about wording and different policy approaches and, more often than not, there would be only one report to the Senate and it was usually on policy matters or matters of serious import to the nation. You'd have a report that was unanimously adopted, that meant something and that people used to go to. Senate committees are privileged in the fact that they can call witnesses from all over Australia. Often those witnesses are experts in their field. I've always been one who recognises that not all wisdom lies with governments or Canberra bureaucrats—good, though, that they are. That's why we have the Senate process of calling in experts who can give evidence to committees. Very often, they can persuade committees to a different approach and the committees will report accordingly to the government. I've chaired committees as a government member where we've recommended to the government that they change legislation. Witnesses who came forward pointed out errors or suggestions or improvements to particular legislation. That's the way the Senate used to operate.

Now, unfortunately, the Labor Party, the Greens and some crossbenchers seem to use this to try to make political points when they can't make them in any other way. It diminishes not only the senators involved but the Senate itself. This inquiry is a classic case in point. It was an attempt to denigrate and have a gotcha moment for a minister over the regrettable circumstances surrounding the resignation of former President, Senator Parry. I think everyone was distressed that Senator Parry was forced to leave us through absolutely no fault of his own, but the Labor Party and the Greens sought to make some political capital of it. So we set up this inquiry. The terms of reference were shallow, to say the least. The report of the majority government senators is so shallow that it doesn't even have a recommendation in it. I have to say, I actually felt sorry for the two Labor Party senators who bothered to attend the inquiry. Senator Pratt was chair and had to attend, and Senator Farrell was, I am sure, sent along because he was deputy leader of the parliamentary Labor Party in the Senate. Someone had to do it, so I suspect he drew the short straw. But both of them were clearly embarrassed that we were having an inquiry with such ridiculous terms of reference.

If you were just wasting the time of senators, some people would say, 'Oh well, that's what they're paid for.' But we called in a bunch of senior bureaucrats—people who are paid more by the hour than most in Australia—to sit there and answer inane questions that had nothing to do with the terms of reference. It was an embarrassing situation. As I say, I felt embarrassed for the two Labor senators who had to try to prosecute a case against the minister involved. There was nothing in the evidence—if anyone wants to look at the Hansard transcript, they can see it—to support any inference of misconduct or inappropriate conduct by the minister named. The whole inquiry was entirely political in nature and, as I've mentioned before, it just diminishes the Senate as a whole.

I have to congratulate the minister, who answered every question put to him. He did it directly, without hesitation, accurately and precisely. His evidence was such that all that the majority of the committee—that is, the Labor Party members of the committee—could do is make some committee 'views'. There were no recommendations or findings. The only comment the majority Labor members could make was there was another minister who did something different. They were trying to compare the minister named in the terms of reference with another minister. The other minister, of course, happened to be Senator Brandis, who as Leader of the Government in the Senate and as one of the five people who constitute the leadership of the coalition in government, has a different approach and a different set of issues that he must address in looking at this. What the comparison might be had absolutely nothing to do with the terms of reference.

I only speak on this today as I have on some other issues. If the Labor Party and the Greens have a policy differentiation or if they want to use the resources of the Senate to get information from experts so they can write a policy for the next election—well, that's not really what it's about, but I can appreciate that. I know in opposition you don't always have a lot of resources. Oppositions generally can call in experts on policy issues to get some information that might be useful to them or that might advance the policy debate in this parliament and in Australia. As I mentioned before, sometimes in a policy area you can come up with evidence that changes the thinking of the committee and, subsequently, the government.

But where we embark upon these petty, purely political things we just diminish the Senate. There have been so many of these occasions recently. None of them have gone anywhere. I would hate to guess what the cost of the Bell inquiry was. Nobody cared two hoots about what happened 35 years ago in Western Australia with the Bell group of companies. It was all about getting the Leader of the Government in the Senate in a gotcha moment. We had witness after witness who was not prepared and couldn't give any evidence. Again, the majority committee of Labor and Greens members confected some outrage, but it went absolutely nowhere—the same as this inquiry. I say to the Labor Party and to the Greens: play your politics how you like, but please don't waste the resources and diminish the standing of the Senate with these purely political inquiries that you know will lead nowhere, have no place, and only diminish the once proud reputation of Senate committee reports. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.