Wednesday, 4 December 2019
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Cormann. When forcing the medevac repeal bill through the Senate, the minister told the Senate:
… there is no secret deal.
Twenty minutes later Senator Lambie told the Senate:
I put up to the government a proposal to work with me to secure my support for the passage of the repeal of medevac. … I genuinely can't say what I proposed.
Which statement is correct?
The first point I would make is that these statements are not inconsistent with each other. That's the first point. The second point I would make again is that there is absolutely no secret deal. The government has not agreed to any changes in policy or administration when it comes to our border protection or resettlement arrangements. What we have done, and we very much appreciate the way Senator Lambie has engaged with us, is provide her with extensive and detailed briefings—we have provided her with classified briefings—about the way the government is going about protecting our borders and going about making sure that asylum seekers receive appropriate medical treatment. We made sure she fully understood what we are doing to properly give effect to resettlement arrangements. These briefings were at the classified 'secret' level. Senator Lambie, of course, made it her business to better understand what the government is doing. At the end of the process, Senator Lambie made it clear, through her vote in this chamber, that she was satisfied that the conditions were met for the medevac bill to be repealed, as it should be.
The Labor-Greens medevac bill was bad legislation. It weakened our national security arrangements, whereas Senator Lambie and the majority of senators have voted for stronger national security arrangements. We and all Australians very much thank Senator Lambie for that.
In relation to the New Zealand arrangement, Prime Minister Morrison has warned that:
… in terms of Australia's security interests and how we manage our borders, we don't believe it’s consistent with that …
The Australian Government has no plans to take up that arrangement whatsoever …
Has the government reopened negotiations with New Zealand on their offer?
The government has made absolutely no changes to our policy arrangements in relation to border protection or to resettlement, compared with the way they're currently in place. We continue to implement our policies and there has been no change as a result of discussions—
Senator Wong, you have restated the question. With respect, I believe the minister is being directly relevant by addressing government policy. I don't believe I can rule out what he's saying on the grounds of direct relevance. Senator Wong.
So your ruling is a question about whether negotiations have been reopened with New Zealand. I am clarifying the ruling. I refer to the President's ruling of 2 December, which said an answer must directly refer to or address assertions contained in a question or preamble. Is the ruling that 'policy' includes whether negotiations have opened? I would submit to you, Mr President, that that is not consistent with the ordinary meaning of the word.
There was a quotation before that, and I believe the minister is being directly relevant to part of the question. I didn't get all the quotation down, but it did refer to a quotation from the Prime Minister about Australian government policy. I think the minister is being directly relevant in that sense.
Thank you very much, Mr President. Let me confirm again that Australian government policy on border protection and resettlement arrangements has not changed as a result of discussions to facilitate passage of the medevac repeal bill through the Senate.
My question is for the Leader of the Government. Senator Cormann, in your response just then to Senator Keneally's question, you said there is no secret deal. Senator Lambie said she'd only support the government's proposal on the basis of a secret deal. You say those two things are consistent. How are they consistent?
Senator Lambie did not say what Senator Di Natale has alleged. Senator Di Natale is verballing Senator Lambie, with the greatest of respect, and therefore I reject the premise of the question.
Minister, has there been an exchange of letters between a minister of the Crown and Senator Lambie relating to the repeal of the medevac legislation? If so, do those letters contain any undertakings by either party that go beyond the repeal of the medevac legislation?
We never do. And that applies to conversations with Senator Di Natale in the same way as it applies to conversations with Senator Wong and any other conversations. What I can say is that there has been no deal to change any policy on border protection or anything else—
I give senators advance warning that, when we come back next year, I'm going to be much more strict on people simply standing up and saying 'relevance' and reading out a question again. I asked you to come to the direct relevance and you simply restated the question, Senator Di Natale—
I'm making a submission on the ruling you've just made, Mr President. Whilst I understand that it is inconvenient for the government for questions to be restated, I again submit to you—and I would ask that, if you intend to change this procedure, you take submissions that engage with all parties to this place—that it is relevant to a claim that a minister is not being directly relevant to restate the relevant aspect of the question.
With respect, Mr President, simply dismissing points of order on the basis that we are restating the question is, in my submission, unfair and inconsistent with the standing orders. So I would like the opportunity for all parties to make submissions if you intend to change procedure.
I did not say one could not restate the question. I simply said that someone can't get up and yell the word 'relevance' and then read out the question again. I want a point of order to draw the point as to why the answer is not directly relevant. That requires a little bit of effort, and it is an effort that most senators go to the trouble of. Simply saying the word 'relevance' and then restating the question is not sufficient to comply with the standing orders. On this, Senator Di Natale, in your submission then, you alluded to the fact that you did not like what the minister was saying in response. I do not believe—
Honourable senators interjecting—
Can I make my ruling before the interjections start? And then I'll take more submissions. My point is that I cannot instruct the minister how to answer a question. I cannot instruct him to address a particular part of a question. Your question was specific. In my view, he was being specific in the answer, even if that was not the answer sought. There is an opportunity to debate that after question time.
Let me say again we provided Senator Lambie with detailed briefings at a classified level. We did not provide any undertakings to change policy on border protection, resettlement arrangements or anything else in order to secure the support of Senator Lambie for the legislation that went through the Senate earlier today. Senator Lambie, as she has stated, raised various issues to us. She raised various issues to us and she put a proposal to us. And what we did is we provided detailed briefings, detailed explanations of what we were already doing. (Time expired)
Well, firstly, I did not. Secondly, again, the government has not made any commitments at all to change policy on border protection, on resettlement arrangements or on anything else in order to secure the vote of Senator Lambie. What we have done is provide detailed briefings—detailed information—about what the policies of the government are at a classified secret level.
A point of order on relevance—just being a bit tricky with answers. The minister is representing the Prime Minister. My question is asked of him as a representative of the Prime Minister. So did the minister, as a representative of the Prime Minister—did he or the Prime Minister provide an exchange of letters?
At the commencement of your original question I thought—and I'm happy to be corrected—you addressed it to Senator Cormann as a leader of the government. I've given you the opportunity to specify that. I think, in this case, with respect, the minister is being directly relevant by providing information that I considered to be directly relevant to your very specific question. But I am listening carefully to ensure he stays within those bounds, and I believe he is.
Let me say again we provided detailed information and briefings at a classified secret level to Senator Lambie. In the end, Senator Lambie was satisfied that the repeal of the medevac legislation was in the public interest and voted for it. We did not make any undertakings to change policy on border protection or resettlement arrangements or anything else in return for a vote to support the medevac repeal legislation. I will take on notice to assess whether there is anything else that we can provide to you in response to that question. But let me just say again, there is no deal. All there was was an explanation of why the medevac repeal legislation was important and necessary. (Time expired)