Wednesday, 12 February 2020
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Defence (Senator Reynolds) and the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to questions without notice asked by Senators Green and Kitching today relating to the use of defence imagery and the Community Sport Infrastructure Program.
I was going to start it in another way, but I'm just going to take the chamber through what has happened with the Defence imagery, which Senator Reynolds seems incapable of knowing.
Apparently, Senator Watt—I'll take that interjection—she is the Minister for Defence, but I'm going to take her through what's happened with the Defence image gallery. I'm happy to give Senator Reynolds all of the web addresses so that she can check these for herself. On the issue of Defence imagery, Senator Reynolds referred to the Defence image gallery yesterday. There it is also a Defence video library, which is currently being revamped, and that's being hosted on YouTube in the interim while the revamp is occurring. I don't want to spend hours going through all of the video, but it's clear that the footage from Defence's YouTube channel was used in the Prime Minister's Twitter video.
Here are a few examples. At about 00:02 through to 00:04 in the Prime Minister's video, there is footage of Defence personnel clearing trees. That footage is from a Defence video, and again I have the web address for that. At about 00:05 through 00:09 in the Prime Minister's video, there is footage of the MV Sycamore. That footage is also from a Defence video. At about 00:10 to 00:14 in the Prime Minister's video, there is footage of personnel in helicopters. That footage is, in part, from a Defence video—it's the one of the ADF member giving the thumbs-up.
I want to go to the copyright section of Defence's website, and again I have the address for the minister if she would like to check. I don't plan to read all of it; it's quite lengthy. It starts with the copyright symbol, followed by 'Commonwealth of Australia 2020'. I'm only going to read parts of it:
This material can not be used for political purposes or in a way contrary to Defence's apolitical standing.
… … …
To obtain a Commercial, Reproduce and Share video and imagery licence, please contact Defence Digital Media. Provide links to the specific video and imagery and a detailed explanation of the intended use of the product.
If the minister is incapable of answering these questions, I've got another solution for her. If you go to the financial report 2018-19 and also go to the ANAO's recent report into Defence's media and communications activity—again, I'm sure that the minister will be able to find these, but if she can't I will be able to give her those references, and I'm going to give her the table numbers so that they are very clear and very easy to find—there are 129.6 employees in the Defence communications and media team. Let's round that up to 130 people in there. Did Minister Reynolds not go to visit any of those people, or did someone in her office not phone up and say, 'Hey, I got asked these questions about a video'? There are 130 people in that team. Surely one of them could have answered a question. That's referring to table 1.3 in the ANAO report, for the minister's benefit.
But wait. There's more. If you go to the financial year report for 2018-19, you'll see that that department cost the Australian taxpayer $21 million. Surely the minister, or the department, is able to answer the questions I asked yesterday? This is the Ministerial and Executive Coordination and Communication Division. I just want to be very clear so that people are able to follow this, including the minister and the department. But of course we've seen that, as the defence minister, she is not a lone ranger in this government in impinging upon the impartiality of the ADF. Remember that last March, before the federal election, we had then Minister Pyne, the predecessor of Minister Reynolds, doing a press conference with senior military personnel. He was asked some questions about preference deals that the government was going to enter into in the election. The Chief of Defence Force went up to him and said that it wasn't appropriate for them to be in that media conference, appearing, like some coalition members do, and sort of nodding in the background. That is not the role of the Defence Force. (Time expired)
I want to take the opportunity, at the outset in taking note of answers today, to place on the record my genuine and sincere disappointment at the choice opposition senators have made about the questions that they focused on today and about the ones they have chosen to take note of following question time today. I preface this by saying to Senator Kitching that this is not intended to damage your political career or mine, but I do have some respect and admiration for you and there are occasionally areas where we do have agreement. But instead of choosing to focus today on the very fair and reasonable questions, and very important questions, that Senator Dodson asked about closing the gap; instead of choosing to focus on the other big policy issues we've been debating in this chamber and in this building this week on emissions reduction or energy prices; and instead of choosing to ask questions about the very serious and real challenges that our regional communities are facing in recovering from bushfires, drought and now, in some areas, even from flood, the opposition has chosen to focus their take note and one of their questions today on a social media video posted during January by the Liberal Party of Australia.
This, very sadly in my view, sums up the priorities of the opposition. What they could have instead chosen to talk about or reflect upon were what I thought were two excellent speeches in the House of Representatives today by both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader on the Closing the gap report. I thought they set out very clearly and articulately the different approaches that the government and the opposition take on these matters, but also some important areas of agreement. For example, I thought that there were three positive things about the Prime Minister's speech today. On the one hand, he was very direct and very honest about the areas in which we have made progress and about the areas where, unfortunately, we have not made progress towards the Closing the Gap goals. I thought it was good, though, that it remained largely positive and optimistic throughout because, particularly in the space of Indigenous affairs, we cannot allow ourselves to become despondent and negative all the time. We should be sober and realistic about the challenges that we have, but we should celebrate the progress that we have made.
It was also deeply philosophical; it talked about a thoroughly liberal approach to assisting Indigenous Australians to empower themselves to help improve their own situation. I thought the Prime Minister framed those issues very well. Equally, although I didn't catch all of the opposition leader's speech, I thought that the parts that I heard very clearly set out their commitment to constitutional change as the pathway which they thought was the best way of fixing the problems that Indigenous communities face that we all accept and are concerned about. Instead, we have heard a five-minute speech from Senator Kitching and a question today about a video that was posted on social media—not an advertisement, which it has sometimes been inaccurately characterised as—and which featured some freely and publicly available, or not, footage from the defence department.
I represent the state of Victoria, as does Senator Kitching. The community of Gippsland in the far-eastern Victoria has been particularly badly hit. I think they will be harshly judgemental in thinking the senators representing them in this place are having an argument about a social media video and its authorisation and not the homes that they lost, the lives that they lost or the lessons that we need to learn from this bushfire season to make sure that it doesn't happen again or, if it does happen again, that we are better placed to respond to it and manage it. I think that's the focus that they would want us to have.
I am pleased to serve as the deputy chair of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee. This chamber has referred to it an inquiry into the bushfires, and I am looking forward to working in a bipartisan way with Labor senators and the new chair of the references committee, Senator Ayres, from New South Wales, to get around to affected communities to hear their stories, to understand their experience and to make tangible and useful recommendations to government ahead of the next fire season about how they can respond. I really hope that that committee is not at all or in any way detained by silly, partisan, Canberra, inside-the-bubble arguments about social media videos and authorisations. I hope it is wholly and solely focused on substantive matters and things our constituents actually send us here to do.
What an extraordinary contribution from Senator Paterson, coming in here and trying to lecture us about how we should behave when the nation is in a fire crisis. It is the government who has politicised the Defence Force in this country, and to have the minister in question time today not being able to answer the questions, trying to twist the words—you tried to do the same thing, saying it's all about authorisation. The reality is the Australian people know how you, the government, have tried to politicise the Defence Force. You're getting a reputation for it. You come in here and try to say we should be talking about closing the gap. Well, we will be talking about that this afternoon. But it's your government that has been in power for the last seven years, so to try to lecture us about closing the gap and what we should be focusing on is just a little bit rich.
To use the Australian fire crisis that we Australians face and to politicise it by the Liberal Party wanting to make sure that they could raise money off the bushfire tragedy is low. That is really low even for this government. So the bar is not very high at all. But we know that, as people referred to the Prime Minister as 'Scotty from marketing', you have come in here trying to spin it. We saw a pathetic attempt by the Minister for Defence to do the same thing. Just own it. Own that you have politicised the Defence Force. You have tried to politicise and get some traction and financial gains out of the tragedy that has beset so many Australians right across this country.
And it's not just what's happening in Victoria. It's in my home state of Tasmania as well. We have seen a Prime Minister who is shonky. He is absolutely shonky. He will say and do anything. This is not just what we are saying; this is, in fact, coming from people within your own party. They're asking questions when we want to turn to the shonky sports rort under Minister McKenzie. We had a question today referred to one of your parliamentary colleagues: 'Quite obviously he is referring to the Prime Minister's office and the party directors like Hirsty'—
It referred to how some people may call the Prime Minister 'Scotty from marketing'. I didn't say that—I'm quoting other people—but, quite frankly, when your own colleagues from within the government are asking the questions about what role and identifying the fact that, obviously, the Prime Minister and the director of the Liberal Party were actively involved in communicating with Senator McKenzie, that just reinforces a concern that the Australian people have about this government: that the Prime Minister is all spin. There is no substance there at all, and he will do and say whatever it takes to get elected.
That's what the Australian people are seeing from this Prime Minister—that he can't be trusted. The Australian Defence Force is highly respected on both sides of the parliament. To use the ADF in a political way, which is becoming the norm for this government, is unacceptable—and Australians will find that very offensive. I have a daughter who was in the Defence Force. I have two nephews, one of whom is still serving in the Royal Australian Navy. I find it quite offensive that this government would stoop to politicising our Defence Force. It undermines the respect we have had for our Defence Force in this country for centuries. What I think the Australian people want from this government is some leadership, some transparency. They don't want them to use institutions like the Defence Force for their own political gain—because that will be short-lived; the Australian people will respond at the next election in a way that you won't like. A word of advice: stop trying to cover up for Senator McKenzie— (Time expired)
I have the utmost respect for Senator Kitching and Senator Polley. They are fine people. They are fine senators. I enjoy conversation with them. But obviously you have been set up to absolutely fail today and make a mockery of the system. There were two seconds of video—and that's the most important thing you can talk about today! It's absolutely disgraceful. I echo the sentiments of my colleague Senator Paterson. We've had some really important topics brought up today. We've had some important questions. We've addressed issues of national importance. And the very best thing Labor can come up with is two seconds of video! It's absolutely disgraceful and shameful. Have you got nothing else to think about? Have you got nothing else you can discuss? Is there nothing more important today than two seconds of video?
Under Australian law, an authorisation line is required on any material produced by a member or senator. The two seconds of video that those opposite referred to included the following information: 'Authorised by S Morrison, Liberal Party Canberra.' Senators on the other side: that is the Prime Minister of Australia, not 'Scotty from marketing'. Show a little bit of respect. Any multimedia material created that referred to ADF assistance to the bushfire response was designed to inform the community about what the Commonwealth government was doing. Many members of the community were concerned about what the ADF was or was not doing and what they should or should not be doing. This created concern and confusion in the community.
It was absolutely the correct thing to do—the government informing the community of how the ADF was being used, what they were contributing and what they were doing. It was simply to be as helpful as we could possibly be in the state of panic, fear, confusion and anxiety, with people wanting to know how and what the ADF was contributing. We needed to show people what resources we were getting, and the support, and how that was being used. Yet those opposite pick two seconds out of that reassurance from the government to people in affected areas—and that is your contribution to allaying the fears of people in bushfire affected areas!
I have the greatest respect for the ADF and what they do. They do many fine things in my territory, the Northern Territory. We have a large military presence. I have large numbers of constituents in the ADF in the Northern Territory, and I'm quite close friends with many of them. They're very proud of what they do, they're very proud of what the ADF does, and they're very proud of what their fellow members of the ADF did during the height of the bushfire crisis. Their concern is what contribution they and their fellow members can make, and their concern is for their fellow members that are affected by the bushfires. Not one of them has contacted me and said that they are concerned about two seconds of video. Not one of them.
Again, I am horrified that all of this good work done by the ADF and their families, the sacrifices that they have made and the pride with which they have conducted themselves throughout this crisis, is being absolutely belittled by those on the other side of the chamber. Have some respect for what our defence forces do. Back them up. And, if you can't show them support, at least don't try and criticise and tear down what they and the government are doing. (Time expired)
I rise to take note of the answer that we received in response to my question to Senator Cormann. This question related to the corrupt sports rorts scandal, but I just want to take note of some responses that we've received here after question time today. If the government don't think that this matters they have another thing coming, because it matters to the community. It matters to the communities that I speak to, the communities that missed out on this funding. It matters to the volunteers, the mums and dads who took the time to write grant applications and who are today still trying to figure out how they're going to find a shortfall in funding for female change rooms because their grant application was overlooked even though they scored 76 out of 100, which would have been over the threshold needed to get a grant. So it does matter to the community. It does matter to those mums and dads and those volunteers whether you use a merit based grant fund system to prop up your own election campaign. And if the government would like the opposition to stop asking questions about the sports grants—the corrupt sports rorts scheme—then they're very welcome to table the documents in the Senate that the Senate has required them to do. They are very welcome to come in here and provide that information we need to find out what happened to those grant applications.
But I know that that order for production of documents will be spoken about shortly, so I would like to talk again about the Auditor-General's report, and the process by which the minister's office used a colour-coded spreadsheet to decide who to give these grants to. The Auditor-General's report is very clear. The Auditor-General's report said the spreadsheet provided to the minister's office by Sport Australia included an assessment of scores that could have been used to rank the competing applications, but that was not done. Rather, it was initially proposed by the minister's office that applications located in a marginal and targeted electorate be successful at a significantly higher rate than the remaining applications. That's what the Auditor-General found. The applications that the minister's office was proposing be successful were not those assessed as having demonstrated the greatest merit in terms of the published program guidelines. This was particularly the case for projects located in marginal and targeted electorates. I include that because we've had a series of different reports created and we've had the minister resign. I think the government thinks that everybody has moved on from the Auditor-General's report. The Auditor-General's report is very clear about what happened.
The question that remains after the Auditor-General's report is: who else was involved in this parallel process? We have some clues as to who was involved. We know that the member for Longman, Terry Young, who was at the time the LNP candidate for Longman, praised Mr Hirst and the Prime Minister for visiting a Caboolture sports club on the eve of the election where he announced a half-a-million dollar grant to that sports club—impeccable timing on the eve of the election. Obviously former Minister McKenzie was busy at the time and was unable to come and present that cheque, so the Prime Minister went himself. We know that the Prime Minister's office was involved, because an email from the minister's office to Sport Australia asked for a slight adjustment to be made to the grants that were proceeding. When it came to sports rorts 2, even the current Senator Henderson, who was at the time the Liberal MP for a marginal seat, said, 'If it was not for the Prime Minister including this money in the budget it would not have happened.'
They were very proud at the time to stand there and take the credit. They are very proud now to come in here and say that, actually, former Minister McKenzie did the right thing in granting those applications. But they are not so proud as to table the documents and provide Australians with the information that they need or even to answer the questions that we put to them in question time. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.