Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Special Purpose Flights

3:03 pm

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Government Accountability) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Defence to the question asked by Senator Wong on special purpose flights.

I did just live in a brief shining moment of hope that we were going to get the special purpose flights tabled. The last time the schedule of special purpose flights was tabled by the minister was for the period ending 31 December 2018. I note that this was not tabled by the minister until 28 June 2019. That's eight months overdue. But this is only the last time that the manifests were tabled in this place.

If you go to the Department of Defence website, under 'Defence publications: information to parliament', the last time these have been uploaded for the public to see, as you would expect from an accountable and transparent government, was on 12 November 2013—that was in the 44th Parliament. I would like to read part 2 of the manifest tabling and reporting requirements. Let me give that to the chamber: 'Defence will be responsible to the Minister for Defence for compiling the schedule of special purpose flights for tabling in parliament in June for the six months ending the previous 31 December, and December for the six months ending the previous 30 June, each year. This schedule will list all legs flown, passengers carried and hours and costings. So that guideline was once to be found on the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services website. It has now been removed. Instead, you can now find on the Ministerial and Parliamentary Services website, under the heading 'VIP operations—Department of Defence':

The Department of Defence is responsible for the cost and provision of Commonwealth transport by air (referred to as Special Purpose Aircraft).

Additionally, a determination is published on the Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority website. However, curiously missing are any references to scheduling or tabling.

Senator Reynolds seems to see herself as being above these issues. She's ignored recent requests for the information in the chamber. I know she is very proud of her new role as Minister for Defence, a role which she obviously thinks puts her above the daily requirements of this chamber. She has routinely ignored it. I can go back, if people do not believe this, and say that the last time we had special purpose flights tabled was 31 December 2018, and that was eight months overdue. Even on Monday evening, at the naval shipbuilding inquiry, when the government tried the old political line which Senator Reynolds also gave in her response to the question from Senator Wong—'What did the Labor Party ever do for us?'—the answer that came back from Defence to the government senator who asked the question, because they are professional people, was, 'Newsflash: there were projects and there was excellence in the work that was done.' In fact, Senator Wong was reminiscing only during question time that in fact the shipyards were full of work that was being done when the Labor Party was in government.

This is a minister who twists to avoid transparency and accountability at every turn. Sadly, it is symptomatic of this government. As I have said, the minister didn't even front the naval shipbuilding inquiry on Monday night and left the Secretary of the Department of Defence and the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Noonan, to represent the Department of Defence and to answer questions on what is wrong with the most expensive procurement project this nation has ever seen. You might think that she could have bothered herself to come to the table. A couple of weeks ago in question time, as you would remember, Deputy President, she failed to provide an adequate explanation for the party political ad that the Prime Minister's office put out which included the ADF, complete with a 'Donate to the Liberal Party' banner running across the top. She failed to provide an adequate explanation about that. This is a minister who has refused to be upfront with the Australian public when it comes to Australia's Future Submarine program and the government's election commitment to the howitzer program. This is a minister who often goes missing when it counts. (Time expired)

3:08 pm

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's such a shame that a senator who I like so much, Senator Kitching, has been given such a lousy job by those opposite. They have given her the department of cleaning out the grubby jobs. Whether that's sending her into estimates to nitpick over the catering bills for bipartisan type functions, scrounging around how much people are spending on aeroplanes or trying to manufacture scandals where there are just none to see, my friend and respected colleague Senator Kitching just gets the grubby jobs over and over again. It's a shame, because she's a top person. I reckon those opposite undervalue you, Senator Kitching. You're capable of so much more than what they get you to do. I want to work with you on the big policy challenges of our time, and I want to see you elevated out of the department of taking out the trash. I'm happy to give you a reference, but I'm not sure that it's going to help you an awful lot. I get the feeling that references from me won't take you very far.

There's a reason that those opposite want to talk about every grubby little thing they can try and manufacture from the grease trap of this building. It's because they don't want to be talking about how their cupboard is bare. They came out earlier this week with what they made out to be a visionary zero-net-emissions target for this country by the year 2050. They made out this means they're serious about climate action. I just think that's really quite funny, because my dear friend, Senator Kitching, is a paid-up member of the Otis group, who I know has views much more like mine that say we need balance in these things. Anyway, they sent her out to take out the trash on that one on Monday, too. It's really quite unfair.

The cupboard is bare when it comes to their climate policies. We're talking about 2050 because they are so internally torn about what their climate policy should be. They're so torn between their desire to virtue-signal to the hipsters of Melbourne against the need to fight for jobs in Central Queensland and elsewhere. They're so torn and so divided that they thought, 'We'll just dodge 2030. The government's working towards this really concrete, meaningful stuff—accountable, measurable, deliverable by 2030—but it's all too hard for us, so what we're going to do is just make the date a whole lot later. It will give us an extra 20 or so years to work out what we stand for.' But the fact is that they don't know what they stand for, and their net-zero-emissions target for 2050 is one that they have no plan to achieve.

The government is happy to say that, like normal, sensible, non-extremist Australians, we want to balance the need to be responsible with our environment and to be as clean as we can possibly be with the need to continue to develop our economy and make sure there are great jobs for Australians from all walks of life, no matter where they come from and no matter what their ambitions are. We understand the value of both of those things. But those opposite only really know they want the twitterati to praise them for being supergreen. You're not supergreen when you can't deliver. You're not supergreen when you've got no plan on how to get there. You're not supergreen when your policies just mean that we send Australians' money overseas to buy carbon credits. They're not supergreen policies when they shut down the transport industry that brings goods to market, help make sure that we've got fresh fruit and vegies in our supermarkets and items to buy for a reasonable price when we go to the shops. It's not good for Australians when they can't even have an agriculture industry in which to work, no place in which their food can be manufactured—

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

Senator Stoker, I am loath to interrupt you, but I do remind you that what we're taking note on are questions from Senator Wong to Senator Reynolds. You started off on that defence line, but you have drifted a long way away from it.

Photo of Amanda StokerAmanda Stoker (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. It's just very distracting for me, and I'm sorry. It's because they are so determined to make distractions. They are so determined to say, 'We don't know what we're doing. Quick, quick! Look at Senator Reynolds. Look at the nasty grease that's been dug out of the trap by Senator Kitching to suggest that there's something untoward about the outstanding performance of Senator Reynolds, a minister who has presided over some of the most challenging periods for our country, as we have gone through bushfires, as we have dealt with the challenge of bringing our armed forces into the 21st century, as we develop our fleet, as we invest in new bases and new opportunities for Australians to serve.' But we will not be distracted because— (Time expired)

3:13 pm

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I promise you, Deputy President, I will stick to the topic because this is an important topic: taking note of answers by the Minister for Defence, Senator Reynolds, to a question by Senator Wong, regarding these special purpose aircraft. The minister has routinely tabled the schedule of special purpose flights late. In fact, the most recent ones were tabled eight months after they were due. Why? Is she incapable of being transparent? Is that what we should learn to expect of her? It is what we expect of her because it is just one example in a long, long line of examples of her failure of transparency in this place. It is another example of her complete and utter failure to be upfront with the Senate and upfront with the Australian people—just as she is failing to be upfront with the people of South Australia. Let's not forget the submarine-sized elephant in the room here, in that she is refusing to come clean on the government's intentions with the Future Submarine jobs in South Australia—my home state. Let's not forget the submarine-sized elephant in the room here in that she is refusing to come clean on the government's intentions with the future submarine jobs in South Australia, my home state. In fact, I'm still waiting, minister Reynolds, for a response to the letter I wrote to you in August last year, regarding the full cycle docking maintenance work in Adelaide. It has been seven months. Is eight months the magic number? Because eight months is what they've got with these special purpose flights. Is eight months the magic number? I've been waiting seven months for a response to my letter about these jobs in my state of South Australia. Will I be waiting longer? Will I ever get a response from the minister? My state has been waiting for an answer; I have been waiting for an answer. It is absolutely pathetic. This minister could not care less about transparency. She could not care less about giving an answer, and she could not care less about jobs in my state.

To be very, very clear, these jobs were meant for South Australia. They belong in South Australia, and there is no justification at all to take them out of South Australia. We're not talking about a new procurement process here. We are talking about jobs that already exist in my state. They're jobs which families rely upon. Collins class full cycle docking has been based at the Osborne shipyard in Adelaide since 2003. These are jobs which South Australian families need. We're talking about hundreds of direct jobs, not to mention thousands of indirect jobs. They're jobs which affect business confidence in my state. They're jobs which affect the future of my state. Let us not pretend the other side cares at all for jobs in South Australia. There are not many marginal seats anymore—is that it? Is it that there's nothing to rort? You don't care about jobs in my state, but you can't just keep dragging us through this, expecting us to stay silent and expecting us to take it. We lost Holden on your watch. We lost car manufacturing in my state on your watch.

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

Senator Smith, you started off on topic. It is taking note of questions from Senator Wong to Senator Reynolds.

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, and I am getting to the point of transparency, which is what this question came to. The question of transparency extends to a record of this minister. It is a pattern of behaviour which explains her failure to answer questions today. It explains her failure to answer questions of Senator Wong. It is a pattern. It is the same pattern we are seeing in her portfolio when it comes to these jobs in my state—that is, when it comes to submarine jobs in South Australia. I've been waiting seven months for a response to my letter. Senator Wong has been waiting eight months for a response to the matter in question. Do we mean so little to you? Does transparency mean so little to you? Do the people of South Australia and jobs in my state mean so little to you that you don't even bother to answer?

There is no more pressing issue in South Australia for the people of my state than these jobs. Why won't you answer our calls for certainty? Why won't you be transparent to us? Why won't you tell these workers what their future holds? Why won't you tell them if they're going to have a job? Why won't you tell them? Be honest to the people of South Australia and, for once, stand up for jobs in my state. Stand up for submarine workers in my state of South Australia. That is what we expect of you: transparency and fairness. We want to know if these jobs, which belong in my state, are going to be there. (Time expired)

3:18 pm

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

Taking note of answers is an opportunity for the opposition to hit on the topic of the day—the burning issue for them in their service to the people of Australia. What was it today? The special purpose aircraft manifest and its tabling in the Senate. I confess, when I go to the supermarket, everybody wants to talk to me about the tabling of this manifest! It is just so vitally important to them to be able to manage their household budget! It is so vitally important to them to know what we're doing about the coronavirus! It's so important to them to know about their job security or about our Defence capacity and Defence capability!

What they want to talk to me about is exactly what the Australian Labor Party has raised as the issue today? No—not so. They actually want to talk about the real issues. They want to talk about job security. They want to know how unemployment can come down even further, to know that there will be security for coalminer jobs, to know that this government seeks to govern for all Australians and not just for green, inner-city elites. Yet here we had the alternative government, led by Mr Albanese, coming into this place and telling the Australian people that their topic of the day, their concern for the Australian people, is the tabling of a manifest for special purpose aircraft.

If ever there was a classic example of the Australian Labor Party living in the Canberra bubble and unable to extract themselves from it, today is that example. Really, do we in this chamber honestly believe—it seems that the Labor Party does, that their tactics team does, that their leadership does—that, given the opportunity today to raise a matter on taking note of answers, they should come up with this zinger of a question about the tabling of the manifest for special purpose aircraft and how late it is, and that then becomes the topic of the day? I am sure that every single news bulletin in the nation will be leading this evening with this issue! Of course they won't be. It won't even make the newspapers—and nor should it.

This is an example of a political party completely and utterly divorced from the true aspirations, from the true needs of the Australian people whom they are sworn to serve—and to think that the Australian Labor Party presents itself as an alternative government, concerned about the wellbeing of the Australian people. Yet when given the opportunity of half an hour to debate an issue of the day, what is it? It's the tabling of the manifest for special purpose aircraft. This really is unbelievable. Who on earth is responsible for these tactics, for this decision, that this is going to be the issue that is going to consume the time of every man, woman and child around Australia this evening as they sit down to dinner? Really, is this the best the Labor Party has to offer?

Well, I can indicate to the Australian people who might be listening into this broadcast that sadly yes, it is the best the Australian Labor Party has to offer. The good news is that they are not in government and we, as a government, are concentrating on the issues of the day. Sure, we are dealing with issues such as bushfires, drought and coronavirus. We are getting on with ensuring that our defence capability is up to scratch, having been neglected for a good six years under the previous, Labor, government. And we are concentrating on those issues. So, when there may be slippage in relation to the tabling of a manifest for special purpose aircraft, I don't blame the Minister for Defence if it's not her top priority, when there are other issues, such as mobilising our Defence Force to assist in the fire emergency and ensuring that we get a proper submarine fleet and that we get proper shipbuilding capacity within our nation, that should be consuming her time. They are the matters that are consuming her time, and the record is now there for people to see—that we are on the big issues of the day. I encourage the Australian Labor Party to simply keep on talking about special purpose aircraft and confirm to the Australian people that you are well and truly ensconced in the Canberra bubble and have no understanding of their real— (Time expired)

3:23 pm

Photo of Raff CicconeRaff Ciccone (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise this afternoon to take note of the answers provided by Minister Reynolds in response to Senator Wong's question on the government's failure to table a schedule of special purpose flights that's been ordered by the Senate. I think that's sort of the key point here—that it's been ordered by the Senate, a key institution of our democracy, one of the two chambers in our parliament. This place serves as the house of review but also provides that extra layer of scrutiny on the executive body. The comments earlier by those opposite indicate that they seem to just want to discount the fact that the Senate has a role. The fact is that the Senate has asked for these documents, yet the government continues to simply ignore the fact that the minister has an obligation to this place. They are treating this whole debate as 'Nothing to see here. It's only a document. We don't need to worry about its contents.' But it is under scrutiny today, with the executive being questioned by the Labor opposition. What we find is that the minister is like, 'Oh, we'll just be able to provide that tomorrow.' You have to ask why it has taken the minister and her department over eight months? In her department there are hundreds if not thousands of people who easily could have turned this document around very quickly.

There has been a little bit of scrutiny in this place, with some questioning from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Wong, with contributions from Senator Kitching, in her consistent pursuit of this government's failure to provide any form of transparency to the Australian people. I should note that Senator Kitching has been doing an outstanding job in her role, as shadow minister, to keep the government accountable in her portfolio areas. Yet what we have from government senators is that the minister's responsibilities to this place should just be ignored—that she has no obligation to provide, in a timely manner, documents that the Senate has requested. I think it really goes to the core of this government's attitude to how it perceives our democracy should work and how governments should operate in this place. Regarding the comments from Senator Abetz, as the second-longest serving senator in this place, and having been a former minister himself, he should know that these documents are important. They should be tabled in the Senate when there is a request to do so. It shouldn't take over eight months for such documents to be tabled. Sure, some of these may not be burning issues in your local supermarket but they certainly are important issues for the institutions that we are all elected to.

Our job here is to represent the people. Regardless of how small the issue may be, it is still an important issue and the fact that the government has taken over eight months to provide this document—and have now been prepared to make a commitment that they will table it tomorrow—feeds into the whole narrative that, since the election last year, this government's failure to be transparent with the Australian people has been exposed. Whether it is because of sports rorts, from the former Minister for Sport, Senator McKenzie, what we are seeing is a consistent pattern where this government chooses to turn its back on the processes that have been set up to make sure that the Senate can hold this government to account.

It is disappointing to see that the minister used the opportunity after question time, rather than during question time, to answer the questions that were put on notice. It is important to note that taking flights, travelling around this country, costs the taxpayer quite a bit of money. This is money that can be spent on other services that the government offers. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, where flights, rightly or wrongly, are flown around the country for a purpose. Why is it that the government chooses to withhold that information? And if it's not this document, what other documents can we expect this government to hide in the future? Why is it that Labor has to constantly apply pressure on this government and actually waste question time, when we could have asked questions on other matters. This government chooses to ignore the basic principles that this institution deserves to— (Time expired)

Question agreed to.