Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Documents

Community Sport Infrastructure Grant Program; Order for the Production of Documents

9:31 am

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Senate for the opportunity to again talk in relation to this document. As I have previously advised the Senate on several occasions in relation to this document, as the Minister representing the Prime Minister in the Senate I claim public interest immunity over the document referred to in the motion, on the grounds that this document was prepared for, informed and was the subject of cabinet deliberations. As is well recognised in the Westminster system, it is in the public interest to preserve the confidentiality of cabinet deliberations, to ensure the best possible decisions are made following thorough consideration and discussion of relevant submissions to the cabinet or cabinet committees. Disclosure of the document subject to the motion is not in the public interest as it would reveal cabinet deliberations. However, I again note that the report was the subject of a press conference from the Prime Minister on 2 February 2020, which is on the public record, and, further, that the Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has provided an extensive and detailed public submission on this matter to the Senate Select Committee on Administration of Sports Grants.

9:32 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister's response.

This is another day, another failure by this coalition government to meet any kind of basic standard about transparency and accountability: 'Nup, we're not showing. Nah, nah, nah, we're not giving it to you!' I mean, what have they got to hide? There is absolutely no justification for public interest immunity. There is no justification for this document to be considered cabinet-in-confidence. But hiding behind secret documents is actually par for the course for this government, to use a sporting analogy. But this one we are not going to let go through. That is why we are here this morning—to unpack why this document matters, why having some transparency from this government matters. We are here this morning because the Australian community expect fairness. They expect a level playing field and for everyone to have a sporting chance, to use another sporting analogy.

Let's go back to why this matters. Somehow this report which we are not allowed to see, which the Australian community is not allowed to see, exonerated the sports minister from charges of rorting the sports grants program. This was despite a scathing report from the Auditor-General that clearly uncovered a 'distributional bias'—that was how they put it—in the awarding of grants; that is, pork-barrelling to win votes. If pork-barrelling were an Olympic sport, absolutely this government would be gold medal winners. But, sadly, the clear losers are the sporting clubs and the volunteers who live in safe seats such as where I live in the western suburbs of Melbourne. There, despite hours and hours of volunteer work and filling out applications, despite having really deserving projects, they were completely hobbled, completely nobbled, destined to finish at the back of the pack, because, as we now know, there was a secret process. What mattered wasn't the quality of your application; what mattered was whether the minister and, in particular, the Prime Minister decided your project could help them win the election. We need to see the Gaetjens report. If the Prime Minister is going to use it to defend his office and his government from claims of corruption then it needs to be made public.

As the minister said, Mr Gaetjens has made a submission to the select committee on the sports rorts. That is a first step. That submission at least acknowledged that the minister's office undertook a separate and non-transparent process in addition to the assessment by Sport Australia, but there are a number of key issues that the submission does not address. Firstly, and importantly, there is the role of the Prime Minister's office. The submission doesn't even mention the PMO. If the secret Gaetjens report also doesn't mention the PMO then clearly it was ignoring key facts that the Auditor-General could not ignore. The submission doesn't mention the ineligible grants. That is a key defence that the government are claiming: that every project was eligible. Well, as we now know, there were more than 200 grants—that is, 43 per cent—which were actually ineligible. But Gaetjens's submission doesn't mention those. The submission doesn't talk about fairness. It doesn't even address the issue of fairness or how to make things right for the clubs that missed out. The coalition should start by funding the clubs that would have been successful had the coalition not rorted the scheme.

But there's another issue that we need to address here as well—that is, the late projects, the ones that were successful even though they arrived much later than the others. Let's review what we already know from the ANAO report. The Prime Minister's office, we were told in the Auditor-General's report, told the minister's office that there were some projects that had missed the deadline, so on 4 March 2019 the minister's office asked Sport Australia for a blank copy of the application form. Keep in mind that applications had actually closed six months earlier. More than six months after the application deadline, the Prime Minister's office specifically intervened. And on 5 March, in response to concerns from Sport Australia, who said, 'Why should you be asking for forms now, six months after the applications closed?' the minister's office said they needed the forms to advocate in the budget process. But we know from the ANAO report that the funding of $42.5 million for a third round of projects had been sought and approved for the 2019 budget that same day. They didn't need it to advocate in the budget process. So it really looks very like the minister's office were actually lying to their portfolio agency about why they were requesting these application forms, lying in addressing the very reasonable concerns that Sport Australia had raised.

And then, two weeks later, in an amazing coincidence, these forms came back as applications for the project, with the minister's office directing Sport Australia to assess the four resubmitted and five totally new applications. Keep in mind that this wasn't another open round. Nobody else got the chance to put in applications. No-one else got the opportunity to resubmit their proposal or rewrite it. No-one else got the opportunity to do a late application, other than those that the minister's office had specifically sought out. The ANAO report notes:

Sport Australia reiterated its concerns that accepting the nine applications and assessing them without the involvement of an assessment panel would be outside the program guidelines.

Then, on 3 April 2019, days before the election was announced, the advice from Sport Australia about which projects should be funded under the third funding round was provided to the minister. They recommended that only one of these nine late projects should be funded. But, stunningly, what did the minister decide? Every single one of those nine late projects would be funded. Again from the ANAO:

While higher scored applications from the competitive process undertaken in August to September 2018 remained available for approval, each of these new or resubmitted applications were approved for funding as part of the third round.

So there are even more questions to answer here. What role did the Prime Minister's office play in relation to these late or resubmitted applications? And why were these projects, these special projects, given an opportunity that no-one else was? Is this addressed in the Gaetjens report? We don't know, because it's all secret.

In Victoria, we know that there were 56 applications that Sport Australia said should have been funded that missed out on $18.4 million in funding. Ron Cole from the Kyneton District Soccer Club said: 'We were very disappointed when we didn't get it, but we thought it was because our application wasn't good enough. Now we are gutted.'

There was one particular club, the Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby, in Traralgon, that provided an excellent submission to our select committee that's worth reading from:

Over a seven year period, Gippsland Ranges Roller Derby struggled to find a venue to operate our club and conduct our training from. We made 40+ separate enquiries each year since our inception and could not successfully secure a council or community provided space to train … The costs of the professional skating rink near us became prohibitive and we were forced to seek another venue or fold.

They didn't make an enormous application; it was for $44,000. They received a score from Sport Australia of 98 out of 100—the highest score of any application that was put in—but they didn't get funding. Again, they have an excellent question. There remains no explanation of why funds were awarded to applicants with considerably lower gradings on their applications for 10 times the amount requested by their clubs. If the criteria and merit based scoring are not relevant to the awarding of grants, it begs the question: why do applicants need to perform against them?

This is disgusting behaviour by this government and it should be ashamed of itself. It is not sporting behaviour. It is corruption. It is rorting. And it's done because the government thinks it can get away with it, because it thinks there will be no consequences. Things would be different if we had a federal anticorruption commission; governments might then think that there might be some consequences for such behaviour. And what do you know? There's a Greens bill that has been through this Senate, that the House of Representatives could vote on right now, that would provide a federal independent anticorruption commission. That would be an important first step. We need a system that's independent, that politicians can't use to try and buy elections.

The truth is that community sports matter, and fairness and transparency and accountability matter. Sports help people connect with their community and provide tremendous physical health benefits and mental health benefits. Everybody should have access to community sports but the sad truth is that not everybody does, because of the corrupt decisions made by the minister's office and potentially influenced by the Prime Minister's office. Worthy people, people who deserve to have access to community sports, have missed out.

9:42 am

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

What a sordid affair this whole sports rorts scandal is for this government, and it's being made worse every day with this government's determination to cover up exactly what happened through the sports rorts. We know that this is a government, and a Prime Minister, that is totally allergic to scrutiny. Ever since he's been elected, we've had a Prime Minister who doesn't want to answer questions from the media. Every time he's asked an inconvenient question, he says: 'That's something in the bubble. That's just a bit of gossip. I'm not going to provide an answer,' thereby refusing to answer legitimate questions from the media on behalf of the Australian people.

This is something that we have seen not only from the Prime Minister but over the life of this government. We've seen it repeatedly. One of the best examples of that was the behaviour of Minister Cash through the scandal involving the leak of information about a police raid on union offices, where she and another minister, former Minister Keenan, simply refused to be interviewed by police about their role and their knowledge of what had occurred in that scandal. Whether it be the Prime Minister's answers to questions or whether it be Minister Cash's behaviour, the government just don't want to be accountable to the Australian public. They just don't want to have any scrutiny and they just don't want to follow the conventions of a democracy, which is what we live in here in Australia and what should be upheld by the people in this chamber.

We see it again now in relation to the sports rorts scandal. It's now very familiar to most people in the Australian public what went on there: the wholesale rorting of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds, simply to ensure that the government was returned at the most recent election. We saw multiple examples where sporting clubs were scored as most deserving for funding and were then rejected by the relevant minister in consultation with the Prime Minister's office, and instead money was handed to less deserving projects because they happened to be in more deserving seats according to the government's election strategy.

The way that the government are dealing with this ongoing sports rorts saga, refusing to make information available to the Senate and to the Australian people, just shows that not only are they willing to completely rort a funding program for the government's own benefit but they're prepared to cover that up. This, again, is a government that has been well known for trying to cover up all sorts of scandals. I have only been in this chamber for a relatively short time—

Senator Ruston interjecting

Not long enough for Senator Ruston's liking—but I have already seen multiple examples of this government's determination to cover up scandals, rorts and anything else that is inconvenient to the government's agenda.

Surprisingly, we are also seeing it now from the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Cormann. Senator Cormann has been here a long time. Again, if there is one person in this chamber who wants to uphold the conventions, the traditions and the scrutiny that the Senate has always applied to the government of the day, you would think that would be the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Cormann. Senator Cormann is someone who I know prides himself on his integrity, on his respect for Senate conventions, and yet he is willing to completely trash those conventions in order to perpetrate a cover-up on behalf of the government. I've been watching Senator Cormann answer questions about this ever since we got back to parliament this year, and you can see that he is distinctly uncomfortable with the role that he is having to play in covering up the Prime Minister's office's behaviour, the behaviour of various other ministers and, it would seem, the behaviour of senior officials within the Liberal Party. You can see that Senator Cormann is uncomfortable with the role that he's playing in this cover-up, but he has no choice, it would seem, because of the lack of integrity of this government. He has no choice but to play a leading role in perpetrating that cover-up himself, and he's doing that again now in relation to these orders to produce documents.

There have been two motions for orders to produce documents that have been passed by the Senate which have included a request that the government provide to the Senate a copy of the full Gaetjens report, the report commissioned by the Prime Minister and completed by his now departmental secretary and former chief of staff, into this sports rorts scandal. To this day, not one person in Australia, apart from the Prime Minister, Mr Gaetjens himself and perhaps a few other selected government officials, knows what Mr Gaetjens had to say about this scandal. The Prime Minister has selectively quoted from that report, and he's cherry-picked the bits that suit his agenda, that suit what he wants to say to the Australian people, but you can't possibly see the entire report, according to the Prime Minister, to see what else this report contains. As I say, there have been two motions passed by the Senate with orders to produce documents. The first was moved by Senator Lambie on 5 February, and the second was moved, I think, the same day, by Senator Waters. On both occasions the government has claimed public interest immunity over the Gaetjens report on the grounds that it would reveal cabinet deliberations.

It is understood that the fact that a document has been the subject of cabinet deliberations can warrant the use of a public interest immunity on certain conditions. I must admit that I wasn't aware until today that one of the conventions that govern the use of public interest immunity claims is an order of the Senate dating back to 2009. This order has a very interesting name. The order is called the Cormann order. The Cormann order was passed in 2009 and was led by Senator Cormann, who was then in opposition, because he was trying to put some rigour around the government of the day's use of public interest immunity claims. So, when the Liberal Party was in opposition, Senator Cormann moved an order of continuing effect governing the use of public interest immunity claims. Again, you would think that if an order were named after you, you might actually have some interest in upholding it. You might have some interest in making sure that its terms are followed, if only to ensure that your integrity as an individual is upheld. Not only did Senator Cormann go to the trouble of drafting this order and having it passed by the Senate; it's actually named after him. So you would think that he would have some interest in making sure that it is now observed. Senator Cormann says he has respect for the Senate, its rules and its conventions. You would think that he would have respect for an order that's named after him. But, no, he's simply willing to trash that in an attempt to cover up this sports rorts scandal on behalf of the government.

I will quote a couple of things from the order. Firstly, it notes that ministers and officers have continued to refuse to provide information to Senate committees without properly raising claims of public interest immunity as required by past resolutions of the Senate. Senator Cormann back in 2009 thought that there was such a problem around ministers and officers of the parliament and the Public Service refusing to provide information that it required a new order governing the use of these public interest immunity claims. This order says that, if a minister concludes that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, the minister shall provide to the committee a statement on the ground for that conclusion, specifying the harm to the public interest that would result from the disclosure of the information or document.

This is not an open-slather blanket that ministers and senators can throw over things that are inconvenient to the government of the day. If ministers want to claim public interest immunity, they need to be able to provide a statement that spells out the grounds for that conclusion, specifying the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of that information or document. To this day we're still waiting for Senator Cormann to do this. We're still waiting for Senator Cormann to comply with the terms of the order that is named after him and that he led the development of back in 2009. So what we're seeing is that what was good for Senator Cormann when he was in opposition is now not good enough for him in government, let alone as the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

The fact is that the claims that Senator Cormann and other members of this government have made that the reason this information can't be produced is that it has gone to cabinet are just spurious and completely untrue. We know for a fact that this document did not go to the full cabinet. In fact, there have been many reports that certain cabinet ministers have said that it never went to cabinet. All it did was go to a subcommittee of the cabinet, the governance committee. There is absolutely nothing stopping the release of this document. There is nothing in the Cormann order and there is nothing in the standing orders. The only thing stopping this document being released is this government's determination to continue waging a cover-up.

9:52 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I am severely shocked at how quickly this government has turned into a secretive government. I'm shocked at the long and detailed presentation we just heard from the government, which essentially sums up one thing—they are running scared from openness, transparency and public accountability. This runs counter to everything they said not only before the last election but also since, such as:

I will quote to Senator Ludwig a statement made by Senator John Faulkner at a recent conference. The speech, entitled 'Open and transparent government—the way forward', was made at Australia's Right to Know, Freedom of Speech Conference. He said:

… the best safeguard against ill-informed public judgement is not concealment but information. As Abraham Lincoln said: 'Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe'.

What I've just read to you might seem a little out of context. It is out of context because they are not my words. They're words from a different time. They are, indeed, the words of Senator Cormann on 13 May 2009, when he was raising the public interest immunity procedure that Senator Watt was referring to. How the passage of time, or indeed the side of the chamber on which you sit, changes one's perspective.

I share Senator Watt's view on Senator Cormann's uncomfortableness with the claim he is making. I genuinely think he has trouble with it. He is an innocent and principled senator wrapped in a minister's body.

In relation to the claim itself that Senator Cormann made today, he talked about the deliberations of cabinet. It is not possible for the document this Senate seeks to contain deliberations of cabinet because it was purportedly an input to cabinet. Even if we accept the government's claim that it is cabinet in confidence, it cannot contain the deliberations of cabinet—the words spoken, the arguments had. So that claim is not made out. Even if it were cabinet in confidence—and I'm not sure that it is, and we will test that in time. I have got an FOI that I will follow through on to make sure that there is clear evidence that (a) it was submitted to cabinet or, at least, a subcommittee, and (b) that its dominant purpose at birth was, indeed, to inform cabinet. There is a positive right under FOI which means that the government will have to present evidence that, on the day of its birth, that document was to go to cabinet. I do not accept at this point their claim. They haven't provided any evidence of that nature.

I'll also point out that, even if it were cabinet in confidence, the law here in Australia allows for the Senate to make a call for those documents to be received. I say that with absolute confidence because we can refer to the appeals court case in New South Wales, Egan v Chadwick, where the majority made it very clear that the Senate—in fact, the Upper House in New South Wales—has the right as a house of parliament to demand documents of this nature. Ultimately, the Senate and the other place are supreme over government, and that includes the cabinet, in terms of our oversight on behalf of the people. So, again, I do not accept the claim that the government has made. Indeed, the Senate has not accepted the claim that the government has made.

I'll close up by saying that, even if all of that were irrelevant and for some reason there were legitimate cabinet-in-confidence reasons for not disclosing the document, cabinet in confidence is a means to an end, not an end in itself. That end is to protect information which, if released, would be damaging, would harm the national interest and would not be in the public interest. If the public interest lies in disclosure, then it should be released. In this instance, this is a document not about how we're going to deploy military forces overseas, it's not a document about how we're going to structure our intelligence services; it's a document that goes to governance and integrity, and the public have a right to see what is in that document. They have a right to full confidence in the government in the execution of its role. Ironically, good governance and integrity are topics that disclosure gives public confidence, which is certainly lacking at this point in time. The government know that this document should be released. There is nothing in any convention that stops the cabinet simply stating, 'We will release this document.' Neither I nor the Senate have accepted the public interest immunity claim, but there is a pathway out of this, which is simply that the cabinet releases the documents.

9:59 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This is the second time that the Senate has sought to force this government to disclose a document that they themselves should have put in the public domain from the word go. Once again we're seeing the hubris of the Leader of the Government in the Senate as he essentially delights in seeking public interest immunity to not put this document in the public domain. We had very clear findings from the Auditor-General that pork-barrelling by this government had happened in the lead-up to the election. But, no, the Prime Minister's mate and former chief of staff has a look and says: 'Actually, there's nothing to see. The independent body got it wrong.' Well, I'm afraid the independent body has the advantage of being independent.

It's no surprise that this government has tried to silence that independent body, has found that for some reason it was not correct and that there's nothing to see and has tried to cover up the fact that the Prime Minister's office is up to its neck in these documents. The various emails between the Prime Minister and then Minister McKenzie show that the Prime Minister had a very strong part in sports rorts 1. I call it 'sports rorts 1' because the rorts keep on coming; we've had sports rorts 2, the community infrastructure grants, the community development grants and some environment grants. These guys sure love pork-barrelling and they sure love not having an independent body to take them to task over it.

Is it any wonder it has been 18 months and we've seen no action on a federal corruption watchdog from this government. It has been 18 months since they made that commitment and we still haven't seen a bill. We haven't even seen an exposure draft of a bill. This government will do everything it can to avoid transparency and everything it can to buy election results, because, frankly, it has no policy offering. All it can do is try to splash some cash around and bribe people into voting for it.

This is exactly why we need a federal corruption watchdog. This is why my bill passed the Senate in September last year. But the government doesn't want to bring that bill on for a vote in the House because my version of a federal corruption watchdog would actually clean up corruption. The government's discussion principles would not have even captured sports rorts. Their design for a corruption watchdog is so deliberately weak that all of this corruption, this pork-barrelling and these breaches of ministerial standards will just carry on. Some watchdog that will be, if we ever even see it! But we haven't seen it. We haven't seen the bill or an exposure draft and we know that this government is not committed to cleaning up corruption because it benefited very nicely, thank you very much, from being able to pork-barrel in the lead-up to the election.

So there was sports rorts 1 and then sports rorts 2. Now it's the community infrastructure grants. Now it's the community development grants. Now there are some environment grants. In the Commonwealth grants guidelines there is a little rule that says, where the minister doesn't take the advice of the independent officer on which grants should receive funding and which should not, they're meant to actually provide reasons for that to the Treasurer. No-one will be surprised that those reasons are not required to be made public. Once again, this government does everything it can to conceal the rorting and the pork-barrelling that it undertakes with glee in the lead-up to elections.

I will be moving in the chamber later today an order of continuing effect that says, 'You must put those reasons for deviating from the independent advice of grants bodies in the public domain.' It will be very interesting to see how this chamber votes on that order of continuing effect. We certainly know the government won't back it; they won't even release the Gaetjens report. Twice we've had to have the Senate demand that they release it, and they are still not going to do it. So we don't expect support from them. We wonder whether One Nation will back that motion. We will see.

This government is shrouded in secrecy. It continues to cook the books, to spend public money, to shore up its flailing political fortunes. It won the election by a whisker thanks to these sorts of bribes. It's lost all credibility and it's lost all integrity. This is exactly why all of the statistics and reports show that trust in democracy is at an all-time low. I don't care if people don't like this government—good; we want this government gone too. What I do care about is that this government no longer thinks that the institute of parliament represents the people. That is the more damaging effect of this sort of rampant rorting and pork-barrelling. People deserve a democracy that works for them and they deserve to have confidence that public money—those people's money—will be spent in a way that benefits them, not in a way that benefits the government.

The real issue here is the hubris of this government spending public money to shore up their own political fortunes. They take the massive corporate donations to fund their election campaigns, they do the bidding of those corporate sponsor elected and, meanwhile, they dish out public funds to shore up support in marginal suits. It is cooked and it is about time big money got its dirty fingers off this parliament—again, I'll be moving to ban corporate donations and to limit all donations to $1,000—because people deserve their democracy back. They deserve an independent federal corruption watchdog with teeth that could actually have applied to sports rorts 1 and 2, unlike the model the government is proposing. I mean, who proposes a model that supposedly is meant to clean up corruption but wouldn't have stopped or even applied to the rorts that we've seen plaguing this government since they were re-elected? What a joke! That is not going to fly with anybody. It would be worse than a smokescreen, smaller than fig leaf. This government simply has no credibility on integrity matters, and everybody can see it.

Release the Gaetjens report. Let's learn precisely how weak those ministerial standards are, because if they weren't breached by this pork-barrelling then what good are they either? The government has got this sewn up so nicely. It's got its mates to investigate how flagrant rorting somehow doesn't breach ministerial standards. It says quite a lot about the ministerial standards that this pork-barrelling doesn't breach them. Strengthen the standards, don't have them implemented by your mate who is now your chief of staff, actually give them to an independent body, make them legislative, have them independently reinforced and have them apply to all members of parliament. That's what the Greens think. We want a code of conduct for all of us here in this building who are elected representatives. We want those ministerial standards to mean something, to be strong and to be enforced. And we want a federal corruption watchdog that can actually do something to clean up the poor behaviour and the misuse of public funds that has so typified this government.

Once again we see secrecy, lack of transparency and 'it's just the Canberra bubble'. People are getting pretty sick of this government dismissing the premise of the question and saying it's just the Canberra bubble. No, this is our democracy and this is about how public funds are misspent by this illegitimate government. I can't wait for the next election, personally. I hope it comes real soon.

10:07 am

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of the minister's failure once again to provide the Philip Gaetjens report. This government is flying in the face of repeated motions from the Senate to table this report but also running scared from the fact that the community now sees them for what it is and what it has done. We have sports rorts 1 and sports rorts 2, we've got the infrastructure programs and we've got environment programs. Quite frankly, I think we need to look at all the government's funding programs, because it's quite obvious that there has been a systematic approach across these grant programs to make sure that they are targeted to the seats they want to win and/or keep. All of these programs need to be looked into—the dates they started, the dates when the new round started—because they all stink. There is a stink over so many of them now. We need to make sure that we look clearly at all of those programs. Maybe it's in the government's mind that the community and this place have already found out about a number of them. What else is going on?

The idea that political considerations were not a determining factor when deciding which clubs got funding is simply ludicrous. The ANAO report Award of funding under the Community Sport Infrastructure program found:

The award of funding reflected the approach documented by the Minister’s Office of focusing on ‘marginal’ electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be ‘targeted’ by the Coalition at the 2019 Election. Applications from projects located in those electorates were more successful in being awarded funding than if funding was allocated on the basis of merit assessed against the published program guidelines.

That's from the ANAO report. To ignore the merit based assessment of sports Australia for almost half of the successful applications and instead decide to award grants based on political gain is a clear and unforgiveable misuse of taxpayers' money. Senator McKenzie's decision-making process was completely unsporting, with clubs in safe seats hampered in their chances of winning a grant. In my home state of WA, 32 applications missed out on about $12.1 million in funding. Anne Twomey, professor of constitutional law, recently said:

From a lawyer's perspective, there seem to be at least three areas in which rules are likely to have been broken.

The first concerns the legal obligation on ministers, when exercising administrative powers, to act within the scope of their powers and to behave in a manner that is procedurally fair.

…   …   …

The second legal issue is whether the minister had any power at all to make these grants. The Audit Office's report expresses significant concern about this.

Then she said:

The third rule that may have been broken is the constitution itself. The Commonwealth Parliament may legislate only with respect to subjects listed in the constitution (known as "heads of power"), such as external affairs, defence or banking. There is no head of power with respect to "sport".

Mr Morrison and his colleagues have nothing but contempt for fairness and a level playing field, which is ironic given that we're talking about sports grants here. The government has hidden the Gaetjens report from the Senate. It's failed to comply with a previous order to produce the document and with this order, and it's more and more of the government saying: 'Let's make this a cabinet document. Let's put it on the trolley and wheel it through cabinet; then it's a cabinet document'.

How did the PMO and the Liberal Party coordinate in the lead-up to the 2019 election in allocating sports grants—and other grants, as it's now becoming widely known? Was the Prime Minister aware of his office's role in this scandal—and it is a scandal. What does the Prime Minister know and what does he have to hide by not enabling that report to be tabled? The public deserve answers to these questions. These are key questions of transparency and accountability. Australians expect this transparency and accountability from those in power and they are not getting a fair deal from this government. The more they see coming out about the other grant programs that have similarly been used for electoral gain, the more disenchanted they become. This level of shameless lack of transparency and this consequence-free approach to granting are unprecedented, and that's saying something.

I urge the minister to release the full Gaetjens report immediately so that the community and this parliament know what went on and we can start restoring confidence in this institution and in the government—governments I should say, not this particular government, because I think they're past that. But we actually need to make sure that the Australian community does have confidence and faith in this institution and in governments into the future. This lot can start doing that by coming clean, telling people what happened and making sure that it doesn't happen again. It has abused the power that it has in making these decisions in this particular circumstance and in all the other grants and programs that we now know were used and abused in a similar way in order for them to try to cling to power.

It was at the expense of transparency, at the expense of our democracy and, importantly, at the expense of those sporting groups that put in applications in good faith only to learn that they wasted their time. I've had people tell me how much time they took to fill in these applications in good faith. When you're a community based organisation, you know how long it takes. People are doing it in their own time and have to scramble around to get it written after hours. If you're running a sports club, you're doing all that. Having run community organisations myself in the past, I know how long it takes to fill in these documents—it's a considerable amount of time that you commit—only to have them colour-coded and filed. If you're in a safe seat, then it doesn't matter—down to the bottom of the pile. That's an appalling way to treat people in this country.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

And voters. The coalition were clearly favouring those seats that they thought they could keep or win. Our government grant programs should not be used in this way.

I was around—not in parliament at the time, but I was certainly involved in the conservation movement—during the previous sports rorts drama, in 1991, with then minister Ros Kelly. Having seen both of them, I know that this one is far beyond that, and what the government have done with the other grant programs is far beyond that. And you should have heard the then opposition carrying on about that program. Yet that pales into insignificance compared to what has happened here and what, it is now becoming apparent, has happened in other programs. It is an appalling way to treat this country, it's an appalling way to treat our democracy and, most importantly, it's an appalling way to treat all those sporting clubs that genuinely participated in this process, thinking that there was a level playing field—that they could get some of their playing fields fixed through the funding so that they could in fact play on a level playing field. What the government have done is reprehensible. It fails the pub test by a mile. They need to come clean. They need to table the report. Otherwise, from now to eternity, everybody will know that this government had something to hide—and it stinks to high heaven.

10:16 am

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to this discussion this morning and reflect on how outrageous it is that the government continues to cover up the Gaetjens report and refuses to release it to the public. The job of this chamber is to ensure that government is doing what it promised it would do. This chamber is all about scrutiny. It's meant to hold the government to account. That's why people put us here. They put us here to have their voices heard, their concerns heard. They vote for us to stand up for the things they care about. I tell you what: many Australians are just appalled at the revelations that continue to come forward as to how badly the government abused its power to dictate which community groups should receive funding through this sports program and which shouldn't, based on who it thought it could buy votes from. Of course, the government continues to sit on this report. It doesn't want it released to the public and it wants us to believe that somehow the Prime Minister's mate has given him a glowing reference—surprise, surprise.

The government, it seems, can't walk past a grants program they don't want to rort, whether it is sports rorts 1 or 2, infrastructure programs, water programs or the Environment Restoration Fund. The list continues to grow—program after program after program where the coalition government, the Liberal and National parties, have their hands in the kitty, either for themselves, to win votes, or to give to their mates. The level of rorting in this government and the abuse of power and privilege is extraordinary.

The sports rorts saga has really struck a chord with everyday Australians, because many Australians know that their sporting facilities are pretty tired and not up to scratch. They would like a little bit of support, a little bit of effort put in. That's why, as community organisations, volunteers, they spent hours and hours filling out applications, hoping that their application would be assessed on merit.

How naive of us all to think that a responsible government would assess things based on merit and need. This government doesn't know anything about merit and need. Look at some of the members on the bench over here. They're not there based on merit. We know that's one of the biggest problems that's riddled this government. They're there because they've done good deeds for their mates. They're there because they'll bend over backwards when their lords tap them on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, can we have this grant ticked off; can we have this piece of legislation changed; can you stand in the way of climate action because we're from a fossil fuel company?' Merit is not what this government is built on. Merit is not something that this government walks with. It is not how they govern. It is not a true value and principle that they hold dear. It has been seen for what it is through this program.

I'm quite concerned that it's not just the sports rorts that have been abused throughout the last 12 months in this government in a desperate plea to hold onto Liberal and National Party seats. There are other programs as well. We know that the Environment Restoration Fund—a $100 million fund—was rorted by this government. There are plenty of environmental projects out there in our local communities that need funding and support. But what do you know? The ones that got the money or were promised the money were the ones that were in seats that this government was desperate to keep. Many of the organisations that were awarded funding and promised funding under the Environment Restoration Fund didn't even apply for anything. They didn't even know the money was going to come in the door until they got a phone call from the local member of parliament: 'You know, there's an election coming up and I think there's a lot of good work you've been doing. We have just decided to give you a grant. We have just decided that your community organisation's been doing great stuff in the environment space and we think you deserve some support.' What do you know!

I've referred this fund to the Auditor-General—it's similar to the sports rorts referral—because it needs an independent assessment. Like many of these things, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it probably is a duck. I would say that this program, the Environment Restoration Fund—$100 million of taxpayers' money handed out or promised on the eve of an election—is just as dodgy as the sports rorts that have come before it.

As we know, this government is in the regular pattern of behaviour that when there's a grant fund there to be rorted, they can't get enough of it. When the taxpayer is footing the bill, this government can't seem to control themselves. The extraordinary brazen approach, the arrogance, is what has really upset the Australian people—the sheer arrogance and brazen attitude that, even though it's taxpayers' money, if you're in government you can do what you want with it. No, you can't. There should be scrutiny. There should be accountability. Part of your job as government is to ensure proper process.

The Auditor-General's response to the sports rorts was absolutely damning. The brazen attitude and treatment of taxpayers' money was gobsmacking. We keep seeing this pattern of behaviour over and over again. All you need to do is look at what's happened in the Murray-Darling Basin. When Mr Barnaby Joyce was water minister, he had a big bucket of money, and what did he do? He handed it out to his mates, because the National Party and the Liberal Party, when there are public funds available, can't control themselves. They want to get some of it—not for themselves, but for their mates. They just can't be trusted. And Mr Angus Taylor is in trouble. He tried to deny it, but his involvement in the Eastern Australia Agriculture company and the amount of money that was doled out to that company from the taxpayer by Mr Joyce when he was water minister is now before the Auditor-General as well. It smells dodgy, it looks dodgy; I reckon it is dodgy. That was worth $80 million.

It's as though this government thinks public funding is just confetti. They throw it around—over their selected electorates, of course. They invite their friends over for a party, throw around the confetti and hope no-one asks any questions. The Australian people are sick of governments that act like this. When there is such a decline in public trust, in the institution of parliament, in the institution of government and in our public bureaucracies it should be the government of the day that works to restore faith, trust, transparency and integrity. But if we had that, the government couldn't buy themselves elections. They've got no interest in ensuring that integrity is put back into the system. That's why we've got to get rid of this mob. That's why this government needs to be booted out at the next election—because they can't be trusted with public money, they can't be trusted to tell the truth, they can't be trusted to take responsibility when they stuff up. This government is rotten to the core, and it needs to go.

10:27 am

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I rip into this one—and there is a lot to rip into—I just want to call out my colleague Senator Rice for the tenacity and integrity that she has shown in her pursuit of the government over this matter of the Gaetjens report. It has thrown into sharp relief the closed-door, closed-minded, closed-ranks mindset of Liberal Party MPs—backbenchers particularly—when considering this particular scandal that we have in front of us. I mean, let's be really clear about what the public understand and know to be the truth of this matter: the Morrison government, faced with electoral oblivion, decided to cheat, and as part of that process they decided to use public funds. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of money that belongs to the Australian community was misused—and not in a scattergun, not because, 'Oh, we just didn't realise' and not because it was maybe one here or there. This was meticulous, calculated misuse of public funds for political gain—an absolute outrage and disgrace.

We've heard many an excuse given by the government over this period, and not a single one of them holds water. It really boils straight down to this. What this Senate is trying to do and will continue to try to do is one simple thing: to get the report in full and read it. That's all the Senate is trying to do here. Yet the government is closing shop, closing ranks, protecting each other.

As Senator Waters rightly pointed out in her contribution to this debate, if the so-called anticorruption commission that last year the government mentioned—or mumbled about—ever came into being as imagined, it would not stop the issues that we have seen. There's a simple reason for that—they know that, without the ability to misuse public funds in this way, they can't win. They don't have a compelling argument for the Australian people—they don't have an economic record to speak of, they don't have a social record to speak of and they certainly, as Senator Whish-Wilson knows so well, don't have an environmental record to speak of. They have but one thing—the levers of executive power, which they are able to pull to rain money down on marginal electorate seats to try to win elections.

We hear the stories of colour-coded spreadsheets and emails going backwards and forwards. The public have a clear understanding that of course the Prime Minister's office was involved and of course the Prime Minister's office knew. The pretence to anything other than that is absolutely ridiculous. What really gets me is that they didn't just spend money on marginal seats—they didn't just make it rain in the seats of Pearce and Swan—and chuck on the scrap heap 32 other applications across WA, totalling $12 million; they also made it rain in safe Liberal seats, like the seat of Tangney, held by Ben Morton MP. There was $500,000 for an exclusive tennis club. It's absolutely disgraceful. As Senator Hanson-Young so rightly observed, they just can't help themselves. They're like dragons confronted with a hoard of gold—they just need to nestle themselves in it and sleep for a thousand years. It is beyond sickening to the Australian public.

Let me also bring a bit of information to the chamber that may well be surprising news to members of the Liberal Party in this place and the other place, who I suspect haven't had very long experience or history of filling out grant applications for a community organisation. That takes time and effort. Often this is done by volunteers, who stay up late at night to get the thing done. Putting one of these grant applications forward takes so much out of small community organisations. They do that in good faith that the information they provide will be considered on its merits. What we have seen here is that applications were chucked on the scrap heap unless granting them rendered a political dividend to the government. It's absolutely disgraceful.

Australian communities also understand that this type of misuse of public funds is not the proclivity of one side of politics. If the last 25 years in this country show anything, it is that when both sides of politics have their backs to the wall they end up sticking their hand in the public pocket and spending the money for personal gain. It happened in 1993 with the Keating government. It has happened again now with this government. It is a symptom of the mentality that has crept into the heart of the Australian political discourse and into the Australian political establishment. That mentality is: win at all costs. And, on the altar of that mentality, communities miss out, people are abused and deals are done. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of deals that this government cut to keep itself in power. We here in the Greens have not forgotten the very cosy conversations that would have happened between Mr Palmer and the government to secure the $60 million worth of election spending which did them so well in so many marginal seats. Again, this is instead of putting a compelling argument to the Australian people. It is an admission of the fundamental hollowness of that argument.

This Senate will continue to pursue the government. Senator Rice will continue to pursue the government. Senator Waters will continue to push for the implementation of a real national anti-corruption commission. We have been at it for 10 years and we will be at it for another 10 years, if that is what it takes. But we will drive political corruption out of this place because it is what the Australian people send us here to do. It is what they want to see. They want to know that money that they give in good faith and information that they give in good faith will be considered on its merits. That is not a lot to ask. It is time for this government to own up, stop hiding and face the consequences of its ill-conceived actions.

10:36 am

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Australians are actually losing confidence in the political process in this country, and that's been a trend that, unfortunately, has been underway for some time. But they still do have some basic expectations of government, they do expect their government to be competent and they do expect their government to be fair. Of course, the government's handling of this program has been neither competent nor fair.

I want to talk primarily about the lack of fairness in the way that this government has handled this program—a program, remember, that is not funded with money that is owned by the government. It is funded by money that has been given to the government by the taxpayers of our country and that the government are temporary stewards of. I want to be very clear: the lack of fairness in this program is not a bug. It's actually a design feature of this program. This was deliberately done. This program was deliberately designed to allocate taxpayer dollars in an unfair way, to organisations some of whom did not submit their applications on time, some of whom revised already submitted applications post the date for the final acceptance of applications, and many of whom submitted applications that, through the fair and rigorous non-political assessment, were rated as not being eligible for funding because other programs had a greater need. Yet a large number of programs that were either ineligible by dint of missing application time frames or were simply not worthy enough relative to other applications ended up receiving funding.

This government was totally sprung. It was totally busted by the ANAO, the Audit Office. What was the government's response to being totally busted in a scathing report from the ANAO? The Prime Minister asked Mr Gaetjens to provide him with a report, which he says happened. I say 'he says happened' because, of course, neither this Senate, despite having repeatedly asked for it, nor the people of Australia have seen Mr Gaetjens' report.

One other thing that people legitimately expect from government in this country is transparency. In other words, they expect to be able to see, hear and therefore understand why government is making the decisions that it does. And yet here we are again in the Senate debating the government's refusal to provide a report, the Gaetjens report, that this Senate has repeatedly asked for. And we're getting all kinds of spurious excuses from the government as to why this report has not been provided. Of course, cabinet in confidence is one of the claims that the government has made. One of the issues that Mr Gaetjens' report allegedly specifically covered related to whether former Minister McKenzie was in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

I'll make the blindingly obvious comment here—and I've been a minister, albeit in a state government and not a Commonwealth government, so I do have personal experience of this—ministerial commissions come from the government. In the context of Commonwealth ministerial commissions, those letters patent come from the Governor-General. They are a matter between the Prime Minister, as the senior adviser to the Governor-General, the Governor-General themselves and the relevant minister. They are not a legitimate matter for cabinet. Ministerial appointments are not cabinet decisions. They are ultimately granted by the Governor-General on the advice of one person and one person alone—and that is the Prime Minister. It's abundantly clear in decisions that this Senate has reached in the past that simply wheeling a document through the cabinet room on a trolley is not enough to provide a legitimate foundation for a claim of public interest immunity, as the government is making here. It's not enough. So the Greens reject the government's assertion that Mr Gaetjens' report is covered by cabinet-in-confidence provisions.

I have to say Mr Gaetjens' reputation is copping an absolute pounding here, and rightly so, because he has allowed himself to be politicised. He is the most senior public servant in the country, and public servants right across this land in the Commonwealth Public Service have a legitimate expectation that the Public Service will not be politicised. It is one of the principles that underpins our democracy—frank and fearless advice from the Public Service to the government of the day. But what we're getting from Mr Gaetjens is anything but frank and fearless advice. From what we know of his report, it was effectively a whitewash. We demand to see that report. The Senate demands to see that report.

Of course, no-one is getting up and arguing that community sporting organisations should not receive assistance from government, when they need it and deserve it, and where it is done in accordance with a fair, rigorous, unbiased process—far from it. What we are saying here is that taxpayers money should not be allocated by government with the primary intent of ensuring its re-election. That would constitute corruption, and this is a process that has been corrupted. We don't have a Commonwealth anticorruption agency in this country, so we can't ask an independent umpire to have a look at this. The independent umpire that would be best placed to have a look at this corruption doesn't exist. We thank the National Audit Office for the work that it has done, but what it's done in this report is uncover the tip of an iceberg, and there are many other grants programs that we believe have been manipulated by this government in order to achieve electoral outcomes.

Make no mistake: this government thought they were going to lose the last election and they were prepared to do, in the words of a former member of this parliament, 'whatever it takes' to win the election. Well, it turns out that 'whatever it takes' involved corruption. It involved buying votes with taxpayers money. It involved not funding worthy community organisations that had been found to be worthy by an independent process, and instead funding organisations that were politically close to the government, that were in marginal seats that the government needed to hold, and in one case at least, organisations that the relevant minister was a member of. (Time expired)

10:47 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia, I want to speak on this topic, but first I want to say that I was recently with a group of people in the community of Moulamein—in fact it was a town meeting—and I was almost brought to tears and I felt angry and ashamed to be a member of federal parliament, because I could see the damage that the people working in this building are causing to people right around the country. Moulamein is a small town in southern New South Wales. I was disgusted and, as I said, almost brought to tears. I'd just come from a meeting with farmers from the southern Murray-Darling Basin, a meeting that my office organised for them with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Murray River operator—the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a mess, as well.

I'll come back to these things, because what we want to discuss today is the sports rorts affair. I am a member of the Finance and Public Administration Committee and I was involved in the hearing into the taking of jobs by former ministers Christopher Pyne and Julie Bishop. Before they'd even left parliament they had their jobs lined up for when they left parliament. To most people, that seemed like a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. We were inquiring about Martin Parkinson, who had been given the role of investigating the appointments of these two ministers to see whether or not they complied with the ministerial code of conduct. I pursued Martin Parkinson, the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet—it was on his last day, as I remember, basically hours before he was due to retire—with simple, fundamental questions about the investigation he had conducted, which, of course, exonerated both former ministers. But only after some time, when he was trapped, did it emerge that he had no investigatory powers. So, the Prime Minister had invested in someone to do an investigation, someone who didn't have any investigatory powers. And the same thing happened here. This is not just a cover-up of sports rorts; this is a cover-up of the lack of an investigation. This is getting deeper and deeper and worse and worse for the government. And why are they doing it again? Because they got away with it. This is one of the hallmarks of corruption. But what can we expect when we have a marketer as a Prime Minister, someone who can use a glib slogan and get out of the problem—someone who can build a facade and then sell it? This is empty of substance, but there is plenty to hide.

Corruption itself is harmful but, worse, it kills democracy. Integrity is the hallmark of democracy, and true democracy is the prerequisite for integrity. Integrity is more than just about corruption; it is about truth and facts. That should start in this parliament. This is certainly about the Prime Minister. It is about the government. Above all, it is about our parliament, because it is letting the people down. It is about every senator and every member of parliament in the lower house. Federal parliament has forgotten about integrity and forgotten about the people that we are here to serve.

The sports rorts issue is simply a symptom of the bigger issue. Let me give you some examples that point to the bigger issue. Let's look at water. Which party has neglected water infrastructure? The Labor Party and the Liberal Party, with the Nationals meekly tagging along behind. The Greens have driven that agenda, and the Liberals and Labor have allowed them to do so. The Bradfield catchment right now in North Queensland is undergoing flooding, and the water is flowing out to sea and, according to the Greens, harming the reef. Who is allowing this waste? The Labor Party and the Liberal Party, with the Nationals tagging along behind, meekly, and the Greens driving the bus.

What about the Murray-Darling Basin? Which party's policies destroyed the Murray-Darling Basin and family farms and are hurting the environment? The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Nationals tagging along meekly behind and the Greens driving the bus. Electricity—Australia has gone from the lowest-cost producer of electricity to amongst the highest. Which party has passed legislation pushing for subsidies for expensive wind and solar power, which has raised power prices astronomically and made it unreliable and insecure? The Labor Party and the Liberal Party, with the Nationals meekly tagging along behind and the Greens driving the bus.

What about the Renewable Energy Target? Which party supports a Renewable Energy Target? Let's have a look. The Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National Party—and the Greens want an absurd, completely renewables target. Yet an unjustified Renewable Energy Target with high subsidies is raising the power prices. As I just said, it's the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Nats tagging along and the Greens driving the bus.

What about coal? Coal has saved whales, coal has saved the forests and coal has liberated humans out of poverty, along with oil and gas. Hydrocarbon has revolutionised life and civilisation. Yet which party's policies are anti-coal—anti cheap, reliable, secure, base-load power? The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Greens party and the Nationals tagging along.

Then, on climate, which party believes, without providing specific empirical evidence, that our use of hydrocarbon fuels causes climate variability? The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Nationals tagging along and the Greens driving the bus. And what about the climate policies? Which party wants climate action? The Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Nats are tagging along and the Greens are driving the bus.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

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

Senator Roberts, could you pause for a moment? Maybe fewer interjections would be helpful. Back to Senator Roberts.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What about land use? Farmers have had their land stolen from them, and which party has passed legislation enabling the stealing of farmers' land without the compensation that they're entitled to under the Constitution?

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

One moment, Senator Roberts. Senator Whish-Wilson?

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

My point of order, Acting Deputy President—and perhaps you could ask the Clerk, because I don't know the exact standing order—is on relevance. This is absolutely nothing to do with the OPD before us. Could you seek the Clerk's advice before Senator Roberts continues his diatribe?

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

There is no point of order. Relevance is interpreted liberally.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This, along with PFAS, the ideological assault on rural Australia, the decimation of fishing, the destruction caused by PFAS in the environment, electoral control, native vegetation restrictions, the killing of Australia's rural and productive capacity, the record debt, the foreign ownership—these and many other issues come from this building. The source of most Australia's problems governmentally comes from Canberra. That's why I was in tears at Moulamein. To answer the questions before, the reason why this is significant is because this is the core issue. Sports rorts is despicable, but it is but a symptom of the disease in this building. That's why I was in tears at Moulamein. That's why I felt ashamed. That's why I felt angry and that's why I will call out the Greens.

Which party did all of this? The Labor Party did it. The Liberal Party did it. The Nats meekly towed along, and quite often the Greens were driving the bus, with the exception of PFAS, where they're trying to help. When people like the Greens and Labor's Senator McAllister or Senator Whish-Wilson call me names, they sometimes imply ridicule. They admit defeat, because if they had a coherent argument and data and facts they would present that. I thank these people for their ridicule and name-calling, because it confirms my argument. It takes a special kind of stupid in the Greens to put forward these policies. It takes a special kind of blindness in the Labor Party to condone it and follow it. It takes a special kind of gutlessness in the Liberals and the Nationals tagging along blindly. This is what enables this disaster in the sports rorts, because the disaster is sourced in this parliament.

The Australian people need an independent integrity watchdog that goes well beyond this debate today. It is needed. It is essential. It is only a short while that I've come to that conclusion, but it's because I believed initially that the parliament should be responsible for itself. I can see that that has failed repeatedly. The Australian people need an independent watchdog. I'll ask the Australian people to remember that they alone can change the Constitution in this country. That makes the Australian people the sovereigns over this parliament. So I ask the people of Australia to think about their vote when they vote in elections, whether it be council elections coming up in Queensland, state elections coming up in Queensland, or federal elections coming up in 2½ years. Who voted this mob into parliament? The Australian people did. Who can change parliament? Only the Australian people.

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

Before I go to Senator Gallagher, I would remind you, Senator Roberts, of standing order 193(3), which says that imputations and offensive words and reflections are unparliamentary.

10:57 am

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a few comments about the government's handling of this order for production of documents. It is a very reasonable OPD, seeking the Gaetjens report, which has become quite a critical piece of information in unpicking what has occurred with the maladministration of sports grants across this country by this government; also the explanation from the minister this morning, which I think is the most important matter I'd like to reflect on today.

I think this is the third OPD seeking this information. There have been a number of orders for production of documents associated with the sports grants administration. The majority of them have been rejected. Some have produced limited documents, heavily redacted. Senator Lambie moved one on 5 February and also Senator Waters. Senator Rice's OPD continues to press the government to release this report. At the moment, the government is rejecting that on some spurious grounds of public interest immunity. Senator Cormann doesn't even have the arguments to put in front of this chamber. It's just a blanket, 'No, you're not getting it, public interest immunity, cabinet in confidence, end of story.' He doesn't explain why they have taken a view that this falls within the public interest immunity test or indeed how this document becomes cabinet in confidence. We know that, in the past, previous advice from secretaries of PM&C commissioned in similar ways—through the statement of ministerial standards—has been released. But for some reason this one is being treated differently.

I think the most important thing is a broader point about the way the Senate is being treated by this government. If we look at this in relation to the sports grants, the big picture is, essentially, that we have a tabled Auditor-General's report which has found serious maladministration and political interference. We then have a government under pressure commissioning another report, from a former chief of staff to the Prime Minister, now head of PM&C, Mr Gaetjens. That report seems to contradict the findings of the Auditor-General's very extensive report. Mr Gaetjens has had access to the documents that the Auditor-General relied on. The Auditor-General has had access to documents the government had in its possession. The government has had access to all of the documents. The only people involved in this inquiry, which has been commissioned through this chamber, that do not have access to the documents and are being denied access to the documents are senators in this chamber and, through us, the Australian people.

This Senate passed a resolution that a select committee should be formed to inquire into this. The Senate has significant inquiry powers; it's one of the reasons we exist. We have the capacity, with the powers available to us, to inquire into matters and to hold executive government—particularly the excesses of executive government—to account. This government, through its denial of access to documents, is blocking the Senate from being able to do the job that non-government senators have asked it to do. Through this and the way those opposite are behaving, the government is trying—and I think this is the long game—to reduce the power of this chamber to do its job. It's perhaps best left for a speech on another day, but there are good reasons, fundamental to the health of our democracy, that the Senate has been granted such significant powers to inquire into matters and hold executive government to account. But this government is doing everything it can to weaken those powers.

They do it day by day in this chamber. They do it through their refusal to provide documents that are required, by resolution of this place, to be produced. They are doing it in their approach to question time, where they refuse to either answer questions or be relevant to the question that was asked. They're doing it in estimates committees: public servants, following their lead, don't come to estimates prepared to answer questions, or they take a lot on notice. This has to be a direction from the very top levels of the Public Service and from this government. So it's not just through orders for the production of documents; it's through every means the Senate has to hold this government to account. This government is diminishing the Senate's role.

I think we have a couple of things that we have to consider. Do we accept this? Do we accept that the government can just walk in here and give a one-minute statement, going, 'Cabinet in confidence, public interest immunity, see you later'? Do we reject it? Do we push back? Do we stand up and protect the powers that were given to this chamber at the inception of Federation and say, 'Hang on a minute; you don't have the majority in this chamber'?

This chamber has significant powers available to it to hold government to account, but, in order to do that, all non-government senators have to stand together and work together. This disregard for the Senate that is being perpetrated, I think quite knowingly, by this government must be responded to. The minute we accept that they can treat the Senate this way—denying access to documents, refusing to answer questions, taking things on notice so as to have time to workshop a more palatable answer, perhaps one that's been socialised through other areas of government to keep tricky situations at bay—those powers are diminished forever. It sets a precedent that the 46th Parliament has to be mindful of. We cannot accept this government's continual refusal to provide information—information that was commissioned outside of cabinet. Nearly every government report that is released goes through cabinet, but you can't just use that as a shield to protect you when the times are tough.

Part of what has to happen as a result of the sports rorts fiasco, I presume—maybe I'm presuming too much—is for the government to accept that what they did was wrong and that the accountability measures built into our democracy, whether it be through independent statutory office holders, independent officers of the parliament, like the Auditor-General, the Senate doing its job properly, have the powers to uncover that information and hold government to account. It's only when that happens that you will see a change in government behaviour. If we accept the way that Senator Cormann and other ministers are treating this place and treating motions in this place, then we may as well pack up and go home and leave executive government to run the show. And we know how that will end up because we've seen just a glimpse of it with what we do publicly know about sports rorts.

This really is starting to be a turning point for non-government senators to look at ways available to us to stand up and reject the way this government is behaving, because it's not just the 46th Parliament that this relates to. It's every parliament that comes after us. Those senators who have come before us have fought to protect these powers. Indeed, Senator Cormann, in a previous parliament, was one of the instigators of that through the Cormann motion, which I think Senator Watt referred to in his comments today. That is what is at stake here: an arrogant, dismissive government that disregards the Senate and the Senate's role. We cannot allow this to continue. If it's not this motion today, it will be the one that we deal with tomorrow or in a fortnight or the fact that we won't get any answers through estimates or at question time. It will just keep building, because it's already done that in the nine months since the election.

I think this is an important statement to take note of from Senator Cormann and it's also a warning—certainly from the Labor Party; I won't speak on behalf of other non-government senators—that we will not be accepting the diminution of the powers of this chamber.

11:07 am

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

The Australian Senate—this chamber that we're all privileged to participate in—is the country's house of review. It is the premier house of review in this nation. To put it in pub vernacular terms, it's our job to poke our nose into this government's business, it's our job to scrutinise and it's our job to compel transparency on decisions, legislation and regulations that come before this place. I'm just going to name it up. To people outside this place—and to me and many inside this place—what we've seen with the sports rorts scandal looks like straight-up corruption. It looks like straight-up criminal behaviour. When someone is misappropriating public funds for their own personal or political benefit, that is corruption. That is the way this is perceived by Australians when they see politicians spending their money—public money—for their own benefit or for the benefit of politicians, their political parties, their careers and their bank accounts. That's the way Australians see this, and we shouldn't see it any other way. This has got to stop.

This institution is so important to the running of this country, yet politics, not just in this country but all around the world, is on the nose with the public. They see us as being self-serving agents in here for our own benefit or the benefit of our parties. Forcing transparency with this motion that is before us today in relation to an order for production of documents is absolutely crucial. How ironic is it that the Prime Minister was happy to commission this Gaetjens report and happy to tell the Australian public the outcome of the report, which was that everything's fine—'There's nothing to see here'—but he won't release the details? Why is that? Once again, let's ask whether this passes the pub test in Australia. Any Australian thinking about this would be saying, 'Well, clearly the reason the Prime Minister doesn't want to disclose this report is that he has something to hide.' That's just not good enough. Given what's at stake here—given what we need to change and amend to make sure this kind of pork-barrelling, this kind of criminal behaviour, doesn't occur in the future—we need to fix this.

Can I say, in relation to the order for production of documents, that I remember that, when I started as a senator and the Senate passed an order for production of documents motion to compel the government to release the transcripts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, and the government refused to do so, I sought advice from the then Clark, Rosemary Laing. She showed me where Odgersdeals with this, and she said, 'Senator, if the government doesn't listen to an order of this chamber, the Senate, then it's actually your duty and the Senate's duty to disrupt their legislative framework until you get what you need.' It's actually the Senate's duty to disrupt this government's legislative framework until it provides the information that's been demanded by the Senate. That's what I remember being told, and that's what I remember going into in that debate.

The Senate needs to consider this. The government, at the last election, got elected, yes. It didn't get a majority in this house of review, the Senate. We get to choose, on behalf of the people who elected us and put us in here, what passes in this place. We get to decide what documents we want the government to show us. That is the power of the Senate, and it's already been covered in other speeches. We can't let this precedent continue where the government is refusing to provide the documents that have been demanded by the Senate. There is no reason, except for self-preservation and self-interest, why the government wouldn't release the Gaetjens report, particularly in the light of the fact that they were happy to say, 'Everything's fine,' yet they won't provide the detail of that. That is contradictory to what we have seen from the Auditor-General's report and other information that has come before us.

The most important thing here is that we make sure this never happens again and that, in any future election, any government can't use public funds to make sure they stay in power and are re-elected. That has to change, and it won't change without simple transparency, without all the detail we need to make sure we put up amendments or whatever is necessary to protect the Australian people, because it's their money the government's been spending for their own self-interest. It's not Mr Scott Morrison's money. It's not the Liberal Party's money or Senator McKenzie's money. This is the Australian people's money, and it is criminal and straight-up corruption that it's been allowed to proceed this way, where this kind of money is spent for personal and political self-interest.

Question agreed to.