Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Defence Equipment; Order for the Production of Documents
At the request of Senator Gallacher, I move:
That the Senate—
(a) notes that:
(i) on 6 October 2020, the Senate ordered the Minister for Defence to provide to the Senate Economics Reference Committee all of the Australian Industry Capability (AIC) plans supplied to Defence by prime contractors in the future submarine, future frigate, offshore patrol vessel and pacific patrol boat programs and the Department of Defence's AIC strategy plans,
(ii) the documents are highly relevant to the committee's inquiry into Australia's sovereign naval shipbuilding capability,
(iii) on 19 October 2020, the Minister advanced a public interest immunity claim on grounds centring around commercial-in-confidence concerns, and
(iv) the bar to correctly advance a claim over commercial-in-confidence is high, particularly noting the documents are to be returned to the committee, not to the Senate;
(b) affirms that:
(i) the balance of the public interest lies in permitting the committee to conduct oversight of the conduct of the Department of Defence in delivering on the Government's commitment to maximise AIC in Australia's $139 billion shipbuilding program, and
(ii) the Senate does not accept the public interest immunity claim advanced by the Minister for Defence; and
(c) orders the Minister for Defence to comply with the order agreed to by the Senate on 6 October 2020 by providing the documents to the Senate Economic References Committee by 12 November 2020.
On 19 October 2020 the Minister for Defence made a public interest immunity claim in response to general business notice of motion No. 786. The claim was made on the grounds that provision of the requested document would harm the Commonwealth's ability to achieve value for money, negotiate ARC arrangements and meet Australia's broader strategic objectives. Commercial-in-confidence and national interest issues are the grounds for public interest immunity and have been recognised by successive governments. The government affirms the public interest immunity claim made by the minister.
It's the usual story: the Senate is being denied access to information necessary to conduct its oversight function. How do I know this? Well, one of the documents to which the order applies is one that I have FOI'd. It's one which the department originally said did not exist. They were then forced to admit that it did. I went through a process to get access to it—it was a lengthy process—and eventually the Information Commissioner ordered that the document be handed over. It then went to appeal in the AAT. An agreement was reached to stop wasting time, but here is the document that is being denied to the Senate. I have it in full; it has been provided to me for the purposes of—
The question is that motion No. 849 in the name of Senator Gallacher be agreed to. The ayes have it. The noes have it? Division required. Ring the bells for one minute.
A division having been c alled and the bells being rung—
Senator Patrick interjecting—
Senator Patrick, I will do it because you haven't asked before. I can insist on the bells being rung for one minute upon repeated divisions. I've said it numerous times today. I'll reset them now for four minutes, because I didn't consult with you previously. But when I ask senators to remain in the chamber—
Senator Patrick interjecting—
I said it earlier today. I've said it twice today, Senator Patrick. If senators aren't going to stay in the chamber when there are rolling divisions, they may miss a division—especially when they're asked.
A government senator interjecting—
With the consent of the chamber, the government has opted to cancel the division because I called it for the ayes. Is the chamber happy for me to move on? I will take it, without objection, that we are.
Question agreed to.