Monday, 22 February 2021
Questions without Notice
Members of Parliament: Staff
I have a question this afternoon for Senator Reynolds, the Minister for Defence. Reports indicate the minister's then chief of staff sought advice from the Department of Finance about the handling of an alleged sexual assault. When did the minister first become aware her chief of staff was seeking that advice?
As I said in my statement last week, I became incrementally aware, over a period of days, of Brittany's story, with private conversations with her and my then chief of staff and also via reports from parliamentary authorities. When I met with Brittany on Monday, we made sure that she had the appropriate support and she also had access to the Australian Federal Police, which she did. Beyond that I'm certainly not going to go into any more detail about those private conversations.
I could not have been any clearer in answering this. There was a course of conversations, as I said last week, and incrementally as those conversations—the privacy of which I have maintained and I still maintain; I will not breach the privacy of those conversations—
This minister is accountable to the Australian people through this chamber. We are not asking her questions about what discussions occurred with Ms Higgins, although Ms Higgins's statements can speak for themselves. It is a very straightforward question: when did you first see the advice and what action did you take? Mr President, I would ask you to ask the minister to come back to the question. Otherwise, really, one wonders about the purpose of question time if ministers are allowed to obfuscate and duck in this way.
Senator Wong, I've allowed you to restate the question. My view on this matter is: if the minister is explaining the reasoning behind a course of action taken—
Honourable senators interjecting—
There's an opportunity after question time for debate. Senator Pratt, on the point of order?
We can ask questions of fact and we are asking, in this case, for a date. When did the minister first see that advice and what action was taken? We are able to ask direct questions. I've been through many of these iterations in estimates, where we're told we can ask for facts and dates without revealing what the advice was. We are not asking for the advice; we are asking for a date.
Senator Pratt, please. My view on this matter is that if the minister is explaining a course of action that she took then it's not up to me. If that is directly relevant to the question being asked—and I am listening carefully; I've allowed opposition senators to restate the question—there's an opportunity to debate the content of answer. But I'm not in a position to direct—
An honourable senator interjecting—
I will listen carefully to Senator Reynolds.
My point of order is on relevance. We're not asking about the chain of events; we're asking a very specific question around when this minister became aware of this piece of advice.
On the point of order, we only got about eight seconds into the minister's answer. If the minister is explaining a course of action, I'm going to decree that to be directly relevant. I do take the point it was a very narrow question, so the course of action needs to be explained in the context of being directly relevant to the point asked. Opposition senators have had the opportunity to restate the question. But I can't instruct the minister how to answer, nor the content of an answer to, a question. Senator Wong, I've allowed opposition senators to do so and I've just advised that a course of action can be explained and it needs to be directly relevant. The question was quite specific. I'll call Senator Reynolds to continue. I am listening very carefully.
I have no more to answer on this because I have covered this at great length. The fact is those opposite in their questions, by the nature of their questions, are asking questions that go to the heart of the private conversations that I had. At the time, I respected her privacy. (Time expired)
Ms Higgins has said that when police involvement was raised at the meeting with the minister and her chief of staff on 1 April 2019 she was told, 'We need to know now.' Why was this said?
Again, this is Brittany Higgins's story to tell publicly. Respecting her privacy, respecting the process that she is going through, it is simply not my position, respecting her agency and privacy, to say anything more on the matter.
My point of order is direct relevance. The minister should not hide behind Ms Higgins's courage. These are Ms Higgins's words and her account of what occurred. The chamber is asking this minister to explain why those words were said.
I believe in this case, Senator Wong, it is particularly clear that the minister is explaining the reasoning for the answer she is giving, so I'm not in a position to instruct her to answer it differently. There is the opportunity immediately following question time to debate these matters.