Tuesday, 16 March 2021
Answers to Questions on Notice
Senate Estimates Hearings
Under standing order 74(5)(a), I seek an explanation from the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham, as to why 108 questions—108 questions!—taken on notice since October 2019 remain unanswered.
I understand Senator Keneally is seeking this explanation under standing order 74(5), which clearly states that the senator may ask, if questions the senator has asked have not been responded to, for an explanation for such. I am advised that Senator Keneally does not have any questions on notice through the estimates process that have not been responded to.
Senator Keneally was not in order in the question that she asked and the explanation that she sought. She has no questions that are outstanding in relation to estimates procedures, so, Deputy President, I ask you to rule that Senator Keneally's attempt to now take note of an explanation to a question that ought not have been asked is out of order.
Madam Deputy President, I can give an indication and I can get a senator down here, because we have in excess of a hundred questions.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
Would you like me to seek leave to make a short statement, Eric? I'm happy to do that. I'm speaking to the point of order.
Senator Abetz interjecting—
I know that. I'm making this point: I think that the Leader of the Government in the Senate may be technically correct, because we asked Senator Keneally, as the deputy leader, to make a contribution in relation to in excess of 100—and I'm hoping that someone is going to provide me with a schedule soon, as per my request—questions which have been asked by Labor senators but not answered, for estimates. We are seeking that she make this contribution as the Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. I would take advice from the Clerk. I can't recall whether or not 'on behalf of Labor senators' has been permitted in the standing orders. If the ruling is different, I'm happy to indicate we have Senators Polley, Gallagher, McCarthy, Green, Kitching—I can go through this—myself and many others. If the government want to use a technicality to avoid a discussion about the extent to which they are avoiding parliamentary scrutiny, the Leader of the Government in the Senate can take that debating point. The point is that the government is failing—
Senator Birmingham interjecting—
Well, the standing orders also require you—
I'm responding to your interjection. I know you're grumpy today! I'm responding to your interjection. The standing orders also require you to respond to questions on notice, and you are refusing to.
Senator Wong, please resume your seat. I was going to respond to the point of order raised by the minister and inform the Senate that, in fact, Senator Keneally may ask in response to questions she believes haven't been answered in the required time, and she can ask on behalf of other Labor senators, but she needs to be clear in what she is requesting.
Under standing order 74(5)(c), I move:
That the Senate take note of the minister's failure to provide answers to the 108 questions asked by Labor senators on notice.
Here we stand today, in this chamber, and this government is trying to argue technicalities about standing orders. Well, understand this: standing orders require the government to answer questions on notice and to answer them in a certain time frame. It is not a technicality to avoid accountability. It is your responsibility as a government to be answerable to this chamber. It is the responsibility of the government to be accountable to the questions posed by senators, and it is your responsibility as a government to conform to the standing orders. The standing orders require the government to answer questions posed by senators, including on notice.
There are 108 questions sitting unanswered by this government since October 2019. I hope that everyone watching this broadcast today understands that Senator Birmingham and the government he represents in this chamber have left 108 questions unanswered. They are turning their backs on accountability. As a government they are turning their backs on their accountability to the Senate, they are turning their backs on their responsibility and they are turning their backs on the Australian people.
We are just days away from another week of estimates, where no doubt this list I have in my hand of 108 questions that are unanswered by this government—this government, led in this chamber by Senator Birmingham, are turning their backs on their responsibility and arguing a technicality to try and keep me from making this contribution. It is a technicality they say is in the standing orders. It's not a technicality for Senator Birmingham and his colleagues to answer the questions put to them on notice.
A fish rots from the head down. It is no surprise that apathy towards accountability, a willingness to turn your back on accountability, plagues the Morrison government. It starts with the Prime Minister's office. 'I don't hold a hose, mate,' said the Prime Minister. He doesn't hold an inquiry when serious allegations of rape are levelled at his Attorney-General. And he doesn't hold out any hope for this chamber that questions will be answered. What do we have here today? A government that is turning its back on accountability—a government that has turned around and said: 'No, we don't hold the hose. We don't hold responsibility. We don't hold seriously our accountability.'
There are 108 unanswered questions, some dating back to October 2019. The Prime Minister is the worst offender. The minister who Senator Birmingham represents in this chamber is the worst offender in not answering questions on notice. It was Senator Birmingham who just moments ago tried to argue a technicality so that I couldn't speak to this and it is Senator Birmingham who is turning his back on his responsibility to ensure that the minister he represents in this chamber, the Prime Minister, answers the questions on notice put to him by senators.
As I said, we are days away from estimates. No doubt this list of 108 questions is going to grow. But it doesn't stop with the Prime Minister. There are another 47 answers overdue from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, which is led by the Deputy Prime Minister himself. There are another 25 answers overdue from Minister Rushton, who is also Manager of Government Business in this place. We have the Prime Minister. We have the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Birmingham. We have the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development. We have the Minister for Families and Social Services in this chamber, Senator Ruston. These are the three biggest offenders in not answering questions on notice and turning their backs on accountability.
We have seen this government turn its back in recent days and weeks—in fact, years. Over seven years, this government has turned its back on the Australian people. They have left the Australian people behind and they are leaving behind their responsibility to be accountable to this parliament and, through this parliament, to the Australian people. Understand this: a government that doesn't think it has a responsibility to answer questions under the standing orders is a government that no longer thinks it is accountable to this parliament or to the Australian people.
Unfortunately, we don't just have the evidence of 108 unanswered questions since October 2019. We also have the evidence of a government that has delivered a dodgy NBN and that has paid $30 million for airport land in Western Sydney that was worth only $3 million. We have evidence of a government that has presided over sports rorts, handing out taxpayer money as if it were Liberal Party money to marginal seats on colour coded spreadsheets. We have a government that is willing to take the Safer Communities Fund and disregard and reject the legitimate safety needs of communities across Australia and instead put that money into marginal and Liberal seats to make them safer for the Liberal Party. That is a government that has turned its back on the Australian people. That is a government that has turned its back on parliamentary responsibility.
This is a government that promised a national integrity commission. Where is it? It hasn't been delivered by the Attorney-General, Christian Porter. It remains in draft legislation because this government does not believe it needs to be held accountable. They continue to turn their back on the scandals, on the incompetence, on the corruption. This is a government that can't even answer questions on notice much less set up a national integrity commission to ensure that we don't have regional road rorts, safer communities rorts, sports rorts, dodgy land deals and a dodgy NBN.
Distressingly, this week we've also seen that this government has turned its back on the Australian people, particularly Australian women. Australian women were out in force here in Canberra and in locations across the country. One hundred and ten thousand women, and men, marched to say, 'Enough is enough,' because they want answers from this government. Where is the Respect@work report and its 55 recommendations seeking to establish greater equality for Australian women? Where does it sit? It sits as work undone, unanswered by this government. As with the 108 unanswered questions, the government don't think they're accountable for the Respect@work report. They don't think they're responsible for that. We even heard the Minister for Women, Senator Payne, today talk about the private sector. Is there nothing this government won't outsource to the private sector? Her claim: she didn't really have to get progressing; she didn't have to encourage the Attorney-General to get going on that, because the private sector had a lot of responsibility here. There are 55 recommendations to the government. Only three of them have been implemented—only three! So again we have a government turning its back on its responsibilities.
During the last sitting period, the Senate ordered the production of answers to 631 overdue questions on notice from estimates hearings, dating back to 2019—631! Even when compelled by the Senate to finally answer these questions, there are ministers in this government, members of this very chamber, who just plainly refuse to do their jobs, who just turn their back on their responsibilities. I know that senators who have their back turned on me right now can hear me. They should face their responsibilities, as leaders, as frontbenchers, and be accountable to the parliament. The fact that the Prime Minister is the No. 1 offender when it comes to not answering questions on notice—
is not a surprise. This is a Prime Minister who thinks his job is political management—not management of the parliament, not management of policy, not management of good outcomes for the Australian people, but management of his own political fortunes. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised—as Senator Pratt interjects—that a Prime Minister who is all about marketing and spin and headline and announcement and photo op couldn't be bothered to answer questions posed by the Senate, because that's what he's about. He's about the management of his marketing brand, not about the management of the economy, the management of our community, delivering good policy that ensures that women can be safe at work—even when their workplace is the Australian parliament. This is a Prime Minister who offered to meet women behind closed doors rather than go out and cross the street to hear from thousands of women who had gathered here to say, 'Enough is enough.' Perhaps none of us should have been surprised that the Prime Minister wouldn't cross the road. The Prime Minister won't even do his basic day job of answering questions on notice from the Senate, from the parliament.
I never thought we would one day long for the leading heights of ministerial accountability under Malcolm Turnbull, but, frankly, I say bring them back. Bring them back, because what we saw from the last Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was that Dr Parkinson took his role seriously. He thought the minister should be accountable for a portfolio. No doubt his boss, Malcolm Turnbull, impressed that upon him. Dr Parkinson thought the Australian people deserved transparency and oversight from the government they elected. This starts at the top—a commitment to accountability, a commitment to transparency, a commitment to just do your basic job.
What I want to say, as we head into estimates week, is a message not just to the ministers in this government—because I think we've made our point here: the ministers in this government have turned their back on their accountability; they have turned their back on this parliament; and they're turning their back on the Australian people. What I would like to say to any department secretaries who are appearing before estimates next week is it is the practice of Labor senators and frontbenchers to give notice to departments on the questions we want to ask, on the officials we would like to be there, on the matters we wish to explore. We do that as a courtesy so that they may come prepared. What I would like to say to the department secretaries is to remind them of something I believe they know, that they are accountable to this parliament.
While ministers in the Morrison government may disregard and may feel that they are not accountable to the Australian people—they may turn their back on their responsibilities—next week in estimates we expect answers to questions, not for our sake but for the sake of the parliamentary accountability, for the sake of the standing orders, for the sake of the Australian people, because governments in a democracy are accountable to the people.
Question agreed to.