Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Questions without Notice
My question is to Leader of the Government in the Senate representing the Prime Minister. The Attorney-General has instituted legal proceedings against the national broadcaster, the ABC. Yesterday the Prime Minister said:
In an abundance of caution and to avoid any perception of conflicts of interests … the Attorney-General … will not perform certain functions … that may relate to the Federal Court or the ABC.
Could you please state each and every function the Prime Minister is referring to? Could you please list which roles and functions and to which minister each of these functions have been delegated to?
I firstly would make the point that the Attorney-General, as with any other Australian, is entitled to initiate defamation proceedings. They're entitled to do that against the ABC or anybody else who is alleged to have defamed them.
Senator Keneally interjecting—
He is still entitled to initiate defamation proceedings, Senator Kenneally. In relation to questions that Senator Hanson-Young asked, I would firstly point out that, at this point in time, the Acting Attorney-General, Senator Cash, fulfils all of the functions of the Attorney-General's responsibilities, assisted in the delegated responsibilities by Senator Stoker, the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General.
The government, out of an abundance of caution, has sought advice from the Solicitor-General in relation to the functions of the Attorney-General, to avoid any perception that any conflicts of interest may arise when he returns to fulfil his office. Out of caution, the government has indicated that, until that advice is finalised, the Attorney-General and his office will not perform certain functions that may relate to the administration of the Federal Court or to the ABC. The government is, as I said, seeking that advice from the Solicitor-General, which will fully inform the practices and processes that are put in place upon the Attorney-General's return to work.
I would like the minister to take the question on notice, given we don't have the full list from him. I would like to know how the Attorney-General, who has been accused of rape and is now suing the national broadcaster for defamation, can oversee national consent laws, the establishment of a Commonwealth integrity commission, defamation law reform, and, indeed, any other functions of the Attorney-General's portfolio.
I note that many across the parliament—past, present, and including Senator Hanson-Young—have used defamation laws at times. The Attorney-General will return to his office informed by the advice of the Solicitor-General around the conduct of those duties. I can't take the first question on notice, to pre-empt the advice and information of the Solicitor-General. But certainly we will make sure that it is transparent to all, once that advice is received and the Attorney returns to work, exactly the procedures that are in place. Where there are duties that need to be fulfilled by Senator Stoker, we have full confidence that the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General will fulfil those duties fully and with absolute competence and confidence.
I note that the list of members of cabinet committees are published. The Attorney-General is not a member of the Expenditure Review Committee of cabinet.
Senator Wong interjecting—
But, Senator Wong, if decisions are taken in relation to the management of any perceived or potential conflicts of interest then those decisions will be consistently applied across all ministerial and cabinet functions.
My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham. The minister has just confirmed that legal advice has been sought from the Solicitor-General to facilitate Attorney-General Porter's return to the cabinet. Why is it that the Prime Minister is willing to seek legal advice to ensure Mr Porter can return to work but not to ensure Mr Porter is a fit and proper person to retain the role of Attorney-General?
Advice is being sought in relation to ensuring that no potential or any perceived conflicts of interest exist. That's consistent with many precedents in relation to the management of conflicts of interest.
It is hard to justify, I must say. Yesterday the minister said in question time that, as an interim measure, until advice is received, the Attorney-General's office will have no engagement with the Federal Court or the ABC. When will this advice be received? Given the Attorney-General's defamation action could be appealed to the High Court, will that prohibition on engagement be extended?
The second part of the question from Senator Gallagher obviously depends upon the advice of the Solicitor-General, and the government will receive that advice, I'm sure, which will be provided as soon as the Solicitor-General is in a position to provide it.
The Morrison government has appointed a junior assistant minister to respond to the Respect@work report after it sat on Mr Porter's desk for over a year, has prohibited the Attorney-General from engaging with the Federal Court and has prohibited the Attorney-General from engaging with the ABC. Why is it that Mr Morrison is willing to go to this extent to facilitate the Attorney-General's return to cabinet when he's not willing to even read the complaint or seek legal advice?
Since her appointment to the ministry, Senator Stoker has been fulfilling duties that are allocated to assistant ministers in a range of different portfolios. This was an appointment of an assistant minister to the Attorney-General that had not previously existed and, quite appropriately, responsibilities were passed from the Attorney-General to Senator Stoker at the time. Indeed, she is pursuing further responses to the Respect@work inquiry—further responses to it, I add—because, indeed, the government has gotten on with a number of aspects of responding to the Respect@work inquiry. There is the $2.1 million provided to support and implement a number of recommendations and work to establish the Respect@Work Council, which has been established and is due to meet for the first time this Friday. The establishment of the Respect at Work website is a central platform for resources on sexual harassment. (Time expired)