Senate debates

Monday, 18 October 2021

Answers to Questions on Notice

Questions on Notice

3:07 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Under standing order 74(5)(a), and on behalf of Senators Wong, Gallagher, Watt and Kitching, I seek an explanation from the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Birmingham, as to why 71 questions placed on notice through the Table Office between 15 September 2020 and 12 September 2021 remain unanswered. I further seek an explanation on behalf of Senators Wong, Gallagher, Chisholm, Marielle Smith, Kitching, Keneally and me as to why 61 estimates questions placed on notice through the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet remain unanswered. I note I provided an itemised list to the minister's office earlier today.

3:08 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly—Deputy President, through you—in response to Senator Ayres, I ask the new President to consider in relation to this standing order what has become an emerging practice of senators not just asking in relation to questions that they have asked that may be unanswered but also seeking to do so in relation to other senators. I am not sure that that is truly in keeping with the letter of the standing order, and I would encourage the President to take a look at that and to reflect upon it following advice.

In relation to responses to questions, this government in this parliament has been more responsive to more questions than at any time in recent memory. Through the course of this parliament we have received some 4,313 parliamentary questions on notice. That is almost as many questions on notice through the parliament, through this chamber, in the life of this parliament as in the two previous parliaments put together. When it comes to Senate estimates questions on notice, we have responded since the 2019 election to 31,486 questions on notice.

So I make the point, as I said, that, in terms of parliamentary questions on notice, we have been more responsive to more questions than in either of the last couple of parliaments, and we are at the point where this parliament and this government have done more in responding to questions than the previous parliaments combined. In total, across parliamentary questions on notice and Senate estimates questions on notice, we indeed are now tracking close to 36,000 questions that have been asked of and answered by the government during this time.

The government well and truly lives up to the expectations of accountability. In fact, most people would be incredibly surprised to learn of that sheer volume of questions asked, answered, tabled and responded to in this place. That does not include the myriad other committees, including, for example, the COVID select committee that was established, which have posed many additional questions, nor does it count the many, many hours spent in estimates and committee hearings or in this place answering questions that were not taken on notice.

So, yes, I know there are a handful, in relative terms, compared to the tens of thousands of questions that have been answered, that remain outstanding. The government work through these things as best we can with the record volumes of questions that we have continued to face. We have not just handled a record number of questions but provided a record number of answers. We will continue to work through the record numbers of answers as much as we possibly can.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

I will respond to the question you asked. I have ruled on this before, and it is in order for a senator to combine a number of unanswered questions from different senators in the one motion.

3:12 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation.

I make this point gently to the Senate: that, notwithstanding Senator Birmingham's preprepared response, the problem that this government has with responding to questions in the chamber is that the culture of secrecy, the entire lack of accountability and the commitment to avoiding transparency are the characteristics that will define this government. When it's finally gone, it will leave no lasting legacy in policy terms or in terms of achievements. It will only leave a giant hole in public finances created in large part through its failure to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest public policy failure in Australian history. Even its own supporters say it's the greatest public policy failure in Australian history. The lasting legacy that will be left that will need to be swept aside will be the culture of secrecy, servility, complacency and lack of accountability that it has infected the upper echelons of Australia's Public Service with. That is why there is so much obstruction to questions being asked on notice. That is why we have 71 questions through the Table Office, provided over just the space of a few days, treated with utter contempt by ministers and by the Leader of the Government in the Senate. That's why 71 questions placed through the committee I have the honour to be the deputy chair of, by Senators Wong, Gallagher, Chisholm, Smith, Kitching and Keneally and by me, remain unanswered.

The thing that's interesting about those questions is that they are all questions directed to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and we saw last week the culture of secrecy that surrounds that department, when they came before the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. Mr Gaetjens is the secretary of that department—the Prime Minister's friend appointed to be the secretary; the most partisan departmental secretary in Australian political history. There is a relationship between being the most partisan secretary of that department in Australian history and having the greatest public policy failure in Australian history, because this government is all about partisan politics. It's all about the announcement; it's never about the delivery in the interests of the Australian people.

We saw that when the COAG Legislation Amendment Bill that the government proposes to submit to the parliament at some point, if it can find some friends for the bill, was the subject of scrutiny early last week and Mr Gaetjens refused to turn up. The effect of the bill would be to draw the black veil of cabinet confidentiality over the deliberations of national cabinet. There's a pattern here: a refusal to answer questions, a refusal to deal with questions on notice, an ever-creeping extension of opposition—lifting the costs and providing every procedural barrier—to freedom-of-information applications.

The government and the department in particular got smashed in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal through a decision of Justice White which said that their pathetic attempt to define the national cabinet as a subcommittee of cabinet could not be sustained. The government's position was trashed in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It was an utterly humiliating defeat. And what is the response? The department and the government draft a piece of legislation which is designed to say that the earth is flat, that the moon is made of cheese—that the national cabinet is somehow a subcommittee of cabinet. It has none of those features. This government is desperate to pull the shroud of secrecy over the operations of government when there is no possible public interest in doing so.

The government has so debased the notion of effective government accountability in this country, has retreated so far from its own responsibilities to be open with and accountable to the Australian people, that this process of dealing with questions on notice by just pretending they're not there should come as no surprise to anybody.

That bill, the COAG bill, is entirely friendless. Not a single coalition senator stood up or moved a muscle the whole day while that bill was torn apart by all of the legal experts. All of the witnesses, anybody who had any interest in public accountability and transparency, pulled that bill apart, and not one Liberal senator moved a muscle. Do you know why, Madam Deputy President? Because they're ashamed. They're ashamed of the direction that Mr Morrison has taken this government in. They can't defend the position that Mr Morrison and Mr Gaetjens have taken around public accountability and transparency. And, while they'll be in here thumping the table and shouting and hollering about questions on notice and Senator Birmingham will be in here with a prepared response, they know that it's gone way too far—that the culture of secrecy and covering up and acting in its own political partisan interest, rather than in the public interest, has entirely captured this government and has entirely reduced it to a government whose capacity to act in the public interest is disappearing so fast, in terms of the place that it should hold in the Commonwealth, that it's collapsing under its own weight.

Question agreed to.