Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister representing the Prime Minister (Senator Birmingham) to questions asked by Senators Marielle Smith, Wong and Grogan.
I want to speak about the lies of the Prime Minister that we've seen in recent months but particularly in recent days. We all know about the Prime Minister's ability to bend the truth. We saw it first with simple things like his football team. He claimed he was a Cronulla Sharks supporter when we knew all along he was a rugby union supporter. Deputy President, I know you come from Western Australia and that rugby union and rugby league are not particularly strong sports over there, but in New South Wales and Queensland these are important distinctions, and for the Prime Minister to mislead the Australian people about who he really supports and who his football team is is very worrying. Of course, it went much further during the period of the sports rorts scandal. You will be very familiar with that, Deputy President, where we had the colour-coded document and documents being transferred between Senator McKenzie and the Prime Minister to direct funds that were supposed to be for women's sports around the countryside to marginal seats that the government was trying to win.
But there's been a more recent big lie from the Prime Minister, and I want to talk about that. That's in the form of the legislation that will come forward to us one of these days about voter identification, the so-called voter integrity law. What's the big lie here? The big lie is that there is something wrong with the Australian electoral system, that there are all these people in the community who, at election time, are multiple voters. It is simply not true. At the last election there was a total of 2,000 people who voted more than once. Out of a population of almost 16 million people who voted at the election, there were only 2,000 who voted more than once. The evidence from the Australian Electoral Commission is that most of those people who voted more than once were over the age of 80 and, in many cases, English was their second language. We do not have a problem with multiple voting in this country. In fact, the AEC commissioner, in evidence recently in the estimates process, described the issue as 'vanishingly small'. So why is it that we find the Prime Minister saying that that problem requires every single Australian, 16 million voters likely at the next election, to come along on election day and show some form of identification?
For 120 years, Australians have got themselves on the electoral roll; they've gone along on election day; they've queued up and perhaps had a sausage—like we had this morning with the protest outside the front of parliament—they've got their name struck off, been given a ballot paper and gone along to vote. Now, for the first time in our electoral history, 16 million people are going to be required to produce some identification before they're allowed to vote.
Why would you do this? One of the clear consequences of that, of course, is you're going to be spending a lot more time at the polling booth, perhaps double, perhaps three times as much time as you're spending there at the moment. In the worst pandemic in Australian history, when you're trying to keep social distancing, why on earth would you want to keep people at the polling booth longer than is absolutely required to exercise their democratic vote? I'll tell you the answer. This government is so worried about the next election, so worried about their polling results, that they want to suppress Australian voting numbers. They don't want anybody who is likely to vote against them— (Time expired)
I rise to take note of the answers today with reference to the electoral law amendments that are before this particular chamber. There are many bills before the parliament which have been drafted up in response to JSCEM inquiries or the inquiry into the last federal election.
There is no question that, over the long run, the expectation that people wouldn't have to provide any sort of ID at a polling place is really out of date and out of touch. During this pandemic Australians have become so accustomed to providing some form of ID—
Senator Bragg, I appreciate Senator Farrell did make reference to the electoral laws and he probably overstated that. I'm listening to where you're going with this but, if I might remind you, the questions asked by Labor Senators Marielle Smith, Wong and Grogan went to examples of where the Prime Minister has said one thing and later said another thing. That's really the characterisation of those three questions; Senator Farrell was using the voter laws as a reference. I appreciate he did go on a little, but, as he only had 30 seconds to go, I allowed that through.
Thank you, Deputy President. I was here for the last few minutes of the statement, and it was all about the electoral amendment. I'm happy to talk about any anything. In relation to integrity in government—I think that's where you're wanting to go—much has been said about these commissions and what sorts of arrangements we should have in Canberra. I don't think calling it an 'integrity commission' is the way to go. I'm much more of the view it should be focused on corruption. I would be minded to call it an anti-corruption commission. That's what I think it should be focused on—any form of corruption.
I think people have different definitions of integrity. Integrity is important in government. There are institutions which are in operation all the time which ensure that there is scrutiny of government. In fact, the Senate plays a very important role here because the Senate runs the estimates process and it runs committees of inquiry. The Select Committee on COVID-19, although I haven't been a member, has done some important work over the course of this pandemic. It has brought to light matters of public interest—really material matters—through its public hearings and through its submission process, such as on the vaccination program and on border matters.
I am of the view that the Victorian model would be a preferable model for us to have in Canberra, as opposed to the New South Wales model. But I wouldn't call it an integrity commission; I would be calling it an anticorruption commission. My understanding is that under the Victorian model there is a process whereby a brief of evidence needs to be established before coercive powers are deployed, and I think that is a reasonable proposition. I think a reasonable body of work should be done before anything else occurs.
Senator Bragg, I'm sorry to interrupt you again, but the three questions from Labor senators—from Senators Smith, Wong and Grogan—went to the Prime Minister; they were focused on the Prime Minister, and comments he had made and then later made a different comment about. So—
referred to integrity, whether it's voter integrity or whether it's matters of how we ensure that there is confidence in our system of government. I don't think that getting into personal attacks is the way to go, and I won't be engaging in that sort of business here. I think that only diminishes the public debate here. I don't think this is a partisan comment to make at all, but I think if you look at the way question time runs here or in the House, it really is low-rent stuff, and I think it is a poor reflection on us as an institution. It is way too scripted, and I don't think all this personal attack stuff does anything for anyone.
I would say, though, that I've been very impressed with the work done by the Senate committees. I've been very impressed with the quality of the public servants who run these secretariats. In my experience, the Senate committees take the Senate and therefore the Australian people into places that other institutions don't go, and we are able to hear people's voices. So, I think we do incredible work here on behalf of the Australian people, but I don't think we are focusing on the right stuff when we are engaging in endless personal attacks. Of course there's a role to look at people's public records and what they say. But I don't think getting into personal attacks is the way to go, and I won't be engaging in that.
It's always a delight to follow Senator Bragg. That was quite the ride, through the different areas that you thought we were talking about. But thank you for your contribution. I want to go to one of Senator Bragg's points. It's a point that was raised in question time as well, in response to the questions asked by me and by other Labor senators, and it was the government's accusing us of engaging in personal attacks. I want to lend my support to what Senator Bragg has said: of course there is no room for personal attacks on individual senators in this place. But these are not questions of personal attacks; they're not questions of personality. They are questions that go to integrity, questions about the way government is run. And what diminishes the debate in this country, as well as personal attacks on individuals, is dishonesty in the public discourse. That's why we're asking these questions. That's why we were prosecuting these questions: because from this Prime Minister we've seen a pattern of dishonesty since he's taken the prime ministership, and indeed perhaps long before that, too—a pattern of dishonesty, which goes to a question of integrity, which runs through the heart of how this government is run, which goes to the heart of how this government deals with issues of accountability, which goes to the heart of how this government approaches issues of scrutiny. So they're relevant questions, and I don't think it's fair to say that they diminish the debate. It's the dishonesty that diminishes the debate.
In question time today, when we posed these questions about the mistruths told by the Prime Minister, we saw members of the government wilt, delicate as flowers. They were so sensitive and so delicate they couldn't even answer the questions. I get why you feel a little delicate, little petals. You feel scammed too. You feel scammed by this Prime Minister. You had one bloke once, right? He was Prime Minister. And then you had another bloke who wanted to be Prime Minister. You guys weren't too keen on him, so you looked through your ranks and got the guy from marketing. You gave him a crack, only to learn that, when it comes to the one thing you thought he was good at—marketing and spin—he can't actually prosecute. He's missing the point of marketing: brand consistency. To be a good marketer, you've got to be able to run with brand consistency, which means you've got to have a consistent message on what you're selling. The Prime Minister can't get his story straight about anything. He can't even get his story straight in question time on one issue. Then he has to come back and correct the record when no-one's looking, when no-one's in the chamber, because that would be pretty embarrassing for the Prime Minister. It's interesting, for a marketing guy, if he can't handle that. So I get why you're feeling a little delicate and a little precious about these questions. You feel ripped off that you went for the dude from marketing and he can't even do that job properly. It's pretty disappointing.
This Prime Minister cannot tell the truth. He cannot tell the truth, and he falls over himself. He can't even tell the truth about telling the truth. That's embarrassing. Worse than being embarrassing, it goes to issues of integrity. That's why it is perfectly reasonable for us to raise these questions in question time, when it goes to integrity, accountability and scrutiny. This government seems allergic to all of those things. It seems allergic to scrutiny and allergic to accountability. You let mistruth run through the heart of your government. And I agree, Senator Bragg, that in this place, in this chamber, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard than others, which means that it's more than appropriate for us to call out that dishonesty. It's appropriate for us to call out the examples of dishonesty, not just the one I referred to in my question to the Minister representing the Prime Minister but also the questions Senator Grogan asked about Ms Holgate and the questions that Senator Wong asked about the Prime Minister's dealings with the President of France. Indeed, ask him how he feels about the Prime Minister's integrity. These are legitimate questions about accountability and scrutiny. I appreciate you feel a bit delicate in answering them, but it's more than reasonable that we pose them. (Time expired)
I assure Senator Marielle Smith that I'll be anything but delicate in this. What we've seen today is marketing spin at its greatest. We've seen the Labor Party's marketing plans exposed in the parliament by Senator Birmingham, after the attacks by those opposite and now this take note of answers motion. They are going to go after the Prime Minister and they are going to highlight that he has been slow and late on vaccines, climate change, bushfires and financial support for Victoria. Well, let me set the record straight on this, because we're anything but slow or late on any of these.
On 5 November last year, the Prime Minister put out an announcement that he had already ordered 135 million doses of vaccine, more than enough for five doses for every Australian. Then, last week, in my home state of Victoria, Premier Andrews said in the media that the Prime Minister forgot to order the vaccines. We know that's a lie. We know that the Premier of Victoria lied about that. On 21 February this year, the Prime Minister announced that the Australian government had 'a comprehensive plan to offer COVID-19 vaccines to all Australians by the end of October 2021'. And I think we've seen that, by the end of October—or maybe a day or two after—that was done. We hit 80 per cent vaccinated. More than 91 per cent of the eligible population over 16 are now protected. No-one said that the rollout of the vaccine had to be a straight line. Of course it was going to ramp up. We had no vaccine. There were countries that demanded and needed vaccine more than we did, and they got it. But we met our promise to the Australian people. The Prime Minister made a promise to the Australian people and we met it.
Our record on the vaccine rollout is better than the UK, better than the US and better than New Zealand. So with more vaccines going into arms every day, it's likely that we'll overtake more vaccines. The Labor Party's position on vaccines is woeful. The Labor Party has endorsed a candidate for the seat of Higgins who spent all of last year and most of this year putting out misinformation and creating vaccine hesitancy about the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it was a population-level experiment with high stakes attached to it. Personally, I'm not comfortable with that approach at all. She also said there is a possibility that the AstraZeneca vaccine will be rolled out to 10 million adults but we still might be vulnerable when we relax our international borders. We know that's not true. Would the Labor candidate for Higgins have voted with Pauline Hanson's One Nation party yesterday? It sounds like it, from this. She has promoted vaccine hesitancy all the way through. We can see that Labor has had a really ordinary run on that.
I'm happy to talk to the financial support for Victoria. The Morrison government has provided over $4 billion to Victoria through COVID economic support. That is more per capita than any other state in the country—
Senator Van, it's not an argument. I'm simply directing you to the questions that were asked by Labor senators. You started off on track but, over the last 30 or 40 seconds, you've gone off track, and I'm simply pointing out to you what the comments were.
That's exactly what I'm doing. Labor is attacking the Prime Minister on a record that cannot be attacked. He has done exactly what he said he would do and what we would do. We said we'd take on climate change. I'm going again to your document—the one that you're all clearly following in the chamber today and we're going to see for the next two weeks until the election. You're clearly going to go after the Prime Minister. This is clearly your tactic, to your point, Madam Deputy President. This is your tactic that I'm correcting the record on. We went to the election and we said we'd take 26 to 28 per cent as our Paris target for our NDC, and we are on track to meet that. The Prime Minister is keeping his promise on that. He's keeping his promise on meeting and beating the Paris target. We've already projected that we'll hit 35 per cent. So every one of your points in your marketing plan—when Senator Smith talks about marketing and spin, we can see yours. We can see straight through your tactics. It's not going to work. The people of Australia are not going to believe it. They aren't going to stand for it, and you'll see the results in the election next year. (Time expired)
Senator Van, we will hold the Prime Minister to account for his lack of integrity and we will continue to do that. The pattern appears to be: say something misleading, duck, weave, obfuscate and then dig your heels in when you're called out on it. We saw just yesterday in the other place that when asked about his infamous trip to Hawaii the Prime Minister told the parliament that he had sent a text message to the Leader of the Opposition telling him where he was going. That is not true. It is very untrue. What he said was he was going on leave. Leave is not a destination.
Anthony Albanese did receive a text, that is true, but it did not mention where the Prime Minister was going. It did not mention his tropical destination. It did not mention that he was travelling overseas—a point that you would think would be rather relevant. But what is astounding here is that this was unprompted. There was no reason to even mention that text message—none whatsoever. But when facing some political hot water—again, a duck, a weave, an obfuscation. Trying to get around a particular point the Prime Minister brought this text message up of his own volition and then inappropriately and inaccurately referenced it.
What I also find very interesting here is that the political gain that could have occurred or the personal gain that could have occurred by Anthony Albanese actually declaring that he had received it was not used at all. Anthony Albanese has a deep integrity and sees very clearly that a personal message, a private message, is just that. He did not mention it. That was two years ago. In two years he has not brought it up.
The contrast here between these two people could not be bigger. We have Anthony Albanese not mentioning these texts because private correspondence should be private and then we have the Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, making really poor calls with some of these things. We only have to look at his disastrous diplomatic experience with the French President—leaking those text messages. The leader of one country, of this country, leaking a text message, a private text message, from the leader of another country. The lack of integrity is woeful. The significant serious lack of integrity of the person who we have leading this country is despicable. How on earth are the Australian people supposed to trust him?
Then we have the whole saga with former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate. Mr Morrison set off a chain of events in question time that ended with the highly regarded chief executive being forced out of her position, costing taxpayers more than a million dollars when she was awarded a termination payment. The Prime Minister attempted to gaslight the nation, making out like Ms Holgate had left the organisation of her own volition. She did not.
We had the whole Brian Houston fiasco where the PM tried to get his mate into an official White House function and even the Trump administration wouldn't have him. The lies that went on after that—the Prime Minister said he hadn't done it. When it finally came out in the American press that he had absolutely tried to get his mate in he then had to backtrack, duck, weave and find some way of wriggling out of it. His commentary was, 'I don't comment on gossip or stories about other stories.' That's hardly integrity for the people of Australia. He then went on that he just didn't want to be distracted by it. The true answer is he didn't want to answer the question. He didn't want to provide that clarity and honesty to the people of Australia. He then said that 'at the end of the day it was not a significant matter'. I beg to disagree. He finished it off by saying, 'people have not asked me about it for months'. Does that make it not an important issue? I think when it comes to the integrity of the Prime Minister of this country I would fundamentally disagree.
Question agreed to.