Senate debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021


Community Affairs References Committee

12:01 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

By letter dated 25 November 2021, the Chair of the Community Affairs References Committee, Senator Rice, has raised a matter of privilege connected to the committee's inquiry into Centrelink's income compliance program. The letter outlines numerous occasions on which the Minister for Government Services and her predecessor have declined to provide information sought by the committee and ordered by the Senate to be produced. In doing so, the chair notes the government's continued reliance on public interest immunity claims that have been explicitly rejected by the committee and by the Senate. On behalf of the committee, Senator Rice seeks to have the minister's refusal to comply with the Senate's orders dealt with as a matter of privilege and referred to the Privileges Committee for inquiry as a possible contempt.

While the Senate has generally preferred political or procedural remedies in disputes over documents, it may also seek to enforce its orders through its contempt jurisdiction. Senators will be aware that two such matters have been referred to the Privileges Committee this year. When a matter of privilege is raised, my role is to consider whether it should have precedence in debate. In making that determination, I am bound to consider only the criteria in privilege resolution 4, which seeks to reserve the Senate's contempt powers for matters involving substantial obstruction of Senate and committee processes or of senators performing their duties. They also recognise that the Senate is generally reluctant to deal with conduct as a contempt where there is a another, more appropriate avenue for redress available. The Senate has declared that disobedience of lawful Senate orders and refusal to produce documents so ordered may be dealt with as a contempt, as may conduct interfering with the work of Senate committees. Only the Senate can remedy such conduct, so in my view both criteria are met. I therefore determine that I should grant the matter precedence in debate. The question of whether the matter warrants investigation as a possible contempt is not a question for me. It is for the Senate to determine whether the matter should be progressed by way of a referral to the Privileges Committee or whether another remedy should be pursued. I table correspondence and call Senator Rice to give notice of motion in respect to the matter.

12:03 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I give notice of a motion to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges for inquiry and report. I seek leave to make a short statement, of up to two minutes, about the issue.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (President) Share this | | Hansard source

Leave is granted for two minutes.

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Referring this as a privileges matter was not something that our committee did lightly. We would have much preferred to have seen this critical information that is core to the Senate's inquiry into the Centrelink compliance program, otherwise known as robodebt. The Senate first ordered the production of the documents that we are seeking in February last year, February 2020. It's been almost two years. It was part of the first interim report into the Centrelink compliance program, when my predecessor, Senator Rachel Siewert, was chair. The information that we are seeking is absolutely key to the committee's inquiry into Centrelink's compliance program. It's an issue which has impacted thousands of people across Australia. Robodebt, the illegal placing of debts on people, has resulted in people taking their own lives because of the impact on them. It is a really, really significant issue.

As I said, in our fifth interim report, which we tabled last week, we once again rejected the government's previous claims of public interest immunity and said these documents that we're seeking are core. We've had a response from the relevant minister as to why they have continued to apply for public interest immunity. We the committee have rejected them, and the Senate has rejected those public interest immunity claims. These documents are absolutely critical to the Senate's inquiry, to be able to do our business. Taking action now really goes to the heart of the ability of the Senate and the committees to undertake our work and of the Senate to function as a chamber of review. The Senate has ordered the production of documents, and we have rejected the public interest immunity claim by the minister. It has occurred repeatedly, hence this referral to the Privileges Committee.