Wednesday, 8 March 2023
Consideration By Estimates Committees
Pursuant to standing order 74(5), which requires that estimates questions on notice be answered within 30 days, I seek an explanation from the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care as to why answers to 13 questions have not been provided within the requisite time. Those 13 questions are SQ22 Nos 366, 368, 531, 593; and SQ23 question Nos 1, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 18 and 19.
I acknowledge the notice that Senator Ruston gave. On the issue at hand, the department has provided the advice that 358 questions in writing and on notice from the estimates hearing held in October 2022, for those questions that were provided on time, the Department of Health and Aged Care provided on-time responses to 94 per cent of questions received.
I can advise the Senate that although it's a different number to the one Senator Ruston just used, approximately 20 questions in writing arising from November estimates are outstanding, and the department advises it's expected that these will be tabled by the end of the week. The Department of Health and Aged Care has already received approximately 905 questions in writing from those hearings, of which 300 come from one senator alone. So, there are a lot of questions that the department of health are trying to answer in the relevant time frame. There are no questions awaiting clearance through the minister's office; they've all been cleared. We're just waiting to get those outstanding ones from the department of health.
That the Senate take note of the minister's inability to provide an explanation as to why all of these questions have not been responded to within the statutory time frame.
It's interesting to note that the minister in response to this particular question came in and listed the number of questions that have been put on notice to the department. It is quite extraordinary, when you consider that a greater number of questions were put on notice by those opposite when they were in opposition. I would also put on the record that the reason these questions are put on notice is that time after time of asking for answers to questions there is a failure by the department in estimates, and often in this place, to provide answers to those particular questions.
It's also interesting that I did give notice to the department, the agencies and minister at estimates that I was seeking answers to these remaining questions, because they relate to a particular group or set of questions that I think the public has every right to have answers to. They're not particularly onerous questions to answer. As an example, one was simply about overseas travel up until November 2022—not a particularly long period of time during this government's term—by the five ministers within the Health and Aged Care portfolio. As to why the department would still have that question and it has not been answered, the Minister representing the Minister for Health and Aged Care has said that none of the questions that have been unanswered are in the minister's office. I cannot understand why the department wouldn't be able to answer a question around travel arrangements. One would have thought the minister's office might have been able to do that.
One of the more concerning questions that remain is about an outstanding amount of $312.6 million that has been allocated within the agency for ICT changes. That's $312.6 million, of a budget line item, with no detail. We sought additional detail on the expenditure of that money. Now, some five months later, we still don't have any information about this, which was contained in the October budget. We're talking about transparency around the expenditure of quite a significant amount of money. The purpose of the estimates process is to get information around the expenditure of money. But $312.6 million, apparently, is not sufficient to warrant responding to.
We had a simple question about how many conferences the minister has sent departmental officials to, to attend on their behalf. It asked how many times the minister has been invited to attend conferences where departmental officials have been sent to represent the minister. It does not strike me as something terribly difficult for the department to answer—or, for that matter, the minister's office, because if the minister had been invited instead of the department they would have had copies of those invitations.
Just a minute ago, we saw Senator Liddle ask a very serious question about cuts to mental health that have occurred under this current government, the Medicare funded subsidised rebates to people with serious mental health conditions. We didn't get one word about mental health, but in these questions that we have not had answered one of the issues was about the consultations undertaken prior to the decision to cut mental health.
Another really serious question that was asked—we often hear those opposite talk about the great things they've done, since coming into government, in health. One of them was a copycat policy of ours, around providing continuous glucose monitoring devices to people with type 1 diabetes. It was received with great acclamation, and we have seen the minister and assistant ministers running around heralding the great achievements of this. We asked questions about the apparent severe shortage of the provision of these devices to Australians with diabetes. This question was put on notice and we still don't have an answer.
We do not know what the shortages are, we do not know how many Australians are waiting for this life-changing device to be made available to them. Yet we have this government running around telling Australia how fabulous they are because, apparently, they've fulfilled this promise—but they can't answer the question as to whether they have or not.
There were a number of questions on notice around a piece of legislation that was pushed through the parliament yesterday. I asked a number of questions of two representing ministers about details that sit behind changes to private hospitals and the use of implantable devices. I raised these questions in November and again, in more detail, in the February estimates. So for the government to arrive in here yesterday with the bills before the chamber and still not be able to answer questions—questions that have been on notice for some period of time—once again just points to the fact that we have a government that is absolutely prepared to push legislation through with no detail and refuse to answer the questions that are legitimately being asked by those on this side to make sure that we have transparency and that the sectors that need to know the answers to these questions have them.
They're just some examples of the kinds of questions that are on notice that haven't been answered. They are not questions that would have required an onerous amount of work by the department to provide the answers. They are reasonably simple question, and quite clearly, in the absence of answers to those questions, you'd have to suggest that the government either are hiding something or haven't done anything and are not prepared to admit to that. I would say that, for a government that had been elected on a platform of transparency, the opaqueness and refusal to provide details about things that are tremendously important would suggest that, once again, their guarantee of a transparent government was nothing more than every other promise that they made: a headline promise that they never had had any intention of ever delivering on.
I also rise to take note of the minister's answer or, rather, excuses. Senator Ruston has outlined why questions that have been placed on the Notice Paperand, as we know, senators are entitled to place questions on the Notice Paper and expect a response within the allocated time of 30 days—have not yet been answered.
The point that Senator Ruston makes is actually a point that the Senate needs to take note of. The platform that Mr Albanese went to the Australian people on was all about integrity and transparency. In fact, prior to the election he was very vocal when he made announcements to the Australian people that, if elected, both he, as the Prime Minister, and his ministers, as part of the Albanese government, would deliver transparency, integrity and accountability in everything they would do. But, as we know, it was all talk before the election. Just as with so many of the promises that they made to the Australian people—and we can go through them shortly—what you now have are broken promises from a tricky government. This is a government that prior to the election talked big on integrity, accountability and transparency yet, once elected to office, fails to hold itself to the standards that it set for itself prior to the election.
Senator Ruston raised an issue with the minister today in relation to questions in the health portfolio that have not yet been answered. I myself, prior to question time today, raised with Senator Watt—as the Minister representing the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Mr Burke—that I too would be raising this in relation to my portfolio after question time. I had 155 questions that had been asked in January of this year to which the responses, which had been due to be tabled on 9 February 2023, were still outstanding. Lo and behold, just before question time was finalised today, Minister Burke tabled the answers to the questions. Interestingly, I thought that my office would be sent 155 answers. One might expect that, for 155 questions, there would be 155 answers. Imagine my surprise, colleagues, when I was given one piece of paper. So much for integrity, transparency and accountability! There was one piece of paper responding to questions Nos 1162 to 1317. There's quite a jump in between, let me assure you. The question date was 10 January 2023, and the Table Office due date was 9 February 2023. Just before question time today, after the minister has been notified that I, too, would be moving a motion to take note of a failure by the minister to uphold the standards that Mr Albanese told the Australian people that both he and his ministers would be implementing if and when they were elected to government—transparency, integrity and accountability—I suddenly get one page. It is a global answer to 155 questions, but it does inform me—and this is the good news, colleagues—that the office of the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the department have undertaken a review of my questions on notice 1162 to 1317.
So at least it's a step in the right direction. Obviously they opened the file that was sent to them and they at least reviewed them. And then quite literally, as part of administering the workplace relations system, the minister, the minister's office and the department met with employee and employer representatives, for example, to consult on policy development. This is the beauty of the answer, though: 'Contact with some of the named representatives may have occurred in this context.' Well, 'may have'—what does 'may have' mean, in particular for a government that, again, prior to the election, espoused virtues of integrity, transparency and accountability?
What we have here is, quite frankly, contempt for the Australian Senate. And that is not just me talking. I reflect on comments made by those who are now in government when they were in opposition. In particular, I have to say, the now Attorney-General of Australia, Mark Dreyfus, is somebody who is a great preacher; I wouldn't necessarily say that he is a practiser, but he does like preaching, as so many have stated, in relation to accountability and integrity. In fact, Mr Dreyfus proudly told the Office of the Information Commissioner, in a speech on International Right to Know Day last year—this is very interesting—that information held by government and public institutions is a public resource. I'm assuming he thought that was a complete, total and utter joke. He also said that a culture of transparency within government is everyone's responsibility. Perhaps what he should have done, though, was put in brackets 'except for the following ministers'—in this case Minister Burke: again, 155 questions on notice, 155 questions outstanding as at 8 March and then, prior to question time, a one-page answer in relation to all these questions.
But also Mr Dreyfus, clearly not worried about practising what he preaches, said this: 'Appropriate, prompt and proactive disclosure of government-held information informs community, increases participation and enhances decision-making, builds trust and confidence, is required and permitted by law and improves efficiency.' Again, I'm a little confused. What part of treating the Senate with contempt, by providing a one-page answer to 155 questions well after the 30-day time period has expired, actually fits within 'appropriate'? Absolutely not. 'Prompt'? Definitely not. 'Proactive disclosure'? Well, absolutely not there. 'Informs community'? Well, one page doesn't inform us of much. 'Increases participation and enhances decision-making, builds trust and confidence and is required and permitted by law and improves efficiency'? Well, the answers that I have been provided with—or, rather the one-page answer—clearly does not do any of that. But, then again, now that they are in government, those on the other side are clearly holding themselves to very, very different standards to what they preached prior to the election.
Look at what now Minister Watt said in June 2021, just over 20 months ago. This was in relation to a failure to provide answers to questions on notice in a timely fashion. Those on the other side were also entitled to raise this when we were in government. But the problem is that they've then got to actually look at the answers they gave when they were in opposition and judge themselves and hold themselves to the standards that they screamed that the other side were required to uphold when we were in government. This is what Minister Watt said: 'We deserve answers and transparency.' He went further and said, 'It is not negotiable, and it should not be negotiable, to comply with standing orders and properly answer those questions.' Well, perhaps Minister Watt, on behalf of senators in this place, may actually raise that with both the Prime Minister and Minister Burke in terms of the way they have responded to the questions that I had on notice and certainly in the way that Senator Ruston's questions have not been answered despite, again, the standards by which Mr Albanese said his government would be judged if, and in due course, they were elected.
As others on the other side have all said, sometimes you actually need to read what you preached when you were in opposition to ensure that you are practising it when in government. Senator Marielle Smith said, on 15 October 2019:
I am relatively new to this place, but it doesn't really seem like an unreasonable request to me that these questions are answered within 30 days.
It's not an unreasonable request, Senator Smith.
Senator Sheldon, on 15 October 2019, said: 'When you answer the questions it drives results, and it drives accountability. This is what this parliament is for.' And then I have to say, with all due respect to poor Senator Ciccone, I will have to remind you of what you stated on 3 December 2019, but I'm sure you impress upon your ministers this:
It is a fundamental responsibility of this place to hold any government of the day to account. The Australian community expect us as senators to ask these very questions. These questions need to be asked. For any minister of the Crown to simply ignore this place—to disrespect the Senate and, through it, the Australian community—is very much unacceptable.
I have to say, it was very well said, Senator Ciccone. It is just a shame that both the Prime Minister of Australia and, in my case, Minister Burke, have not listened to what are your very wise words.
As Senator Ruston has clearly articulated—as is evident from what those on the other side said when they were in opposition and certainly by the actions of the now Albanese government ministers but, in particular, the Prime Minister himself—they set themselves the standards of being a government that would have integrity, be transparent with the Senate and the other place and the Australian people, and certainly provide accountability. And yet, day after day after day—and we haven't even reached the first year anniversary of the election—all we, in this Senate and the Australia people, are seeing is a government that doesn't really care what it said prior to the election, a government that once elected turns its back on the promises that it made, a government that fails to hold itself to the standards it set and, quite frankly, is a government that is just full of broken promises.
I rise to take note of the failure to answer questions. I think it is a systemic problem across this government. There are basically three mechanisms where we can get transparency on key issues for the Australian people. We have the questions on notice processes, which, as Senator Cash has already detailed, has not being respected by the government. Then there are the orders for production of documents, which, I must say, have also been regularly ignored. Then there is, of course, the mechanism of freedom of information, which is available to any citizen. What you often see from this government is a tendency to merge a freedom of information request lodged by a citizen, who may also be a senator at the same time, with a question on notice or with an order for production of documents. Of course, these things are not supposed to merge. They are supposed to be treated separately. But we see a deliberate corruption of these processes across the board and, by using that term, I don't mean to say that people are corrupt but I mean to say that the process is often corrupted in the sense that it is not respected for what it should be.
I have lodged, for better or worse, many questions on notice through Senator Gallagher's office on behalf of Minister Jones. These things range from detailed questions on financial advice, policy, superannuation policy and matters to do with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The government is now sitting on a key test in relation to these matters because, after yesterday's motion on this report into the ASIC deputy chair, the government will have to decide whether it will release a report that the Senate voted overwhelmingly for the government to release. We haven't called on the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to make the report public. We've called on the government through the Treasury and the Treasurer to deliver that report. It will be up to the Treasurer to comply with that order. I would say that it would be very risky territory for the Treasurer to hide behind some strange reasoning not to release a report which cost taxpayers $200,000.
Taxpayers forked out $200,000 for a secret investigation into an ASIC commissioner which was covered up by ASIC, or ASIC attempted to cover it up, at Senate estimates. Fancy that. The corporate regulator—the organisation which is required to hold Australian companies to account—is covering up an investigation into one of its own. Is there any wonder why corporate Australia regularly breaks the laws we set here in Canberra if corporate Australia doesn't take ASIC seriously, if ASIC's reputation is in the toilet and if people don't fear ASIC? We see a repeat of lawlessness, and then we see royal commissions make recommendations which are ignored.
One of the core problems here is that the law enforcement agencies are not doing their jobs and then the government of the day seeks to cover it up. This is going to be a key test, and almost all of the questions that have been asked in the Treasury portfolio since the election have not been answered properly. I refer here to question on notice No. 356, in which I asked how many meetings Minister Jones had had with stakeholders in his review of the best financial interests duty that the Treasury is conducting. I got no answer. Then, in question on notice No. 565, I asked the same minister, Minister Jones:
Is the Minister aware of the disclosures made by AustralianSuper on Wednesday 14 September 2022, in their 2022 annual members' meeting notice.
In that meeting notice, because of regulations that had been made by the government that super fund was able to cover up over $100 million in related party transactions and $1 million in payments to unions. I asked subsequent questions of the minister about whether he was aware of these huge cover-ups of key information. Again, there were no answers.
It is a very regrettable situation that the government is making policy judgements to do certain things. It is asked about them in the usual way, through the means that we have here in the chamber and through questions on notice, and the government is deciding not to provide that information. That is showing that the government holds the chamber in contempt, and it is a pattern of behaviour in which all the transparency measures are treated poorly by the government.
There was a long and twisted debate about the creation of an integrity commission, which I personally have favoured the establishment of for many years. A lot of people made the argument to have an integrity commission as if there were no other integrity measures or no other transparency measures as part of our system of government. One of the great things about our system of government is that we have the committee system and we have Senate estimates. We have these transparency measures, and if they're treated poorly they will be eroded over time. Therefore, the creation of an integrity commission will have less power or less capacity to improve our system in the long run if the other measures are watered down.
A government needs to respect the institutions that it inherits over time. The failure to address questions that are asked through proper means and methods is hugely regrettable. Always pointing the finger at past practices is not a very good answer. I'm sure that there have been cases in the past where governments have not answered questions properly, and I think that is hugely regrettable. Governments who want to preach to the electorate that they are going to be the paragon of virtue and the paragon of integrity should, of course, hold themselves to that standard. It's only reasonable that that's what an opposition would seek a government to do. If we are asking reasonable questions in accordance with the rules, they should be answered within a reasonable time frame. At least the substance of the answers should be given, rather than fobbed off.
It concerns me that answers aren't given. It also concerns me that, when answers are given, they're not actually given, but the greatest concern I have here is the meshing together of processes which aren't supposed to be meshed together. If I put a question on notice to the minister, I'm not supposed to get an answer back saying, 'We've got an FOI request from you.' They're supposed to be treated as if they are not intersecting with one another. Regularly, we're receiving correspondence back from ministers, saying, 'We have your FOI request, even though you've asked a question on notice.' Of course, I've asked the FOI as Citizen Bragg, not as Senator Bragg, so I wouldn't expect those things to overlap. We hope that the government can do better here. It's an important part of the institution, which we don't want to see eroded over time.
I will associate myself with colleagues of mine who have stood up and made a contribution on the very important issue of transparency. We heard about it throughout the election campaign. Indeed, I was elected in 2019, and almost every question time the topic of transparency and integrity was raised. It was something that the Albanese government—then the Albanese opposition—took to the Australian people, saying they were going to be the new measure of transparency, as Australians expect. However, over nearly 12 months now, a pattern of complete avoidance of transparency has developed, and when there is an opportunity to be up-front and transparent this government doesn't take it seriously.
I associate myself with everything Senator Ruston, Senator Cash and Senator Bragg have said. I thought it was quite interesting that Senator Cash, in the contribution that she made, reflected on some of the comments that my colleagues on the other side were making in the last term, when they were on this side. Senator Cash referenced a statement that my good friend Senator Sheldon made. He said that when questions are asked there should be progress—or words to that effect. He said that things should happen, and he was absolutely right. What we need to see is this government starting to take its responsibilities more seriously. At the very least, those opposite need to take this chamber and the processes Senator Bragg was speaking about more seriously and understand the importance of their role in ensuring good accountability and good government.
I was going through some of the questions that Senator Ruston is waiting on—questions that she's put to the Minister for Health and Aged Care in relation to various issues of the health portfolio. They're hardly 'gotcha' questions; they're not there just to trip the government up. Some of them relate to very serious issues that many Australians are facing. Just over 12 months ago, I had someone come into my office; it was the father of a child who has juvenile diabetes. This father—Geoff was his name—explained to me that, for a child who has a continuous glucose monitoring device, the worst day of their life is their 21st birthday because that's when they lose access to that device. It's not covered by Medicare for adults. Many of my colleagues would have heard similar stories in their electorate offices as people came forward. There was quite an active campaign to convince the government of the day that it was important to ensure that adults got access to those devices. I remember engaging with the minister for health. Through the election campaign, the health minister at the time, Greg Hunt, made a commitment on behalf of the Australian government that, should the coalition be elected, they would provide those devices to adults. Thankfully, the Labor party matched that commitment.
So here we have a question that goes to what you are doing. You said you would do it. It was part of your election commitment.
You jumped on the 'me too' bandwagon. That's right, Senator Hughes. They jumped straight on it, and that's good. We applauded the fact that there was unanimity on this issue, and Australians were very grateful for that. So here's a question—it's not a 'gotcha' question; it's just a very straightforward question—about the implementation of that change and that program: how many additional devices are estimated to be required to meet the demand? It is a pretty basic question. There is nothing there to trip the government up. How many patients are waiting to access the device? It is pretty straightforward. Is there a shortage of continuous glucose-monitoring devices for type 1 diabetic patients? Again, it is pretty straightforward. How is the department triaging which patients have access to a device?
The point is that not only is it important to ensure that we have transparency and that the integrity of the government is intact and that they're respecting the process, as Senator Bragg was talking about, so that we can ask these questions and have them responded to in a timely fashion; it actually goes to very serious issues. As Senator Sheldon was saying, if we want to see progress then we've got to see answers to these questions. So that's why we ask these questions. It's why these questions are there, and expecting a response is important. Having those responses come in a timely fashion is critical, because it actually impacts people's lives.
It's disappointing that families look to a 21st birthday as actually the biggest disappointment. Most people look to their 21st birthday as a big celebration, but, sadly, for too many people who are becoming adults and progressing through their lives, if they have type 1 diabetes and they're going to lose access to that device, it's obviously going to have a dramatic impact on their wellbeing and their health. So that's what this is about. It's more than just transparency and integrity; it's about people's lives. I urge this government to take its job seriously. You weren't just elected to hold a position; you were elected to lead and to actually deliver the services that Australians expect you to deliver. Good taxpayers are paying for the delivery of those services, so I implore you to take this job seriously. Don't treat us with contempt. Don't treat this place, the Senate, with contempt, because you're not just working against the institution; you're actually working against the Australian people, who expect more and expect you to stand up for them.
Question agreed to.