Senate debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023



10:13 am

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to move a motion in relation to an order for the production of documents regarding the transparency of official appointments. This motion has been circulated.

Leave not granted.

Pursuant to a contingent motion standing in my name, I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent me from moving a motion to provide for the consideration of a matter, namely, a motion to give precedence to a motion relating to an order for the production of documents.

In the coming weeks, in the run-up to the budget, the corridors of this building will be swarming with lobbyists, big business representatives and political donors seeking to influence government policies, decisions and beyond. They will be having quiet words with ministers and their staff and they'll be greasing the machinery of government to ensure that their interests, not the public interests, are protected and promoted.

Publication of the names of the people who lobby government is a vital transparency and integrity measure for this place, but yesterday Labor and the coalition combined forces to block a motion moved by me that would have provided for the quarterly publication of the names of the people outside government who are meeting with ministers to influence government policy or decisions. There was nothing radical in this motion. That proposed scheme was based on the New South Wales Premier's memorandum M2014-07 on the publication of ministerial diaries, an arrangement that's been in place for nearly nine years. The Premier's memo was born out of the 2010 New South Wales ICAC report titled Investigation into corruption risks involved in lobbying.

Publishing ministers' diaries is a key anticorruption measure. Official ministerial diaries are already published in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT. It's also done in New Zealand. Even the United States President releases and publishes White House visitor logs. This is a baseline anticorruption measure that should stand alongside the new National Anti-Corruption Commission and political donations reform, so it's an absolute disgrace that Labor and the coalition combined against the crossbench and the Greens to block this transparency measure. It's all the more a shame because Labor and the coalition have both previously expressed support for ministerial diaries to be transparent.

In the previous parliament, Labor—notably, now Attorney-General Dreyfus—supported public disclosure of ministerial diaries. The then coalition government resisted. In this parliament, the coalition initially developed a newfound interest in transparency. Following the government's obstruction of efforts by a journalist to obtain FOI, freedom of information, access to the Prime Minister's appointment diary, Senator Birmingham pursued the matter with Senator Wong in question time. After former senator Patrick was in the news for having been asked to pay $13,444 for 197 days of the PM's diary, paying the deposit and then being told that he was not going to get them anyway, Senator Birmingham pursued the government at February estimates. Senator Wong says there is no need for a general disclosure scheme, claiming that FOI is still an effective transparency mechanism despite knowing full well that, thanks to our broken freedom of information system, the government can delay access for years if not indefinitely.

However, Senator Birmingham's transparency enthusiasm apparently evaporated in a puff of smoke yesterday, and now the coalition is on a unity ticket with Labor against openness and integrity. One wonders what happened. Perhaps former Prime Minister Morrison's secrecy obsessions live on inside the Liberal Party. Perhaps Senator Birmingham just has no ticker. In any case, the truth is that both major parties are allergic to integrity measures in this place. Shame on you. In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of lobbyists scurrying along the corridors of power. If you turn on the lights, the cockroaches head for the exits. That's what we need and that's why this motion is urgent.

I relented. Instead of taking my ideas, which came from a very normal disclosure arrangement in New South Wales, my motion lets the government decide the best way. How reasonable is that? I've tried compromise. We need this motion passed now so we can have some resolution by next week. It gives the government another chance to do the right thing and live up to its promise from the last election—transparency, transparency, transparency! Oh my goodness, isn't that evaporating at the speed of light? How's that going for you? You just have more broken promises, and transparency is a big one. If they don't pass this motion, then I have to ask: what are you hiding? What are you so scared to show in those diaries? What don't you want the public to know out there? I cannot implore you enough to come back to the transparency measures you promised the people in the last election and do what you said you would do.

10:19 am

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens strongly support this motion. After years of political scandals, secrecy, misuse of funds and the trashing of conventions, the community has little confidence that politicians in this place will act in anything other than their own interests, and too often their own interests are influenced by industry lobbyists offering cushy post-parliament roles sweetened by the winking promise of political donations. Far too many deals in this place are thrashed out between ministers and their donors behind closed doors. You only have to see the number of orange lanyards in the hallways to understand that lobbyists are constantly in and out of ministers' offices. And you only have to look at the policy outcomes to see the influence they have over decisions. Privileged access, generous donations and promises of a cushy role when they're done clearly influence political decisions.

We know that the minister responsible for regulating gambling has met with the gambling industry seven times more often than she has met with gambling harm reduction advocates, and we only know that because it was interrogated through estimates, not because that information is put out in the public for all to see. So it's safe to assume that the ministers responsible for the safeguard mechanism are being lobbied by the very industries that will be regulated by it. It's no shock that many of them have loudly supported the weak proposal that would allow them to keep polluting. Remember when the Minerals Council toppled a prime minister over a proposed superprofits tax, or when casinos were exempted from COVID restrictions? It's a level of access and influence that most community organisations working in the public interest can only dream of, and it undermines democracy. The very least that the public could expect is for ministers to be open about who they're meeting with and what they're talking about. Labor should be supporting greater transparency. The current Attorney-General took legal action arguing that former attorney-general George Brandis should release his ministerial diaries. The Queensland state Labor government has been publishing ministerial diaries for years, and the sky hasn't fallen in.

The Greens want to get big money and corporate influence out of politics altogether. We were calling for a national integrity commission for about a decade before Labor finally saw the light, and we're glad that we'll finally see one this year—albeit without the public hearings and whistleblower protections that we'll keep calling for. But a strong corruption watchdog is just one step in restoring public confidence in democracy. Cleaning up politics is not just about exposing corruption and punishing the corrupt; it's about getting rid of the conditions that allow corruption and poor standards to flourish in the first place. We need better checks and balances on who gets to bend the ears of politicians—a strong lobbying code that lets people see who's meeting with who, and one that would put an end to the revolving door that sees politicians and staffers, within moments of leaving parliament, take on highly paid senior roles in industries they used to regulate.

Lobbyists are defined under the current weak Lobbying Code of Conduct as people or companies lobbying 'on behalf of a third party'. This excludes in-house lobbying—lobbying directly for a company or an industry—which is a loophole the size of a mining truck. Ministers exploit that language so that in-house lobbyists and post-ministerial roles are treated in a way that falls outside the lobbying regulated under the code. It clearly undermines the objectives of the code, and it must be fixed. We need an enforceable code of conduct for politicians, with meaningful consequences for misconduct. We've recently strengthened the code to address harassment and bad behaviour, but we need to go further and address integrity. We need a strong public sector providing frank and fearless advice to ministers and curbing their excesses. We need well-resourced oversight agencies, like the ANAO, and freedom of information laws that actually promote transparency. We need a culture that encourages people to expose misconduct, knowing that there are strong protections for whistleblowers and a genuine expectation that the misconduct they have exposed will lead to punishment for those who are abusing their positions. And we need to remove the corrupting influence of political donations.

We want to ban donations from industries with a track record of buying influence, like fossil fuels, weapons, gambling and pharmaceuticals, to stop those industries standing in the way of science based reforms and humane policies. We also want to ensure that all donations over a thousand dollars are disclosed in real time, not up to 19 months after the gift, which is currently the case. And we want the definition of gift to capture the full gift—not just the money explicitly given as a donation but exorbitant memberships, meeting fees and expensive dinners. Real-time disclosure of gifts would allow people to know who's funding the parties they voted for. Everybody benefits from a culture of honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability in politics. Let's just get on with it.

10:24 am

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

We don't support the suspension motion that the chamber is currently debating—although we have, as usual, traversed into the substance of the motion that is being sought to be moved. The reason we don't agree with the suspension is that the Senate has a number of pieces of legislation for this time, which is meant for government business. I note that the suspension motion wasn't moved at the beginning of the day, which allowed for private senators' matters to be dealt with, but is eating into government business time. We have a number of key pieces of legislation that we would like to progress, including—this morning if possible—the Workplace Gender Equality Amendment (Closing the Gender Pay Gap) Bill. As people would understand, it is very important to progress that and to put a new arrangement in place. It is time critical. It needs to pass this week so that we can put in the arrangements required for reporting at a business level about the steps organisations are taking to close the gender pay gap and publicising the gender pay gap that exists in businesses, because that's a real handbrake on women's economic equality.

That is the reason we won't support the suspension of the standing orders. There are a range of times in the chamber when this motion could be moved. Notice could have been given to deal with it on Monday. We dealt with a motion yesterday. So there is simply no argument that this has to be done at this point in time. I also say that the usual courtesy is to provide some heads-up that this is happening so that we can prepare. The chamber operates on these conventions.

Photo of Jacqui LambieJacqui Lambie (Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie Network) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh, right.

Photo of Katy GallagherKaty Gallagher (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Public Service) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, we do try to talk with people ahead of time. Yes, we do. We are trying desperately to put arrangements in this place that give respect to every member of this place about what is happening and when it is happening. I reach out to people. I contact people before each sitting week and say: 'Is there anything we can do? Are there any issues you want to raise? How do we deal with them during the sitting week?' That is so it is done in an orderly fashion and we aren't dealing with situations like this.

In terms of the substance of the motion that Senator Lambie is seeking to move—and people have chosen to take their five minutes to concentrate on that rather than debate the suspension of the standing orders—the Albanese government does take transparency and accountability in government seriously. We are implementing a higher standard. We have the National Anti-Corruption Commission. We have, through the joint standing committee of the parliament, agreed on draft codes of conduct for parliamentarians. We will progress that through the enhanced PWSS and the arrangements that have been put in place by Set the standard. Senator Waters, Senator Hume, Senator Farrell, Senator Davey and I, with members from the other place, are members of the Parliamentary Leadership Taskforce that is to put in place appropriate conduct and standards for parliamentarians and make them accountable through their chambers to the people for the standards and behaviour. That is happening.

We have whistleblower reform underway. We are dealing with the boards and appointment processes through reviews. We have the Attorney's work that he's doing through the AAT on improving processes there. A whole range of work is going on about cleaning up the mess and putting in place the right infrastructure to make sure that government and the rest of us as MPs and senators are transparent and accountable.

We of course have the FOI Act. The FOI Act is followed and is applied in accordance with the law that has been established by this place to ensure that there is a mechanism for people to have access to documents where they meet the requirements of the FOI Act.

On the diaries of the Prime Minister—or of any minister—you can mostly see the Prime Minister's diary every day because he's out and about doing meetings, doing functions, meeting with people and holding press conferences. You will not find a busier person in this place than the Prime Minister. He is more than happy to be accountable for the people he meets, the decisions he takes and the positions of the government. There are laws that apply to the seeking of information. They are being followed.

In accordance with the approach that we have taken, we are raising the standard of accountability and transparency in government. We do take it seriously. There are plenty of opportunities for us to have a longer debate on this should the Senate choose.

10:29 am

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome Senator Lambie's focus on transparency when it comes to diaries. I remind Minister Gallagher that we are only here talking about this today because the major parties voted against what I really see as the bare minimum when it comes to transparency of ministers—who they're meeting with and who is influencing the decisions they make. They wield a huge amount of power, and Australians deserve to know who is feeding into the decisions that affect so many Australians. We hear that the government take transparency seriously, and yet they don't want to allow Australians to see who ministers are meeting. The NACC won't have public hearings unless there are exceptional circumstances.

The government doesn't want people to know who the hundreds of in-house lobbyists and the hundreds of people who have sponsored passes in this building are. They point to the lobbyists register. As a new senator to this place, I have been shocked at how many people have access-all-areas passes to this building. Currently there are 700 people who have sponsored passes, and Australians have no idea who they are. They walk down these halls and they have meetings. I have no issue with that. I really have no issue with that. It is the sign of a good democracy that this place is open and accessible. But Australians deserve to know who they are. Australians deserve to know who has that access. It's a check on all of us. If you are going to give someone a sponsored pass, you should have to think: 'This person will be on the register of interest, and the public will know. The public will know who I am vouching for to have access to this building.'

As I said, there are currently 700 people with sponsored passes. At the end of the last parliament, it got to 2,000 people. That is 2,000 people on top of the lobbyists register. The government's argument, to me, doesn't stack up. You hear all sorts of excuses, and yet this is disclosed in the UK, the US and New Zealand. If we are going to take transparency seriously, we have to stop seeing this situation where the major parties team up against the entire crossbench to protect themselves. They know that they will have their turn at some stage. I thought this was summed up in question time a few weeks back when Minister Wong was asked about releasing her diary. Her response was, 'I bet you didn't release yours, did you, mate?' It's simply not good enough that when you are in opposition you can say all these things about transparency. When you are in government, do it.

Australians want more transparency. The crossbench is listening to our communities say, 'We deserve more transparency.' Yet yesterday this chamber voted against Senator Lambie's motion to get in line with all of these countries across the world that have decided that this is a bare minimum in a democracy, that people should know who is meeting with decision-makers and feeding into these big decisions. So I thank Senator Lambie for this opportunity. I thank the crossbench, including former senator Rex Patrick for his work in this area. This is something that the crossbench will continue to push the major parties on. It is not good enough, and Australians are demanding more. We're here to represent them, and we will keep pushing the major parties on this issue.

10:33 am

Photo of Ralph BabetRalph Babet (Victoria, United Australia Party) Share this | | Hansard source

BABET (—) (): Thank you, Senator Lambie, for what you did yesterday. I, like most of us here, would like to see who our elected members of parliament are meeting with in their offices in the halls of power. Our liberal democratic system of government is based on trust. That's what it's based on. That is why it is both the strongest and, at the same time, the most fragile form of government on earth. Liberal democracies are strong because of the compact between governments and citizens. Governments like ours do not rule by force but by the consent of the governed. Citizens grant elected officials authority to govern in return for these officials representing them well. If we do not represent the people well, what happens then is we get tossed out at the next election at the ballot box, and rightly so.

Abraham Lincoln described 'government of the people, by the people, for the people'—that's what he said. Winston Churchill—what did he say? He said of democracy, 'It's the worst form of government, aside from all the others.' Here in Australia our system of government has served us well since Australia was federated. We're one of the freest and most peaceful nations on earth—we all agree with that one. Liberal democracies are the envy of every person who has ever been doomed to live under autocratic rule. That's why people flee to the West. That's why people never flee to those countries where more coercive forms of government exist. Yet our system of government, like I said before, is fragile because it's built on trust. The strength of our democracy depends on trust between everyone in this place and the public.

I know it's a popular pastime to joke about the trustworthiness of politicians, but, by and large, despite some scandals here and there, most people still believe that most of us in this place are here with the best of intentions. I believe that, for the most part, that's true. It is incumbent upon us here to do everything we can to ensure that that belief and that sacred trust remain and grow. It is for that reason that I support the idea that ministers should make their diaries public. It's just a good idea. It's essential to a well-functioning democracy. When people suspect that things are hidden, even if they're not hidden, trust is eroded. But when people see that things are in the open and freely available for inspection then trust is built. There can be no faith in government when government officials are exempt from scrutiny.

We in this place want to be well respected. We must respect our electors by committing to transparency wherever it's possible. Once again: transparency builds trust. It's not like we're asking ministers to disclose their secret teenage 'dear diary' entries from when they were kids. These are official meetings, and, for the most part, these meetings are in the public interest. We are elected in this place to serve the public. As part of our public service it is only fair that those who hold powerful positions release their diaries to the public. Ministers have power; ministers have influence. It is important that that power and influence are scrutinised. We know, as has been mentioned, that in this place there exist many lobbyists, many special interest groups—many individuals seeking to exert influence over everyone here. Trust in government ministers benefits those ministers, since the public are probably more likely to vote for them if they trust them.

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of Ralph BabetRalph Babet (Victoria, United Australia Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's right! And trust in government ministers benefits the nation more broadly, as greater trust means a stronger democracy. I'll point to a recent example. The Prime Minister met with our mate Bill Gates recently in a secret meeting—well, we know that he met with him but we don't know what they talked about. This man is one of the biggest funders of the World Health Organization in the world. Having just come out of a pandemic, I'd love to know what the Prime Minister and Bill Gates talked about.

10:38 am

Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In working to serve the people of Queensland and Australia, I normally oppose motions for the suspension of standing orders, because I don't want to interrupt the work of the Senate. Integrity, though, is vital to the Senate working effectively, so I compliment Senator Lambie for raising this matter this morning.

I've given considerable thought to whether I vote for the suspension, and I will. The minister, in her response, just referred to offers of discussion on integrity but nothing specific—no time, no date, no idea of when it would be. There was no commitment to it. A lack of integrity always hurts our country and hurts the Australian people, because it leads to uncertainty, which leads to fear. Who pays for the financial burden of a lack of integrity? We the people, including the people watching at home, pay for it.

Madam Acting Deputy President, I'll give you some examples of the lack of integrity and transparency in the current government. Bills have been withheld from One Nation scrutiny yet were freely given to the Greens and Senator Pocock two weeks earlier. That's a lack of integrity. There's the gas industry nationalisation—another lack of integrity—which will lead to increased prices.

There is the climate change bill, which contradicts the empirical statistical evidence and scientific data and contradicts the logical scientific points. It was bludgeoned through the senate with the help of the Greens and teal senator David Pocock, again showing a lack of integrity from the government.

There are the Fair Work Act amendments, including compulsory bargaining. The topic was not even raised at the industrial relations summit. Again, this shows a lack of integrity. Added to that, Mr Dan Repacholi and his predecessor, Mr Joel Fitzgibbon, protected the Hunter Valley CFMMEU from our scrutiny.

Look at COVID mismanagement. That was a uni-party collusion between the Labor state governments and the Liberal-National coalition in the federal parliament. It led to massive wealth transfer, which the people paid for. It led to massive control—unnecessary control—based on deceit. Why? Because health was never the concern. The objectives were control and wealth transfer.

Look at the TGA, and the bill that was passed two weeks ago. The health department secretary alone can approve drugs, without testing. That is a lack of integrity. That same bill destroyed legal fundamentals and removed natural justice and procedural fairness. It removes the right to due process and reverses the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. It introduced strict liability and incorporation of external material at the secretary's whim. How the hell can people comply with the law when they don't know what it says?

Then we saw the Aboriginal grog bans lifted. This government abandoned mothers, children and the community, with the help of the Greens. Again, this is a lack of integrity. There is the Voice. This government are deliberately trying to deceive the people. They go around the Constitution and don't let the people know what's involved, because they're hiding the details.

They broke their superannuation promise—a lack of integrity. They dismissed the Treasury bill from the parliamentary agenda, because they want to protect their banker mates. The senate will not even get consideration of it. Yet again, this is a lack integrity.

One Nation is founded on integrity and service. Our founder and leader, Senator Pauline Hanson, went to jail at the hands of leaders like Labor's Premier Beattie, who showed a lack of integrity. Pauline knows that honesty is best. She knows we are under constant scrutiny and are misrepresented. That's why it has been a blessing for Pauline Hanson and me to always act with integrity. We are strong and principled, and people sense that. That's why One Nation is growing around the country. We will be supporting you, Senator Lambie.

10:42 am

Photo of David ShoebridgeDavid Shoebridge (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Of course the Greens support this motion. We commend the senator for bringing them forward. The Greens will always stand by transparency. What we can't understand is how the club of Labor and the coalition join together every time to protect their self-interest and to protect their secret contract with the donors and big business. That's what this motion is about. It's exposing how the corporate donor turns up to a minister's office on Monday and gets the policy outcome on Tuesday. They turn up and talk to the minister privately on Wednesday and get the legislation introduced on Friday. That's how the system works.

It's no wonder that the club is protecting it. It's no wonder that Labor and the coalition are joining together to prevent showing us who ministers are meeting with. These are public officials delivering billions of dollars of public money—major policy decisions—and they won't even tell us who they are meeting with.

This is hardly revolutionary. State governments manage to disclose who their ministers meet with. Even the New South Wales government, not known for its amazing integrity levels, will tell you who the ministers are meeting with. That's how we know the coalition planning minister in New South Wales met with a major property developer on one day and then, on the same day, killed most of the environmental regulations over planning.

What are you hiding?

Photo of Dorinda CoxDorinda Cox (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The question before the chair is that the motion moved by Senator Lambie be agreed to.