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Thursday, 13 November 2008
Page: 7

Senator BRANDIS (10:04 AM) —I seek leave to make a statement in relation to Senator Fielding’s motion.

Leave granted.

Senator BRANDIS —I thank Senator Ludwig for the indulgence. Without reflecting on the vote of the Senate which has just taken place, the issue framed by Senator Fielding’s motion which the Australian Labor Party has just used its numbers to stifle is an extraordinary breach of faith with the commitments that were made to the Australian people by Mr Kevin Rudd and by the Australian Labor Party over recent years. The effect of what has happened—

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Brandis cannot say that he is not reflecting on the vote and then proceed to reflect on the vote. I gave leave for a short statement to be made in respect of the division. I was then interested to ensure that it was not going to be a rehash of the vote that was just taken. What we are now hearing is a reflection on the vote, quite frankly.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, I believe that you are now debating the motion. If you want to comment on the procedure that was taking place, I think that that is fair, but—

Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I sought leave to make a statement in relation to Senator Fielding’s motion and the division that has just taken place. Those were the terms in which I sought leave. Those were the terms in which leave was given. Leave having been given, it cannot now, as I understand it, be rescinded.

The PRESIDENT —Yes, but also, without getting into a debate on this—and I will not—it should not reflect on the vote of the Senate.

Senator BRANDIS —It will not reflect on the vote of the Senate. I expressly stated that I was not reflecting on the vote of the Senate. What I do intend to reflect upon is some prior statements made by certain government—then opposition—politicians. I will not be dealing with the vote in the Senate again.

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, I raise a point of order in respect of this matter. We are now debating the issue. That is what we are doing now, but it is not appropriate to do that. The vote has been taken and we have moved past this point. I would ask Senator Brandis, through you, Mr President, to refrain from debating the motion, to refrain from reflecting on the vote and, quite frankly, to move on.

Senator BRANDIS —I will not be reflecting on the division because under standing orders I am not at liberty to. Leave was granted for me to make this statement for the reasons you explained, on the basis outlined by Senator Parry and acknowledged, in granting leave, by Senator Ludwig. Because of the circumstances in which this issue has arisen, there is nothing, other than reflecting on the vote of the Senate, that I should be restricted from saying now and that I could not have said in advance of a division.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, proceed with your statement. I will continue to listen closely to what is being said, as well as take the advice of the Clerk.

Senator BRANDIS —Thank you, Mr President. Had Senator Fielding’s motion been carried then a Senate inquiry would have been established to examine a matter which has become notorious, and that is the leak by an unknown, unspecified person of the details of the Prime Minister’s conversation with President Bush on 10 October.

Senator Sterle interjecting—

Senator Abetz interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Abetz, if Senator Brandis is making the statement, I am quite prepared to listen to Senator Brandis but it is very hard having two people operating at once.

Senator BRANDIS —I want to take the Senate back to a number of statements that were made by or on behalf of—

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, I raise a point of order in respect of this matter, for which there was a formal motion. It was granted formality and the motion was moved. It was moved without debate. Granting leave does not alter that position, but the debate is now ensuing in respect of the motion. This was a motion moved without debate. Leave was granted to provide a short statement in respect of the matter but not to debate the matter. We know what short statements are for: they are to clarify something, to expand on something that happened during the division, or for some other matter that is unrelated, but they are not a debate on the motion. If the Liberals are now going to use this device to debate the motion, they should reflect very carefully on whether leave will be granted by the government in respect of these matters.

Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I was granted leave to make a statement of the kind I indicated, and that is what I am doing. I have been given leave; the leave cannot now be rescinded.

Senator Ludwig —Mr President, on the point of order: I ask that you rule on whether we are now debating the motion.

Senator BRANDIS —But you do not know because I have not said anything yet.

Senator Ludwig —You have already spoken and you have indicated that you are going to go over the debate itself.

Senator BRANDIS —No, I have not. I never said that.

Senator Bob Brown —On the point of order: the matter could best be resolved if we were to have an agreement that Senator Brandis have two or three minutes, which is usual for a statement being made by leave. In other words, if Senator Brandis were to agree to such a time limit, I would be happy to hear him out, whatever he has to say.

Senator Ferguson —On the point of order that Senator Ludwig made: it is my understanding—and I would ask you to rule on this—that when a person seeks leave to make a statement there are no restrictions on what he may say in that statement; there is only a time limit that is sometimes put on it. So, you can give leave for a certain time but, as I understand it, if a senator stands and says, ‘I seek leave to make a short statement,’ you cannot restrict the content of that statement; you can only ever put a time constraint on it.

Senator Cormann —The government is touchy.

Senator Sterle —You lost the vote. That’s it. Move on.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Sterle and Senator Cormann, it does not assist the conduct of this for people to interject. Senator Brandis, did you wish to speak further on the point of order or do you want me to rule?

Senator BRANDIS —On the point of order, Mr President: leave was given; it cannot now be rescinded.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, I am quite aware that leave was given. Leave was sought and leave was given. To answer Senator Ferguson’s comments on Senator Ludwig’s point of order: it is quite correct that I cannot instruct a person or deny them the right to say anything when they have sought and been granted leave, other than that they cannot reflect on a decision of the Senate. Provided you do not reflect on the decision of the Senate then my position is clear and you will continue to make your statement. It will be up to others, if they disagree with the way in which you proceed, to take points of order.

Senator BRANDIS —I want to begin with the speech of the Governor-General. In this chamber, at the opening of the 42nd Parliament, on 12 February 2008, when His Excellency, in announcing the historic occasion of the formation of and the priorities of a newly elected government, said this, under the heading ‘Governance and transparency’. He committed his government, the Rudd government, to this proposition:

Laws relating to government information will be enhanced by promoting a culture of disclosure and transparency.

Several weeks later, the Special Minister of State, Senator Faulkner, who has made a famous public reputation as an advocate of honest, open and accountable government, gave a speech to the 2020 Summit. I was there. This is what he said on 19 April 2008 in relation to the Rudd government’s attitude to parliamentary scrutiny, disclosure and transparency—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Brandis, are you now debating the motion?

Senator BRANDIS —No, I am reading certain statements made by ministers of the government.

The PRESIDENT —Please continue.

Senator BRANDIS —Attacking the attitude of the previous government, Senator Faulkner said this:

We have also seen the integrity of governance in Australia compromised.

We have seen a period when the apolitical nature of the public service has been tested and public servants’ role in policy development constrained. We have seen increased emphasis on security and secrecy undermining openness and transparency.

The opposition, of course, does not accept those accusations against the previous government, but that was the mischief that Senator Faulkner identified. To correct that mischief—that is the criterion, that is the benchmark which he set himself. This is how he announced the new government’s priorities.

Senator Bob Brown —Mr President, on a point of order: clearly, we are hearing a peroration, not an explanation or a short contribution to the Senate. I ask the senator to say how long he will be in making this delivery to the Senate. There was—and there is—the opportunity for a full debate on this matter if the opposition had wanted that. It obviously did not. If each of the senators who have a point of view on this were to follow this course of action, we would be having a de facto debate on the matter. I simply ask Senator Brandis to say if he is containing this to three, four or five minutes.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Brown, on your point of order, there was a debate earlier this year at the Senate Standing Committee on Procedure on leave given for short statements. As a matter of fact, it was raised by those to my left, who were complaining about the length of statements made by leave. There was, I thought, a consensus that short statements would be limited to two minutes or a specific time when leave was granted for those statements to be made. I think that, within the spirit of what I believe was raised at that time, it would be appropriate for Senator Brandis to bring his statement to a conclusion. I am firming in the view, as I listen to more of what Senator Brandis says, that the issue is now being debated. I do not believe that that is the purpose of seeking leave to make a statement. There are other avenues for statements to be made in this place. Senator Brandis, I ask you to draw your remarks to a conclusion if you possibly can.

Senator BRANDIS —I have been given leave to make a statement.

The PRESIDENT —Yes, I understand.

Senator BRANDIS —There is no limitation of time placed upon me, though I will be brief. That leave was unconditional. So long as I am not in breach of any standing orders—and you have not ruled that I am—the leave cannot be rescinded. I am at liberty to continue, as I propose to, subject to your rulings, of course.

The PRESIDENT —I have indicated that you should continue. I do not think, though, that the path that you are now going down is within the spirit of the discussions that took place—that were raised not by government members but by opposition members—in respect of leave being granted for statements. I just say that, for what it is worth.

Senator BRANDIS —Thank you. I will not be very long. In a speech to which I have referred, which sets out the Rudd government’s purported public position in relation to disclosure, Senator Faulkner went on to say:

Some of these symptoms of failing structures can be, and are being, reversed…

A ‘pro-disclosure culture in government’ is one of the five ambitions, or declarations of intent, that Senator Faulkner made for the Rudd government. He went on to say, rhetorically:

…do we really want our democracy to be one in which accountability and good governance ultimately depend on the goodwill, on the whim, of the government of the day?

We have seen how thin those words are. We have also seen how thin the announcement by Mr Rudd was, four days before the federal election last year, when he was the Leader of the Opposition, that ministerial staffers involved in government decision making would lose their ability to avoid giving evidence to inquiries by parliamentary committees under a Labor government. The article in the Australian by the journalist Matthew Franklin went on to report that Mr Rudd also foreshadowed the release of a new code of ministerial conduct. He said:

If we have ministerial staff who themselves are directly engaged in effective decision-making within government, then of course they should be accountable before parliamentary committees.

Those are the very words of the Prime Minister on 20 November last year: of course, ministerial staff should be accountable before parliamentary committees. That was Mr Rudd’s position when he was in opposition. That was the new government’s position, as announced in the speech of the Governor-General in opening the parliament. That was the position of the minister responsible for these matters, Senator Faulkner, in his speech to the 2020 Summit last April. Yet what we are seeing today and what we have seen in the approach of the Rudd government to this entire issue of the leaking of one of the most important—

Senator Crossin —Mr President, on a point of order: Senator Brandis has now been on his feet for at least 2½ minutes. Could you give us some advice as to when a short statement is a short statement—and how long that ought to be—and when a short statement is just a heap of diatribe that goes on forever?

The PRESIDENT —Senator Crossin, leave was granted for a short statement. I think that the Hansard record will show that. Senator Brandis, I would draw your attention to a statement that I made a few moments ago. You said you were wrapping. I think that a little bit of good faith now needs to be shown. I cannot sit you down—you know that. You have leave, as you have rightly pointed out, to continue, but I think it would be in good faith if you could wrap up your statement.

Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, I would have been disposed of the matter well before now had there not been points of order taken by the government, who are obviously very scared of this issue—every one of which has failed; every one of which you have properly overruled.

Senator Sterle —Well, get on with it. You are full of it.

Senator Crossin —Get over it. You had the chance to give us this diatribe before the vote.

The PRESIDENT —Order on my right! Senator Brandis, I have asked in good faith if you can wrap up your statement.

Senator BRANDIS —Mr President, the point the opposition seeks to make is this: by the conduct of the government, by the conduct of the Prime Minister, in refusing to respond to proper questions in the House of Representatives on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, by the conduct of spokesmen and senior ministers of the government in addressing this issue and in the conduct of the Australian Labor Party in this chamber this morning, the hypocrisy of the Labor Party’s commitment to a pro-disclosure culture—Senator Faulkner’s words—to a culture of transparency, the words used in the Governor-General’s speech, and to exposing ministerial staff to scrutiny by parliamentary and Senate committees, which would have been the effect of Senator Fielding’s motion, which was squashed by the Labor Party this morning, has been exposed once and for all. Had Senator Fielding’s motion not been squashed by the Australian Labor Party, which have so much to hide on this issue—as they protect a Prime Minister who has been responsible for one of the most significant national security breaches in recent times—the Senate processes could have worked.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Brandis, I asked if you would finish in good faith. Based on what I have previously experienced at the request of your party in a Procedures Committee, I think it is reasonable. I think you are now clearly debating the issue. I cannot stop you from debating the issue, but I draw your attention to the fact that I think that it would be good if you could draw your comments to a conclusion.

Senator BRANDIS —Thank you, Mr President. The result is that the Australian people, through the most appropriate parliamentary mechanism, a Senate select committee, have, as a result of the behaviour of the government, been denied the opportunity—which the previous government on occasions like the ‘children overboard’ inquiry gave the then opposition—to examine a matter of serious public interest. Nothing could be more serious than a breach of the security of a conversation between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States of America, particularly when there is credible reason to believe that the source of the disclosure was the Prime Minister himself. As a result of the Labor Party’s opportunistic and hypocritical conduct, the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny has been denied, and the Australian people should draw their own conclusions.