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Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Page: 5231

Senator CORMANN (Western Australia) (17:52): I have been advised by the Deputy Clerk that this is the area in which I can seek leave to move a motion, because it relates to the tabling of documents, including those pursuant to orders. I seek leave to move a motion relating to a statement tabled by the government.

Leave granted.

Senator CORMANN: I move:

That the Senate take note of the document tabled earlier today.

Yesterday the coalition proposed a motion to the Senate that there be laid on the table by noon today the number of act of grace payments approved by the minister since 24 November 2007 where the department recommended against approval and also provide the reasons for approval, the dates of approval and the value of each of the above act of grace payments.

This follows on from a discussion during Senate estimates and a question that was put on notice after Senate estimates in May. And of course no answer was provided for more than 70 days. When an answer was eventually tabled, it was that the government was not going to provide us with that information.

I will quickly explain why it is particularly important for the Senate to get access to this information. In relation to act of grace payments if they are requested and denied there is an appropriate process where people can appeal against that decision and there is proper scrutiny and checks and balances. However, there is a real question mark around the capacity to scrutinise decisions where act of grace payment requests are approved by the there is a question whether the approval by the minister is actually contrary to departmental advice. The party that has received the payment is hardly going to complain and there is no obvious way at present in the system where there can be proper scrutiny and some proper checks and balances applied to ensure that, where ministers make decisions to grant act of grace payments against the advice of the department, these decisions are actually proper decisions that have been made for proper reasons that can be justified in the public domain. I understand that, when you make decisions in relation to individual circumstances, there are privacy considerations, which is why the question on notice and the order were very carefully crafted. We know that the government has this information, because there has been some communication around, as I have mentioned, particularly in the context of Senate estimates.

Yesterday, without any notice and without any prior communication, Senator Bob Brown, the leader of the Greens, who tries to present himself as a champion of openness and transparency and of scrutiny of government activities, moved amendments to this motion. They were ultimately passed by the Senate with the support of the governĀ­ment. The government, which had supported the proposed amendments, then proceeded to vote against the amended motion. Senator Brown moved amendments to include in the order all of the period of the Howard government, back to 1996, in terms of decisions that were made on act of grace payments. I flagged yesterday in the Senate that the government would use that expansion as an excuse not to provide information, given the workload that would be involved. What Senator Brown did yesterday was to play a trick to help the government get off the hook of facing up to scrutiny from the Senate. Of course, our job in the Senate right now is to scrutinise the activities of this government.

As I said yesterday, I am totally relaxed about expanding the order, but I am not relaxed about the fact that the government is now predictably using the Brown amendments as an excuse not to provide any information at all. If you look at the statement that was tabled in the Senate this afternoon by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, you will see that it says that they have:

… commenced work to determine the nature of the work involved in answering the order.

Senators will note that the Senate's decision to expand the scope of the request to cover claims since 1996 substantially increases the workload required to meet the request.

Producing the response will require a substantial diversion of departmental resources. This being the case, the Special Minister of State advises that a further response will be provided to the Senate in due course.

What that really means is that, as I mentioned yesterday, it would have been much more sensible for Senator Brown, if he was really focused on having an appropriate comparison between a sample of decisions in the period under the former government and decisions under the current government, to have moved a motion to cover a similar period to that covered by the motion we put forward. But that is not what this is about. Senator Brown was trying to protect the government from the effects of this order, insofar as it applied to decisions made since 24 November 2007. He successfully manoeuvred to minimise scrutiny of government activities and government decision making around the act of grace payments, which is no doubt a great relief to the government.

I am intrigued about how this all happened. The government supported the amendment to expand the scope of the order from 24 November 2007 all the way back to 24 November 1996, then voted against the amended motion and is now using the fact that the scope has been expanded—an expansion that it voted for—as an excuse not to provide any information at all. This is a government that is secretive, that is not open and transparent, that does not want its activities scrutinised and that quite obviously has something to hide.

I put this into the context of instances, internationally, which were reported in the media quite recently, of a particular minister for finance in another jurisdiction who was accused of making inappropriate decisions around act of grace payments favouring somebody, and the allegation was that it was inappropriate. This is an entirely proper area of scrutiny for the Senate to ask questions about and to get answers from the government about the circumstances in which act of grace payments are approved when the particular approval is actually against the recommendation of the department that has assessed all of the circumstances of the case. There currently is absolutely no capacity to scrutinise whether these decisions have been made for proper reasons. I am concerned about it. That is why I asked the question in estimates. That is why I asked the question on notice when the government did not provide the information in the course of estimates. That is why I proposed the order. If Senator Bob Brown was truly interested in all of this information rather than just trying to protect the government, this is an issue that the Senate should revisit in the next little while.