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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Page: 1874


Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:00): I think Senator Evans's interjection, if I may say, is quite apposite. But I welcome a question from Senator Sinodinos. I also congratulate him on his appointment to the shadow expenditure review committee to oversight the work of Mr Robb and Mr Hockey. Clearly they need the oversight.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Wong, come to the question.

Senator WONG: I am happy to. I am asked about grants in ministers' own electorates. Can I make it very clear that this government has made significant reforms to improve whole-of-government transparency and accountability in grants programs. We established the guidelines in 2009 and the reason we did so is that we knew about the Howard government's inappropriate allocation of grants that occurred during their period in government, when the allocation of grants was clearly skewed towards Liberal and Nationals seats. I do not think anyone who was an observer of politics or was involved in politics could forget the 'regional rorts' program—a program where grants funding was blatantly skewed—

Senator Brandis: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. As you are well aware, the minister is required to be directly relevant to the question. The question asked whether there were any ministers who had failed to report cash grants in the past two years. That can only be a request for the names of ministers and, if so, who were they? There is nothing the minister has said in response that is directly relevant or even vaguely relevant to the question asked of her.

The PRESIDENT: There is no point of order at this stage. The minister has 57 seconds remaining to answer the question.

Senator WONG: Thank you, Mr President. The guidelines are what is relevant to the answer here and what is relevant to the question, and Senator Sinodinos would know that. As I said, we implemented the first ever comprehensive guidelines established at the Commonwealth level to ensure transparency—

Senator Abetz: Can we talk about ministers?

Senator WONG: It is the guidelines which are relevant to the answer. The ANAO has assessed—

Senator Abetz interjecting

Senator WONG: Will you settle down? The ANAO has assessed the implementation of these guidelines. Senator Abetz does not seem to understand this.

Senator Abetz: I understand it very well.

Senator WONG: Senator Abetz does not understand. The Audit Office has noted positively for the first time that the government's expectation for ministers, agencies and officials when performing duties in relation to grants administration was clearly articulated. In the latest report, the ANAO examined some 800 ministerial briefs and identified out of the 800 only 33 cases of underreporting of grants in a minister's own electorate.

Senator Brandis: Mr President, you have given this minister enormous latitude. She has two seconds to go. She was asked to name the ministers. That is all she was asked. You have given her latitude for a minute and 58 seconds.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! On both sides! Senator Brandis is entitled to be heard and I am entitled to hear him.

Senator Brandis: The minister has taken a minute and 58 seconds to criticise the Howard government and to speak in general terms about the guidelines. She has two seconds to go. It cannot possibly be right to say that she is entitled at this late stage in the question to avoid coming to the question—that is, name the ministers.

Senator Jacinta Collins: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. If Senator Brandis refrained from such spurious points of order and listened to the answer that the minister was providing, she gave some general background as to the guidelines and their history and then went to the number of cases. If he had listened he would probably have heard his full answer.

The PRESIDENT: The minister has two seconds remaining to address the question that has been asked by Senator Sinodinos.

Senator WONG: The Audit Office has identified 33 cases out of 800 of underreporting. (Time expired)


















Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (14:05): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Will you name those ministers? And is it a fact that a minister who fails to report cash grants made to their own electorate to the minister for finance is in breach of the government's own guidelines? Has the minister exempted any ministers from abiding by these rules and, if not, what steps has the minister taken to ensure that ministers do abide by the rules?


Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:05): In relation to the last aspect of that multifaceted question, my department, at my request, has already commenced action in response to the audit report. The secretary of the department wrote to all portfolio secretaries in January, reminding them of their obligations under the guidelines and drawing their attention to any shortcomings in agency practices that the Audit Office had identified.

I also would just indicate to the senator that the information was audited in confidence and was provided to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. The classification of this information is a matter for the Auditor-General. The information was provided to the JCPAA and I understand that the JCPAA will be considering how the information is dealt with. I think I have very thoroughly, if I may say, responded to Senator Sinodinos's question. But what is interesting, of course, is the reason they asked Senator Sinodinos to ask this question is that none of the former ministers over there could have asked it.

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Wong, address the question.



Senator SINODINOS (New South Wales) (14:06): Mr President, my further supplementary question to the minister is: will you just name those ministers, and is that not the best way to get transparency around upholding your very own guidelines?

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: When there is silence we will proceed. Order on my right!



Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Finance and Deregulation) (14:12): As I said in answer to the first supplementary question, the information is ordered in confidence. It was provided to the JCPAA. The classification of this information is a matter for the Auditor-General. I am advised that the JCPAA will consider how the information is dealt with. I also make this point clear: my department has examined all instances identified by the Audit Office and is of the view that no further action is required with regard to those grants. My department has examined all instances identified by the Audit Office and is of the view that no further action is required with regard to those grants. What we have is a government that is being far more transparent than those opposite ever were. We all remember regional rorts.

Senator Brandis: Mr President, I rise on a point of order.

Senator WONG: You are so sensitive, Senator Brandis.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Wong, resume your seat.

Senator Brandis: In the primary question the minister was asked one thing: to name the ministers. You gave her all the latitude in the world, and after the expiry of two minutes she had not approached the question. In the second supplementary she was asked again to name the ministers. She has still not done so. Given that she defied the standing orders by refusing to deal with the primary question and by refusing to abide by your ruling in relation to the primary question, you should bring her to the question now and direct that she name the ministers.

Senator Jacinta Collins: Mr President, on the point of order, perhaps you could remind Senator Brandis that you ruled he had no point of order—

The PRESIDENT: This is not debating time. If you wish to speak on the point of order you may.

Senator Jacinta Collins: I do wish to speak on the point of order because Senator Wong has been directly relevant. The opposition may not like the answer they have received. Senator Brandis should receive an education in the role of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit. It was cruel that Senator Sinodinos was asked to ask this question, given his record of lost ministers during his period assisting the Prime Minister.

The PRESIDENT: Order! I believe the minister has been addressing the question. The minister has 10 seconds remaining. Minister, if you have anything further to add you have 10 seconds.

Senator WONG: I have now, on a number of occasions, explained that the information is ordered in confidence. That classification is a matter for the Auditor-General and the JCPAA is considering it. The fact that the opposition do not like that answer does not make it not relevant. (Time expired)