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Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Page: 856

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (16:44): I will conclude my remarks by five o'clock because I understand there is a first speech. The gallery is filling up, not to hear remarks from me but to hear from a new senator. I am sure they will find this highly entertaining. I indicate to Senator Cash: you would have done yourself an enormous service by making the statement you have just given at 3.30. Equally you would have done the Senate a great service by not denying leave to a senator to make a short statement concerning your remarks. And you certainly would have done the Senate a great service by not trying to slip in a highly contentious document such as this without debate and without explanation.

Those members of the government that are wondering why the Senate is debating this matter and not dealing with the business of the Senate—and preventing us in due course from dealing with detailed legislation—ought to bear in mind that the arrogance and contempt that this minister is showing for this chamber will ultimately have great effect on the government's legislative program because one of the consequences of that contempt is that the Senate will show its displeasure.

When it comes to the detail of the measures that are being proposed to us today, it is unusual for governments to claim public interest immunity. It is particularly the case that at the recent estimates committee I asked Senator Cash directly, when she was refusing to answer standard questions that had been answered in this chamber, answered at estimates committees, answered at legislative committees and answered at references committees for the better part of the last generation at inquiry after inquiry: 'Remember the SIEV X inquiry and children overboard? Remember all those discussions?' Routine questions being answered are a matter of standard legislative practice, a matter of standard parliamentary procedure. Up until three months ago, it was not a controversial approach.

It may well be that officials do not want to answer questions. It may well be that governments try to obscure information. It may well be that governments would prefer that the public not know certain things, politically embarrassing things. Of course that is the routine of the parliamentary process as well. It has been the case for a generation that questions are answered, but this government has chosen not to. At Senate estimates, when implementing this procedure was attempted, I asked a very direct question regarding the issue of public interest immunity. I asked the minister in the chamber: was she claiming public interest immunity? I said: 'I will ask you directly. Are you claiming public interest immunity?' The chair said that she was not. There was no point of order. Of course there was no claim, but suddenly we discover that there is a claim.

All governments and anyone that has been a minister for any length of time understand that there are simple matters of public confidence that need to be maintained. I agree with that. There are issues in regard to state security. There are secrets that governments need to maintain. There is always, however, the need to balance that against the right of the public to know and the right of the parliament to know. There is a balance between the need for executive confidentiality and the need for the parliament to know as well. That balance has to be struck by careful consideration. I have maintained myself that there are commercial-in-confidence issues. There are genuine issues of commercial secrecy that require there not to be public disclosure. There are issues of genuine national security. There are questions that go to the need to ensure that individual citizens' privacy is not trampled upon. There are matters that go to legal proceedings. We do not discuss questions that are before the courts. These are all legitimate bases for ministers to argue: 'I am sorry. I am not going to answer those questions.' But, to try to suggest that you can write a long list of statements without justification, without evidence to back them up, and assert that that is in itself a claim for public interest immunity, I would suggest to this chamber is not the way to proceed.

There is a fundamental principle at stake here—that is, the legitimate function of this parliament to actually ask questions and have them answered. It is a legitimate function of the parliament. When a minister claims public interest immunity, it is actually up to the parliament to accept that or not. Just asserting it does not make it a fact. While it may be that people do not say anything, it may well be that under those circumstances there is no dissent. You can accept that as a legitimate acceptance of claim. However, if there is dissent then I think there is a problem. You clearly, Minister, have a problem.

When it comes to the heart of this issue, what we end up talking about are not matters of deep national security. No-one, surely, as far as the Labor Party is concerned, is asking a minister of the Crown to breach their responsibilities to preserve the security of this nation. It would be wrong to suggest that we are. We are talking about events that have occurred and have been reported in newspapers—for instance, a bow being ripped out of an asylum seeker boat by a Customs vessel.

On 19 November, it was reported that an Australian Customs boat had to rescue about 40 asylum seekers after accidentally ripping the bow out of a boat and causing it to start sinking. Those 40 people had to be transferred to Christmas Island. This was an event that was reported in newspapers and was raised in the Senate estimates committee, but the government chose not respond. It said it was not our business, in effect, to know. There were occasions where there were boats tied up to the wharf in Darwin. It was reported on 13 November that a vessel was tied up at the wharf. Again, when questions were raised about this event, we were told: 'It is not your business to know. You will be aiding and abetting the people smugglers.' There is this bizarre idea that the parliament here is not to know because people somewhere else will be told something they do not know. What a ludicrous proposition.

As we have heard in the case of a sea rescue, our maritime safety officials have advised the parliament that as a matter of course they send out an all-points bulletin, a distress signal—which is known throughout the high seas by anyone receiving that signal, anyone with the equipment—that a safety operation is in train.

The point was made quite correctly by Adrian d'Hage, the former chief of Defence public relations, who said:

In the days of mobile phones, satellites, and the internet, what Tony Abbott has termed 'the shipping news' is already out there.

It is simply not possible to bottle up information in the way that the government suggests that it can.

The former head of the Defence department, Paul Barratt, says the media strategy—that is what we are talking about here: not a security strategy but a media strategy—is unjustified and unsustainable. He says:

The fact is in a modern society any attempt to keep information bottled up is doomed to failure. There are three basic alternative sources of information—

Senator Brandis: Doesn't he work for the ABC?

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, he is quoted on the ABC. Senator Brandis, he is quoted on 15 November on the ABC saying:

There are three basic alternative sources of information: Indonesian officials in the current circumstances will be only too happy to embarrass the Government; people smugglers themselves don't need ministerial press releases to find out whether their people got through to Darwin or Christmas Island or got picked up by the Navy; and when they're within range, people on the boats have mobile phones—

an extraordinary discovery—mobile phones. An enormous breach of international security—the mobile phone.

So we have basic satellite equipment from our maritime safety agency broadcasting to the region about people needing to be rescued at sea. We have mobile phones. We have the internet. We have the Jakarta Post, but this minister thinks that the only people who should not ask questions about that are of course in this parliament. That stands in sharp contrast to the parliamentary practice that has occurred for a generation. Frankly, Minister, it is not sustainable.

We are looking at a farcical secrecy policy designed to protect the government, not the people of Australia. This is a media strategy developed by the government as a political strategy to prevent the people of this country and this parliament from knowing what is going on. This is a political strategy by the government, which stands in sharp contrast to their practices on a daily basis, and this minister in this chamber—almost on a daily basis before the election—was asking questions which she now decrees are matters of public interest immunity. Just about every question you asked me, Senator, in the previous parliament was a question that would be, under your definitions, in breach of the security arrangements of this country. They would be subject to your version of public interest immunity.

What was good just before the election was never advice to us as a government that it was in breach of security to actually discuss questions about these shipping movements. No-one advised when a boat tied up at the Darwin wharf that it was somehow a matter of national security and we could not tell anyone about it. We were never advised that these were practices that were aiding and abetting the people smugglers, but suddenly you discover these things only after coming to government, in a desperate bid to pursue a political agenda which can only thrive if the public does not know about it.

You make an assertion that 80 per cent of boats have stopped since you have introduced these draconian methods. It was 85 today; it was 80 yesterday—I know it has gone up five per cent in a day, despite the fact that another boat arrived yesterday at Christmas Island, another deep national security secret.

The actions that the Labor government took with regard to Papua New Guinea had much more impact than the actions that you are taking, which are about the desperate political survival of the government rather than the security of this nation. It is certainly not about providing the public with legitimate information we are entitled to know. It is certainly not about fulfilling your responsibilities to this parliament.

Question agreed to.