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Tuesday, 11 October 2016
Page: 1452


Senator PATERSON (Victoria) (15:09): Can I add the congratulations of my fellow government senators to the new Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Farrell. He is an inspiration to us all. If anyone can come back in the way that he has there is hope yet for all of us. I will note that I hope that his contribution to the chamber today was just a reflection of his day one nerves and that his contributions will improve in quality and consistency from this day forward, as I am sure they will.

Before I address the direct point raised in questions today and take note of the answers given, I would just like to make a general observation, with the Senate's indulgence, on the topic chosen by those opposite to focus on yet again today in question time, as they did yesterday in question time, and that they have chosen to focus on yet again in their motions to take note of answers today, as they did yesterday. This is a parliament which deals with weighty issues. This is a parliament which deals with important issues. This may be an important issue but it is by no means the only important issue that we have been talking about today or that we will deal with this week. I note for the record that the opposition has asked no questions today on the government's legislation to protect volunteers, with the CFA bill that passed the Senate last night. They have obviously lost interest in that issue. I note that they have asked no questions at all about the government's announcement today of the structural separation of the Australian Submarine Corporation. The government announced reforms in that area today. I note that they have asked no questions about the important reforms that Senator Birmingham, the education minister, has announced to VET to ensure that taxpayers' money is being used as it was intended to be used, and that the best value for money is being sought. I note that they have a particular and special interest in this issue. They are entitled to follow it, and I realise it is not my role as a senator to give them tactical advice. But, I tell you, you are flogging a dead horse on this one, and it is becoming increasingly clear that you are.

One other general observation I would like to make about this issue is on the understanding of consultation. Even in my short time in the Senate, I am coming to realise that people in this place have a very different idea of what constitutes consultation. I will give one example without identifying the parties involved, because it is not fair to them. Last week in a Senate committee hearing, we had a lobby group come and give evidence about a change in the law which they had an interest in. They stated to the committee that they had participated in no consultation at all and that this was a great disappointment to them. They were probed with a few questions about this issue of consultation and they more or less came back to us and assured us that there had been no material consultation. Later on, the department itself appeared before the committee. We obviously sought to clarify this with them, because it would be a bad thing if the department had not done any consultation. The department—and I am paraphrasing; I do not have the exact details in front of me—was able to inform the committee that they had in fact sent a letter to the group in question, that they had a direct meeting with the group in question about the issue in question and that one of the members of that group was on an advisory council that the government regularly seeks advice from on this issue. So they clarified for the committee that there was in fact consultation, even though the group in question did not feel that there had been sufficient the consultation. It is possible in this world that we have differing interpretations of what was said at a meeting and what exactly constitutes consultation, but from where I sit I am completely satisfied that the appropriate process was followed in this instance and that the Solicitor-General was appropriately consulted, as he is required to be.

As the Attorney-General has noted in his answers today and yesterday when this question has been raised, as well as in the media, the exact appropriate process was followed in this instance. The law does require that the Attorney-General consult the Solicitor-General in this instance, and he did so. Let me spell out some of the details of that in the remaining minute that I have. Over the years, a practice has developed contrary to the Law Officers Act that the Solicitor-General had been receiving briefs directly across government rather than through the Attorney-General, as it was intended when the office was established in 1916 for the purpose of assisting the Attorney-General in the performance of his duties. The new direction establishes a whole-of-government procedure that gives effect to section 12(b) of the Law Officers Act 1964. The guidance note is simply the document that is circulated within the Public Service to give effect to the legal services direction. These arrangements do not limit the independence of the Solicitor-General. They do nothing to change the effect of the Law Officers Act.