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Thursday, 14 February 2019
Page: 10271

Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education


Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:22): My question is to the Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education, Senator Cash. The minister previously stated that, following revelations her office had leaked advanced notice of a Federal Police raid on AWU officers, she instructed her chief of staff:

… to secure the electronic material and any documents in relation to this particular staff member. He advised me that he had done that.

What specific steps did the minister ask her chief of staff to undertake to secure these materials, and what assurances did she receive that he had done so? Did the minister instruct any member of her office to delete text messages or other communications in relation to the raids?


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education) (14:23): Senator Watt, I stand by all previous statements I've made. I've answered questions in relation to that matter. And, again, given the matter is before the court tomorrow and I am a witness, I don't propose to comment any further.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, a supplementary question?



Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:23): In the Federal Court yesterday, the minister's former senior media adviser confirmed that he deleted a series of text messages sent between himself and Minister Keenan's adviser about the unauthorised leak of independent Federal Police raids on the AWU to the media. Isn't it now clear that the minister failed in her obligation to ensure electronic material and any documents were properly secured?


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education) (14:24): Again, as I advised the Senate in the statement I made before question time, the Labor Party is providing a running commentary on what is going on in court. I explained the obligations I have as a witness. I am unable to respond because I am unable to verify the information.

Senator Wong: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. The minister just claimed she is unable to respond. I refer you, Mr President, to the statement you made, I think yesterday or possibly the day before, in relation to the sub judice rule. It is not appropriate, nor is it consistent with standing orders, for the minister to avoid all ministerial accountability in question time by seeking the umbrella cover of a sub judice rule.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Senator Wong: I'm on my feet and I'm making a point of order, Senator Macdonald.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order. Senator Macdonald, let me hear the point of order.

Senator Wong: It is not appropriate for ministerial accountability to this chamber to be set aside in an attempt to avoid questions by a constant reference to the sub judice rule, particularly in light of your statement yesterday.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cormann, on the point of order?

Senator Cormann: What is not appropriate is that Senator Wong is seeking to write the answers for Minister Cash on the basis of her own misunderstanding of what proper process is. The truth is that a range of claims have been made in the context of a legal action that was taken by the Australian Workers' Union against the Registered Organisations Commission. Senator Cash is appearing as one witness, subpoenaed by the AWU, which is pursuing legal action against the Registered Organisations Commissioner. You are seeking to assert as fact certain claims that have been made in proceedings, which for propriety reasons Senator Cash is not aware of and is not able to verify. She's made that point several times now. She is absolutely at liberty to state, accurately, that in the circumstances it wouldn't be appropriate for her to comment. She will, of course, be appearing at the relevant court tomorrow to answer all these relevant questions. Claims that have been made don't become established facts. They are claims in the context of a process.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Wong, on the point of order?

Senator Wong: With respect to my friend and colleague Senator Cormann, none of those points were relevant to the point of order.

Senator Ian Macdonald interjecting

Senator Wong: Yes, I am on the point of order, Senator Macdonald. Thank you for your assistance. I have been called by the President, Senator Macdonald. The points made by the Leader of the Government in the Senate were not germane to the point of order that is before you. The point of order I am making is not about the issues that Senator Cormann has made. We can have a debate about what has been asserted as fact or not. The point of order I am making is that it is not open to this minister to refuse outright to answer questions about this because she's giving evidence tomorrow. That is not supported by your statement yesterday. It is not supported by Odgers'and it is not supported by the standing orders.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Cormann, on the point of order?

Senator Cormann: A final point in relation to this matter: Minister Cash, in answering the question as she sees fit, is not seeking a ruling from the President. She's answering the question in the way she sees fit. The way she sees fit to answer this question is in the context of a process taking place in front of the Federal Court.

Senator Jacinta Collins: Which the President has determined is not relevant.

Senator Cormann: The President has also said that he cannot direct the minister how to answer the question. That is precisely the same matter.

The PRESIDENT: Without re-reading everything I read into the Hansard the other day, the point made was that the sub judice convention is a restriction on debate which the Senate imposes upon itself. The convention is interpreted and applied by the chair and by the Senate according to circumstances. On that basis, I only have the option to rule something out of order, not whether something is an appropriate answer to a question. There has been no point of order raised with respect to these questions. I don't think a point of order would be relevant to them. However, I cannot direct the minister how to answer a question. There is a time after question time and on other occasions in this parliament to debate the content of ministers' answers, but just as I am not free, Senator Wong, to assert that something is out of order when it is in order, I'm not free to force a minister to answer a question in a particular fashion. We go to a final supplementary question from Senator Watt.
















Senator WATT (Queensland) (14:29): I remind the minister that her former senior media adviser has admitted in court that he was motivated to leak advance notice of the police raids to damage the reputation of the Leader of the Opposition. Has the minister at any point directed members of her staff to undertake actions which utilised the statutory and other powers available to her office to damage the reputation of the alternative Prime Minister?


Senator CASH (Western AustraliaMinister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education) (14:29): In relation to the first part of Senator Watt's question, I'm going to read from the statement that I made to the Senate at the commencement of question time:

The AWU's legal action is in the course of hearing before the Federal Court of Australia this week. As I'm yet to give evidence in the case, I am subject to restrictions in relation to what I can be told about the evidence that has been given by other witnesses. Although Senator Wong—

and now Senator Watt—

have provided commentary on the case during question time, I have no way to verify if what—

they have—

said is correct.

In relation to the second part of Senator Watt's question, the answer is no.