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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1487


Senator ABETZ (3:39 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the President’s statement delivered earlier today.

I thank the Senate. Firstly, I regret I was not in the chamber when the President delivered his statement this morning. In my defence, I was not notified. I note the President’s absence now, which is necessitated by his other duties, which is understood. Secondly, in taking issue with the statement of the President, I indicate that this is a taking of issue with the statement, not the person. The President continues to enjoy our support and confidence. The coalition nevertheless respectfully but very forcefully takes issue with the reasoning in the statement, as it completely ignores the fundamental reform voted on by this chamber on 13 November 2008 and confirmed and reconfirmed just as recently as three weeks ago.

Allow me to canvass the lead-up to the President’s statement. Yesterday Senator Birmingham asked, as always, an excellent question of Senator Conroy. Senator Brandis during Senator Conroy’s answer raised a point of order seeking the invocation of sessional order 22, which requires in subparagraph (c):

… answers shall be directly relevant to each question.

Senator Brandis said in part in his point of order:

While the minister is addressing generally the topic, he was asked two very narrow questions …

                   …              …              …

He cannot be directly relevant in failing to provide the two quantities sought.

Senator Birmingham followed up with a similar point of order, which went:

I have a point of order, Mr President. It goes to the changes to the standing orders that this chamber passed in relation to the change from relevance to direct relevance. …

               …              …              …

… the minister was asked very specifically for two pieces of information.

                   …              …              …

… if direct relevance is to mean anything in this chamber the minister’s attention needs to be brought to those two specific pieces of information or he should be sat down.

The President responded in part:

I have explained that as previous presidents before me have explained it.

                   …              …              …

He—

the minister—

—might not be answering the question in the terms that you desire but I cannot instruct the minister, and if you read the precedents of this chamber you will find that that is the case.

In response I rose on a point of order and said:

… Mr President, the precedents in relation to the points of order and all the previous rulings that you refer to refer to different standing orders. We actually amended the sessional orders in this place to require ministers to be directly relevant. That was a specific change made by this chamber to ensure that ministers were relevant. To now rely on previous precedents absent of the change made to the sessional orders is, with respect, Mr President, not to understand or give fulfilment to the changes that the Senate voted on specifically to overcome the shortcomings of ministers—

and I uncharitably added:

… such as Senator Conroy.

The President kindly responded by saying:

I will go out and I will review what has transpired …

The President in a very timely fashion reviewed the situation and delivered his statement in response this morning.

Having outlined the history, I seek to deal with the substance. With great respect, for the President to have said, as he said yesterday, that he relied on previous presidents’ rulings is to completely ignore the fundamental change the Senate voted for in 2008, when President Hogg was already in the chair as our President. It is simply not appropriate to rely on precedents that were related to the unamended standing orders. With respect, those precedents are—to be blunt—irrelevant. Those rulings and precedents actually gave rise to this Senate deeming there was a need for sessional order 22, requiring answers to be directly relevant. It is therefore, with respect, difficult for the coalition to understand the President’s reliance on precedents which were designed to be overcome by the new sessional order 22.

Turning to the five-paragraph statement of the President, I make the following observations. We take no issue with paragraph 1. We do, however, challenge the robustness of the reasoning in paragraph 2. The President states:

Regardless of whether the requirement is for relevance or direct relevance, I cannot direct a minister how to answer …

However, we say, with respect, the President can—indeed, not only can but under the standing orders must—require the answer to be directly relevant. The minister, in answering, is either in or out of conformity with a relevant standing order or sessional order. But we really take issue with this aspect of the President’s statement:

Provided that an answer is directly addressing the subject matter of the question, it is not within the power of the chair to require a minister to provide a particular answer.

The last part of the statement is, with respect, a straw-man argument. The coalition does not require a particular answer; indeed, it is not up to us. The issue is that standing orders and sessional orders require—indeed, mandate—answers to be ‘directly relevant to each question’. No ifs, no buts and no addressing the subject matter, as the statement asserts, but direct relevance to each question and nothing less. If the statement by the President were to be an accurate reflection of sessional order 22, the following could occur. The questioner could ask, ‘What is the budget deficit?’ According to the statement, if the answer canvassed the subject matter of the budget, it would be directly relevant for the minister to refer in his or her answer to funding for a local community group that was referred to in the budget. Such an interpretation, as countenanced by the President’s statement, with respect, fails to embrace in any way, shape or form the import of sessional order 22, which was specifically designed to alter the culture and overcome the previous precedents of this place. The statement by the President seeks for the Senate to completely ignore sessional order 22.

In paragraph 3, the statement gratuitously suggests senators have certain expectations of receiving the specific answer they have in mind. As an aside, currently the coalition’s expectation is that we will not receive any answer whatsoever. With respect, this assertion in the President’s statement both is wrong and misses the point. All the coalition expects is that the answer be in compliance with sessional order 22—namely, that it be directly relevant and not just dealing with the subject matter. Indeed, if the Senate wanted the sessional order to be so interpreted, I am sure we would have drafted sessional order 22 to read, ‘Answers shall directly address the subject matter of the question.’ Instead, we drafted and voted for a change which requires answers to be ‘directly relevant to each question’.

Paragraph 3 regrettably again refers to rulings by previous presidents which are, with respect, as I have already pointed out, irrelevant given the adoption of the changes. I note the statement also claims the chair has no basis to withdraw the call except to restore order. With respect, if this is correct, it allows any senator to be completely irrelevant in any contribution and the chair could only request relevance. Surely, repeated refusals to be relevant would allow the chair to require the senator to resume his or her seat and then move to the next senator.

To conclude, the statement comprehensively ignores the change made courtesy of the Senate’s adoption of sessional order 22. To ignore the sessional order is to ignore the will of the Senate. That is the seriousness of the President’s statement. That is the practical consequence of the President’s statement. That is why the coalition respectfully requests the President to reconsider his statement of this morning. I reconfirm our issue is not with President Hogg. Our issue is with his statement and our desire that ministerial answers be directly relevant to each question, as mandated by sessional order 22.