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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1498

Senator FIFIELD (Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (4:35 PM) —As has been stated by my colleagues, the President enjoys the confidence of the chamber and the support of the opposition. The President’s role as the custodian of the values, traditions and conventions of this institution is respected and the President’s duty to act as the guardian of the standing orders of this place is one that we affirm and fully support.

The standing orders of the Senate, as we all know, are much more than a guide for order and good conduct. They are the rule of law in this place. Every senator is equal before, and fully subject to, the standing orders. Their enforcement ensures that the many functions of this place are given effect to. One of the key functions of this place is that of providing executive accountability. This chamber’s practice of parliamentary accountability has long been superior to that of the other place. That is to the credit of the current President and you, Mr Deputy President, and your predecessors. It is also to the credit of senators on all sides.

While the estimates and committee processes are important, the heart of executive accountability in this place is question time. The role of ensuring executive accountability is actually a shared responsibility between non-government senators and the President. Senators who do not hold government office can always be relied upon to ask questions of the executive, whereas the executive, we know, cannot be relied upon to be transparent or to answer questions. Natural self-interest militates against that, which is the very reason that we have question time. That is where the President’s essential role in the accountability process comes into play.

The President clearly is neutral in the chair, but he or she is not neutral on the subject of executive accountability. The President is not a disinterested party. The President’s tool is the standing orders, and it is his or her obligation to ensure that they are enforced in this place.

Without appropriate orders and enforcement, while there may well be the form and the theatre of question time, there will not be accountability. The opposition is a necessary but not a sufficient prerequisite to ensure that accountability. The President is as much a part of ensuring executive accountability in question time as is the opposition itself. That has been ventilated by my colleagues.

The opposition is, with great respect to the President, troubled by some elements of his statement this morning on the application of the relevance rule under the standing orders. The President’s statement was prompted by a point of order from Senator Abetz which the President undertook to review, and the opposition appreciate him doing that. We are troubled because, whereas the practice of question time has been superior in this place compared to the other, recently the House has lifted its performance, and I think we would all hate to see this place eclipsed by them. But we are troubled specifically about the application and interpretation of the temporary order that states:

… answers shall be directly relevant to each question.

I hope that I am in a position to be helpful as there are a number of points in the President’s statement which are easily clarified. The President stated that ‘senators have an expectation of receiving the specific answer that they have in mind’. We have no such expectation—never have and indeed never will from this government. We have no expectation but also we have no preconception as to what the answers will be. How can we? Mr President can certainly put that particular concern to one side.

The President also stated, ‘It is not within my power to require a minister to provide a particular answer.’ This is something that is completely accepted and understood, and indeed the opposition has never sought this. The President also said, ‘When they do not receive that answer, they raise points of order.’ That is not why we raise points of order. We raise points of order for one reason and that is that the answers are not directly relevant as required by the standing orders and by the temporary order. I hope that is of assistance to the President.

There are two other points, however, in the President’s statement that have particularly exercised the opposition, as indicated by Senator Abetz, Senator Brandis and Senator Joyce—firstly, where the President states:

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

Again, that is a misconception. We have not asked the President to direct the minister how to answer questions. That is something that we never do—

Senator Conroy interjecting—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Conroy, I suggest you read standing order 197(1).

Senator FIFIELD —because we know that the President does not have that capacity. But more concerning is the start of that particular statement, where the President says:

Regardless of whether the requirement is for relevance or direct relevance, I cannot direct a minister ...

Implicit in that is a suggestion that perhaps there is not that much difference between a test of relevance and a test of direct relevance. I think that perhaps one of the problems here is that phrases that are often used in this place can sometimes find that their plain meaning becomes faded. I think it is helpful to revisit the plain meaning of these words. The plain meaning of the word ‘relevant’ in the Macquarie Dictionary is:

bearing upon or connected with the matter in hand; to the purpose; pertinent: a relevant remark.

As I look at Senator Conroy, I am reminded again of how we never hear anything from Senator Conroy that has bearing upon or is connected with the matter in hand—that is to the purpose, pertinent, a relevant remark. Yesterday was a terrific exposition of that lack of—

Senator Conroy —That is inviting a response!

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —And you have just given it!

Senator FIFIELD —That is right: Senator Conroy is a terrific exponent of how not to be relevant. As has been canvassed, the temporary order that came into play added the word ‘directly’ before relevant, and I quote the definition of the word ‘directly’:

1. in a direct line, way, or manner; straight.

2. without delay; immediately.

3. presently.

4. absolutely; exactly; precisely.

Adding the word ‘directly’ before ‘relevant’ does significantly and substantively change the standing order. I was concerned that there was perhaps the hint in the statement by the President that there was not much of a difference between relevance and direct relevance. But more concerning than that is the sentence that follows that in the President’s statement which says:

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

As has been canvassed, there has never been a subject matter test in the standing orders or in a temporary order. It has never been the case in this place that, as long as an answer is in the ballpark and is related to the subject matter, that is sufficient. It is not sufficient. It may be helpful, it may be nice and it may be good that an answer is on the subject matter—you would hope that an answer would at least be on the subject matter—but that is not sufficient. The answer needs to be directly relevant—and directly relevant not to any vague concept but to the question itself. It is a very different proposition, and I think this is one that the President should very carefully examine, because this particular concept of addressing the subject matter is essentially a new creation; it is not founded in the standing orders or the temporary orders. If you did apply that particular test of subject matter, each and every utterance from Senator Conroy’s mouth in question time would be found to be within the standing orders, and I think we all know it is not.

As has been indicated by my colleague Senator Brandis, this is not a matter which is raised lightly. It is a matter which the opposition gave very serious consideration to before taking the decision to seek leave to raise these matters. I would encourage the President to consider his statement of this morning alongside this afternoon’s contributions. All of us want to see this place work well. All of us want to see government held to account. Indeed, I suspect there are even members of the government itself who recognise that executive accountability as practised in this chamber is for the overall benefit of good governance; it keeps governments on their toes and makes sure that they are more thoughtful and deliberative in what they do. So the opposition would encourage the President to seriously study the contributions this afternoon.