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Monday, 7 November 2011
Page: 8358


Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (16:47): Madam Acting Deputy President Boyce, that was a pretty silly submission from Senator Cash, and she knows it, but that is the nature of the opposition in this place.

Senator Williams interjecting

Senator Cash interjecting

Senator BOB BROWN: You see? We listened to her submission in silence, but they are right into it now, breaking standing orders, as the conservatives do so frequently because they simply do not want to give a fair and even go, not even in this chamber. 'Born to rule' is a dangerous feeling to have in your ranks. The coalition have it. It is infesting them badly, and they are hurting and do not know why. The reason is pretty simple: they are in opposition—because the people put them in opposition.

We in this corner of the Senate have enormous respect for the position of Commonwealth Ombudsman, and that includes Mr Asher, who recently resigned from that position. The story is well known. He approached Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to ask some questions about immigration but not to have his formulating of those questions revealed to a Senate committee. In later papers, Senator Hanson-Young asked some questions and, indeed, I put a couple of questions on defence matters, as we routinely do. Every member of this parliament who is worth their salt in a committee has received information from somebody on which they base the questions that evince information.

Senator Cash interjecting

Senator BOB BROWN: Senator Cash, you really do not do yourself much good.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Just ignore the interjections, Senator Brown.

Senator BOB BROWN: Yes, it is pretty easy to ignore, thank you—

Senator Cash: Well, then why did you take my bait? You are doing it again!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Cash, it would also be helpful if you would not interject.

Senator Cash: You must be so proud, Senator Faulkner, of your coalition colleagues, destroying Labor—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order!

Senator Cash: destroying the Labor Party that you represent.

Senator Faulkner interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order, Senator Cash!

Senator BOB BROWN: Senator Cash is extraordinarily rude, but it is a pattern of behaviour which is consistent here.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: We will proceed when the interjections cease on all sides. Senator Brown, would you like to continue speaking?

Senator BOB BROWN: Yes, thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President Boyce, and I thank you for pulling up Senator Cash. As a consequence of those events, there was an article in the Canberra Times by Robin Brown, who is a Canberra consultant in effective governance and market regulation, and John Braithwaite, who is an Australian Research Council Fellow and founder of RegNet at the Australian National University. They wrote:

As the media cycle moves on from the demise of former ombudsman Allan Asher, the Parliament must now repair the institution its members have damaged. Many MPs say Asher had to be pressured until he jumped to preserve the integrity of his office. We take the opposite view.

It is senior politicians and public servants who have now damaged the office by leaving the public asking the question: "Will the next ombudsman be their patsy?" Will persons of integrity want the job? Will whistleblowers lose confidence in baring their souls to the next ombudsman?

Asher's error was to push too hard on defending the rights of those in immigration detention centres. His email of questions to a Greens senator was the pretext for his demise. It was not the reason.

Further on they said:

The problem here was that neither the Government nor the Opposition liked Asher's interpretation of the public interest on immigration detention.

What they are pointing to is that Mr Asher's valiant, intelligent and humane role, given to him by government, was to investigate immigration detention. Thousands of people are held in detention who, the Greens maintain, ought to be much more quickly released into the community, because that is where they, in the main, end up, and some are held to the point of mental breakdown and indeed, far too often, of seeking to commit suicide. But Mr Asher and his office were not given the wherewithal to undertake the extraordinary new load that was put onto his and his staff's shoulders, and he sought to get that information out into the public arena.

In the wake of Mr Asher's very valiant resignation to protect the position that he upheld, the Greens have not simply come to get into a debate with the opposition, or the government for that matter, but instead have drawn up an alternative which will help fix the problem, to ensure that no future Ombudsman is put in the impossible position that the good Mr Allan Asher was placed in. We are proposing to give a parliamentary committee oversight of the Ombudsman's office and, therefore, give the Ombudsman a parliamentary advocate for review of his funding and work levels. He will not have to go to another member of parliament to get the information out. Our proposal will assist in ensuring the executive remains at arm's length from the Ombudsman but will, simultaneously, give that Ombudsman an assurance that they are able, if they do not get adequate resources, to make that known and to appeal for them.

Under the Australian Greens' proposal, the parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit will have its duties expanded to be able to examine the receipts and expenditure of the Ombudsman; to examine the Ombudsman's reports that are tabled in parliament; to report to parliament on any matters within those receipts, expenditure or reports that the committee thinks should be drawn to the attention of parliament; and to report to both houses any alteration the committee thinks desirable. The Public Accounts and Audit Committee already performs a similar role for the Auditor-General.

So we are not only defensive of the honour of and the sterling work done by Mr Asher in the office of Ombudsman; we have also moved to respond to an obvious oversight in not providing the OmbudĀ­sman—that is, the office of Ombudsman; it did not matter which one was there—with a natural and easy facility to have information brought to the attention of parliament about the running of the Ombudsman's office and its needs. We will be looking to support from both the government and the opposition in having this positive change made.

To go back to the Ombudsman himself: I am hoping to catch up with him in the near future to go over the matters that caused him extraordinary pain. They must have; no human being could go through that without extraordinary pain. I may be wrong about this but I do not think I have ever sat and had a talk with him, so I am looking forward to doing that. I think he has served this country well. He is an experienced officer who has worked in the UK and elsewhere in the world, as well as in Australia and for this nation, and I think he needs to know that that service is being recognised and that there is a hope that he will be able to continue that service without the events of recent times cutting across his ability to do that.

Finally, the question I have asked myself through this episode is: what if he had not gone to Senator Sarah Hanson-Young? What if he had gone to an opposition backbencher, or frontbencher for that matter, or, indeed, to a government backbencher, and they had sought out the questions? He would still be in office. So, when we hear the sort of diatribe we just heard from Senator Cash about the Greens, you see a different way of treating the political connections that arise from time to time. I think the Ombudsman's downfall, if I can call it that, was very highly politically charged, and I think it was a sad day when he left office. However, he has been prepared to do that, and it was a mark of this man that he was prepared to do that, to prevent an ongoing furore over the office, to defend that office which he had served so well. I for one thank him for the service he has given this country.