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Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Page: 2335

Senator WATT (Queensland) (09:56): I also rise to take note of Senator Cash's statement to this chamber this morning. We had, yet again, an occurrence of Senator Cash using either the chamber of the Senate or its committees to refuse to answer legitimate questions about her behaviour and the behaviour of her ministerial colleagues. This time around, it's in relation to an order to produce documents that was passed by the Senate last week.

I acknowledge that it was on the motion of crossbench senators, Senators Griff, Hanson and Hinch. It's actually the first time that I have noticed that Senator Hanson was one of the co-signatories to this motion, so I'm a little surprised that she is one of the people running interference to protect her Liberal mate Senator Cash this morning. I would have thought that, if Senator Hanson were so interested to get these documents—which I'll go into in a moment—she would actually want to see it through and would want to put some pressure on the government to produce the documents that she sought. But of course that would involve going against her Liberal mates, and in particular her best mate, Senator Cash, so she has backed down on her own request to produce documents.

I suppose that we're not really that surprised to see Senator Hanson backing down when it comes to taking on the Liberals. It's always a lot easier for her to just vote with them, as she does—it's got to be more than 85 per cent of the time. Are you keeping a running total, Senator Hanson? It's got to be getting towards 90 per cent now.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, address your comments to the Chair.

Senator WATT: I'm sorry to see you go, Senator Hanson. It's always a pleasure to have—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Watt, again, don't reflect on a senator leaving the chamber.

Senator WATT: Okay. The subject matter of this particular notice to produce concerns something that Senator Hanson has been very vocal about, along with a number of other senators, and that is the funding crisis that we see in the family courts in Australia and the backlog in family law cases that that funding crisis is producing.

While Labor did not move this motion seeking the production of documents—so no accusation can be made that this is some sort of partisan exercise from the opposition; it was moved by a number of crossbench senators—we share the concerns of a number of crossbench senators about the funding crisis that is enveloping the family courts and the backlogs that that funding crisis is causing for many Australians who want to see their family law disputes resolved. This order to produce simply sought the production of documents that the government has in its possession.

Not long after they were elected, under the then Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, the government commissioned a review into the funding of the federal courts and the family courts. They are sitting on a March 2014 report from KPMG, a report into the funding of federal courts, and they're also sitting on some costings that were prepared by Ernst & Young in response to that report from KPMG.

The motion that was moved last week and passed by the Senate was an entirely reasonable motion that sought to get access to these documents so that the Senate can better understand the rationale behind this government's continued refusal to properly fund the family courts. I think we can understand why the government is so keen to keep these reports secret, because, under this government, the Federal Circuit Court, which handles many family law matters, and also the Family Court have been driven to crisis. This government has now been sitting on this report for four years. You would really think that it would want to get that report out there in the public domain to help explain its own decisions about funding the family courts, but instead, four years later, we are still trying to obtain access to this report.

Why is the government sitting on this report four years on? It's pretty obvious that it's because it must reveal that there is a $75 million shortfall in court funding which this government has refused to fix. Fortunately, we are now rid of the former Attorney-General, the man who I think we're now to refer to as Mr Brandis. Fortunately, we're now rid of him.

Senator Payne: Or His Excellency.

Senator WATT: I know that Senator Payne and a number of other government senators want us to refer to him as His Excellency. I know you weren't there, but during estimates we had some interchange with bureaucrats from the Attorney-General's Department and we settled on 'Mr Brandis'—at least, that that's what I would say.

Senator Payne interjecting

Senator WATT: It probably is my most courteous description of former senator, His Excellency, His Worship, His Grace, Mr Brandis. And I say hello to Mr Brandis out there if he's watching us on TV, as I'm sure that he is. Fortunately, we are rid of Mr Brandis from this chamber, the man who deprived the family courts of fair funding, the funding that was required by Australians to have their family disputes settled. I would have thought that now is an opportune time for the government to finally come forward and table these reports that they continue to sit on. But, no, the secrecy goes on.

Under this government, employees of the Family Court—it's not just about providing funding to employ more judges and to employ more registrars to keep up with the delays and get through the backlog of cases—continue to be deprived of a fair pay rise. Employees in the Family Court have not had a pay rise for four years. How is that fair? But I suppose we can't be surprised that this government is depriving its own workforce of pay rises when we know that the policies that it has for all workers in Australia are to keep wages low while it provides big company tax cuts to its mates at the big end of town. Judicial positions have been left vacant for a number of months, and this, as I say, has been contributing to case backlogs. Families who are going through extremely difficult circumstances through relationship breakdowns are kept waiting years to get a hearing.

There is no question that this government should properly fund the family courts. It should put the resources that are required into the courts to make sure that families going through relationship breakdowns are able to resolve their disputes, whether they be about property, contact with children or any other matters. But this government refuses to provide that funding, and now it refuses to provide a report that it received four years ago that presumably recommends an increase to funding to fix these problems.

I recently participated in a Senate inquiry which clearly was only required as a result of this government's funding shortfalls. Because of the fact that everyone knows the Family Court is overloaded and people are having to wait far too long to have their matters heard, the government has commissioned a review of the family law system, something that Labor supports, but, in the meantime, before the review has been handed down, the government has come up with the notion of parenting management hearings as a way of trying to cut through this backlog. These parenting management hearings are the subject of some legislation that is currently before the Senate and that a Senate committee has recently, just this week, handed down a report on.

I'm very pleased that Labor senators lodged a dissenting report in that inquiry, because we don't believe that the parenting management hearings are the way that family disputes should be dealt with, especially while a much broader review of the family law system is being undertaken. The only reason the government have put forward the parenting management hearings as an alternative to the Family Court is that they're not prepared to put the money into the Family Court to properly resolve disputes.

One of the key problems with parenting management hearings, in the view of Labor senators, is that litigants and family members going through breakdowns are not able to be represented by legal representatives and there is a very clear problem if you have a relationship where there's a power imbalance. Typically, it would be a woman in a less powerful situation than her former partner or spouse. Very often, matters that go before the Family Court involve, unfortunately, circumstances of domestic violence. Labor believes that it is important that people in those situations have access to legal representation to ensure that their position can be fairly and adequately put. Unfortunately, these parenting management hearings do not provide for legal representation. They're basically a way of trying to resolve family disputes on the cheap. The better way to go would be for the government to provide the funding that is required to make sure that the Family Court can get through its backlog of cases rather than having to create a new structure, while it's in the middle of a review, to try to overcome the backlog it has created.

I was interested that, during Senator Cameron's speech in this debate, we saw Senator Hanson repeatedly jump to the defence of Senator Cash. It was notable that—with the exception of Senator Payne, who, I think, once jumped up during Senator Cameron's contribution—no other government senator jumped to Senator Cash's defence, but the person she could rely on over and over again in that speech was Senator Hanson. As we know, Senator Hanson has now got a very long-term deal underway with the government, the Liberals, her own former party. But I was very surprised, as I say, that it was Senator Hanson who kept jumping up, because not only was she one of the signatories to this motion requiring Senator Cash to produce these documents—and, as I say, you would have thought she would have had an interest in actually receiving them—but one of the issues Senator Hanson has been quite vocal on since she was elected is problems with the Family Court that stem from underfunding. So I would have thought that, quite apart from the fact that Senator Hanson was one of the co-signatories to this motion, if she were actually serious about wanting to fix the problems of underfunding in the Family Court, as she says she is, she would actually want to get some answers from Senator Cash. But no.

We know—whether it be on this issue, on penalty rates, on cuts to pensions or on company tax cuts—that what Senator Hanson says when she's outside this chamber and out touring regional Queensland or anywhere else that she goes is very different to what she actually does when she comes to Canberra and votes in the chamber. On penalty rates, she has twice voted with the government to support penalty rate cuts going through and hurting poorer workers in our community. She has repeatedly voted with the government to cut pensions, she has repeatedly voted with the government to cut apprenticeships, and she has even voted with the government to make it easier for construction companies to bring in temporary overseas workers, something that she says that she's against. This is just another example today of something we repeatedly see from Senator Hanson, where she says that she's in favour of one thing when she's out there courting votes, particularly in regional Queensland, but every single time she comes into this chamber she not only votes with her former party, the Liberal Party, but stands up and tries to protect Senator Cash from facing legitimate questions about Senator Cash's own behaviour.

One of these days Senator Hanson is going to realise that she's been caught out. It's one of the reasons that she wasn't successful in the Queensland election and managed only one seat when she and James Ashby were out there claiming at one point that they were going to hold the balance of power, and then they were going to hold 12 seats and then they were going to hold 10 seats. It actually ended up being one, and that's because people in regional Queensland have worked out that Senator Hanson doesn't tell the truth and doesn't back up her words with her actions when she comes down to Canberra.

Having dealt with the Family Court matters that are the subject of this motion, I want to turn to what we are seeing in Senator Cash refusing to comply with this order. It is a continuation of a pattern of behaviour, in particular from Senator Cash but also from other ministers in this government. As Senator Cameron said this morning—Senator Cameron has been here a lot longer than me—he can't remember seeing a government that has so frequently used claims of public interest immunity in order to avoid answering questions and producing documents that are the legitimate subject of questions from this chamber.

Senator Cash is the prime culprit when it comes to this. We all know, and I think everyone in Australia knows, that Senator Cash is in a huge amount of trouble over her office's involvement, potentially her involvement and potentially other ministers' involvement in the scandal around the police raid on union offices that occurred late last year. We know that that is still the subject of an investigation by the Federal Police. What we saw—and what we continue to see—from Senator Cash about that police raid was her continued use of public interest immunity and other mechanisms to avoid answering any questions about her involvement, her office's involvement or the involvement of other ministerial offices in that scandal. It's not going to work. We know that the truth is going to come out, and already the truth is starting to leak out. I have no doubt that, at the end of that police investigation, we will have the full truth, so all that Senator Cash is doing in refusing to answer questions is delaying the inevitable and, frankly, pushing that scandal closer to an election, whenever that might be. I would've thought the government would have wanted to get this as far away from an election as possible, but, in fact, by delaying, all they're doing is making sure that it remains fresh in people's minds, whenever that election might be.

What we saw from Senator Cash during Senate estimates in October last year, when this scandal first broke, was that she used public interest immunity in order to avoid answering questions of senators at Senate estimates. Very conveniently, as soon as the scandal broke, she organised for her friends at the Registered Organisations Commission who had launched this raid to write to the Federal Police and essentially ask whether it was going to be okay to answer questions now that a police investigation was underway, and, dutifully—I'm not impugning the Federal Police—as expected, the Federal Police wrote back and said that these matters would not be the subject of comment by the Federal Police. Of course, Senator Cash and the man now known as Mr Brandis got together and worked out that the best way to avoid these questions was for Senator Cash to say that a police investigation was underway and that she was now not able to comment on the police investigation or any matters connected to it.

Anyone who bothered to read the email that the Federal Police supplied in response to the Registered Organisations Commission and in response to the Senate estimates committee would have noted that what the Federal Police were saying was that they couldn't comment on the investigation. There was nothing in there that said that Senator Cash and other ministers couldn't comment on it. But, of course, we had the man now known as Mr Brandis doing his usual tricks of interpreting words in ways that suit his ends. I'm a lawyer; I've seen people do that, and Mr Brandis, to give him credit, is an expert at exaggerating words to suit his own legal arguments. What they came up with was that Senator Cash was now not able to answer questions about the matters that were under investigation by the Federal Police.

I was shocked to see Senator Cash turn to this as a way of avoiding questions, because what it basically said was that she thought it was better to be under investigation from the Federal Police than it was to answer questions in a Senate estimates committee. I would have thought that any minister would want to be transparent in answering questions, if they had nothing to hide. The last thing you want to do in politics is say that you're under investigation by the police, but Senator Cash chose to argue that she and her office were under investigation by the Federal Police and that that meant that they couldn't answer questions. What a way to look guilty! If you want to look guilty in the eyes of the public, say that you're under investigation by the Federal Police. That's the route Senator Cash chose and continues to take to this day.

We tried to ask questions about it again in estimates recently, at the end of February, and, again, the response was, 'We'd love to tell you what went on there, but the police are still investigating us.' If Senator Cash wants to keep going down the route of arguing to the Australian public that she can't talk about something because the police are investigating her, let her go ahead. Our case is basically proven.

One of the issues that we're still trying to get to the bottom of is other ministerial offices and their involvement in the scandal. We've had the very interesting and Brandisesque, if I might call them that, answers from the now Minister for Human Services, Mr Keenan. Mr Keenan was the Minister for Justice at the time of this raid. He was the minister overseeing the Federal Police. He has been very careful in the answers that he has given in the House of Representatives to questions about the involvement of his office in this. What he has said up until now is that no member of his office was involved in the leak of the information. What he means by that is that no current member of his office was involved in that. Everyone knows that, just like Senator Cash, Minister Keenan has had resignations from his office—people who no longer even work in the government—and he has been very careful to say that no former member of his office was involved in that leak. It won't take us long to work out—there has already been reporting on this—that it was not only Minister Cash's office who were involved in this leak but also Minister Keenan's office, and maybe other ministers' offices as well.

As long as Senator Cash and other ministers claim to use public interest immunity as a way of avoiding questions about their involvement in this scandal, these questions won't stop. We will keep asking them and we will get to the bottom of it. Minister Cash might decide to use the fact that she and her office are under police investigation as a way of avoiding answering these questions, but it won't work. There is going to come a time when that police investigation is concluded. I have no doubt that it is going to find that this scandal went a lot further than just one member of Senator Cash's office. It is going to find, without doubt, that other ministers' offices were involved and that questions about Senator Cash's own involvement will continue. Senator Cash should stop using public interest immunity to avoid answering questions about the Family Court or her office's involvement in this scandal.