Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee - Report


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:52): The Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee inquiry into the handling of a letter sent by Mr Man Haron Monis to the Attorney-General is another inquiry along the same lines as the one we have just been talking about—a completely farcical inquiry set up by the Labor Party and the Greens in a most inappropriate way and that actually wasted taxpayers' money for a series of hearings and a report which discloses absolutely nothing.

Let me remind senators and those who might be listening what this was all about. In an estimates hearing conducted by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, an officer of the Attorney-General's Department was asked:

Are you able to tell me whether this correspondence was considered by that review?

This was the letter that Mr Man Haron Monis wrote to the Attorney-General, asking, effectively, for some legal advice. The following answer was given:

It was provided to the review and we considered all the correspondence that was provided …

This was given by a middle-order public servant at an estimates committee hearing. Subsequently, that same public servant, on thinking about this a couple of days later, had doubts about the accuracy of the evidence she had given to the estimates committee. She advised her superiors and, at the direction of the Secretary of the Attorney-General's Department, a full and complete investigation was initiated to ascertain what the facts were in relation to this letter—when was it received, what happened to it, was it handed to the Thawley review of the Martin Place siege, did it have any impact? So the department secretary initiated a full investigation. It was then discovered that the public servant was correct; she had made a mistake. The letter had not been passed on to the review.

After the error by the public servant was properly acknowledged by the public servant and fully investigated by the department, Senator Brandis came in and told the Senate as soon as he could that the answer was wrong; in fact, the letter had not been passed on to the review. As a result of that, the Labor Party made all sorts of allegations. Senator Brandis was hiding something, he had delayed bringing it forward, the government was trying to hide something, this would have made a difference to the Sydney siege—all of these imputations were made by the Labor Party, including by the person who, regrettably, holds the shadow Attorney-General position in this parliament.

After Senator Brandis had advised the parliament that the public servant had made an error, Labor members on the estimates committee approached me as chair of the estimates committee and said, 'We want to have an estimates spillover day so we can investigate this.' Fair enough—that is what estimates committees for. That is what the legislation committee is for. So the legislation committee said, 'Right, we'll take this as a spillover thing, we'll discuss it at our next regular meeting, find a date and a time, look at some witnesses we can call, let the Labor Party have their day looking at it.' That was all in progress. So, what happened?

The Labor Party and the Greens in this chamber, having set up the spillover day for the legislation committee to investigate that, then decided to set up a references committee hearing to do exactly the same thing—exactly the same thing—the difference being, of course, that on the references committee the Labor Party and the Greens and the Greens Independent have a majority of four to two. They knew that if it had gone to the legislation committee that I chair it would have been properly chaired, it would have allowed full investigation, but it would have been done in accordance with the rules of the Senate and the rules of meeting procedure. But they did not want that, because they did not want a fair inquiry. So they sent it off to the references committee, where the Labor Party, the Greens and the Greens Independent have a majority.

The rest is history. We spent what must have been thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars looking at a matter which had already been scheduled for another committee to look at. The references committee went through exhaustive hearings. They were embarrassingly rude to public servants. But the story never changed.

At the end of this expensive inquiry, we had nine fatuous recommendations by the committee. If you look at the dissenting report by government senators, you see that it goes through every one of those recommendations and shows clearly how they are purely fatuous, quite nonsensical, and the one or two that were sensible were things which the department had said it had already done. So the committee was telling the department they should do something; the department gave evidence that they had already done that. What a complete and absolute waste of time.

In the section of the report where additional comments were made by Labor senators, they say, at paragraph 1.40:

This inquiry has unearthed a pattern of concerning behaviour from the Attorney-General and his department.

It is almost laughable. There are a list of things there, none of which were supported by the evidence given to the inquiry. Not one of the things that they raised was supported by evidence. What the evidence showed was that a public servant made an error and realised it, and then courageously and professionally told her boss, the secretary of the department, 'I think I have made an error; I don't think we did pass that letter on,' whereupon the secretary said, 'Right, let's have a full investigation. We've made one mistake'—it is a very professional department—'We will be absolutely certain not to make any others. We won't rush through this. We will look at every single element in the event to make sure that we've got it right, and when we've got it right we'll go back to our boss, the Attorney-General, and tell him what the real facts are'—which occurred. Senator Brandis came to the parliament at the earliest opportunity and told the parliament that the public servant had made an error and then he explained what the real situation was.

Because the inquiry related to the Sydney siege, those who did not know that might have thought that the failure to provide this letter from Man Monis to the Thawley-Comley review would have in some way impacted upon the review, that it would have prevented the review from properly assessing the Sydney siege. But the review people gave evidence to this committee that it made absolutely no difference at all, because the letter from Man Monis was not about anything except asking for a legal opinion on whether he could, as an Australian citizen, legally write and give some advice to someone who was seen as a terrorist overseas. So it had nothing to do with the Sydney seige, and the evidence clearly showed that.

As a result of this exhaustive, expensive inquiry that took not just the costs of the Senate committee but also the costs of busy public servants, not one single element has come out of this where there is any blame on the Attorney-General, on the department—except for the original error, which they discovered and admitted. So we have had this useless, expensive inquiry that has caused public servants to put in time attending committee hearings and answering quite juvenile questions from the Labor Party and the Greens and not one thing has come out of it. Not one thing has shown any blame to the minister, to the department, to the government or to the public servants. In fact, what the evidence shows is that public servants in the best public service tradition of the Australian Public Service did the right thing at all times. They made a mistake, a human mistake, in giving evidence amongst a heap of other evidence. They realised the mistake and conducted an investigation and then got the appropriate minister at the appropriate time to come in and advised of the mistake. So, it is another example of a waste of resources by the Labor Party and the Greens. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.

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