Matters of Public Importance - The Abbott Government - 03/03/2014

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:28): The hypocrisy of the Australian Labor Party in bringing this motion forward leaves me almost speechless. We spent the last three or four years dealing with perhaps the biggest expenditure by the Australian government in any field—and that, in a business enterprise: the NBN—and could we get any information at all from the ALP government about that? They did not do a cost-benefit analysis that looked carefully at the NBN, and Senator Conroy would never give any information, and any question to him was responded to with threats and bullying, as was the way of then Labor ministers.

The Labor Party, with the support of the Greens and the then Independents, set up this dodgy committee that was supposed to be giving all the information on the NBN to everyone. Even Senator Ludlam used to complain of this committee that we could never get any information. That is just one example of the way the Labor Party ran the government without any information and without any real accountability. There were so many requests for documents in the term of the Labor government. Did the Greens or Labor worry about that then? Of course not. But suddenly there is a whole new regime and, when documents about national security matters are asked about and there is a refusal to give them, we have this mock outrage.

Let me go to that briefly—it is a matter for a wider debate in legislation coming up. The Labor Party people are complaining that no information is being given to them about certain aspects of Operation Sovereign Borders. Yet, at a committee meeting attended by ALP and Greens senators, the minister actually said that this was a matter of national security but, because they were parliamentarians and entitled to information, he would give them a private briefing. He said, 'Come and see me and the department and we will tell you what you want to know. But we do not think it is in Australia's interest that the information should be broadcast so that people-smuggling criminals know exactly what it is'. But did the Labor Party take that up? I think perhaps they did—I do not want to wrongly accuse them. But, of course, the Greens refused. They want the information on the public record. To what end? Tell me. How is that impacting upon the human rights of Australians or on the ways of the Australian government? It is stopping a problem that the previous government not only was incapable of stopping but actually positively encouraged.

That covers that point. I heard some of the previous speakers complaining that they could not ask questions at estimates. The reason they could not ask questions, I have to say—without being too offensive—is that most of them did not have the gumption to ask the questions that would give them the answers they were seeking. From Senators Wong, Carr and Conroy we would get long speeches, long political statements, without questions at the end. And all Senator Conroy could do was hurl abuse at public servants and Defence officers, who were really not in a position to defend themselves, instead of asking a question. Then we had the outrageous proposition at estimates that estimates was only for opposition senators and that government senators who wanted a bit of information and accountability from the government should not be allowed to talk. How about that?

As I keep saying to Labor senators, we are not like them. People on the government side may, equally, want to hold their own government to account. We do not just sit back and take whatever the ministers say as gospel. Most backbench senators want to put their questions to government ministers. They want accountability. They are not always just prepared to accept—as the Labor Party did—a pat on the head and to be told, 'There, there. It'll be right. Don't you worry about that.' So this proposition that only opposition senators can ask questions at estimates is another element to this whole question. The Labor Party want accountability but only accountability for Labor Party senators.

Then, I heard a previous speaker in this debate complaining that Senator Nash would not give them any information. I have sat in this chamber and heard Senator Nash be questioned on any number of occasions, and she has answered every question factually, moderately, sincerely and with the actual facts before her. When I happened to ask some questions at the estimates committee I could not get a chance to get in there because there were two Labor senators who, rather than asking questions, seemed to be making political statements and accusations against Senator Nash. And Senator Nash answered fully and fairly on any matter she was asked for information about. Also, the secretary of the department, in what I felt was a very professional exercise, answered things fairly and squarely, but she also was subject to abuse from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, who called her a straw man. This is the sort of thing you get from the Labor Party these days. If the public servants do their job professionally and it does not suit the Labor Party, they also get abused. The secretary, who was a woman, was called a straw man by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

There was plenty of time for information. The estimates process, which has been in place for decades now, is there for senators to get information. But to get the information you actually have to ask questions. You cannot just go in there and make long political statements and abuse officials and military officers and then complain that you could not get any accountability. If the opposition and Greens senators did estimates 101 they would learn that if you ask questions at estimates you can get information, and often you can use the information to your own political advantage. But the current lot of Labor senators do not seem to understand this, because they abrogate their responsibilities and waste their time by hurling abuse and making political statements rather than asking questions.

We are an open and accountable government, unlike the previous government. I only had time to mention the NBN. Time would not permit me to go through all of the occasions when the Labor Party, in government, abrogated any responsibility for accountability and transparency. In contrast, this government do.

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