STATEMENTS BY SENATORS;Turnbull Government – 10 May 2017

Can I say—and I have said it before, Senator O’Sullivan—being loud does not make you right. And if you want to talk about the budget and what the budget did, could someone come in here and tell me what it did for Tasmania? We all feel like we were left off the map, except for being slugged with a tax hike. So if anyone can come in here and tell me what Tassie got out of it, I would be very happy to hear it. But I have digressed from my speech for today—

Honourable senators interjecting

 Senator BILYK: If I could hear myself over the interjections, Mr Acting Deputy President, it would help. But they do not put me off—as you know, I was a childcare worker for many years; I am used to three-year-olds screaming and yelling—so they can continue and I will start with my speech proper.

I want to talk today about a tradition in the Westminster parliaments—one that goes back many decades—and that is that ministers are held to very high standards by the government, the parliament and the community. They are held to high standards because they occupy positions with a great deal of power and responsibility. The penalty for ministers failing to meet those standards is sacking or resignation.

They are the standards that were applied, eventually, when Senator Sinodinos stood aside pending investigations by the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption after it was revealed that he had served concurrently as Treasurer of the New South Wales Liberal Party and chairman of Australian Water Holdings. The same standards were applied when Mr Briggs resigned over allegations of inappropriate behaviour involving a female public servant during an official visit to Hong Kong, and when Mr Brough stood aside pending outcomes of a police investigation into his behaviour in relation to former speaker Peter Slipper and James Ashby, and when it was revealed that Mr Robert had shares in a mining company of a generous Liberal donor, and when the Department of Finance commenced investigations into Ms Ley’s use of travel expenses for—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Ketter ): Senator Bilyk, just resume your seat. On a point of order, Senator Smith?

 Senator Smith: A point of order, Acting Deputy President Ketter: I was just wondering if Senator Bilyk was going to mention her colleague Senator Dastyari.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: That is not a point of order.

 Senator BILYK: As I said, when the investigation commenced into Ms Ley’s use of her travel expenses for 20-plus visits to the Gold Coast, where she purchased an investment property—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Resume your seat, Senator Bilyk. Senator Smith, another point of order?

 Senator Smith: Another point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President: I was wondering if Senator Bilyk was going to mention her former parliamentary colleague Mr Craig Thomson.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Again, that is not a point of order.

 Senator BILYK: Senator Smith, it is appropriate, I agree, for ministers to resign or be sacked when they fail to meet the standards the community expects of them, or stand aside when they are being investigated for improper behaviour. But there appears to be one minister who, no matter how bumbling or inept he is, always seems to escape the axe. Australians observing the performance of this minister are responding with breathless wonderment, thinking to themselves: ‘How many chances does he get before he is sacked for incompetence?’ I am referring, of course, to—in my opinion, and in the opinion of everyone on this side, at least, and in the opinion of so many people I know out in the public—the worst Attorney-General in Australia’s history, Senator Brandis. The Attorney-General is the first law officer of Australia. As such, he is charged with administering the law. But, sadly, Senator Brandis has spent much of his time as Attorney-General undermining the rule of law. He is a minister who has spent much of his time in office engaging in ideological disputes with public servants. His treatment of both the President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, and the former Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson SC, has been nothing less than disgraceful.

Mr Gleeson was effectively sidelined by Senator Brandis when Senator Brandis issued a ministerial direction that anyone seeking advice from the Solicitor-General had to seek his permission first. Senator Brandis then tried to claim that Mr Gleeson was consulted on his ministerial direction. He misled the parliament twice on this matter, and when confronted with the facts described it as ‘a semantic argument’. To add insult to injury, Senator Brandis failed to consult Mr Gleeson on key antiterrorism legislation, except for the very early preliminary drafts. In August 2015, Senator Brandis told the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security that Mr Gleeson had been consulted on the constitutionality of the bill; however, it was revealed late last year that he had not. We need to remember that in 2009 Mr Turnbull claimed that the penalty for misleading parliament should be resignation or dismissal. Yet Senator Brandis, a serial offender, continues to get off scot-free. And what was it that led to Senator Brandis’s public dispute with Mr Gleeson? He picked that fight because Mr Gleeson intervened in a case to protect $300 million of taxpayers’ money. In other words, Mr Gleeson was doing his job.

It was also the case, in Senator Brandis’s attack on Professor Triggs, that she was doing no more or less than the job she was appointed to do. After seeking to encourage Professor Triggs’s resignation by offering her another role, Senator Brandis failed to defend her against relentless attacks by coalition senators during Senate estimates. His attack on Professor Triggs was an attempt to undermine the independence of the Human Rights Commission because the government did not like the advice they were being given. So shameful was Senator Brandis’s mistreatment of Professor Triggs that he was censured by the Senate for it—and rightly so. Professor Triggs has acted with integrity and professionalism. It is a great testament to her character that she has been so restrained in the face of such vicious public attacks.

Either of these incidents should have been enough to cost Senator Brandis his job, but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this Attorney-General’s shameful behaviour. In response to a very reasonable freedom of information request for Senator Brandis to produce his ministerial diary, the senator spent three years and thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money fighting the order through the courts. Senator Brandis made the bizarre claim that the simple act of hitting the print button on his Outlook calendar would be an unreasonable administrative burden for his office. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal found this claim to be baseless. Whatever resources were expended in processing the request paled in comparison to the money spent fighting it.

Senator Brandis lost his final appeal, which went to the full bench of the Federal Court, and yet he took another six months to comply with the order. This delay put the Attorney-General—the highest law officer in this land—in danger of being held in contempt of court. How ironic! How unseemly! How embarrassing! It is fortunate for the Attorney-General that he finally complied and saved himself and his government that embarrassment. But embarrassment is something that seems to follow Senator Brandis and clings to him like a limpet.

The latest in the Attorney-General’s string of missteps was his spectacular backflip on funding cuts to community legal centres. Of course, Labor welcomes this backflip, but it comes at the end of three years of fear and uncertainty about the future of the community legal sector in Australia. And, embarrassingly, for these three years, Senator Brandis was trying to claim that this massive 30 per cent cut did not even exist.

It was very real for the community legal centres that I and shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus met with in Hobart. These centres were facing the prospect of cutting staff and turning away hundreds of clients. The people who need the assistance of CLCs are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Australia. They seek help for such problems as escaping domestic violence, getting Centrelink payments reinstated or fighting unfair dismissal. Without the safety net of community legal services, they usually have nowhere else to turn. I have to ask: did Senator Brandis initiate this backflip, or was it forced upon him because government backbenchers could no longer cop the backlash from the sheer cruelty of the cut that was proposed?

Senator Brandis’s incompetence is not just confined to the Attorney-General’s portfolio. He has the distinction of being the first arts minister in Australia’s history to anger and alienate the entire arts industry. He did so by slashing funding from the Australian Council and other arts bodies, and diverting much of the funding to his own ministerial slush fund, known as the Catalyst program.

As the lead Labor senator on the inquiry into this disaster, I participated in hearings across Australia where 200 independent artists and arts organisations lined up, one after the other, to criticise Senator Brandis’s slush fund. In 65 hours of evidence, the government managed to produce one independent witness—just one—at the final hearing, to support their position. It would appear that the only solution to the Catalyst arts funding debacle was to dump Senator Brandis from the Arts portfolio, with his successor, Senator Fifield, given the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess that was left behind.

My time is running out in this contribution and I have yet to mention Senator Brandis’s train wreck of an interview where he failed to explain the concept of metadata, despite having carriage of the data retention bill, or his infamous declaration that Australians have a right to be bigots, which he made while defending proposals to axe section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and allow more racist hate speech in Australia. Nor have I mentioned, so far, Senator Brandis’s bungling of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite, where Senator Brandis got every detail wrong—from funding to how the votes would be counted and the wording of the question itself. Mr Turnbull failed to back up Senator Brandis on his pledge to hold the plebiscite by the end of 2016.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Resume your seat, Senator Bilyk. Senator Smith, do you have a legitimate point of order?

 Senator Smith: No.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Smith.

  Senator BILYK: Senator Smith, you are one of the honest ones on that side, I have to say. Senator Brandis is like an anvil tied to the feet of the Turnbull government, constantly dragging them down with a stream of stuff-ups. If the Prime Minister had any sense of self-preservation he would sack the incompetent Senator Brandis. (Time expired)