I am at Senate Estimates Committee hearings this week. I’ve been mainly focussing on immigration matters, but the big development has been yet another display of unprecedented arrogance from the government in providing direction to all public servants putting a blanket ban on responding in any way to any questions about AWB and the Saddam kickback scandal. This gag has also been extended to government agencies such as ASIO and CrimTrak.
There is simply no way that the Government would have tried this if they did not control the Senate, as to me it is a clear case of contempt of Parliament. Despite attempts by the government to draw a parallel to a past action by a Labor government, the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, provided advice stating “my colleagues and I have been unable to find any precedents for this direction.”
His advice also stated that:
Reference was made in the House of Representatives to an instruction by the then government in 1989 that officers should not answers questions about the coronation Hill uranium mine. The basis of that direction, however, …. was that cabinet was deliberating on the question of Coronation Hill at the time of the Estimates hearings, not that a commission of inquiry was inquiring into the matter. (The need to protect the confidentiality of deliberations of Cabinet is one of the recent grounds for a claim of public interest immunity). On various occasions, questions have been asked and answered in estimates hearings about the conduct of commissions of inquiry, for example, the HIH royal commission in 2003 and the building industry royal commission in 2002.
In the last six months, the government has engaged in a number of unprecedented actions in the Senate, gagging scrutiny and debate. However, this one is right up near the top of list when it comes to flagrant disregard for the Parliament. As Matt Price wrote – “a sad day for parliamentary accountability.”
Laurie Oakes’ latest piece in The Bulletin describes the “serial contempt” and the “arrogant and unparliamentary” approach of the government.