The public’s right to know is officially being stymied now at record levels with the federal government and senior public servants deferring answering several hundred questions asked by the Opposition on behalf of constituents.
In what Labor has labelled as another attempt by the Scott Morrison government to avoid public scrutiny, parliamentary hearings last week saw hundreds of questions “taken on notice”, a term used by ministers and department chiefs to defer answering for review at a later time.
The questions range from:
• seeking details about public spending by departments and seeking updates to projects;
• wanting to understanding the thinking behind more high-level decisions such as the offer from Australian ambassador to the US Joe Hockey to help to US President Donald Trump unravel FBI claims of Russian collusion in his election campaign.
Labor’s leader in the Senate Penny Wong told News Corp yesterday what happened last week was astounding.
“We saw the Government taking more and more questions on notice in what looked like an attempt for avoid answering questions,” she said.
“For example from our count, 125 questions were taken on notice just during the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet hearings on the Monday of estimates,” she said.
“That represents only about six per cent of the total hearings, so there would be hundreds more questions they chose to take on notice instead of answering.
“Scott Morrison’s government believes they’re above accountability. ”
One question taken on notice was even how often the government and their agency chiefs gave briefings, specifically to parliamentarians on current foreign issues such as China.
Senator Wong said she had made public requests, specific request for the shadow cabinet to be briefed on issues that have attracted widespread public discussion and commentary.
“They touch so many parts of our economy. They matter to the region we live in. And how we handle it also matters to our sovereignty,” she told parliament last week.
Yesterday, Senator Wong took aim at Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
“The Minister has allowed multiple government briefings on China for the business community, but has refused to allow briefings for elected members and senators,” she said.
“Australia’s relationship with China is complex and consequential. China is, and will continue to be, of great importance to Australia, to our region and to the world. It is reasonable for parliamentarians to want assurance that our national interest is being served. It is the job of all parliamentarians to protect and Advance Australia’s national interest. Being well briefed is the first step.”
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Deputy Leader of the government in the Senate Simon Birmingham said the government respected parliamentary processes and questions would be answered. He did not say when.
“However, it’s a sign of an Opposition that doesn’t know what its policies are or what it stands for, when it asks an unusually high number of random and duplicate questions that chew up the public service’s time, money and resources.”