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Labor Matter of Public Importance - Answers to Questions

6 August 2019

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on behalf of the Greens to contribute on this matter of public importance today. This matter relates to one of the most important functions of this House in the Westminster system and that is to scrutinise government, government ministers, and legislation that is put forward and, through that, to try to improve public policy outcomes. At the risk of indulging in tedious repetition, I can only repeat what Dr Woodruff and I have said before about this Government's aversion to transparency and accountability. You see it in so many areas of the operations of this parliament.

Question time is only the most recent and glaring example in which, each day, members of the Opposition and the crossbench ask questions in the public interest, and too rarely do we receive a straight answer. The reason that members who ask the question so often have to resort to standing order 45, which goes to relevance, is out of frustration because there is no commitment on the part of Government ministers or the Premier to answer questions straight and honestly. The only questions that we do hear a full answer to are the Dorothy Dix questions, four of which are asked in this parliament every day. When we have an hour for question time that means a full third of time allocated, and sometimes longer, is dedicated to Government asking and then telling itself how absolutely terrific it is in every single way.

The New South Wales Parliament is moving to ban Dorothy Dix questions. The Commonwealth Parliament now has a referral before it to examine question time practices and I believe one of the matters on the agenda is to examine Dorothy Dix questions. In the public's mind, there is no justification at all for government members to ask government ministers to tell us how terrific the government is on the public purse. This House should do the right thing and move on Dorothy Dix questions too.

I was looking at the questions we put on notice. I reminded the Leader of Government Business that in the last term of the parliament, that is the term between 2014 and 2018, we put questions on notice that were never answered. I put questions on notice about forestry policy. Dr Woodruff put questions on notice about the treatment of seals in the salmon industry. We are stonewalled on those issues. I currently have a question on notice that has been sitting there for nearly two months and that is which ministers are on the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet. I will be stunned and delighted if we get an answer to that question, but this is a question that we asked the Treasurer during budget Estimates. We asked the then minister for Women in budget Estimates. I asked the minister for Primary Industries, then Ms Courtney, in budget Estimates, who is on the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet.

A government that has nothing to hide has nothing to fear and the membership of a Cabinet committee can never be a matter that is kept from the public because ministers are paid on the public purse. They are administering public funds. The ministers who are on the Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet are making some of the most significant decisions that impact on the lives of everyday Tasmanians. I have never encountered a government that would want to hide, for example, the membership of a Cabinet subcommittee. Indeed, there is precedent, even under this opaque Government, for detailing who is on whatever committee of Cabinet that has been established. There is a Cabinet subcommittee in relation to the prevention of domestic and family violence. We heard about the membership of that committee. There was another infrastructure subcommittee of Cabinet and the then minister, Mr Hidding, detailed to us the members of that subcommittee. But we cannot get out of the Government a straight answer about who is on the razor gang. It is the most powerful subcommittee of the Cabinet and this Government wants to keep it secret from the people of Tasmania. It is completely unjustifiable. There is no justification for that whatsoever and really in a way it synthesises and says everything we need to know about this Government's contempt for the public's right to know.

I cannot sit down without talking a little about the grindingly frustrating Estimates process where, even going back to 2014 when we were trying to discern how much of a funding cut was being foisted on the then Department of Health and Human Services, what portion would have to come out of the Human Services budget and what portion would have to come out of the Health budget, we could not get a straight answer out of any minister we asked. Again, this is not the minister's own savings they are playing with - this is public funding allocated towards the delivery of public services and good public policy. A good minister who is proud of their achievements in their portfolio, who has nothing to hide and is confident they have made the right decisions - and even if they have not, have the courage to admit it - a good minister answers questions at the Estimates table and answers them honestly, in the public interest, with respect for the institution of parliament in a Westminster system.

We have not had that. Ever since 2014, the Estimates process under this Government has been a farce. There are multiple Dorothy Dixers from whatever backbencher they can wheel up to the table, but for Opposition and Greens members the process of extracting information through Estimates has become an exercise in bashing your head against a brick wall and then coming back again the next day for another bash against the brick wall.

It is disrespectful of parliament, it is disrespectful of the people who elected us to this place and it is disrespectful of that fact that we are here on the public purse.