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Why Truth Should Still Matter in Politics

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Monday, 12 October 2020

Tags: Misleading Parliament, Ministerial Accountability, Tenant Rights, Parliament

To be a Minister of the Crown is a great honour and enormous responsibility. It requires the highest standard of integrity and honesty. It requires truth telling, in the public interest, every time.

On the Letters Patent signed by the Governor on appointment, a Minister is described as ‘trusty and well beloved’.

Braddon MP and Minister for Human Services, Environment, Parks, Planning and Aboriginal Affairs, Roger Jaensch, knowingly misled Parliament in Question Time a fortnight ago. In doing so, he was untruthful to his Braddon constituents, and to the people of Tasmania. Roger Jaensch demonstrated he is not ‘trusty’. 

It might seem like a technicality or like politicians arguing within the Parliament bubble. It might make the understandably jaded with politics shrug, after all there’s nothing surprising about dishonesty in politics.

But, if we can’t trust a Minister of the Crown to tell the truth on their feet in Parliament, who can we trust?

As Democratic Vice-Presidential contender, Kamala Harris, said in this week’s debate with her Republican counterpart, ‘You respect the American people when you tell them the truth.’ The same applies here.  Those elected to public office need to respect Tasmanians by telling them the truth.

The Jaensch matter began with a decision the Gutwein Government made before coronavirus to change the law to enable easier evictions of tenants in rental homes. 

This Cabinet decision was only reversed on 24 August this year due to COVID.  For five months of the pandemic emergency, it was still government policy to change the Residential Tenancy Act 1997 to remove the need for ‘genuine or just’ reasons to evict tenants.  We know this is true because we have a copy of the Cabinet decision.

On 4 June 2019, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in relation to Mr Gregory Parsons, a 55-year-old intellectually disabled man who was evicted from his public housing home of ten years, on the basis of the end of his lease - without being given an opportunity to appeal, or an explanation for the reasons for his eviction.

The Full Bench of the Supreme Court found in favour of Mr Parsons.

That’s not just about Gregory Parsons - who would have had nowhere else to go if he was evicted from his public housing home – this decision would have rendered precarious the tenancies of 13,000 Tasmanians living in public or community housing.

In last year's Budget Estimates, the Greens pressed Mr Jaensch on the Supreme Court decision and the Government's planned response. He confirmed Housing Tasmania would ‘consider the implications’, and that he would take advice.

Roger Jaensch knew all about the decision he pretended not to know about in Parliament.

Tasmanians have seen this before. Steve Kons, in the famous 'Shreddergate' case, blatantly misled parliament, and paid the necessary price. He resigned the same day after then Premier, Paul Lennon, let him know his position was untenable. 

Even Paul Lennon understood that a deliberate lie to Parliament is a sackable offence for a Minister.

Roger Jaensch, because of his own decision to be untruthful, is in the same situation as Steve Kons, just with less sticky tape.

Unfortunately, the Liberal Government has, since its earliest days, demonstrated a culture of secrecy and evasion. There’s minimal accountability, and we’re seeing it once again.  Anyone who doubts this, should watch Parliament Question Time online.

Under Westminster principles of accountability, Ministers who lie to Parliament resign or are sacked by the Premier or Prime Minister.

Even under Will Hodgman’s reign, previous Mining Minister, Adam Brooks, misled Parliament at the Estimates table and ultimately had to resign. It seems that already low bar has slipped since Mr Brooks left.

The Code of Conduct for Ministers is oxygen clear –

Ministers must not mislead parliament or the public in statements they make and are obliged to correct the parliamentary or the public record in a manner that is appropriate to the circumstances as soon as possible after any incorrect statement is made.

This is a serious matter. The only way to restore trust in politics is for truth, honour, and transparency to be upheld by those elected to public office.