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No Confidence in Minister Jaensch


Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Tags: Misleading Parliament, Ministerial Accountability, Ministerial Code of Conduct, House of Assembly

No Confidence in Minister Jaensch, Cassy O'Connor MP, 13 October 2020

 

That the House has no confidence in the Minister for Housing for the following reasons -

(1) In response to questioning on 24 September 2020, the minister said he was 'not aware of any decision' to make it easier to evict tenants without genuine or just reason.

(2) A Cabinet minute shows that a previous Cabinet decision was made to remove the 'genuine or just' requirement from section 45 of the Residential Tenancy Act 1997.

(3) It is implausible that the minister was not aware of a Cabinet decision in his portfolio.

(4) The minister has misled the House over a serious matter of fairness and reasonableness in his portfolio.

 

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, this House should not have confidence in the Minister for Human Services. The Minister for Human Services knowingly, deliberately and wantonly, lied to parliament on the last sitting day of the last sitting week. He was asked a direct question by the Greens whether or not he was part of a Cabinet or Government decision to change the Residential Tenancy Act 1997 to remove the 'genuine or just' provisions to make it easier to evict tenants.

We know that Mr Jaensch was right in the thick of this decision because it came about as a result of a full bench of the Supreme Court decision last July in favour of Mr Gregory Parsons, a 55-year-old disability pensioner who had been living in his Glenorchy flat for 10 years, whom Housing Tasmania sought to evict. Thankfully, because of the hard work and the dedication and commitment to at-risk Tasmanians of the Tenants' Union of Tasmania, the case was found in favour of Mr Parsons.

In Estimates last year, off the back of that full bench of the Supreme Court decision, my excellent colleague and friend, Dr Woodruff, asked Mr Jaensch what the Government's response would be to the full bench of the Supreme Court decision. She said at the back end of the question -

What are you intending to do with those Housing Tasmania tenants who have been evicted into homelessness, who are not provided with reasons for their eviction or an opportunity to have their decision reviewed?

The minister replied -

Housing Tasmania will take time now to consider the various implications of yesterday's court decision.

A little later in the questioning -

I can confirm that Housing Tasmania will consider the implications.

A number of times during that exchange at the Estimates table when Dr Woodruff doggedly questioned the minister on behalf of Housing Tasmania tenants, he said he was waiting for Housing Tasmania's advice. This is from the Estimates transcript of 5 June last year where he said in another answer -

We will be considering that matter and how it was dealt with in that case and what its implications are for the future and I will wait for Housing Tasmania's advice.

That was June last year where the minister responsible for the lives and wellbeing of Housing Tasmania tenants said he was awaiting Housing Tasmania's advice on how to respond to the Parsons' matter. That is why we asked him the question: the only reason the Government would make a decision to remove the genuine or just provisions is to make it easier for Housing Tasmania to move on tenants. The decision that Cabinet did make and later reversed on 24 August was a direct response to the Supreme Court decision, which found against Housing Tasmania and therefore against the Tasmanian Government.

This raises quite significant and substantive questions about what advice Housing Tasmania gave to Mr Jaensch in response to the full bench of the Supreme Court decision.

What is certain is that Mr Jaensch knew that a decision had been made to amend the Residential Tenancy Act 1997 to weaken the protections for tenants. Because of this Cabinet decision that I hold here, that was made on 24 August, we know that the decision to reverse the previous decision to remove the genuine or just provisions was made five months after we went into a pandemic emergency. For five months it was Government policy to make it easier to evict tenants.

I seek the leave of the House to table this Cabinet decision. I have given a copy to the Labor Party. I have given a copy to Ms Ogilvie. We know that the Government has a copy.

Mr FERGUSON - Point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. For the reasons that have been articulated in a letter from the Premier to Ms O'Connor, the Government will not be supporting further distribution of the letter, regardless of the fact that Ms O'Connor has already been circulating it far and wide. Documents brought before the House ordinarily attach privilege which is in special circumstances when a document is not already public. For the reasons that we are not prepared to support any further stunts we will not be agreeing to this particular motion.

Ms O'CONNOR - I am not going to divide in the middle of my contribution because that is something the Government would enjoy very much. It says an awful lot about this Government's arrogance, its contempt for transparency, that it will not allow a document which verifies a minister's lie to be tabled.

Yes, we have distributed it, not out of a 'gotcha' moment as the Liberals would have it, and not for some blood lust for a minister's scalp, as Mr Ferguson said this morning. We have distributed it so that Tasmanians understand what this Government would have done to disadvantaged tenants in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis.

Before the pandemic hit, we were in the middle of some of the harshest times for Tasmanians who were looking for a home. We were 11 500 homes short of what was needed; homelessness on the increase and this Government was going to change the law to make it easier to evict people into homelessness. That is why the Cabinet decision should be on the parliamentary record.

Because Mr Ferguson is running cover for a lying minister I will now read the Cabinet decision into Hansard. This a decision that was made on 24 August 2020 under the Minister for Building and Construction, my colleague, Ms Archer.

The title is Residential Tenancy Amendment Bill 2020 and the document says -

Cabinet today deliberated on the matter submitted to it in relation to the Residential Tenancy Amendment Bill 2020 and decided to -

(1). Agree and approve drafting to finalise the Residential Tenancy Amendment Bill 2020 subject to the following amendments -

(a) introduction of provisions to provide for the enforcement of minimum standards by the Residential Tenancy Commissioner;

(b) amend provisions introduced due to COVID-19 which allow a tenant or landlord to apply to the Residential Tenancy Commissioner to break a lease if its continuation would cause severe hardship; and

Here is the kicker for every one of the 13 000 Tasmanians who live in social housing.

(c) vacate the previous Cabinet decision in regard to the Director of Housing v. Parsons matter and not proceed with the proposed amendment to remove the genuine or just requirement in the context of an order for vacant possession.

The Cabinet decision goes on.

Despite what the minister tells us, that he was not aware of any change that had been made or proposed, he was. It went to Cabinet. We know that this minister was waiting for advice from Housing Tasmania following the Supreme Court decision so we know that he was right in the thick of this decision. He would have been briefed on this decision before it was made. He was part of a conversation with the relevant minister, the Attorney-General, the Minister for Building and Construction. He was part of a whole-of-government decision to weaken tenancy protections.

Yet, when we asked him in this place, 'Can you confirm your response to that judgment in the Parsons case that a decision was made by you and the Government you are part of to change the Residential Tenancy Act to make it easier to evict tenants without genuine or just reason?' the minister in the space of about five metres, between his chair and the lectern, had decided not to tell the truth because he stood up at this lectern and said -

I am not aware of any changes proposed or undertaken regarding making it more difficult. I do not know what decision Ms O'Connor might be referring to.

A lie. A direct and obvious lie. He knew exactly what decision the Greens were referring to. He was part of that decision. If we did not have the Cabinet decision to confirm the lie, that lie would have stood on the public record. The minister thought he would get away with it because did not know we had a Cabinet document.

It is shameful for a minister of the Crown to knowingly lie in this place; a minister who is responsible in policy and portfolio terms for some of our most disadvantaged people.

When I interjected on that question, I said -

Point of order, Madam Speaker this is very important. Relevance. It is not about the pandemic response, it is about a decision made by Government to change the law to make it easier to evict tenants.

Mr Jaensch says -

Madam Speaker, to change the law the Government needs to bring the law to the parliament and argue its case. We have not done that. I do not know what else Ms O'Connor is referring to.

That is a lie. It is a clear and direct lie. Remember at this point he did not know we had the document so he was prepared to double down on a lie, a minister of the Crown. Then when I said -

On the second question your integrity is in question. You have misled the House. How do you explain yourself?

Mr Jaensch said -

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for her question. I would be happy to review the Cabinet record and the decision referred to and take further advice on the matter.

To use a colloquialism, at that point of question time I am quite sure that Mr Jaensch was pooping himself because he knew he had lied and he had been busted by a Cabinet decision. When we sought leave to move a motion of no confidence, in a very brief contribution Mr Jaensch said -

Madam Deputy Speaker, consistent with my previous response in response to the question from the Leader of the Greens my answer was correct.

Lie.

Madam Deputy Speaker, any decision by the Government to change the law would need to be tabled in this place and until it is tabled no final decision has been made.

We are being treated like idiots. Cabinet makes decisions about all range of matters. Some of them relate to legislation. Some of them relate to policy, some will be for appointments. A decision is a decision is a decision. The Cabinet handbook says a decision of Cabinet is government policy. There is no qualifier around that language in the Cabinet handbook. The Cabinet handbook does not say a decision by Cabinet is not a decision until legislation hits the floor of parliament; that is a distortion of the truth. It is Orwellian to try to make us believe that that is the case.

Then in an embarrassing exchange, as the minister tried to run away from the television cameras and the journalists the next day at the Commissioner for Children and Young People's ambassador event in Launceston, we got this from Mr Jaensch -

Cassy asked a question without giving me very much context. I answered to the best of my ability.

Apart from not being honest, if that answer was to the best of Mr Jaensch's ability, he is incompetent to be a minister of the Crown overseeing the lives and wellbeing of children in the out-of-home care system, people living in public and social housing tenancies, and every other vulnerable person who sits within his area of portfolio responsibility.

Then we had a question from the ABC's Edith Bevin on ABC Mornings:

Can I ask, why did you tell parliament you were not aware of any changes proposed or undertaken regarding changing the state tenancy laws so people living in rentals could be evicted without genuine or just cause?

Mr Jaensch replied:

Because the Government has made no decision about changing the law and therefore, when Ms O'Connor asked me whether a decision has been made to change the law, the answer is no.

Madam Deputy Speaker, that is a brazen lie. You cannot devolve into past, future and present tenses and a whip around language to try to get away from the fact that you lied to parliament by lying again to a statewide radio audience. How can a minister of the Crown say 'Because the Government has made no decision about changing the law'? The Government did make a decision; it 100 per cent did make a decision before the pandemic and it reversed that decision on 24 August, which means that for five months of the pandemic emergency it was Government policy to change the law to make it easier to evict tenants.

Then the follow-up question was, 'Did you mislead parliament?'. Anyone who is rational and had a look at the debate knows that the answer to that question is yes, but Mr Jaensch said to ABC listeners:

No, I did not mislead the parliament. Cabinet deliberates on complex matters sometimes at great length, going backwards and forwards over them before authorising that amendments or changes to laws be drafted for the purpose of consultation and then approve for tabling in parliament. Now, that process hasn't happened on the matters Ms O'Connor raised and therefore no decision has been made to change the law.

One of the problems with lies, as my mother always told me, is that if you keep lying to back in a lie, you will dig yourself into a very big hole. That is what this minister has done. Once he refused to correct the record on the first lie and once the Premier came in and defended him on that lie, then objectively Government members and the minister felt they had no other choice but to embark on a continued lie to the people of Tasmania.

For someone who loves the Westminster system of parliament very dearly and is a bit old-fashioned about all of us trying to uphold its finest ideals, this is a depressing scenario we are in because we have clear evidence of a minister not being truthful in this place, breaching the parliamentary code of conduct, breaching the ministerial code of conduct and being dishonest to the people of Tasmania. Yet there are no apparent consequences for it. Not only are we apparently in the post-truth era, Madam Deputy Speaker, we are in a post-consequence era where the Government has decided the best course of action is to pretend the lie did not happen, defend the minister and carry on regardless hoping it will just go away. Well, it will not because there is now a stink that hangs over this minister and will hang over him all the way to the next election.

You pay a price in this job if you are a minister of the Crown and you lie to parliament and so you should. The price you should pay is for you to resign or be sacked. That is what happened to Mr Kons. I have the infamous 'shreddergate' letter here somewhere, where Mr Kons as attorney-general denied that he had made a decision relating to Mr Simon Cooper's appointment and lied again on the second question. Both of those first questions were asked by my former colleague, Kim Booth. The third question was asked by current Senator Nick McKim and it was on the third question when the shredded and sticky-taped document was produced that it was clear that Steve Kons had knowingly lied to parliament.

Then premier, Paul Lennon, basically said in shorthand - not that I was there or anyone else in this place as far as I know - 'Mate, your position is untenable, you've got to go', and Steve Kons went. That is because Steve Kons had breached the ministerial code of conduct and, as a minister of the Crown in a Westminster parliament, Steve Kons had nowhere else to go and his premier understood that. Even Paul Lennon understood that when a minister lies to parliament, they have to go. They have to resign or be sacked.

We have had no humility from the minister or the Premier on this issue, only lie after lie. The press conference that the Premier was part of on that same day is a masterclass in the distortion of language. It is Orwellian. Because the Government had nowhere to go and the minister had clearly lied, they decided to get into an exercise of past, present and future tense and replace the word 'was' with 'has been'. That is what happened when you have a look at the transcript. Emily Baker from the ABC asked the question about Mr Jaensch - 'Is he lying or incompetent?'. The Greens would argue, prima facie, both. The Premier said -

The question was in terms of whether or not the Government made a decision to change the law and no decision has been made by Cabinet to change the law.

A decision was made by Cabinet to change the law and then that decision to change the law was reversed. You have a Premier of this state blatantly misrepresenting the facts and twisting language. Further on he said, 'No decision has been made by the Government to change the law' but yes, it had. He also said, 'Cabinet has not made that decision'. Yes, it most certainly did and then it reversed that decision on 24 August. We know that because the Cabinet decision is here. How can a Premier stand at a press conference and say, 'No decision has been made' when it has been made and then reversed?

Further on, he says, 'We have not made a decision to introduce legislation to parliament', but they did previously. 'No decision has been made by the Government to change the law', he said after Alexandra Humphries asked him a question. Emily Baker comes back with, 'Premier, with respect', trying to get some clarity, and Mr Gutwein says -

I made that clear today and with respect again, I am not going to get into the process of Cabinet deliberations … other than to say Mr Jaensch was correct and there has been no decision to introduce legislation to change the law.

Further on he said -

At the end of the day, the Government has not made a decision to change the law.

This is shameful. If my children had lied so blatantly to me like this, I would have sent them to their bedroom. The Government did make that decision and then reversed it. Further on he said, 'No decision has been made to introduce that legislation', but then, because the journalists kept asking the question the language changed subtly, because the Premier knew he was in a corner and he says -

There has been no final decision. If and when there is, we will obviously introduce legislation. We will stand behind that but the Cabinet has not made a decision to do that as yet.

Further on -

In this case, Cabinet has not made a final decision.

So, the emphasis has changed from there being allegedly no decision - and we know there was - to there being no 'final' decision.

Further on -

Cabinet had not considered final legislation on that particular matter.

This is the closest we get in that press conference to the Premier admitting that a decision had been made because towards the end of the exchange with journalists he says -

Cabinet had not considered a final decision on this particular matter, and in terms of this decision -

So, we know there has been a decision now, and the Premier has confirmed it -

In terms of the matter you talked about, Cabinet deliberates about a range of matters but no final decision has been made.

And, he closes with - until a decision is made on the legislation and whether to introduce it or not -

No final decision has been made.

On that day we had a minister lie to parliament three times in the House, and we had a Premier - at best - distort the truth 16 times in 16 different answers to questions at the press conference.

How far we have fallen, when it is apparently acceptable for a minister to be untruthful about a matter that relates to the lives of thousands of Tasmanians. Then we have the Premier backing him and reinforcing that untruth. The next day - the same day Mr Jaensch tried to flee from cameras in Launceston - we had a conga line of Liberal ministers saying they were backing Mr Jaensch to the hilt. The Government dug some trenches and barricaded itself in behind them, sticking together and hoping that the fallout would not hit them. Now - because they did not have the courage to allow a no confidence debate on that last sitting day - for two and a half weeks there has been this miasma of dishonesty hanging over this minister and every Government member who has attached themselves to him. That will not go away, because we are talking about a culture here.

This is the inevitable consequence of a culture that began back when Will Hodgman was Premier, back in 2014 - when spin, propaganda and lies, such as when minister Groom stood at the lectern here and told an outright lie to parliament; where not answering questions in this place, fobbing off questions at the Estimates table and misleading Tasmanians through journalists and press conferences occurred. When that becomes the culture of a government, then a member of that government - a member of Cabinet - understands somewhere inside, that it is okay to lie because you will be protected. It is a cultural issue.

Regrettably, this Premier - who has done an outstanding job of keeping Tasmanians safe and thereby earned significant respect in the community - has not upheld a high standard of integrity for his ministers and, in fact, has dragged himself down into the muck of the minister who lied to parliament.

This is on the Premier more than anything else, because he should have said to Mr Jaensch that day, 'I know we are all part of that decision and I know you were trying to protect us all from being exposed for weakening tenancy protections, but you have to understand that your position is untenable. You have been found out to be lying. Go and sit at the backbench and in a little while maybe you can come back. I have some other interesting projects for you'. That did not happen. We had whole-hearted, unflinching support for a lying minister. Following that terrible day, I had quite an amazing letter from the Premier.

Sometimes, Madam Deputy Speaker, when people are cornered and angry they lash out and they are not completely rational, and they might not think things through. The first sign was the Government not allowing the no confidence debate.

The second obvious sign was the letter I received from the Premier on the Saturday morning - or possibly late on the Friday, as it is dated 25 September. In this extraordinary letter the Premier seeks to blame the Greens for a staff member's suffering, a blameless staff member. Every one of us here who has worked in an office has made a mistake in the past and they are just mistakes. There is no blame to be attached to that staff member, but the Premier tried to make us apologies to the staff member in the minister's office. What arrogance. Had Mr Jaensch told the truth, the Cabinet decision would not have seen the light of day. The Premier tried to put the blame on us, and that is a feature of the conservative mind set. It is always somebody else's fault. It is just the way they operate. It is always somebody else's fault.

Then the Premier tries to accuse us of not upholding the principles of the Code of Conduct for Members of the Parliament of Tasmania. He very selectively quotes -

A member must not use official information which is not in the public domain or information obtained in confidence in the course of their official duties or position to the advantage or benefit of themselves or another person.

I will pause there for a moment. We had those Cabinet documents for more than a week. We thought very carefully and talked to each other very thoughtfully about how we would respond to having those documents. As a former Cabinet minister, I was particularly hesitant and cautious. In the end it was the fact that a decision had been made that would expose thousands of Tasmanians on low incomes and living in rental properties to risk - whether in the public or private rental market. We have no confidence in Mr Jaensch. He is a brazen and knowing liar.