Thank you, Senator Madigan: you have actually picked up many of the points I was going to make. But it does not hurt to reinforce them. In terms of the issues around accountability and transparency, we talk much in this place about our responsibilities and the fact that to have the faith of the public we need to ensure that governments and indeed parliaments actually operate in a way that enshrines the issues of transparency and accountability.
In the last sitting week we had a series of questions around the issues surrounding Senator Nash. It was due process in terms of questioning from this side of the House, which we continued today, about a line of events in relation to free and open exchange from the minister to the parliament about what had gone on in her office with her interactions with her staff members. That, in my opinion, as I said at the time, was the job of this parliament. In taking note of answers-which I know is the high point of our day in this place!-what absolutely confounded me was the argument put by members of the government that we had no right to question the minister and, going further, that it was some kind of personal attack on her, and that she was known as a person of integrity.
That caused me great concern in terms of the argument around questioning a minister about process. It is our job to ensure that questions are asked about the probity of decision-making processes. I do not want to pre-empt what you are going to say, Senator Smith, if you are part of this debate-you might remember some of the questions we had at estimates. Again, the arguments were that we were wasting the time of the estimates committee in continuing lines of questioning around the sequence of what occurred. That is exactly the point: we are there to ask questions. It is not an issue of whether we get the answers we like or not. It is an issue of whether the answers fully explain what occurred and, if there is any variation in the answers that come forward, that we are able to identify that so that we have a clear understanding of what happened. And, more than us having that clear understanding, it is important that the people in the wider Australian community can trust decisions being taken in this place-that they can be sure that ministers and parliamentary committees are all fulfilling the trust they have placed in us, which is following through on what the job is about and making sure the statements made in this place are accurate and, if they are not, that they are put back and corrections made so that we know what has gone on.
During the last sitting week it was said by members of the government that there was no need to do this, therefore it was not our role. I strongly object to that. When the coalition took up their order to form government this time they were very clear that they were going to uphold the highest standards of accountability and transparency. They must be held accountable for that statement. They were very quick. Senator Fierravanti-Wells in her contribution went through the kinds of statements and questions that she asked when on this side of the chamber-at length, very often-about issues happening in the then government. That was her job. What we heard today was not any defence of Senator Nash but rather throwing across the chamber, 'Well, you guys did it worse'. As you know, Madam Acting Deputy President Ruston-you have heard me say this many times in this place-that is just not a good enough argument: just throwing grenades across this place, to use a full defence metaphor, is not the way to ensure that we are going to get the best practice now.
We need to know what is happening in today's government, what issues they are taking seriously and how they respond to us. As to Senator Nash's position: we will continue to ask those questions, to find out exactly what occurred in terms of any conflict of interest. In this case serious questions are being asked in the wider community about decisions around the websites and the influence in the department and the minister's office that would lead to taking actions that did not reflect what people thought was going on. That has been one of our major concerns about this issue: having that absolute trust that what it is said has occurred is in fact what has occurred.
The other area I want to touch on is that we have seen a number of advisory boards and organisations that have been ceased by the government without explanation. My understanding is that the people whose tenure was finalised found out through the media that they had lost their positions rather than through any personal contact from a minister or a minister's office explaining the situation-again, not a process that would create a great deal of trust.
I cannot take part in this debate without some discussion about Senator Cash's response to this whole issue of the activities related to what we now call 'stopping the boats'. When we were in government we were asked consistently about every possible detail that was going on with the number of refugee boats that were arriving-of course, we called them refugees, but they are not called that anymore; I can't even remember the title but people are being depersonalised to such an extent that they are not people. Nonetheless, there was a clear understanding that there was absolute knowledge in this place and in the wider community about what was going on. And there were great demands by the then opposition to ensure that all the data was accurate, that we actually knew what was happening, that we could respond to questions about what was going on.
No sooner did the government change then there was no longer the opportunity have questioning in the parliament or to find out at any time what was happening. We had to wait until the Friday briefing sessions before there could be any exchange of information about what was happening on an issue the government themselves claimed was the most important issue they were taking up at the time. We did ask regular questions in this place about what was happening and we were told by the Minister representing the Minister for Immigration that we would need to wait until Friday, when the ministerial briefing would occur, because it was 'an issue of national security'. Senator Madigan, you actually referred to the way that those terms can be used to obfuscate and to stop openness and transparency in debate and in any kind of process relating to finding information.
It was not just the parliament that raised its concerns about this new way of sharing information in this important area. The media themselves, who had actually been working so closely in the previous parliament when the then opposition was making its statements about this issue, received regular information at that time-but no longer. Now it is by a determination of the minister what, when and how information can be shared, in such an important area. We just get stonewalled. It is not the business of the parliament; it is not the business of the community; it is the business of the minister to determine when information can be shared.
Not only were we told it was an issue of national security; we were actually told, in the most offensive way, that by having the information we were in some way aiding the people-smuggling industry. I find that to be without any kind of defence. If we can throw allegations around without fulfilling that information sharing process, it defeats the purpose of why we are in parliament. It is the job of this parliament to ask questions. It is the job of this parliament to receive answers. It is the job of this parliament to have confidence that there is goodwill about exchanging accurate information-and, if that cannot occur for whatever reason, full explanation of why not is required rather than just the stonewalling rejection of any right of people to have their questions answered.
If we are going to be absolutely transparent and accountable there has to be clear understanding of what that means. It means that, within the parliament, we are convinced that there is a commitment that there will be information shared and that the process is treated with respect rather than just a waste of time.