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22 March 2022

Independent Senator for South Australia Rex Patrick has called out the Chair and Deputy Chair of the Senate Privileges Committee, Senator O’Neill and Senator Abetz, as political cowards after they failed to find that Defence obstructed a Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Sovereign Naval Shipbuilding. 

"Defence were asked in February 2020 to assist a Committee by providing documents and they resisted until February 2022. They obstructed the Committee’s work for two years and the Privileges Committee found that no contempt occurred. The Privileges Committee have let down the Senate, but more importantly they have let down the Australian public," Senator Patrick said.

"Our democracy is supposed to be properly protected by oversight mechanisms; be that by a properly funded Auditor-General, a Federal integrity Commission with teeth, a properly functioning FOI system, easily accessible courts or the vital Parliamentary oversight body, the Australian Senate."

"Government, assisted by a compliant Opposition, has eroded the oversight mechanisms to the point where they are largely ineffective or unaccessible."

"I have constituents and media ask me regularly, “how it is that officials avoid answering questions or mislead by omission and get away with it?” Ironically, I often get Senators asking me the same question. The answer is because the Senate Privileges Committee is weak."

On 19 September 2019, in response to a motion by the late Senator Gallacher, the Senate referred an inquiry into Australia’s Sovereign Naval Shipbuilding Capability to the Senate Economics References Committee for inquiry and report by the 3 December 2020.

In February 2020 the Economics committee politely requested documents that described the commitments the successful tenderers of the Future Submarine, Future Frigate, Offshore Patrols Vessels and Pacific Patrol Boats made in relation to Australian industry Involvement.

After refusing to provide the documents the late Senator Gallacher got the Senate to order their production. Defence refused to comply.

"The Department of Defence, which knew its Future Submarine and Future Frigate projects were off the rails wanted no scrutiny at all," said Senator Patrick. "They gave every indication that they wished to delay, and indeed obstruct the Committee inquiry".

After having the matter referred to it in May 2021, the Committee took a good nine months to force access to the relevant material. It wasn’t until after the Future Submarine Attack Class program was cancelled that the Committee got access to Naval Group's undertakings.

"I viewed the documents on 09 February this year. There was nothing of any real sensitivity in the documents at all. The Privileges Committee allowed themselves to be swindled." 

"The Department of Defence gave the Senate the finger and the Senate Privileges Committee’s response has been to complain to the Auditor General. How pathetic."

"This 182nd Privileges Committee report follows its 181st Report into the Tax Commissioner's failure to comply with an order of the Senate to table the names of companies with a turnover of more than 10 million dollars who received JobKeeper and to detail how much taxpayer money they received. The Privileges Committee didn’t enforce the order, rather negotiated a different order that better suited the Tax Commissioner - another big fail for the Committee." 

"There would be many notable British parliamentarians turning in their graves. The House of Commons spilt blood to establish the powers and immunities of the UK Parliament. Those powers and immunities were handed to the Senate on a gold platter, by way of section 49 of our Constitution. Those UK parliamentarians would not have expected Senators O’Neill and Abetz to just piss them away.

“Both those Senators project a toughness when they rise to speak in the Senate. But they are constantly looking over their shoulders to anticipate the worst instincts of their masters - Scott Morrison who hates scrutiny of his Government, and Anthony Albanese who is thinking ahead to when a future Labor Government may also face scrutiny.”

"When a principled call is required, Senator O"Neill and Abetz cower and our democracy is worse off for it."

A copy of the latest in pathetic reports from the Privileges Committee can be found here.