“I will not be daunted by one show-ponying Senator who had nothing better to do that morning than to try and grab a headline.”
That’s what Labor Senator Glenn Sterle says about the conduct of Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young which disrupted and threatened the ongoing progress of a Senate inquiry into water management issues in the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
Senator Hanson-Young drew the ire of Labor and government Senators participating in the inquiry after she accused it of being a “protection racket” for the Nationals when commenting to media during a controversial public hearing in Adelaide last November.
That hearing was also disrupted by the then South Australian Labor Water Minister Ian Hunter as the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee refused to take a statement from him during proceedings.
Senator Sterle believed the State Minister’s attempted contribution was only intended to politicise the process, and take a shot at then federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce before the assembled media, rather than adding any genuine evidence of value to the examination.
The Senate inquiry was instigated in August last year after the ABC’s FourCorners program broadcast allegations of theft and corruption in the management of water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin.
It was initially meant to conduct a brief examination visiting regional areas to take evidence from farmers and other stakeholders in the firing line of the core issues and table a report on December 5 last year.
But Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan recused himself from the Committee inquiry after taking serious offence to Senator Hanson-Young’s comments, which stalled the process as he called on her to make a public retraction.
However, the issue was hotly debated in the Senate this week as a second interim report was tabled which recommended the Senate grant an extension of time for the Committee to report its findings, to November 29, 2018.
That call was agreed to as Labor and the Coalition sided, in unified discontent with Senator Hanson-Young’s conduct, believing it had undermined the integrity of the Committee system.
“During the course of the public hearing in Adelaide, statements were made by a senator, which, in the committee's view, reflected negatively on the value of the committee's inquiry,” the report said.
“By bringing into question the integrity of the committee process, the comments had the effect of undermining the committee's collegial working relationship and threatened the committee's reputation.
“The committee has been deeply disappointed by the impact of these events and regrets that its efforts to address the matter have proven to be fruitless.
“However, the committee is determined that these matters do not inflict damage on the inquiry process and cause further delay, particularly given the valuable time and effort that submitters and witnesses have put into contributing to the inquiry.
“Therefore, the committee is resolute that its work now continues without any further delay to enable it to fulfil its obligations by inquiring into the terms of reference before it and reporting to the Senate.”
Senator Sterle, Senator O’Sullivan and Labor SA Senator Alex Gallacher all attacked Senator Hanson-Young’s conduct during the Senate debate.
But the Green’s water spokesperson didn’t appear to defend the claims or provide any evidence or proof of the alleged “protection racket” claims, as demanded by Senator O’Sullivan.
Senator O’Sullivan said Senator Hanson-Young was afforded an opportunity by the committee to either particularise and substantiate the allegations or withdraw them but “declined to do that”.
He said the comments were damaging to the integrity of the Committee process.
“Before I recused myself, when the committee resumed in public hearing, she was (Senator Hanson-Young) called upon to provide details and to particularise and table her evidence, and she declined to do that,” he said.
“In meetings held subsequently, she was invited again to take those measures so that the allegations she made could be assessed.
“I then challenged her in this chamber.
“You might remember. I bet every member of the chamber a carton of beer - this was some months ago - that we will never see her here in her place repeating these allegations or allowing herself to be tested and examined on the credibility of her statements.
“Senator Hanson-Young has made a practice of not telling the truth to our committee and to this chamber.
“The government is going to resume and participate with the committee, because we've given this Senator ample time to particularise issues relating to her allegations.
“She'll again be invited today to particularise what she's done.”
Greens hit back
Greens Queensland Senator Andrew Bartlett said the motion to extend the reporting date was “something that the Greens are not going to oppose”.
But he said if the motion’s purpose was to spend one minute talking about the need to extend the committee's reporting date, it spent nine minutes “slagging off another Senator without warning them”.
“Then to complain about me and to try to prevent me from responding to those attacks, again, is hardly an act of collegiateness or allowing people to put their side of the story,” he said.
“If we do want to talk about ensuring our committees operate in a collegiate way, I'm sure all of us could point to multiple examples of people from other parties in this place making allegations far more serious than what seems to have got under the skin of Senator O'Sullivan, including people from the government side who are actually chairs of committees.
“I hope this newfound principle of polite behaviour that Senator O'Sullivan is putting forward to us all is a creed that he's sowing amongst his colleagues as well, going around the various committees and saying that we need to be more collegiate in the way we behave in committee hearings.
“If he wants to put that principle out there, then let's see how well it's followed by his colleagues.”
Senator Bartlett also rejected an assertion that Senator Hanson-Young was only grandstanding at the Committee hearing in Adelaide, in view of the South Australian election.
“I would very much emphasise that Senator Hanson-Young has repeatedly, much to the irritation of the government, in particular, put on the record her views and her concerns about the Murray-Darling Basin,” he said.
“Clearly she gets under the skin of some on the government benches.”
Senator Sterle said in three months’ time he’d have served on the Committee for 13 “fantastic years”.
“From the time I first came in here to being a fully-fledged member, I have chaired either form of the committee, being legislative or references, for 10 of those years and I have always tried to do the best in the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee for those in the regions who are our food producers, whether they be farmers, horticulturists, graziers, aquaculturalists, viticulturists - whatever,” he said.
“With the fantastic cooperation of former Senator Heffernan as chair and now with Senator Barry O'Sullivan as chair, I have always put the interests of the nation first.
“I am proud to say that this is one of the few committees in the Senate that does everything to keep the political crap out of our investigations and not play stupid little games where certain political parties can run off on tangents when there is an election.
“Most of the time we have been successful.
“Unfortunately, a few times, the standards have slipped.”
Senator Sterle said he can’t tolerate it when “the blow-in will come in and try to tip upside down the fine work of the committee”.
“The work of our committee is to get up and down the Murray-Darling and find out how we can improve the lot for those who rely on the Murray-Darling to feed us,” he said.
“Other forums will investigate the accusations of water theft, and I'm not going off at a tangent here, because we know it all started after a 7.30 report or a Four Corners report.
“We want to be able to go back after taking evidence from those who it matters to.
“And when I say 'those who it matters to', I don't mean members of parliament in other states.”
Senator Sterle said Senator Hanson-Young had “absolutely no interest” in the inquiry and didn’t turn up to any public meetings or on a bus tour of Broken Hill to meet with stakeholders as part of the inquiry process.
“She didn't give a darn about the people that were affected, but there was an election coming up in South Australia, and she wanted to showcase,” he said.
“But she turned up in Adelaide for our South Australian hearing to show-pony and carry on.
“When a senator walks into our committee and then walks outside to the waiting media and accuses me, Senator Gallacher, Senator McCarthy, Senator O'Sullivan and crew of running a protection racket for the Nationals, I've got to tell you, then I will take offence - and that is what happened.
“My deputy chair, Senator O'Sullivan, spat the chewie.
“I tell you, the dummy came flying out of the cot, and he was off - he recused himself from the committee - and I don't blame him, because he is a Nationals senator.
“He doesn't want to hear that rubbish, the same as I wouldn't want to hear that rubbish against a Labor senator, when we were trying to take the proper evidence to come up with a good report on how we can help the farmers up and down the Murray and all those who rely on it for survival and producing food for us.
“I bet you Senator Hanson-Young doesn't turn up at Brewarrina.
“Senator Hanson-Young, I bet you don't turn up to any meetings.
“The South Australian election has come and gone - I'm not interested in how the Greens went there either - we'll continue to roll our sleeves up.”
Senator O’Sullivan said the Committee has had a “tremendous reputation” for as long as he’d been in the parliament and, “insofar as I can assess the folklore, almost since its inception”.
“I think the reason for that is that there is so much at stake with the work of this particular committee,” he said.
“Politics are quite literally left at the door by committee members in RRAT in my experience.
“(But) the circumstances here can prove to be very, very damaging and permanently damaging to the reputation of this valuable committee work.
“In fact, the conduct of committees, their work, their conclusions, their recommendations and their policy recommendations are, in my mind at least, almost the most significant function undertaken by the members of this chamber.
“It is one of the few times when the parliament formally goes to the people to ask for their input on very, very important questions and to see what their views are and what their ideas are so that the parliament can take their input and build on it and make recommendations to the government of the day.
“It is significantly important and it is one of the pulse tests that one would take, in my view, with respect to the conduct of a healthy democracy.”
Senator O’Sullivan said the “most damaging thing” one could do would be to make allegations against the conduct of a committee or the committee members, “in this case”.
“Senator Sterle is right - you could not have made a more egregious allegation than to suggest that the committee, and, therefore, the members of the committee and the conduct of the committee, was running a protection racket for, in this case, the National Party, who are coalition partners in the presiding government,” he said.
“Is a senator entitled to make allegations against the conduct of a colleague or colleagues?
“Of course they are.
“They may have before them information or evidence of a serious nature - and there could be nothing more serious, of course, than suggesting that a protection racket is being run.
“That would underpin an argument of corruption with respect to this Senate, this place.
“With that comes the burden of being able to produce the evidence.
“The worst way you could share your concerns would be to walk out of a committee meeting because you are unhappy - in this case, with a decision of the committee with respect to one of your stool pigeons who you've brought into the committee - and make this sort of allegation, a baseless allegation, as it turns out, to the media.”
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