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Independent MP for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, today revealed that the Attorney-General, Christian Porter, gave her an explicit assurance that Government Ministers from the House of Representatives would appear before the Senate COVID-19 Committee.

The revelation comes as both the Prime Minister and Treasurer appeared to rule out the prospects of the Treasurer appearing before the Committee in the wake of the $60 billion forecasting error with the JobKeeper scheme.

Haines has now called upon the Attorney General to honour his commitment and ensure the Treasurer appears before the Senate Committee. Haines said:

“It is prudent and appropriate for decisions of relevant Ministers to be subject to scrutiny. This $60 billion mistake has far-reaching consequences for people’s lives. This is about integrity and transparency, not politics.”

In the lead up to the extraordinary sitting of Parliament on April 2020, Haines drafted a motion, supported by 15 members of the crossbench, to create two Joint Select Committees into COVID-19 with the explicit power to compel House Ministers before it.

In an op-ed in the Canberra Times on April 7, the crossbench group wrote:

“Only a joint committee is able to compel ministers of both houses. A Senate Committee would be powerless to compel members of the House of Representatives – including the crucial ministers for health, industrial relations, treasury and government services – to appear before it.

Right now, these ministers must be given the space and time to execute their critical functions and make rapid decisions. But in the months ahead, the Parliament must be able to interrogate those decisions. Democracy requires no less.”

However, the Government instead struck an agreement with Labor to create a Senate Committee.

Haines claims that on the morning of April 8, she agreed not to table her motion after the Attorney-General offered the commitment that House Ministers would appear before the Senate Committee.

She said today:

“The morning of April 8 was a significant day for our Parliament. The Prime Minister called for our usual politics to be suspended as we legislated the largest economic package in Australia’s history.

The Attorney-General informed me the Government would not support my motion for Joint Committees and asked that I withdraw the motion to facilitate the passage of the COVID-19 economic legislation in the House. In making that agreement, he gave me assurance that House Ministers would appear before a Senate Committee. In good faith, I pulled my motion.”

On 8 April, Haines released a statement confirming the commitment from the Attorney-General:

‘…today I received explicit assurance from the Attorney-General that Government Ministers from the House of Representatives will appear before the Senate Select Committee if they are called. I am looking forward to the Government honouring this commitment.’

Haines today said she was disappointed that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer indicated that the Treasurer is unlikely to appear before the Senate COVID-19 Committee.

“These statements are in direct contradiction to the clear and unambiguous commitment the Attorney-General gave me on the morning of April 8.”

“Millions of Australians were excluded from JobKeeper on the basis we only had $130 billion to spend. Given we now have $60 billion we were already willing to spend, these people deserve to know why they are still being excluded. These are childcare workers, people on temporary visas, casuals, arts workers, and university workers. The Treasurer owes them an explanation”.

“The oversight the Attorney-General agreed to should be wholly uncontroversial in a functioning democracy. The Prime Minister himself appeared before a Senate Committee in 2014. I call on the Attorney-General to honour his commitment.’

[25 May 2020]

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