Misleading parliament? A-OK
Peter Dutton’s was an open-and-shut case
The heavy thud from Canberra around 12.20pm today was the sound of ministerial standards dropping, even further. By a one-vote majority, 68–67, the Coalition plus Queenslander Bob Katter voted that it is okay, when politically expedient, for ministers to mislead parliament and to fail to correct the record. The vote had nothing to do with asylum seekers, and nothing to do with au pairs. It was all about whether Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton should be sanctioned in what was an open-and-shut case. “No”, voted the House of Representatives – comically, Dutton’s vote in his own defence has again proved decisive, as it was when a similar question was last put to the chamber in August. The sheepish grins on Coalition faces afterwards told the story: it was the barest tactical victory, at the cost of setting another poor precedent. As respect for the parliament dissipates, politicians will come to rue days like these. Standards of ministerial accountability – of parliamentary conduct overall – should be rising. Instead, they are falling through the floor.
Today’s motion was put by the Greens’ Adam Bandt and was purely procedural, to suspend standing orders so as to bring on a debate over confidence in Minister Dutton. Bandt had held off until the Senate inquiry into Dutton’s use of his ministerial powers to intervene to stop the deportation of two au pairs reported late yesterday. As seems to be increasingly the norm, the committee split on party lines, devaluing its own work, and the process appears to have been undermined by Dutton’s own department of home affairs, whose secretary, Michael Pezzullo, only submitted hundreds of emails after the final report was completed. Shadow immigration minister Shayne Neumann this morning described that as “scandalous”. The committee’s main concern was whether Dutton’s use of his discretionary power to intervene in the case of the two au pairs was appropriate. The majority of the committee also found that Dutton had misled parliament.
For the record, this is the original exchange from Hansard on March 27:
BANDT: Can you categorically rule out any personal connection or any other relationship between you and the intended employer of either of the au pairs?
DUTTON: The answer is yes … I don’t know these people.
As later emerged, and the inquiry found beyond doubt, in at least one of the au pair cases that was untrue. The Brisbane au pair was to be employed by an old colleague of Dutton’s in the Queensland police from 20 years ago, Russell Keag, who started an email to Dutton’s office with the words: “Long time between calls”.
As Bandt pointed out in his speech on today’s motion: “This is not about whether you agree with the government’s border policy. It is well known that I have a difference of opinion with the minister about that. This is not about whether you in fact even agree with the decisions that the minister has made. This is about whether ministers in this government can be trusted to tell the truth to the house.” Government business manager Christopher Pyne did his best to defend a sworn factional enemy, saying that Dutton was a fine Australian who had done great work for his country and so on, but completely avoided the main issue: had Dutton misled parliament? Tony Burke, manager of Opposition business, supported Bandt’s motion and quoted Dutton himself from 2015 when he described misleading parliament as a “cardinal sin”. Burke quoted Dutton’s transcript from a press conference a fortnight ago:
QUESTION: Minister Dutton do you now concede that you knew the man from the police force, who you assisted with the visa for the au pair?
PETER DUTTON: I’ve never denied that …
Dutton denied it explicitly, in March, in parliament – a flagrant contradiction, out of his own mouth. As Burke said today, there is no need to trust Labor on this, nor the report of a Senate inquiry. When it comes to accusations of misleading parliament, “you will never get one as open and shut as what is in front of us today”. Asked on Sky News whether Dutton’s misleading of parliament was really a hanging offence, Burke shot straight back: “It’s the actually the only one that is.”
The most damning thing is that all Dutton had to do, as soon as he realised, was to go into parliament to correct the record. Instead, he waited months before telling the house, “To the best of my knowledge I have not socialised with, met with or had personal contact with the man involved” … as though Bandt had originally asked whether he knew Keag well.
Bandt’s motion today was the opposite of a stunt, and afterwards he vowed that the Greens would continue to pursue the beleaguered minister. Bandt suggested that the tight numbers indicated that a Coalition member may have missed the vote, and that the issue was not going away: “All it will take is one member of the government, on the backbench, to show a bit of spine and stand up to Peter Dutton.” The Australian is reporting [$] a “miscommunication” in government ranks led to the tight win, which should have yielded a two-vote majority. With the numbers on such a knife-edge, and Wentworth in the balance, this is not over yet.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
The heavy thud from Canberra around 12.20pm today was the sound of ministerial standards dropping, even further. By a one-vote majority, 68–67, the Coalition plus Queenslander Bob Katter voted that it is okay, when politically expedient, for ministers to mislead parliament and to fail to correct the record. The vote had nothing to do with asylum seekers, and nothing to do with au pairs. It was all about whether Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton should be sanctioned in what was an open-and-shut case. “No”, voted the House of Representatives – comically, Dutton’s vote in his own defence has again proved decisive, as it was when a similar question was last put to the chamber in August. The sheepish grins on Coalition faces afterwards told the story: it was the barest tactical victory, at the cost of setting another poor precedent. As respect for the parliament dissipates,...