SELECT COMMITTEE ON MATTERS RELATING TO THE INDEPENDENT EDUCATION INQUIRY
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
The Hon. R.I. LUCAS (17:07): I rise to support the motion and I intend, as has the Hon. Mr Maher, to address the terms of the motion that is before us. Why should members of this chamber support the motion to have the three ministers named appear before the committee? The simple answer to that is that there are many unanswered questions that can only be answered by these three ministers appearing and giving evidence to the committee. That is the reason the Legislative Council should support the motion that is before us.
As the mover of the motion (Hon. Mr Brokenshire) indicated, it is not unprecedented for one chamber to issue an invitation or to have ministers of another chamber appear before a select committee to give evidence. As I indicated in previous debates, we have had examples of the former premier Lynn Arnold, who has given evidence to a committee, the former minister for transport Mr Roy Abbott has given evidence to the South Australian Timber Corporation select committee, and I understand there are probably other ministers who have given evidence before.
This notion that in some way it would be unprecedented is not correct. Similarly, although it is not covered in this motion, and I will not traverse the detail, any claim that it is unprecedented for staffers to appear before a committee is not accurate either. Staffers such as Mr Kevin Foley, Mr George Karsis and others have appeared before committees in the past, but that is a matter for another day and for the committee to consider separately.
I want to address within the terms of this motion the reasons why the three ministers are being invited to come to the select committee to provide evidence on this particular issue. A series of questions was raised in the House of Assembly yesterday and today in relation to issues that can be answered only by the Premier because the questions were put to the Premier in the House of Assembly. These relate to the appropriateness or otherwise of ministerial staff in the Premier's office contacting the chief executive of the education department and/or his legal advisers, which is crown law, in the education department.
I guess the first question would be: why would it be the Premier's ministerial staff who might be undertaking that task, rather than the education minister's staff? Only the Premier is in a position to answer that question. The Premier has taken the view that it is natural or routine for his ministerial staff to be engaged in that way, that is, contacting the CEO or his legal advisers. In essence, what the Premier is saying is that it is natural or routine for any one of his ministerial staff—and of course that does include the chief of staff, Mr Blewett—to be able to ring the chief executive of the department and/or crown law, who are his legal advisers.
Crown law, bear in mind, is providing advice to the chief executive about the disciplinary issues that emanate as a result of the Debelle inquiry. The argument from the Premier appears to be that it is natural for any of his staff to be able to contact the chief executive or his legal advisers in crown law about whether disciplinary action should be taken and in fact whether or not penalties might or should (I think that was the question today) be applied to individual public servants named in the Debelle inquiry.
It is only the Premier who is going to be able to answer those questions. He has indicated this view—that he thinks that is natural, routine or appropriate. He also says that it is okay for any of his staff, including Mr Blewett, to contact, as I said, the chief executive or his legal advisers, crown law, to discuss individual public servants by name or title and the penalties that might or should be applied to them.
The Premier needs to be able to appear before the committee to indicate why he believes that that is natural or routine and whether or not indeed it is appropriate that any member of his staff should be in a position potentially to be speaking to the CEO or his legal advisers—again, and I repeat, given that crown law are the people who are actually determining whether or not disciplinary action should be taken against public servants—and, if so, whether or not there should be penalties.
The second reason the Premier needs to appear before the committee, and why the committee believes he should attend, is the issue of the appropriateness of actions and penalties potentially to be taken against public servants. As you know, Mr President, the Premier has indicated that he did not believe that he needed to or should dismiss his chief of staff or ministerial advisers, in general terms and in essence, who had long periods of exemplary service prior to making a mistake, and therefore prior service should be taken into account.
An obvious question for the Premier at the committee should be: what if public servants are in exactly the same position? That is, if they have had many years of exemplary service and if, for example, they are found to have made a mistake, why should they be treated differently from ministerial staff? Again, the Premier is the only one who can answer that question because this is a judgement call he alone has made in relation to his ministerial staff.
The third general issue is the role of ministers, and I think this relates to all ministers who are being asked to appear before the committee—all of them education ministers, as has been indicated. It talks about, in essence, the role of the minister. This is a more philosophical or general question but, nevertheless, I think an important question, and it is an issue that emanates from the Debelle inquiry. It is the issue of: what is the role of a minister in terms of critical incidents that occur? Just very briefly—
The PRESIDENT: The Hon. Mr Lucas, I think you are straying a little bit on the role of minister and—
The Hon. R.I. LUCAS: I will try to bring myself back to the strict tenet of the terms of reference.
The PRESIDENT: —I am asking you not to debate or prosecute a case as if you were in the committee. However, I will let you continue and certainly we will be listening.
The Hon. R.I. LUCAS: Thank you, sir. Very quickly, then, in relation to this particular issue—as I said, it is a more philosophical question and it applies to all ministers. In this case we are talking about education ministers, and I stand here as a former minister for education. That is, that once you have been advised of a critical incident whether, as in this case, the rape of a young child, or a bomb incident, a drug overdose of a student or a teacher, a knifing of a student, anything that you can imagine, the argument from the Premier appears to be that if you receive a three-line email form the department which says, 'We are handling the issue appropriately,' that is the end of the responsibility of any minister. That is, your responsibility ends at that point because you have been told the department is handling the issue appropriately.
I speak as a former minister here and that is the sort of evidence I gave to the Debelle inquiry—I do not think that it is an appropriate response from a minister to say that a three-line email indicating that 'We are handling the issue appropriately' is, therefore, the end of the matter. That is, the minister is entitled to say, 'I don't need to do anything more and, even if I had known, I wouldn't do anything more because my staff have been told and I would have been told that that's the end of the matter.'
I will not go into the detail of that particular argument. That is an issue that, hopefully—if the ministers accept the invitation to come before the committee—we can pursue with the individual ministers and ask, 'Okay, how do you justify this as an appropriate or an acceptable role of any minister of the crown in relation to handling any particular critical incident?'
Again, I will not go into the detail—I outlined the case in the original arguments—but clearly there are an answered questions in relation to the missing email, the wiping of computers and range of other related issues where clearly, again, the Premier is the key person in terms of being able to provide, hopefully, some response to the committee in relation to his policy and the government's policy in terms of wiping of computers, and then the missing email.
There is one final issue which has been raised with me which I believe the Premier should respond to. In the 7:30 Report the minister said:
Look, as soon as I became aware that within the education department there were issues that weren't being escalated to the ministerial office which occurred about another matter which occurred some time after this, we put in place protocols to ensure that the minister's office were told about these matters.
Again, I will not go into the detail of that but if the then minister (now Premier) was to come before the committee, that particular issue in terms of what the other issues were, what the ministerial protocols that were instituted were, why they worked or did not work in the minister's opinion would be issues appropriately to be canvassed by the committee.
With that, I accept your ruling that this is essentially a procedural matter and, as tempting as it might be to try to prosecute the case, on this particular occasion I will, of course, adhere to your very stringent ruling and urge members in this chamber to support this motion so that the committee can go about its work.