SUBJECT/S: Failure of the Attorney General to Provide a Letter from Man Haron Monis to the Review into the Sydney Siege


TONY BURKE, MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: This is as serious as it gets. What Julie Bishop has waited until the end of Question Time to inform the Australian people about, involves a direct misleading of the Parliament, which the Government could have corrected and chose not to until Question Time had finished on what has been the most serious public tragedy that Australians have watched in recent memory.


Last Thursday, Labor was criticised by the Government for allegedly playing politics by asking questions about what the Attorney General knew, when the Attorney General knew it and how protocols have changed. Legitimate questions and the response from the Government was to play politics.

In responding to those questions, Julie Bishop, representing the Attorney General, George Brandis, made a statement which was not true. She stated in the Parliament: ‘The Letter and the Attorney General’s department’s reply were both placed before the inquiry into the Martin Place siege, conducted by the secretaries of the Prime Minister’s and the New South Wales Premier’s departments. That report did not have any criticisms at all on the way in which the Monis letter was dealt’. That statement was untrue.


George Brandis in his media release, in writing, made the same statement. ‘The Letter and my department’s reply were both placed before the inquiry into the Martin Place siege, conducted by the secretaries of the Prime Minister’s and the New South Wales Premier’s departments. Their report did not have any criticisms of the way in which the Monis letter was dealt.’ That was in writing, put out by Australia’s Attorney General and entirely untrue.


We need to know when the Attorney General found out that this information was wrong, when the Prime Minister found out that this information was wrong and when the Foreign Minister found out that this information was wrong because I have no doubt it was well in advance of when the Foreign Minister decided to confess to the Parliament once Question Time had finished.


The Attorney General has become a turnstile of incompetence in this Government. The Attorney General last night chose to front a Senate Estimates committee and read poetry to [in] a Parliamentary committee rather than allow this information to be corrected.


The Foreign Minister decided to spend her time before Question Time helping film a satirical video in the corridors of Parliament House rather than deal with an issue of this gravity. The Prime Minister sat in the Parliament, in the House of Representatives, accusing others of playing politics while he was suppressing information.


Last Thursday, Labor followed a line of questioning that was legitimate. Questions wanting to know what the Government knew, when they knew it, why the Government responded in particular ways and most importantly, whether in hindsight now, they would do things differently.


This Government has responded by suppressing information, by holding it back until moments of inquiry have finished and by prioritising satirical videos and poetry readings over national security information.


The Prime Minister needs to let us know when he found out, the Attorney General needs to let us know when he found out, the Foreign Minister needs to make clear when she found out and all of them need to make clear why they wanted to wait until Question Time had finished and when scrutiny had finished before they revealed it to the Parliament.


Why does suppressing the information for a period of time matter so much? Because there is no document that governs what Ministers do more than the Statement of Ministerial Standards.


I want to quote directly from what is meant to be, for this government, the rule book for Ministers, if after today there are any rules left: ‘Clause 5.1 – Ministers are expected to be honest in the conduct of public office and take all reasonable steps to ensure they do not mislead the public or the Parliament. It is a Ministers personal responsibility to ensure any error or misconception in relating to such a matter is corrected or clarified as soon as participable and in a manner appropriate to the issues and interest involved.’


There is no way in the world that the first moment they had to correct the record was at the end of Question Time.


REPORTER: Mr Burke isn’t that the normal time for such corrections to be made? And Minister Bishop was away until today, so when should she have done it? Is this unreasonable?


BURKE: Two things: First of all, in answering the questions the Foreign Minister was representing the Attorney General. The Attorney General had put the statement out in writing almost verbatim to what the Foreign Minister had put forward. He has appeared before a parliamentary committee and has had the opportunity to do that. He prioritised reading poetry to [in] the estimates committee when he could have provided this information. As far as the Foreign Minister is concerned, after Question Time is when a Minister may add to an answer, but Ministers are given indulgence at any moment. As a Minister there were times when I had information that subsequently turned out to be wrong, I’d stand up in Parliament at the first opportunity I got and correct the record. That’s what you do.


REPORTER: Putting aside correcting the record issue. Wasn’t the Government and Minister Bishop entitled to rely on the evidence to a senate committee of that senior departmental official?


BURKE: What I have said today doesn’t go to the original mistake. It goes to their failure to let people know once they found out that the information that they’d given was wrong. I’m not making an accusation about the original mislead being inadvertent. I’m not making an accusation that it was in any way deliberate. What I am saying is, after that, they found out and decided to cover it up until scrutiny was over and the parliamentary week had finished.


REPORTER: It’s the last sitting day of the parliamentary fortnight. Are you cynical enough to suggest that that might have been intentional? They wanted it to be the Thursday afternoon?


BURKE: I think it being the Thursday isn’t a criticism of the Foreign Minister. Waiting until after Question Time is a criticism of the Foreign Minister. How much earlier it could have happened depends on when this was first known. If it was known at any point yesterday, then we do have to ask why on earth George Brandis thought poetry reading to [in] a Parliamentary Committee was more important.


REPORTER: Should we be concerned that the initial investigation by the Prime Minister’s inquiry didn’t see both the letter and the reply to it. Is that concerning as well?


BURKE: What you’ve raised just there is a legitimate line of enquiry, which would have been possible in Question Time today, had the cover up not occurred.


REPORTER: What do you make of the subsequent letter that Mr Thawley’s provided saying it wouldn’t have made any difference to the review. Is this an after the fact type observation – what do you make of that?


BURKE: There are questions that can’t be asked in the Parliament now because the Government decided to hold this information back, to cover it up until Question Time was over. I’m not presuming what the answers to that next lot of questions would be. But a cover up has occurred today that should never have occurred.


REPORTER: So it’s not relevant at all that [inaudible] the Director General of ASIO who has sighted this letter has said it really wouldn’t have changed the actions of how the security services would have responded to Mr Monis, he was saying that’s not relevant?


BURKE: The response to the Director General of ASIO, that information was available last Thursday. That was asked about, it was responded to in the Parliament and for everything I’ve heard, that part of the response was accurate. But inaccurate information was given on Thursday of last week as well and the Government has waited until no more questions can be asked before they’ve decided to end the cover up of that particular piece of information.


REPORTER: Is the Government able to claim any you know - are you giving them any sort of yes they could have just found out about this during Question Time or just at the end of Question Time?


BURKE: If the first Julie Bishop ever heard of this was at ten past three today, if the first the Attorney General ever heard of this was at ten past three today and the first moment the Prime Minister knew about it was at ten past three today, then let them come out and say that.


REPORTER: Julie Bishop’s got quite fiery in her responses to Mr Dreyfus’ questions last Thursday. It’s pretty embarrassing for her now that some of that information wasn’t correct?


BURKE: Well not only did she get fiery but we were accused of unreasonably playing politics. The same accusation was made by a Prime Minister today who whenever he has a choice between a policy discussion and a political game, he picks the political game.


We have followed a legitimate line of enquiry, there are legitimate questions to be asked. If answers are given inadvertently that are inaccurate then that should be made clear and clarified at the earliest possible opportunity. I don’t think anyone believes for a minute that that’s what happened today.


REPORTER: Does this just continue to stir up emotions while the families of those who suffered in this tragic incident are going through the inquest in New South Wales. Is this another distraction from that?


BURKE: I don’t think anything can ever, should ever or will ever distract from the reality of the tragedy of what happened in Martin Place. Nothing ever will distract from that. What we are hear about today is about a Government covering up information when they got the facts wrong and it needs to be seen legitimately as that.


REPORTER: Mr Burke do you think in the debate about citizenship laws that in some cases the Government is dog whistling?


BURKE: What I believe without any doubt is this Government doesn’t seem to want bipartisanship when they get it. They’ve been offered bipartisanship on national security issues and they try to pretend it’s not there. It’s not only national security where they did this. They were offered bipartisanship on small business. They didn’t want it. Even when it’s been given and the votes gone through, they’re still running around wanting to say ‘everything might still be at risk’.


They don’t want to be the Government of Australia, they just want to be a political party playing games. Bipartisanship is offered because issues are important and this is a Government that whenever they’re faced with, either get the outcome through in a positive bipartisan way, or choose a political game, they choose the political game every time.


REPORTER: Do you believe that some of the language they used on this involves dog whistling?


BURKE: I believe the choice they made in pretending bipartisanship wasn’t there when it in fact was, was deeply irresponsible. You can attach whatever term you want to that, but it was a deeply irresponsible thing to do, to pretend that bipartisanship wasn’t there about a principle that had already been publicly agreed to.


REPORTER: Going back to the idea of stirring up painful memories for these families. Isn’t the idea of this inquiry and now the inquest to find out exactly what happened and all the information, although that might be upsetting for families, are these inquiries failing when finding out things after the fact?


BURKE: I don’t know the reasons why these letters were not originally provided to the inquiry. They should have been, I think everybody agrees, they should have been. Now that it’s in the public domain that’s better than when it wasn’t. All the facts need to be provided. I’m not willing to connect this discussion about the behaviour and the incompetence of a number of members of the Government and try to connect that in any way to the genuine grief felt by the families and indeed by the nation.


REPORTER: Does Labor have any responsibility in this considering a number of Labor MPs, while you were in Government, also received letters from Man Haron Monis?


BURKE: The line of questioning that we took last Thursday went to the fact that this letter was received a month after Australia had gone to its highest alert level in the history of the nation -


REPORTER: But there are still questions about your own -


BURKE: And those questions have been asked by inquiries and it’s for inquiries to deal with that however is appropriate. I’m not going to seek to interfere in that in any way. Our line of questioning has specifically focused on whether or not the protocols were changed or should have been changed when Australia went to the highest level of terror alert in the history of our nation.


REPORTERS: Thank you.


BURKE: Thank you.

Tony Burke