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Senate Estimates: Lee questions Minister Cash on AWU raids media leak

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 26 Oct 2017

Below is a transcript of questions Lee asked Senator Michaelia Cash on Tuesday, 24 October 2017 during Senate Estimates hearings of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee (Employment Portfolio). Other witnesses present included Mark Bielecki, Commissioner, and Chris Enright, Executive Director, both from the Registered Organisations Commission  

Senator RHIANNON: Chair, I also have questions.

CHAIR: Sorry, Senator Rhiannon, just to confirm—

Senator RHIANNON: To the minister.


Senator RHIANNON: Minister, you said, 'I have full faith in my staff.' Considering a staff person has come to you and explained what has happened, do you have full faith in your staff? Have you questioned your staff? How are you going ahead making such statements when you've got one staff who's now gone? How do you know that other staff didn't do it as well—collusion?

Senator Cash: I have sought assurances from my staff and one staff member—

Senator RHIANNON: So have you questioned all your staff?

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, let the minister answer.

Senator Cash: and one staff member has come forward and advised as I have stated. He has resigned.

Senator RHIANNON: You initially said that one staff person approached you. Are you now saying that you have questioned all your staff?

Senator Cash: I have questioned all relevant staff—yes.

Senator RHIANNON: 'All relevant staff'. What does 'relevant staff' mean?

Senator Cash: I haven't spoken to the DLOs.

Senator RHIANNON: Considering you've built a career on lying and there's been five lies tonight—

Senator PATERSON: That is outrageous.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, that is highly inappropriate to say to the minister. Before we continue on any further, we have managed to get through almost to the dinner break with a great deal of mutual courtesy in this and without people talking and yelling all over each other. Given that, for the rest of the evening, I imagine this is going to be quite a contentious topic and subject, I would ask all senators here to still respect each other and also show courtesy to the minister and to the officials. That's not to say that you can't ask robust questions, but you've already started talking over each other and talking over the minister. So, if you ask the minister or an official a question, please allow them to answer it and show some degree of courtesy. And I would ask senators not to talk over each other, because we've already had senators yelling over the top of each other.

Senator RHIANNON: So could you explain—

Senator PATERSON: Point of order, Chair: that should be withdrawn. Senator Rhiannon said that the minister has built a career on lying. That is an outrageous personal slur and attack, and, frankly, Senator Rhiannon, it is not something I've typically heard from you and it is unlike you, and I think it should be withdrawn.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, would you withdraw the accusation?

Senator RHIANNON: I withdraw the accusation.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: I ask the minister to explain the situation with her staff, considering that five times she answered a question very specifically and now she comes with an explanation that is very different from how she was conducting herself earlier.

Senator Cash: Senator Rhiannon, that was my knowledge at the time. During the dinner break, I spoke with staff and I have been advised, as I stated, that, without my knowledge, one staff member in my office, in the course of discussions with journalists, indicated that he had received information that a raid may take place. I am advised that this information came from a media source. I was not aware of it at the time and was not aware of it earlier today in estimates. This took place without my knowledge and was not authorised by me. As previously indicated, I did not know about the raids until I watched them unfold on the television.


Senator RHIANNON: Minister, with respect to the staff person who came forward to speak to you, at what time did the staff person receive this information?

Senator Cash: I have not been able to ascertain that. He said it was yesterday afternoon.

Senator RHIANNON: Is that a question you're going to put to them tomorrow?

Senator Cash: As I've said, I will be sitting down with my staff member tomorrow.

Senator RHIANNON: Will you put that question to them tomorrow?

Senator Cash: I will be discussing the matter with my staff member tomorrow.

Senator RHIANNON: What position did they hold in your office?

Senator Cash: It was a senior media adviser.

Senator RHIANNON: How long had they worked in your office?

Senator Cash: I'd need to take that on notice to find out how long he'd worked there.

Senator RHIANNON: Who did they report to?

Senator Cash: Myself.

Senator RHIANNON: So they reported to you?

Senator Cash: Or the chief of staff.

Senator RHIANNON: Let's be accurate: did they report to you or the chief of staff?

Senator Cash: They report to the chief of staff and to myself.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you had direct dealings with this staff member in the past week?

Senator Cash: Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Before this broke, you had direct dealings with them today?

Senator Cash: In relation to media issues, yes.

Senator RHIANNON: And with regard to this issue?

Senator Cash: What issue are you talking about?

Senator RHIANNON: With regard to the issue about the raid on the Australian Workers' Union.

Senator Cash: Yes, he had media queries for me to respond to. Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you going to conduct an investigation of your whole office and your department with regard to how this incident has unfolded?

Senator Cash: As I've said, I've only just been made aware, during the dinner break, of my staff member's conduct. I will consider further investigation in due course.

Senator CAMERON: Minister, given the—

CHAIR: No, Senator Cameron. Senator Rhiannon has the call.

Senator CAMERON: I thought she had finished.

Senator RHIANNON: Are you aware that this evening Andrew Bolt has said, 'I have to say, this now seems part of the disturbing pattern of the Liberals under both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull to use state power against the political enemy.'

Senator Cash: No, I am not.

Senator RHIANNON: You're not aware of that comment?

Senator Cash: No, I am not. I'm sitting in Senate estimates. I'm not watching the television.

Senator RHIANNON: It was before Senate estimates. He's talking about overreach. Is that a term you would use to describe what's gone on here?

Senator Cash: Absolutely not; absolutely not. And I'm sure that, once the ROC is able to be questioned tonight, the commissioner will be able to explain why this is so important. At the end of the day, there are still very serious questions to be answered by Mr Shorten in relation to—

Senator CAMERON: You've got to be joking.

Senator WATT: Stop digging, please.

CHAIR: Senators, if you keep doing this, we'll have another private meeting. Senator Rhiannon has the call.

Senator RHIANNON: Minister, just in that statement then, you've again revealed how political it is. The only issues that you're pursuing are about the Leader of the Opposition. There are all the other donations; there are all the other years.

Senator WATT: Take some responsibility.

Senator RHIANNON: I mean, you've just nailed it yourself: it's a political attack. Can you answer that? Why just Mr Shorten? You're the one who has put it out there.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, is there a question there?

Senator RHIANNON: There is.

CHAIR: You've always got the opportunity to go and make media statements outside, but please ask questions in this forum.

Senator RHIANNON: It's not about a media statement; it's about trying to understand an incredibly serious attack on civil society and the situation is highly political. The minister has just nailed it herself and I'm just asking the question: why is it just about pursuing donations linked with Mr Shorten when there are so many other aspects of the AWU's work with regard to political donations?

Senator Cash: Senator Rhiannon, I don't determine what is investigated. That is a question that you'll have to put to the Registered Organisations Commission. The Registered Organisations Commission makes their own determinations. You'll need to put that question to them.

Senator RHIANNON: Isn't it the case that you've supported what they've done? You just spoke about it—just about Mr Shorten and nothing else.

Senator Cash: Again, you'll need to ask questions of the Registered Organisations Commission as to how they determine what to investigate.

Senator RHIANNON: What are you doing to secure the phone and email of the staff member so there can't be a cover-up?

Senator Cash: As I've already stated, I'll be speaking with my staff member tomorrow.

Senator RHIANNON: So that means that now, when the staff person walks out the door, they left all their equipment behind?

Senator Cash: Again, I'll be sitting down with my staff member tomorrow.

Senator RHIANNON: Shouldn't you have secured that equipment immediately—text messages, records of phone calls, emails—

Senator Cash: Again, I'll be sitting down with my staff member tomorrow.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, you're now asking questions and you're not giving the minister an opportunity to answer the questions. I would remind all senators here that the minister provided advice earlier today. She subsequently—during the dinner break—found out that not to be correct. She's come and corrected the record. Given that the minister is in the room with us, in terms of what she does next, she said that she will take action, but it is unreasonable to actually ask her and hypothesise about what she might do tomorrow or even tonight, because she's here. She can't be in two places at once. If there are any more questions on the—

Senator CAMERON: Yes, I've got questions.

Senator RHIANNON: I will ask the question again.

CHAIR: We could, just in that context, ask the minister questions about her statement this evening. There will be plenty of other opportunities, once the minister has had an opportunity to get out of estimates to deal with this issue, to come back with further questions in terms of how it has subsequently been dealt with.

Senator RHIANNON: I will ask this question because it is clearly relevant and I think it's fair that the minister does answer it. Considering that the staff person has resigned—in this day and age, so much of our work goes on various electronic platforms—where is that person's equipment at the moment?

Senator Cash: It will be in the office, Senator Rhiannon—

Senator RHIANNON: I haven't finished my question. And what has been done to secure it so it cannot be tampered with?

Senator Cash: Again, I will be discussing this matter with my staff member tomorrow.

Senator WATT: Might need a big raid on her office.

Senator RHIANNON: So what we conclude from that is nothing has been done to secure the equipment?

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, you asked that same question three times. Again, I'd point out that the minister has come straight here. Even Senator Cash can't be in two places at once. So, given that she's in here at the first available opportunity advising the Senate of what she has learnt in the break, asking the same question over and over again about what she may or may not do, given that she's actually here, would be a question, perhaps, for a later day once the minister has had an opportunity to action this.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Chair. I'll pass back to my colleagues.


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