QUESTIONS WITHOUT NOTICE
Senator FIFIELD (2.00 pm)-My question is to the Minister for Employment Participation, Senator Arbib. Now that a spokesperson for the former Minister for Employment Participation has confirmed that there were a series of phone calls between one tenderer and the former minister’s office in the lead-up to the decision on the $4.9 billion tender for employment services, will the minister urgently establish a full and independent inquiry into this most serious matter?
Senator ARBIB-Let me point out once more to Senator Fifield that the independent external probity adviser was satisfied that at all stages the assessment process that was followed by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations met all requirements. As the opposition well knows, the process was conducted at arm’s length from government at all times. The communication referred to in the question was sent to the minister’s office well after the process had been conducted. Any other communication prior to the outcome of the tender had nothing to do-I repeat: nothing to do-with the purchasing exercise.
Mission Australia have every right to feel deeply aggrieved by any suggestion to the contrary, Senator Fifield.
The independent external probity adviser said that in all stages its involvement took the form of: advice to the department on the development of appropriate processes supporting the implementation of the tender process arrangements, in particular advice on best practice; advice on preparation and release of the exposure draft and request for tender in August; signing off on all guidelines used in the evaluation and assessment of the tender responses process; briefings and advice on probity and communication matters related to the tender; delivery of probity briefings and/or participation in meetings as a probity representative; and attendance at all meetings where the department was considering business allocations. The independent external probity adviser gave an unqualified sign-off to the tender process, saying:
… the … process represents a high benchmark for the conduct
of Commonwealth procurements in that DEEWR-
Senator FIFIELD-Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Has the minister received any advice in the last 24 hours from the department or from the independent probity adviser, Clayton Utz, specifically relating to the series of phone calls between the former minister and Mission Australia in the lead-up to the decision on the $4.9 billion tender?
Senator ARBIB-I repeat the quote. The external probity adviser gave an unqualified sign-off-
Opposition senators interjecting-
Senator ARBIB-Mr President, they might not want to hear the answer, but I am answering the question.
The probity adviser gave an unqualified sign-off, saying:
… the … process represents a high benchmark for the conduct of Commonwealth procurements in that DEEWR not only met, but in many cases exceeded, relevant probity principles and standards.
Senator Fifield-I rise on a point of order on relevance, Mr President. The question specifically asked about advice in the last 24 hours. The documents to which the minister is referring were produced before the latest revelation. The question is in relation to advice received in the last 24 hours.
Senator Ludwig-Mr President, on the point of order: the difficulty we always get into is that the minister is answering the question and is relevant to the question by dealing in the answer with the advice that he has in respect of the matter. It is not the case that if you do not like the answer being given to the question then you can object to it, or if the answer that they are being given is not the one they want. That is not a point of order. I respectfully submit, Mr President, there is no point of order in respect of this. The minister is answering in relation to the question on the matter of advice.
The PRESIDENT-Senator Arbib, I advise you that you have 27 seconds left to answer the question that has been raised by Senator Fifield.
Senator ARBIB-Thank you, Mr President. Senator Fifield has a real Sherlock Holmes thing going on here. He is investigating hard. I know he is trying hard on this one.
Opposition senators interjecting-
Senator ARBIB-However, Senators, it is not Sherlock Holmes but rather Inspector Clouseau we see here. Let us reveal it: a week ago an inquiry took place and Senator Fifield said-(Time expired)
Senator FIFIELD-Mr President, I have a perhaps simpler further supplementary question for the minister: was the probity adviser aware that there were a series of phone calls between the former minister and a tenderer in the lead-up to the decision on the $4.9 billion tender? Has the probity adviser examined the documentation of the details of the approaches of tenderers to the former Minister for Employment participation? Again, will the minister now urgently establish a full and independent inquiry into these matters?
Senator ARBIB-I have already given Senator Fifield an answer on the probity adviser. That has already taken place and been signed off. I will just come back to Senator Fifield for a sec-Inspector Clouseau on a fishing expedition. More like Rex Hunt, I think! A week ago in a Senate inquiry-let’s get the quote from
Senator Fifield-he said:
There has not been much evidence calling into question the probity. The real question has been the efficacy of the process.
When was that? Was that a month ago or 12 months ago? That was seven days ago. He was not calling into question the probity. He was calling into question the efficacy. This is Senator Fifield on an absolute fishing expedition. There is no case for the former minister to answer whatsoever. If Senator Fifield had actually taken the time to read the statement put out by the former minister, he would understand there is no case to answer. I say to Senator Fifield: read the document-