Submissions, witnesses, questions … then nothing. Australian government cites ‘passage of time’ for silence on reports

submissions, witnesses, questions … then nothing. australian government cites ‘passage of time’ for silence on reports

Stacks of government responses – each of them the same – to various committee reports, distributed in the Parliament House press gallery. Photograph: Josh Butler/The Guardian

In the Parliament House press gallery is an area known simply as “the boxes” – a wall of pigeonholes for mail, a bulletin board of real estate listings and upcoming events, and class photos of the press gallery cohorts of years past.

It’s a spot for hardcopy press release distribution, with a glass-fronted wooden display case that in pre-digital days housed a paper copy of the prime minister’s daily schedule. It now contains one piece of paper – a media alert from 2007 for one of John Howard’s last prime ministerial press conferences.

The boxes are also where new parliamentary reports, government responses and other papers tabled in parliament are left in large, teetering piles.

Since these reports are also online, few journalists stop by to sift through the latest offerings, which usually linger for a few weeks before being disposed of.

Time, effort and money risks being wasted when governments don’t respond

Senator Barbara Pocock

But in recent weeks, the paper piles have been more numerous than usual. Guardian Australia began noticing a large number of very thin responses, some as few as one page, to a wide range of committees and inquiries from years past.

Further inspection found they all carried the same response:

“The Government notes this recommendation. However, given the passage of time since this report was tabled, a substantive Government response is no longer appropriate.”

Such was the fate of the environment and communications references committee’s report into Australians playing online poker, tabled in October 2017; the Senate rural and regional affairs committee’s report into labelling of seafood products, tabled in 2014; the House standing committee on employment and education’s report on school to work transition, from 2018; and a 2021 report into the skilled migration program.

The same response was given to parliamentary committee reports into water use by the extractive industry (tabled in 2018), the trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn (2018), timber supply chain constraints in the plantation sector (2021), feral deer and pigs (2018) and dozens more.

The Senate’s website states 65 government responses to various reports were received on a single day – 14 May, budget day. A further seven were lodged on 17 May. Only a few offered more than the standard response, and those figures exclude responses to House-only committees. The only department that lists the responses on its website – finance – disclosed 17 government responses in its patch in May, all with the same 24-word response.

The oldest we could find was from 2008 and 2009 – three reports from the migration committee on immigration detention.

Process not a ‘wasted effort’ despite cursory responses

The value of this boilerplate response is unclear, as is the goal of the government’s recent enthusiasm for filing them.

We asked the prime minister’s office for clarification.

Patrick Gorman, assistant minister to the prime minister, said the former Coalition government had “refused to respond to the reports of parliamentary committees, failing to deliver on a core business of government”.

The strange situation has drawn attention to the hundreds of parliamentary reports to which governments of the past two decades have never fully responded.

Senate statistics show more than 300 reports from as far back as 2002 have never had a final response from the government of the day. The current government says it is trying to set a new standard of ensuring all committee reports get a timely response – albeit with something of a copy-and-paste exercise to clear the decks of reports delivered to previous administrations.

I don’t find the passage of time a convincing reason to not respond to inquiries

Bill Browne, director of the Australia Institute’s democracy and accountability program

Government sources stressed that many of the recommendations made years ago were out of date, or had already been acted on, making more substantive responses irrelevant – but that the recent blitz of responses at least acknowledged the work of the committees that prepared the reports.

Gorman alluded to this, saying the government won’t have “public servants spending months responding to hundreds of Coalition-era reports”.

Some of the inquiries took years.

The 24-word standard response was given to a report from the committee into the now defunct Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity into the integrity of Australia’s border arrangements, which began its inquiry in 2015 and reported in 2020. The final report noted the “long-running inquiry has been conducted across three parliaments”.

It never received a response from the Morrison government.

Other long-running inquiries that called many witnesses and attracted hundreds of pages of submissions still await even the cursory dismissal invoking “the passage of time”, including:

    A 2002 report into “A Certain Maritime Incident” (the children overboard affair), which held 15 public hearings. Some 28 submissions are available online. It produced a 576-page report.

    A 2017 inquiry into serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers at the Nauru and Manus regional processing centres received 61 submissions and held six public hearings.

    A 2021 report into multiculturalism, racism, inequality and social cohesion received 210 submissions, held three public hearings, and produced a 264-page report.

    In 2021, a report into administration of sports grants received 53 submissions and held 14 public hearings.

Bill Browne, director of the Australia Institute’s democracy and accountability program, said there was “a lot of wisdom to be found in the inquiries”, both from the submissions and the reports.

“It’s within the government’s power to respond to these inquiries more quickly, so I don’t find the passage of time a convincing reason to not respond to inquiries that dozens or hundreds of people have spent hours or days working on,” he said.

Browne said it was a “serious process” for witnesses to appear at inquiries. Lots of work was often involved in preparing submissions and preparing to be questioned by the committee.

“You’re appearing before a panel of some of the most powerful people in the country, and answering off the cuff any reasonable question from the terms of reference,” he said.

“The parliament’s power to demand that is a really important part of its accountability function. We should also recognise that the people who appear are civically motivated and publicly minded and deserve to have their perspectives taken into account.”

He emphasised that despite the cursory responses, the process was not a “wasted effort”, because it could reveal new information and influence policy decisions in other ways.

Greens senator Barbara Pocock said it was “not good enough”.

“Our inquiries amass expert knowledge from industry, academia and the community and make recommendations to improve the way things work, but all this time, effort and money risks being wasted when governments don’t respond.”

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