Former defence minister Linda Reynolds has been cleared of contempt by the Senate’s privileges committee, but not without receiving a stern rebuke.
Senator Reynolds had initially refused to provide documents relating to Australia’s $139 billion shipbuilding program via a public interest immunity claim relying on commercial sensitivity, before heavily redacted versions were handed over.
Included in the paperwork was a version of one document more heavily redacted than a previous copy that had been published on the committee’s webpage.
It prompted the Senate’s economics references committee to remark “it appears the department is misusing legitimate grounds for withholding information … that is politically embarrassing or information that on the face of it demonstrates incompetency or inefficiency”.
Late Labor senator Alex Gallacher and independent senator Rex Patrick referred the matter to the privileges committee last May, with the latter stating there was “no doubt” the committee’s work was obstructed by the information not being provided.
The documents were not made available until the final parliamentary sitting week in 2021, which committee chair Labor senator Anthony Chisholm said could be “construed as a subtle but intentional impediment to the committee’s work, particularly as it is just prior to the election period”.
Senator Reynolds, who is now government services minister, maintained it was not in the public interest for the documents to be produced, as the commercially sensitive information would have caused significant damage to the interests of the Commonwealth regarding critical naval shipbuilding programs.
Senator Gallacher noted public accountability standards had declined through his time in the Senate, and recommended the privileges committee suggested a report on the 10 largest government departments and how they are complying with disclosure obligations.
A report from the privileges committee found no party should be found to have committed a contempt with the information now viewed, but cautioned it could not allow a “creeping understanding” Senate orders could be ignored.
It also recommended the auditor-general investigate the defence department’s compliance with disclosure obligations and consider if other large departments should also be examined.