Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (15:05): My question is to the Prime Minister. I refer him to Friday's revelation that the Minister for Agriculture previously sought to influence the conduct of litigation involving his benefactor, Gina Rinehart. Has the Prime Minister counselled the minister that any personal intervention in similar court cases in the future would be inappropriate. And, Prime Minister—
The SPEAKER: The member is totally out of order. The question is out of order, and he knows it is out of order.
Mr FITZGIBBON: On what basis, Madam Speaker?
Mr Burke: Madam Speaker, I rise on a point of order. For a long time in this House it has been appropriate to ask the Prime Minister about the Ministerial Code of Conduct. You interrupted the member for Hunter at the exact point he was asking about the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
The SPEAKER: I will hear from the Leader of Government Business.
Mr Pyne: Far be it for me to help the Manager of Opposition Business in question time, but the question was about a period of time in which the member for New England was not actually a minister of this House. Therefore, it is not a matter within the purview of the Prime Minister's responsibility.
Mr FITZGIBBON: Madam Speaker, if it assists the House I would be happy to rephrase the question.
The SPEAKER: No. You were asking a question about a matter for which the Prime Minister has no responsibility. Under section 98 and under standing order 98 it is out of order. I call the honourable member for Casey.
Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (15:20): I second the motion. Motions of dissent on the Speaker's ruling are not motions to be taken lightly. This opposition does not take them lightly. Dissent motions are so rare in this place because oppositions use them guardedly. It does not matter whether we like or dislike the Speaker. It does not matter whether the Speaker has a reputation for fairness or otherwise; oppositions are generally reluctant to move dissent. But we had no choice today, Madam Speaker—clearly no choice. For a start, as the Manager of Opposition Business pointed out, you did not even let me complete my question, Madam Speaker, and if you had you would have come to the conclusion, surely, despite the pressure from those who sit opposite, that the question was entirely in order. There are a number of principles here. For a start, Madam Speaker, the opposition, under the Westminster system, has limited opportunity to hold the government to account—or, more particularly, to hold government ministers to account. Question time is one of our few opportunities, and when you prevent us from exercising that right, Madam Speaker, you not only undermine our cause but you undermine the very nature of the Westminster system.
The question today, Madam Speaker, was a very serious one.
It was one which picked up on the very serious reflections of Justice Brennan of the High Court, who himself expressed grave concern, about the actions of the now minister, back in 2011.
If you had allowed me to complete my question, Madam Speaker, you would have found that I was most interested that the Prime Minister has by now reassured himself, felt confident, that all the minister's actions between 2011 up until this date, including his 20 months or so as a minister, have been appropriate and within the standards of his own ministerial code of conduct. That is what we would like to know. I am hoping that the Prime Minister is now reflecting on that question I belatedly put and will come back to the House and give us a reassurance at some future time—hopefully sooner rather than later—that he has reassured himself that this minister has not operated outside his own ministerial code of conduct.
I said question time is a time to hold ministers to account, and this is a minister who certainly needs a lot of supervision and needs to be held to account. This has been a chaotic minister. This has been an incompetent minister. This is a minister who is prepared to come into this place, provide an answer which is a total embellishment of the effectiveness of his drought policy and then go back and change the Hansard, change what he said in this place. He denied ever knowing about the Hansard changes until I raised them in this place. We know, thanks to a Senate estimates process, that this was not the case.
Madam Speaker, this is not the first time you have denied me an opportunity to ask the Minister for Agriculture a question. On both occasions, I would put it to you, there was nothing extraordinary about those questions. They were questions that were entirely consistent with questions asked in this place on a daily basis, questions which you regularly allow to go through on the basis of the standing orders. There was nothing special here. It was a simple question to the Prime Minister: is he confident that his minister has been compliant with the ministerial code of conduct?
This is a minister who promised the agricultural sector a white paper by Christmas. We are now 20 months into the term of this government and we have not had any agriculture policy in this country. Policy inertia writ large. Those on the other side do not want us to ask a question of the Minister for Agriculture, because they know he is a person who is running a chaotic operation, has backflipped on all his pre-election promises and is constantly in the media for all the wrong reasons. They know on that basis that this is a minister in need of protection.
I said to you before I sat down, Madam Speaker, 'We shall return.' We will be back. There will be plenty more question times and there is a limit to the extent that the Leader of the House can give you the nudge and the wink whenever he believes one of his ministers is in need of protection. This is not a protection racket, this place, Madam Speaker. This is the national parliament of this country, and we are entitled to ask ministers questions when we believe they have misled the Australian people or acted in a way that is contrary to the national interest. (Time expired)