Correspondence released by the Senate Economics Committee outlines an attempt by the Department of Defence for its Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Board not to appear before an inquiry into the Future of Naval Shipbuilding scheduled for today.
Centre Alliance Senator Rex Patrick has described Defence's actions as a "deliberate obstruction" that "possibly involves a contempt of the Senate".
"The whole issue was shaping up to be a repeat of the 2010 ‘DEFGRAMS’ scandal until a last minute backdown by Defence this afternoon," Senator Patrick said. "I was in the unfortunate position of having issued instructions to my advisers to draft a motion to present to the Senate to have the Board summoned."
"The Senate rarely issues summons to force attendance before a Committee because rarely do people refuse invitations from a Committee."
The released correspondence shows that on 28 March 2018, the Committee invited the Board to appear at a hearing in May 2018. Defence declined the request on 11 April on the basis that "the Board is not a decision making body and its advice to support Government decision making is confidential. The Board would therefore not be in a position to provide the Committee with information on its deliberations or advice to the Government."
On 16 April the Committee responded to Defence insisting they attend and that they respond to the Committee by 23 April. Defence did not respond to the request.
"The attendance of members of the Board is obviously relevant to the Senate Inquiry into the Future of Naval Shipbuilding. It is extraordinary and unacceptable that Defence wanted to deny the Committee the benefit of its advice and insights," Senator Patrick said.
In the face of Defence's refusal, the Senate Economics References Committee resolved to postpone the hearing to a future date.
"Fortunately common sense has now prevailed. In the hours leading up to the correspondence being published, Defence has blinked and verbally advised the Committee that at least one member of the Board will appear at the next hearing," Patrick said.
"Nonetheless, I am giving strong consideration to referring Secretary of Defence Greg Moriarty and First Assistant Secretary John Geering to the Privileges Committee for contempt. Causing a Committee to postpone its work comes very close to the textbook definition of improper interference with the free exercise by the Senate of its inquiry power.
"This is the third time in as many years that Defence has deliberately obstructed the Senate in its duties and the matter needs to be brought to a head and resolved."
In February 2016, Defence refused the attendance of a departmental economist, Dr Bourke, at Senate Estimates. After a summons was issued by the Senate on 11 February, a spillover hearing of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (FADT) Legislation Committee was held on 3 March 2016 with Dr Bourke in attendance.
In May 2017, Defence again refused to allow an officer from the Department to appear before the FADT Committee at Estimates. The officer had signed off on a one month consultancy contract for $75,000 and was to be questioned on the value-for-money considerations made prior to authorising the contract. Defence backed down after a motion to summons was lodged in the Senate on 10 May 2017.
"Enough is enough," said Senator Patrick. "While I appreciate that the Senate must exercise its powers with care and responsibility, there are circumstances when not exercising a power is irresponsible."