AGRICULTURE Minister Barnaby Joyce has come under fire again from Labor over misleading parliament on drought support for farmers.
In an escalation of last week’s argy-bargy with counterpart Joel Fitzgibbon on support assistance figures, Labor MP Tony Burke this week accused Mr Joyce of changing official parliamentary records to correct a wrong answer made during a heated question time exchange last Monday.
“I’m not asserting that Barnaby mislead the House deliberately on Monday,” Mr Burke said.
“From everything we can work out then, he got the details wrong and didn’t know enough about the programs within his own portfolio.
“But be in no doubt, either Barnaby Joyce or someone on his behalf has been involved in changing the record of the Parliament of Australia to have him saying words he never uttered.
“I don’t know what’s going on inside his mind, I’m not about to psychoanalyse Barnaby Joyce. What I do know is that the changing of the official record was designed to mislead.”
During question time on Monday, Mr Fitzgibbon and Mr Burke led a dual attack on the besieged Minister over the incident. Mr Fitzgibbon asked Mr Joyce to explain the inconsistencies between what he said in the House last Monday and the official Hansard record.
He said in the Hansard record, the final paragraph of Mr Joyce’s answer carried the qualifying statements: 'if you were also a recipient of the Interim Farm Household Allowance' and 'unless it was a new application'.
However, Mr Joyce continued focusing on numbers he quoted in last week’s answer, saying 4957 applications had been made; 4098 had been granted, 453 had been rejected and 411 customers are receiving payment.
He said that was “exactly” the same numbers he gave when returning to the chamber at 3.30pm last Wednesday.
But as the debate continued, Mr Burke referred to page 621 of House of Representatives Practice which states, with respect to Hansard, “emendations which alter the sense of words used in debate or introduce new matter are not admissible”.
He later explained the process to media and why he was dissatisfied with the government’s response.
“After you make a speech in Parliament, Hansard send to your office a copy of what you’ve said for the purposes of you being able, for example, to correct any names that they might have got wrong,” Mr Burke said.
“Sometimes there can be minor changes that are put back where a word that they’ve got might be incorrect from what you actually said or something like that.
“The edits that go back are very, very minor. There are rules of the Parliament that prohibit Members of Parliament from changing the meaning.”
Mr Burke said the issue should have been dealt with through a censure motion in parliament but was denied by the government.
“Not only did they not give leave for us to have the argument, when we moved to suspension they then gagged the debate and shut us down completely,” he said.
“What this government is doing is, in the first instance providing wrong information then doctoring the records to try to make it look right, and then today silencing the debate.”
Later in the day, Mr Joyce confessed to the error in a statement, blaming a staff member he said had now been “counselled”.
“I answered a question on Monday the 20th of October 2014 from the Member for Hunter in relation to drought assistance,” he said.
“Further to my answer to the House on Monday I provided additional information to the House on Wednesday the 22nd of October 2014.
“On the 20th of October 2014 I understand a request for minor edits was made to Hansard by my staff without my knowledge, my staff have been counselled.
“Consistent with standing orders I have asked that the changes requested by my office be removed from the Hansard before the Hansard is finalised.”
But Mr Fitzgibbon said having given three different answers to the same question, the Minister chose to hide behind the protection of his Prime Minister, who closed down the debate rather than allow his Minister to explain himself and apologise.
“In Barnaby Joyce’s case, the cover-up is worse than the crime,” he said.
“It was bad enough that he misled farming families – but his cynical attempt to hide his misleading statement is an absolute disgrace.
“The Minister can blame his staff but nothing changes the fact that he led farmers to believe eligibility for Farm Household Support was automatic upon application and that no drought-affected farmers need wait for financial assistance.”