Public servant referred to committee over incorrect answers

A public servant who told parliament that minutes of a ministerial meeting didn't exist faces questioning by senators after freedom of information documents proved him wrong.

In a hearing of the select committee into electric vehicles on August 17, a Department of Infrastructure representative was asked if a ministerial forum on vehicle emissions had minutes taken, and said no.

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick says he will refer the matter to the select committee. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick says he will refer the matter to the select committee. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Despite repeated questioning, the official said the forum had met with and without public servants present, but promised to provide the notebooks of bureaucrats attending the meetings.

After making a freedom of information request, Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick has received two documents labelled "draft minutes" of meetings of the ministerial forum, and decided to refer the matter to committee, which met for a further hearing on Thursday afternoon and will act on the referral.

"I was totally perplexed when I received minutes from the ministerial forum of vehicle emissions in response to an FOI. I cannot reconcile the evidence provided to the committee with the documents I have received," Senator Patrick said.

It's not unusual for public servants appearing before government committees to take questions on notice if the answer isn't readily available, or for correspondence to be sent to the committee correcting evidence when needed.

The public servant involved will be given the opportunity to explain why the statement given was incorrect, and Senator Patrick has signalled the matter could end up before the Senate privileges committee.

The referral comes as all Commonwealth agencies are preparing their briefs for supplementary budget estimates, starting on Monday.

"Noting Senate estimates will take place next week, it is a timely reminder to all officials to take care in their responses to Senators. Answers from officials must be truthful and fulsome, noting it is possible to mislead by omitting relevant information. The consequences for not doing so can be severe. The Senate can even jail a contemptor without a referral to the courts, as happened in 1955," Senator Patrick said.

"Officials need to answer questions fully, state where an answer has a caveat (for example 'I’m not entirely sure, but I will check the details when I get back to the department and correct the record if appropriate') or take a question on notice."

This story Public servant referred to committee over incorrect answers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.