Thursday, 3 November 2011
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (Senator Conroy) to a question without notice asked by Senator Macdonald today relating to not-for-profit journalism enterprises and an independent media inquiry.
I have always wondered why Senator Bob Brown was named Senator Brown. I wonder if it has anything whatsoever to do with the proverbial brown paper bag because Senator Brown and financial contributions have had a very bad history. Who can forget the claim he made that we would go bankrupt and be expelled from the Senate because an order for costs for the sum of $200,000 was made against him after a failed court case. He made a public plea and still collected moneys well after the amount required had been collected. He fraudulently raised moneys well beyond those he needed. He then used the surplus as a personal slush fund to hand out largess. He did not declare the moneys on time or in a proper manner to the Registrar of Senators' Interests.
Not deterred by that little escapade, he then went on to personally negotiate a $1.6 million donation to the Australian Greens. He personally negotiated it. Can you imagine the horror of the media in this country if either Ms Gillard or Mr Abbott were to have done the same? The media would be baying for blood, as they rightly should, saying that they had contaminated themselves. For some reason when Senator Bob Brown does it there is virtually no comment from the media, which he somehow describes as the hate media. He would have to be the most protected species in this country when it comes to this sort of disclosure, checking up and investigation. He brazenly sought a donation of $1.6 million, bragged about the fact that he had done so and then, having achieved it, said he would be 'forever grateful'. The person who gave him the donation said it was 'probably a good return on investment.'
This donor has embarked on a venture to purchase real estate for $6 million below the market value. Senator Brown has injected himself into those negotiations against the competitor to his donor. That is on the record. He has asked questions about it in the Senate. He has spoken about it publicly. He in fact has asked for government support for the company that was willing to sell this real estate below market price to the donor of $1.6 million. This very same donor has now embarked on a venture in the media which is not tax deductible. It is going to cost his multimillionaire friend millions of dollars to embark on this venture. So what does Senator Brown suggest all of a sudden? That this venture should become tax deductible. Surprise, Surprise! His donor would get as a minimum, one assumes, a handy $1 million tax deduction from this so-called investment—talk about a good return on investment, to quote the donor. You get real estate for $6 million less than the market value and you might get a $1 million tax refund. That is a $7 million return on an investment of $1.6 million. This is taking bob-a-job too far. This is in fact two jobs for $1.6 million.
It is passing strange, with this tawdry history of the Leader of the Australian Greens, that one of the things that the Australian Greens have campaigned on for a very long time is an integrity commissioner for the federal parliament. I wonder where that proposal has gone. It seems to have died a death. Senator Brown and the Greens are no longer talking about an integrity commissioner. I know what would happen if we already had one. The very first item of business would be for the integrity commissioner to investigate Senator Brown's involvement in the business affairs and former business affairs of this donor.
Mr Deputy President, I appreciate that you have drawn our colleague's attention to that standing order. I do think that, if we were ever to have an integrity commissioner in this place, the previous speaker's comments would be exactly the kind of thing that would be referred in the first instance. I too would like to take note of the answers to questions posed to Senator Conroy this afternoon. In doing so, I go to the issue of the extent to which a question like that, which was posed in such a way as to provide an opportunity for Senator Abetz to come into this place and make such a personal attack on a colleague, belies the extent to which we try to have some integrity in the way we operate in question time. To use question time as an opportunity to frame a personal attack on someone in this way is pretty low. But are we supposed to be surprised when we hear of this today? The questions in question time today were all over the place. The challenge we have as a government is to see a coherent message around economic policy, integrity and opportunities. We had a spate of questions today that did not seem to make any sense at all. They seemed to be relying on the latest stories in the press—
Senator Abetz says I am struggling—I am actually struggling to see what the point was of question time today. We had lacklustre and inaccurate questioning and reflections upon people which had no sense of logic at all. In fact, it demonstrated a lack of coherence and strategy, a sense of disunity that we all know exists in the opposition and a lack of commitment to the whole issue of the clean energy bills. The opposition is trying as hard as it can to say that it will repeal the clean energy bills but it has no chance to do so because of what that repealing will mean.
We heard a question today that went to our international reputation with the IMF. The first question from shadow spokesperson Senator Cormann about what the bailout of the International Monetary Fund would be was such a naive and pathetic question. It went to the issue of—
Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order on relevance. The motion before the chair is that the Senate take note of the answer by Senator Conroy to the question asked of him by Senator Macdonald. I am sorry, but I am struggling to see how anything that Senator Stephens has been saying for the last little while now bears any relevance to Senator Conroy's answer to Senator Macdonald's question.
Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I am sorry, I was just reflecting on the chaos and the lack of coherence that was question time today.
Senator Macdonald is here and I am sure we are going to hear from him this afternoon. A question was asked about this issue of a donation to the Greens' campaign and the proposal by Senator Brown on the issue of not-for-profit journalism being able to receive tax deductibility. On that issue, and the challenge for not-for-profit organisations and the definition of 'not for profit', we come to a debate that the opposition has again not been prepared to tackle. For a decade the challenge for not-for-profit organisations in Australia has been the plethora of amendments to the tax law and to definitions that nobody really understands. Senator Macdonald's question was a deliberately provocative question to the minister, and as such—
We know it was a deliberately positioned question to the minister to enable Senator Abetz to make his statement after question time. We understand that.
However, the kinds of enterprises that deserve to be considered in much broader— (Time expired)
Who in this chamber speaks most loudly about the role of the Senate and the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation? I suspect it is Senator Bob Brown. I suspect nobody makes as many sententious speeches as Senator Bob Brown about the role of the Senate as the check and balance and as a house of review, the importance of whose role is never to be underestimated. Yet who this morning, in the most disgraceful act I have seen in the 11½ years I have been in this place, gleefully went along with a Labor Party procedural motion to effectively eliminate a committee stage from the consideration of the most complex package of legislation the Senate has considered in a decade. Mr Deputy President, guess who it was? It was Senator Bob Brown.
Who speaks more loudly about integrity than anybody in the Senate? Once again, it is Senator Bob Brown. Yet as Senator Macdonald's question today—and indeed yesterday—to Senator Conroy demonstrated, it is Senator Brown who has an issue. Senator Macdonald's question has revealed that the man to whom the Greens political party is in debt for a $1.6 million donation—personally negotiated by Senator Bob Brown and the largest negotiation in Australian political history—is the same man, Mr Graeme Wood, an entrepreneur from Tasmania, who is now proposing to set up a new media venture: a so-called not-for-profit journalism enterprise to be called the Global Mail which will be initiated in February next year.
It has been estimated by a commentator who published on the Crikey website that the start-up cost of Mr Graeme Wood's enterprise is likely to be between $2 million and $3 million. Let those who listen to this broadcast join the dots for themselves. The man to whom Senator Brown's political party is in debt for a donation of $1.6 million, personally negotiated by Senator Bob Brown, is the entrepreneur of this enterprise for which Senator Brown now seeks tax deductible status in a submission to the media inquiry. That is what was disclosed by Senator Ian Macdonald's questions to Senator Conroy today and yesterday.
Remarkably, it is not even a policy of the Greens political party that tax deductible status for not-for-profit journalism enterprises ought to be afforded.
No, it is not a policy, Senator Macdonald. It is interesting. So, notwithstanding that it is not even the policy of Senator Brown's party that there should be tax deductible status, he seeks through a submission he has lodged with the media inquiry to secure tax deductible status of which the principal beneficiary, indeed the only known beneficiary, will be his own benefactor. If the start-up cost is $2 million to $3 million for this enterprise then the value of the tax deduction will be approximately one-third of that; in other words, up to $1 million.
As I said before, let those who hear this debate or read the Hansard draw the dots for themselves. Senator Brown secures the biggest political donation in Australian history from Mr Graeme Wood and now he seeks to favour Mr Graeme Wood by making a submission to the media inquiry which, were it to be approved, were it to be adopted by the government, would be worth up to a million dollars to his own benefactor.
I think next time we hear from Senator Brown about integrity we will listen with an even more cynical ear, just as when we hear from Senator Brown about parliamentary standards and the role of the Senate, after the disgrace of his performance this morning, we will be even more cynical—if it were possible to be more cynical. The one person who cannot speak about integrity is Senator Bob Brown. (Time expired)
You see, Deputy President, that immediately we get shouted down. We listened to the members of the opposition quietly, in accordance with standing orders, but immediately I get up to put a point of view contrary to theirs they try to shout it down, because they are bullies, because they are undisciplined, because they breach and flout the rules repeatedly and because, being conservatives—
they think they have a right to do that. But they do not. One of the things that is very hard for them to stomach is the fact that this is a democracy and that every senator elected to this place is elected on an equal basis. That includes of course the Greens, whom a member of their side yesterday said should be precluded from being in the Senate. You can see where the extension of that thinking would be if we did not have the protection of the Constitution, which Australians have shown over the last century they are very committed to because it does stop the overboil of the sort of mentality we are seeing on the other side.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Not being able to express their will to get rid of the Greens, who now are supported by a 1.7 million voter base in this country, the personal diatribe—
which we are hearing at the moment through these interjections is to say that the Greens ought not have the generosity and support base of people who believe in what we are doing and who think we are the best of the political thinkers in this country, and that the donation system which has served the Liberals so well over the last century ought to be denied to the Australian Greens. When a generous donor, who likes what the Greens are doing, gives a donation to the Greens which exceeds the donations of people like the coal barons, the mining barons and the corporate bigwigs from the big end of town, who have traditionally supported the Liberals, they cannot stand it. Well, they had better get used to it, because this is the direction of politics in an age—
A point of order, Deputy President: interjections are disorderly, opposition speakers were heard in silence—there were no interjections, I would point out to you—and I think you should draw to the attention of the opposition that these continual interjections are disorderly.
Thank you, Deputy President, a good ruling. What are we to make of this very below the belt performance which has been going on for months now? It comes out of Senator Abetz's office. It is one of the reasons that politics is in disrepair, as far as conservative politics is concerned, in this country—that is, it concentrates on the individual rather than the issue.
I ask: what about Mr Wood's highly celebrated donation of $2 million to the Menzies centre in the last couple of weeks? Why haven't we heard a diatribe about that? I ask: is the opposition wanting to close down on new media? I read in the paper, the same as they do, that apparently Mr Graeme Wood wants to establish an alternative media operation and they are already gunning for it. Is this because they do not believe in diversity or freedom of expression in a country where information is the currency of democracy?
They have been on a good thing for a long time, but it is breaking down around them. We are seeing a change in this country, and it is a change for the better. They had better get used to it. They had better get back to a more decent way of operating and take the issues on for what they are, not try to have this sort of nastiness against individuals who are doing this country a good turn.
Isn't that interesting? Senator Bob Brown had five minutes to defend himself against the allegations that have been made, and not once did he go anywhere near it, which suggests to me that the allegations that have been made are absolutely true and Senator Brown is not able to defend himself from them and none of his colleagues are able to defend him from them.
I will go through a chronological sequence here. Crikey discloses that Graeme Wood is backing Monica Attard in her proposal for the Global Mail. A group of academics then write to Senator Brown proposing tax deductibility for not-for-profit journalism enterprises. Senator Conroy then announces the establishment of the independent media inquiry, including one of those academics who had written to Senator Brown. Senator Conroy then releases a discussion paper which canvasses whether there should be support for independent journalism and how to provide for that. Senator Brown then makes a submission to the independent media inquiry proposing tax deductibility for not-for-profit journalism enterprises. Talk about cash for comment! Senator Brown was first on his feet to criticise various commentators when it was suggested that they might be doing it, and one can only assume that the same applies in this instance.
What is the quid pro quo for the biggest single political donation to any political party ever? Well, there is the Triabunna mill down in Tasmania. Mr Wood, the donor of the $1.6 million to Senator Brown, and Aprin, a group, were trying to buy the Triabunna woodchip mill from Gunns. Senator Brown and the Greens have been actively campaigning for Mr Wood's bid. Mr Wood then made this donation. The donation was reported to have been personally negotiated by Senator Brown, who said afterwards that he was 'forever grateful' to Mr Wood. Mr Wood is quoted as saying that the Greens winning the balance of power in the Senate was 'probably a good return on investment'. You do not have to be terribly clever to work out what is happening here. Here are the Greens, destroying any other bids for this Triabunna woodchip mill, even supporting Gunns, the company they have been fighting for decades—
They have been rubbishing Gunns for decades. They support Gunns on this occasion so that Gunns will get out of the Triabunna mill so that—who can buy the Triabunna mill? Would it be Mr Wood, the donor of the $1.6 million? Or Aprin? Of course, we know how the Greens then have done everything to stop Aprin from having a free go at it. All of this Senator Brown could have answered. He could have got up and explained to the Senate. We actually gave him a five-minute opportunity to stand up and point out where the facts are wrong, where the insinuations are wrong, but did he do it? In his typical cowardly fashion, he used his five minutes to find attacks on anything and anyone else that he could. Then—the doozy of all doozies—Senator Brown talked about this wonderful democratic institution of parliament, when he has spent the last week shutting parliament down, doing the sort of thing that totalitarian regimes in the past have done.
You know how you set up a dictatorship? You take over a parliament; you stop debate. First of all, you curtail debate. Once you have got rid of the opposition, once you have got rid of any debate in the parliament, you then shut down the parliament and you rule by decree. It seems to me that before too long we will have the Labor Party and the Greens ruling by decree following their caucus meeting every morning: 'Why bother with parliament? Why have a debate? We have already made up our minds. This is what is going to happen. The carbon tax is going to pass. It doesn't matter what inconsistencies you bring out; it's going to pass and it's going to pass at 12.30 next Tuesday afternoon.' That is how totalitarian regimes start, and this is what Senator Brown is part of.
I wish to take the opportunity to make a contribution on this motion to take note of answers to questions without notice. There are a few things we need to sort out. I hear Senator Macdonald talking about totalitarian governments shutting down debate. Mr Deputy President, you and I would remember the previous totalitarian government that shut down debate, and it was the Howard government. You and I were involved in the debates on the sale of Telstra, when debate was guillotined at a late hour. You and I were present when the guillotine was used on the voluntary student unionism vote. I remember that. I find it absolutely appalling when I sit here and I hear interjections from Senator Macdonald, Senator Brandis and Senator Abetz, when Senator Abetz was the minister who had carriage of that piece of legislation called Work Choices. I remember sitting here on a Friday afternoon after a very late sitting night—I think we had left here about two that morning and were back at nine o'clock in the morning. Senator Abetz moved to shut down debate to ram through Work Choices. I remember there was a ray of sunlight coming through into this wonderful building. Senator Abetz was the minister at the table. There was a big clap of thunder—kaboom—and the sun was shining on him just as the vote was being taken as that totalitarian government shut down debate.
But I will get back to the point of why we are standing here today. It is absolutely appalling that the opposition senators have put the boot in and attacked Senator Bob Brown. Senator Brown sat there quietly and did not interject once. He listened to the whole lot. When he rose to his feet and you gave him the call, Mr Deputy President, there was such rude behaviour in front of a big heap of people out there—fortunately most of them walked out of the gallery half way through it. They attacked him and attacked him.
We have to clear up a few things here. I hear Senator Macdonald and Senator Brandis attacking an individual for donating $1.6 million to a political party. How appalling is that? Are you on the other side saying that we should attack every person who donates to a political party? I saw Senator Sinodinos sitting over on the other side. With the greatest respect, what hair he has left—and I am not being rude—was actually curling. He, like me, was probably sitting there thinking that this is a very silly attack on a political party, especially as an independent inquiry is going to take place and these matters will be discussed.
I come from that fabulous resource-rich state of Western Australia. To be quite honest, in Western Australia millions of dollars in donations flow from the mining industry to political parties—to my party as well. I just wish we could attract as many mining dollars as the other side. But I did not hear any Liberal senator condemning their own party when Mr Abbott and co were attacking the Gillard government's proposal for $11 billion worth of mining taxes, through the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, which would put money into the majority of Australian workers' pockets as well as sharing the wealth from that great industry. No, I did not hear a thing. I ask everybody out there who may have had the misfortune to be listening to this debate for the past 40 minutes: do we seriously think that big miners in this country donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Liberal Party because Senator Brandis has a good head or Senator Macdonald has a good head? Let's get real! They donate for a number of reasons, which is their business and not mine. But I know when the mining dollars are flowing in the attack on the government when we announced the Minerals Resource Rent Tax—it was coming from no less than every single member of the opposition. They were absolutely condemning the government. How dare we pick on the likes of Andrew Forrest. How dare we pick on that poor individual, Mr Clive Palmer, a major donor to the National Party. What did we hear— (Time expired)
Question agreed to.