Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Matters of Public Importance
Australia's Political System
It is past time for the Special Minister of State to go. Day after day, he trudges up to the dispatch box—the government benches fallen deathly silent around him, the members wanting nothing at all to do with the member for Fisher, the member at the dispatch box. They know his position is untenable. Everyone can see through his dissembling answers. Everyone can see through the inconsistencies in the member's statements.
The facts are simple enough. On 17 November 2015 the Australian Federal Police raided the home of the member for Fisher in the execution of a search warrant. A copy of the Australian Federal Police warrant, published by The Australian newspaper, sets out the criminal charges being considered against the member for Fisher and these are serious matters, indeed. It is alleged in that document that the member for Fisher counselled and procured a member of the former speaker's staff to take parts of the former Speaker's diary. This would be a serious criminal offence. As The Australian newspaper pointed out today, it carries a maximum sentence of two years jail.
Over the last two weeks I have asked the member for Fisher a series of simple questions, questions about his involvement in the grubby Ashby affair, questions about how it is that as a government minister he came to be raided by the Australian Federal Police, questions about the standards of integrity that this government holds itself to, standards which as Special Minister of State he himself is responsible for maintaining. He has so little interest in this matter that the member for Fisher, the Special Minister of State, is not even in the chamber.
These are simple questions and the member for Fisher owes it to this House and to the Australian people to give a full and frank explanation for his conduct. He ought to be able to explain why he should be permitted to continue as a minister, especially given that he is the minister responsible for government integrity. That is what makes this matter so particularly serious—that the Prime Minister of Australia, knowing what he must have known about the member for Fisher's involvement in the grubby Ashby affair, chose to appoint him as the Special Minister of State, the minister who is responsible to the Australian Electoral Commission, responsible for standards in the entitlement system, responsible for the Presiding Officers in this House and for a whole range of matters that go directly to the heart of integrity of government in this country.
He ought to be able to explain what the disclosure was that he made—if any—to the Prime Minister about these matters before the Prime Minister appointed him to the ministry. The member for Fisher refuses to do even one small part of the explanation he is called on to make. He has given a variety of reasons for this and they are all worth examining closely. In response to some questions he has told the House that 'there is nothing to see here'. He has previously said that he was exonerated—his word—by the Full Court of the Federal Court in 2014.
In this place he said, 'The Full Court of the federal court 'dealt with all of the evidence put before it and found entirely that I acted appropriately'. The member for Fisher may yet have his day in court but he certainly has not been exonerated nor has it been found, as he would say, that he acted appropriately. He has not been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. There has never been a finding by a court that he acted appropriately. In fact, the paragraphs of the court judgement that the member for Fisher keeps referring to in this place—as if they exonerated him—in fact, confirmed that he received the parts of the diary that were taken from the former Speaker of this House. They confirmed that he was in receipt of these documents. They confirmed the crux of the serious criminal allegations now levelled against him. They confirm without a shadow of a doubt the factual basis of the criminal allegations that the Federal Police are considering charging this member with.
There is nothing in the judgement that contradicts what the member for Fisher said to 60 Minutes journalist Liz Hayes, in 2014, when she asked him this question: 'Did you ask James Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper's diary for you? This was the answer from the member for Fisher: 'Yes, I did.' That admission has been corroborated by Mr Ashby who, today, is quoted in The Australian newspaper as saying:
I met with Mal and he said at one stage that he was interested in Slipper’s use of taxpayer entitlements and about a few trips he had taken to New Zealand and I said I had a copy of his diary and would check it out,’’ he said.
So I went home and pulled the copy of the diary out of my cupboard, took some pictures of the relevant dates and sent them to Mal. He couldn’t read them and texted me and asked if I could send them again …
There is no room left for doubt in this matter.
Remember, the documents produced in the Federal Court case that was brought by Mr Ashby—not a case that the member for Fisher was a party to—reveal that News Ltd journalist Steve Lewis had emailed the member for Fisher asking about the former Speaker's travels to New Zealand and certain Cabcharge records. For his part, the member for Fisher denied in the House on Monday that he had obtained these things for any journalist. As I have said, the member for Fisher was not a party to the Ashby case in the Federal Court or the appeal. It was a civil matter; it did not consider the criminal allegations against the member for Fisher that are now being investigated by the Australian Federal Police. So there can be no suggestion that the member was exonerated of criminal wrongdoing by a court of law and there can be no suggestion that he has been cleared. He was not the focus of the litigation—no. The member for Fisher was only lurking in the shadows of the Ashby matter when it was before the Federal Court. Now, through his extraordinary admissions on the 60 Minutes program, made long after Ashby's civil case was heard, and with his appointment by the Prime Minister as Special Minister of State, he is right out in the open—and it does not look good, does it?
This facade—this fanciful claim that he has been cleared by the Federal Court—is not the only excuse that the member for Fisher gives as to why he will not answer the substance of Labor's questions to him in this place. No; sometimes he says he has been cleared, but at other times, in answer to other questions, he says he could not possibly comment because he is under investigation. On Tuesday last week, for instance, I asked the minister about the contradiction between his comments on 60 Minutes and his statements in the House. The minister refused to comment. He said:
… I thank you for the question and remind you that these matters are subject to other inquiries. There is nothing further that I can add to what I have said in the statements.
There are two different arguments from the minister. On the one hand, he says he has been cleared; he says he is exonerated; he says he is vindicated. On the other, he admits that he is under investigation; he admits he is the subject of inquiries by the authorities; he admits that he has been raided by the Australian Federal Police. They are two different answers, but, as I said, the facts are clear.
This minister is subject to a criminal investigation. A search warrant has been approved, meaning that there is a judge who considers there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a crime has been committed. It is hard to overstate the seriousness of this, and the ministerial standards are clear about these matters. The Statement of Ministerial Standards, as of September 2015, published by the current Prime Minister, says this:
… it is for the Prime Minister to decide whether and when a Minister should stand aside if that Minister becomes the subject of an official investigation of alleged illegal or improper conduct.
Ministers will be required to stand aside … if the Prime Minister regards their conduct as constituting a prima facie breach of these Standards.
It is clear what the Prime Minister needs to do. The member for Fisher has himself admitted that he has procured the disclosure of official documents. The Full Court of the Federal Court has confirmed that he received these documents. The Federal Police evidently think that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that, in doing this, the member for Fisher committed a serious offence. He is the subject of a police investigation, something which he sometimes admits to, when it suits him in dodging a question in this place.
There is no room for more ducking and weaving by this minister—no more half-baked excuses; no more stonewalling. It is time that he stood aside. If he will not, it is time the Prime Minister came home and directed him to do so.