Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Matters of Public Importance
Australia's Political System
I have a received a letter from the honourable member for Isaacs proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely:
The House was informed that Mr Dreyfus had proposed that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion, namely, “The importance of integrity, accountability, responsibility, and acting in the public interest in Australia’s political system”.
I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.
More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
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.
What a sad and embarrassing spectacle we have just witnessed. It is with overwhelming sadness that I see before me the hollowed-out wreck of what was a grand old party of Australian politics.
Mr Husic interjecting—
We will get to that one, Member for Chifley. In this, Labor's year of big ideas, they have descended right into the gutter, with a litany of smear and innuendo. The contrast between this side of the House and that side of the House has never been clearer. While we have a nation-building program, they have a gutter-building program. I am an optimist by nature and I always try to look on the bright side. The benefit for those opposite of being in the gutter is that they get a great view of the roads that Warren Truss is building—sorry, the minister for infrastructure is building—right around Australia. To sit here and get a lecture on integrity from the party of Eddie Obeid and Craig Thomson is more than a little bizarre. It is like getting a lecture—I do not know—on marriage advice from Tiger Woods. It is like getting a lecture on hairstyling by Donald Trump. It is even more bizarre—and the member for Chifley will like this: it is like comparing the member for Gippsland to George Clooney. It is completely implausible. We are seeing some truly bizarre behaviour by those opposite.
There are so many important issues that Australians are focused on, so I genuinely appreciate this matter of public importance because it goes to the heart of how this government is acting in the public interest and delivering for all Australians, particularly regional Australians, who have been so often ignored by those opposite. The contrast between the government and those opposite has rarely been so stark. While on this side of the House we have been focused on matters of genuine public importance—national security, economic prosperity and building infrastructure for the 21st century—all we see from those opposite are more scare campaigns and gutter politics. Australians deserve so much more from Her Majesty's opposition than they are receiving at the moment. This matter of public importance could have been on national security; it could have been on job creation; it could have been on infrastructure; it could have been on economic prosperity.
This government is getting on with the job of delivering. Just today, we had the Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development delivering his annual ministerial statement on infrastructure, and it was an extraordinarily impressive list. I am disappointed the member for Grayndler is not here, because he actually thinks the world started with him. The member for Grayndler thinks he invented fire; he thinks he created the wheel; I think he even believes he built the pyramids. What else does the member for Grayndler think he—
Stonehenge—the member for Grayndler did Stonehenge as well. What else did the member for Grayndler build?
I tell you what the member for Grayndler should build—the member for Grayndler needs to build a bridge and get over it!
Minister Truss has been part of this very successful coalition government that is building for the future. We are working with other levels of government—as you would expect, as the Australian people would expect—and getting on with the job. We are building infrastructure that will create jobs during construction and well into the future. Instead of building gutters and taking cheap political shots, using political tactics, we are focusing on the issues the Australian people want us to be focused on. We are building the roads, the bridges, the mobile phone blackspot program, rolling out towers—
Mr Mitchell interjecting —
Come in spinner! In seven years there was not one mobile phone black spot tower built by the previous government—in seven years not one. The member for McEwen comes in here and talks about infrastructure—he wants a mobile phone black spot program. I could not hear him when Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. I could not hear him when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister. Because they did not build any mobile phone black spot towers. You could not complain about the program, Member for McEwen, because there was no program. There was nothing to complain about; there was no Mobile Black Spot Program. This government is getting on with the job of building the infrastructure of the 21st century—exactly what the Australian people expect from us.
An opposition member interjecting—
The matter of public importance refers specifically to the public interest in Australia's political system, and we are acting in the public's interest by building the infrastructure of the 21st century. The minister himself, today—for those who missed the ministerial statement by the member for Wide Bay—pointed out that in the next financial year will see the single biggest Commonwealth investment to date, with over $9.7 billion in Commonwealth funding flowing across the nation.
Opposition members interjecting—
I am loving the interest being shown in infrastructure by those opposite! It is a pity they did not show it when they were in government. In New South Wales, WestConnex has begun with construction underway on two of the three stages. It is a very popular program; I am not surprised the member for Banks is a strong supporter. This government is on schedule and on budget to complete the upgrade of the Pacific Highway by the end of the decade. And construction on NorthConnex in Sydney has also begun.
It is not just New South Wales. In Victoria there are projects such as the upgrade of the Western Highway, the Tullamarine Freeway, the M80 and the duplication of parts of the Princes Highway in my electorate, and the western highways. They are all positive steps that continue to progress according to plan.
Ms Butler interjecting—
I am glad the member for Griffith is suddenly interested in road-building programs in my electorate. It is going very well, Member for Griffith, and I am impressed that you are deeply interested in the safety of the people of Gippsland!
In Queensland as well, this government continues to build the infrastructure of the 21st century. Eight major projects on the Bruce Highway have now been completed. For those who have not had the opportunity to drive on the Bruce Highway, I had the great pleasure—the member for Chifley will enjoy this—of driving the entire Bruce Highway with the member for Wide Bay.
An opposition member: That would have been a long trip!
He is a really zany guy. You would enjoy time with the member for Wide Bay! We were cracking jokes all the way to Cairns. It was a terrific road trip. All the way along he was making plans for the roads he was going to build when he had the chance and when he was the minister, and that is what he is delivering right now.
Mr Husic interjecting—
I would encourage the member for Chifley, if given an opportunity to take a road trip with the member for Wide Bay, go along with the member for Wide Bay. You will learn something, Member for Chifley. You will learn about regional Australia, about how if you invest in infrastructure, then you increase the productivity and the prosperity of those regions, and you save lives.
Mr Husic interjecting—
I will arrange the invitation for you, Member for Chifley. I will arrange for the member for Wide Bay to take you on a road trip.
I take up the interjection, Member for Griffith. I know you would not want him in Queensland, but every now and then he has to broaden his horizons and move outside of the sheltered life he leads. Bring him to Queensland to see a little bit more of the country.
Also in Queensland the Yeppen floodplain project is going to be officially opened next week. Members opposite will be happy to hear that, I am sure. Work on the Townsville Ring Road is well ahead of schedule. The enthusiasm of those opposite for these great infrastructure projects being delivered by the coalition is something I greatly appreciate.
Opposition members interjecting—
I greatly appreciate the support you are showing. There are more infrastructure projects in Queensland. The government has committed $508 million towards a package of works to upgrade the Warrego Highway between Toowoomba and Miles. There are some rough roads around!
No, they are rough roads. The Outback Way, Australian's longest shortcut, which has a $20 million Commonwealth funding commitment, is being supported by the Northern Territory government. In South Australia, the Commonwealth has also committed $1.7 billion to the first priority sections of the north-south road corridor upgrade. These are the real issues that the Australian people are raising with the government. These are the real issues of genuine public interest that the Australian people are raising with us as members of parliament as we go about our jobs in our electorates.
In Western Australia the Gateway WA project is well underway. The federal government contributed $676 million. It is on track for completion nearly one year ahead of schedule and under budget. In Tasmania the Australian government is making the Midland Highway upgrade a reality with our $400 million commitment seeing six construction projects already completed and two more are underway.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. We have the deepest sympathy for a member of the National Party who has been sent in to defend a Liberal Party minister. He has one minute left. Do you think in that one minute, Mr Deputy Speaker, he might try and defend the minister?
As we continue to act in the public interest, as we roll out these important programs—
Opposition members interjecting—
I am sorry, members opposite, that we do not have the gutter-building program you so desire! As we are out there building the future for regional and metropolitan Australia, these are the issues that Australian mums and dads are raising with us on a daily basis. Members opposite will be interested to know that employment surged by 58,000 in October, taking this year's tally to 231,000. What we are seeing today is further proof that those opposite are simply not ready to govern the greatest nation in the world.
Integrity is an important quality at the heart of public service. Anyone seeking public office, realises it is not about him. It is service for all of us. Members must repress personal interests to put people's interests first. When, on 30 May 2008, Bruce McIver, former President of the National Party and the LNP, and Gary Spence, former President of the Liberal Party and current President of the LNP, signed a memorandum allowing the Liberal Party and the National Party to merge as the LNP, they supressed their own political ambitions for the benefit of their members.
Eighty-five per cent of the Liberal membership voted for the merger, and 95 per cent of the Nationals. But then there was Johnny-come-lately, the member for Fisher, who arrived, promoted by the Victorian Liberals, to knife the Liberal Party president, Gary Spence, in the back. The member for Fisher was now the president of the Liberal Party. Was this a man who would supress his political ambition for the benefit of the people he served, for the greater good of both Liberal and Nationals party members? Or was the member for Fisher more interested in power—power at any price and at any cost? Would he stand in the way of what the membership wanted, for his own selfish gains?
In the days before the vote the member for Fisher visited me demanding the presidency of the LNP, demanding that I tell Bruce McIver he could not be the president; only the member for Fisher could be the president of the LNP. The member for Fisher said that if he was not the president the merger would not go ahead, regardless of the views of the membership of the Liberal Party and the Nationals.
Six times in the two weeks leading up to that vote he visited me—
Opposition members: How many times?
Six times—and he made public announcements that Bruce McIver could not stand as president of the LNP, and he never wanted to at all; he thought we should have a new president. We met on separate occasions and then together. The vote was supposed to be held when the members of each party would meet on a Saturday and decide that they wanted to merge, and then they would meet together and merge as one party.
The member for Fisher challenged McIver publicly to confirm that he would not stand and that I would only support the member for Fisher to be the president of the LNP. Bruce McIver remained silent, prepared to step aside for the benefit of the membership if required. That is real integrity, which the member for Fisher does not have. Leading up to the vote—two days before the vote—the member for Fisher delivered an ultimatum to me: if Bruce McIver does not declare that he will not stand for president, the merger is off.
The member for Fisher told me that he would call a meeting of the Liberal Party executive on the Thursday night and bring the president of the Liberal Party of Australia, Alan Stockdale, up from Victoria to attend the meeting and kill the merger if I did not guarantee that he could be president of the LNP. And a motion was passed at the state executive meeting on the Thursday not to allow Liberal members to attend the meeting on the Saturday and vote. On the Friday night I funded a challenge in the Supreme Court of Queensland to overturn the motion of the member for Fisher, and the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered that the meeting go ahead in spite of any opposition of the Liberal Party. Members of the Nationals and the Liberal Party would be free to vote in our democracy, free to have their say.
I can still here the boos the member for Fisher received that Saturday, on a crisp morning, when he arrived very, very red faced after the Supreme Court said that he had to come to the meeting. I nominated Bruce McIver for the presidency of the LNP, and he was elected with acclamation. The member for Fisher, with his tail between his legs, got out of town. He went down to Victoria with Alan Stockdale. He was promised that he would be the member for Higgins, but it never happened. He returned to Queensland to eat humble pie: the member for Fisher should be Prime Minister. You ask him; he would tell you at the time.
When he did the things he did, now subject to a police investigation, the member for Fisher was very desperate. He should step aside as minister while this investigation is on. Integrity of this House and this government should be maintained. (Time expired)
We should spend our time in this chamber on things that matter to the Australian people, and we should conduct ourselves in these debates in a way befitting the privilege of serving in this place. Debates should be initiated about policies that people care about. No personal attack ever created a job. No personal attack ever put food on the table or helped someone get a better education. No personal attack ever started a business or helped a struggling town to get back on its feet. No personal attack ever helped an entrepreneur to come up with her first idea. Most of all, no personal attack ever encouraged our kids to dream bigger. Personal attacks are dispiriting for the Australian people, because they remind them of everything they dislike about Canberra.
This motion about Australia's political system talks about the public interest, and that is why we are here—to pursue the public interest and to do the work of the public. The government, in pursuing the public interest, is pursuing the vision we believe is best for the nation and being honest about the challenges we face. That is what this government is doing, and that is what those opposite miserably failed to do when they were in government. We are respecting the good sense and wisdom of the Australian people. We are thinking not just about today or tomorrow but about 10, 20 and 30 years from now. The question is: how do we best harness the incredible energy, creativity and spirit of the Australian people in order to make this era our greatest yet?
The Prime Minister is treating the Australian community like grown-ups, unlike the opposition. As much as those opposite would like us to play silly games of ruling things in and out, we are not going to do that. Our goal is to set Australia up to drive the next wave of jobs and growth. That means a jobs-friendly tax system and competition polices that increase national productivity. It is a big agenda and a big conversation, and we are not going to cut it short. We are not going to circumvent a national conversation just so those opposite feel a little better. They are going to worship at the altar of politics as usual, and we are going to get things done. They are going to talk to ever-smaller circles of people about ever-smaller topics. We are going to talk with the whole nation about the biggest issues we face. They are going to seek to narrow the debate to small places where they feel most comfortable. We are going to enlarge the debate. Soon we will announce an innovation package that will have wide-ranging impacts across our economy. It will be ambitious and bold. It has been produced not through negative attacks but through creative thinking, broad consultation and old-fashioned hard work. It is the definition of the people's business.
Personal attacks will not help us deal with the change that is happening in the global economy at an ever-increasing rate. There is no point saying that economic change is easy; it is not. And, while change can be hard, it also represents an immense opportunity as new markets open up every day. To capture those opportunities, we need to have an honest, grown-up conversation, and in order to have a grown-up conversation you need to have a government that is behaving like grown-ups. The Australian people are well aware that the challenges that we face as a nation are significant and the opportunities are even bigger. If the economy changes, we are incredibly well positioned to benefit from that. But if we want to benefit from the opportunities of the future, we need to focus our attention, our energy and our debates in this place and elsewhere on the issues that matter the most to the Australian people. Those issues revolve around the economic future of our nation. If you want to build international trade, which we do, you need a government that is closing deals with the biggest countries in the world, not an opposition that is pandering to the worst instincts of its union base.
Australia is better than personal attacks; the opposition, sadly, is not. Today's debate is a good example of the very clear difference between the government and its alternative. The future of Australia is immense. The opportunities are enormous. What we need to do on all sides of this place is to focus our intellect, our energy and our ideas on positive plans that benefit the next generations of Australians.
I have never been in a debate, seen a debate or heard a debate where the people defending a government minister entirely fail to mention him in two contributions.
An opposition member interjecting—
As the member just suggested, we dare not speak his name. The current member for Fisher stood in this chamber and declared the Federal Court had exonerated him with regard to claims that he encouraged James Ashby to breach section 70 of the Crimes Act 1914 and section 478.1 of the Criminal Code 1995 by procuring the former Speaker's official diary. This was forensically drawn out by the member for Isaacs over several question times.
The current member for Fisher said in this chamber last Thursday, 26 November, in defence of his and the government's integrity:
… the findings of the full bench of the Federal Court, which dealt with all of the evidence put before it … found entirely that I acted appropriately.
The current member for Fisher has subsequently made numerous references to the Federal Court decision, including yesterday, when he made explicit references to paragraphs 122 and 124. But the Federal Court has made no judgement on this. The current member for Fisher was found neither guilty nor innocent of this allegation, as the member for Isaacs pointed out. For him to suggest otherwise signifies, at the very least, a misunderstanding of judicial process. If the current member for Fisher continues to make this claim, he would run the risk of misleading this parliament. To recount, on 12 December 2012, Judge Rares threw out James Ashby's claims against Peter Slipper on the grounds of abuse of process. In that decision, the judge savaged many people, not least the current member for Fisher. Judge Rares found:
… Mr Ashby and Ms Doane … were in … combination with Mr Brough to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict on him.
Further, the judge added:
Mr Brough was unlikely to have been offering to assist Ms Doane and Mr Ashby … out of pure altruism. Realistically, his preparedness to act for them was created and fed by their willingness to act against Mr Slipper’s interests and assisting Mr Brough’s and the LNP’s interests in destabilising Mr Slipper’s position as Speaker and damaging him in the eyes of his electorate.
Ashby sought leave to appeal, and that was granted on 27 February 2014. In that judgement, their Honours held in paragraph 122—the very paragraph that the current member for Fisher cited:
That Brough was prepared to … look at evidence produced by Ashby … does not necessarily mean that his purpose was to harm Slipper politically.
It is just as the member for Isaacs pointed out when he said 'does not necessarily mean'. The current member for Fisher mistakenly believes this vindicates him, but the paragraph is clear that the court did not decide the question of procuring the diary excerpts. It merely stated it 'does not necessarily mean' that the current member for Fisher was motivated in that way.
Later, and more importantly, on 9 February 2015, the Federal Court upheld Ashby's appeal on the grounds of procedural fairness. The judges once again addressed the current member for Fisher's involvement, but once again did not pass judgement on it. Paragraph 46 of that judgement in February 2015 says:
There is no doubt that Slipper’s allegations in relation to Ashby’s purposes for instituting the primary proceeding were serious. As it transpired, the Full Court … did not share the view of the primary judge … it was correct to have acceded to the summary dismissal application. That did not amount to the Full Court making positive findings in favour of Ashby … It did not invoke any specific findings of fact in his favour.
The judges said:
There had not then been a trial of all issues. The relevant evidence had not been given, and the reliability of the witnesses had not been exposed to testing by cross-examination. In the event, as noted above, that will not occur because Ashby has discontinued his proceeding.
The court said that the evidence had not been tested. There is new evidence that will come out, however, if this is looked at further. As the member for Isaacs pointed out, on 60 Minutesthe journalist, Hayes, asked the member for Fisher, 'Did you ask James Ashby to procure copies of Peter Slipper's diary? The current member for Fisher answered, 'Yes, I did.' Hayes continued, 'Do you think it was the right thing to do?' The member for Fisher answered, 'Let others be the judge of that.' That is exactly what this parliament is doing. We are making a judgement on the ethics, morality and integrity of this government and the member for Fisher, and I am sure it will be found wanting if those claims made on 60 Minutes are accurate.
This matter of public importance is important, because integrity, accountability, responsibility and acting in the public interest in Australia's political system is a case in point. When I go home to my electorate and I have coffee or a Friday afternoon chat with my colleagues at Finnian's, they often talk about disengagement with the political system. Let's talk about that. One of the biggest criticisms that is levelled at me when I meet with people across the electorate—the entire spectrum of the electorate; young and old—is their disengagement. They all refer to the behaviour in question time. No wonder they are disengaged. Scuttlebutt, firing arrows across the chamber, snide remarks—you name it, we see it in question time. Thank goodness the MPI is not being broadcast as well, because it is at about the same level.
For goodness sake, it is so transparent: Christmas is coming and those opposite want an early Christmas present. They are like little kids. In terms of tactics, Mr Deputy Speaker, you just have to connect the dots. They are looking for a scalp. Hallelujah! It is so obvious. We are not getting policies. We are not getting good government. We are just looking for a scalp. So, in terms of tactics, my humble recommendation to my colleagues on the other side is that, instead of this tactic, which seems to be going up a blind alley, maybe you should address the creeping advancement of your political 'frenemies', the Greens, who seem to be keen to do a deal with the government at any opportunity so that they are seen as the responsible ones in this place rather than what was traditionally the position that the major party in opposition occupied. A suggestion, humble though it may be from a backbencher who has only been here a little while, is: trust me; they are doing it.
Maybe this MPI is also a distraction by those opposite, because they are moving away from any issue of substance. A couple of wise sayings come to mind. 'People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones' is the first one. I do not rely on scuttlebutt. When I was asked to speak on this MPI, I took the time to look up court cases. There were some cases a couple of years ago. Did something go wrong with justice in Australia? No-one was charged or anything like that then. The quote I have from the full bench on appeal is that Justice Rares had 'no basis to conclude that Brough was part of any combination with anyone in respect to the commencement of these proceedings with the predominant purpose of damaging Slipper in the way alleged or at all'. They are not my words. They are the words of the decision of the full bench. So, rather than following this tactic, which, as I said, seems to be going down a blind alley, maybe those opposite should use something else to get the attention of the Australian public.
We have had various members who have had selective memory loss—the member for Dobell in the last parliament—about all sorts of things. We have the member for Grayndler, who, every now and then, appears at places like William de Groot—the man on the horse, who turned up at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge because he wanted to open it! I have often advised the Deputy Prime Minister that, at the next opening he attends, he should watch out for any horses, because the member for Grayndler might be on it, with his sabre. We, instead, have been focusing on delivering things like getting roads and bridges built—the Pacific Highway. There are three bridges in the Lyne electorate. We have fixed wireless towers. We have fibre-to-the premises in the Manning. The CBD of Taree is now being wired up. We have the Skymaster satellites. We have unemployment down. We have pensions up. We have Work for the Dole rolling out. We have three trade agreements. We have funding for two bridges in the Bucketts Way. The Pacific Highway is delivering 900 direct jobs. (Time expired)
I have to say that I deeply enjoyed the member for Lyne's contribution. What was he talking about? The bit where he said 'the Messiah', I can only assume that that was an oblique reference to Handel's Messiah, because it is Christmas. When he said, 'Hallelujah, hallelujah', I assume that was what he was talking about—the Messiah. I assume that is why he would mention 'hallelujah'. Perhaps what was on his mind was that maybe Mal Brough, maybe the member for Fisher, is the Messiah. Is that why you mentioned hallelujah, Member? Maybe he is the Messiah? Is he the Messiah or is he just a naughty boy? It is a good question at this time of year.
I do not know whether you could call him the Messiah, a very naughty boy or the Special Minister of State—that is his actual title, of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. Not that you would know it from any of the contributions that have been made by the other side in this debate this afternoon. Not one of the first two speakers managed to mention the Special Minister of State. The third speaker, towards the end of his contribution, wandered in and thought that he might mention the Special Minister of State. And aren't we pleased he did! Because finally someone has actually decided to talk about what this debate is all about.
But you have to wonder: why are the National Party being sent in to defend the Special Minister of State? Why aren't there any Queenslanders here defending the Special Minister of State?
Mr Hutchinson interjecting—
Not yet, Member, but maybe we will hear that at the end of the debate. Why haven't we heard from Queenslanders? Why haven't we heard from Liberals? Why haven't we heard from any of his fellow ministers? Why is there no other minister in this House who is prepared to stand up for the Special Minister of State? Was it in fact the sound of a bus driving past that we heard in the middle of question time? Are we hearing ministers being thrown under a bus? I will tell you who is not the Messiah—speaking of people who are not the Messiah. Apparently the Prime Minister is not the Messiah.
I know this is going to come a shock to people. I know that he is seen as a bit of a beacon in this place for people on the opposite side. But let me tell you what a good Prime Minister would have done. What would a good Prime Minister have done? Do you think a good Prime Minister would publish in September a statement of ministerial standards and then ignore it in October, November and December. Would a good Prime Minister publish a statement of ministerial standards that talks about public office being a public trust, that talks about accountability, that talks about responsibility, that talks about integrity and then in October and then in November and then in December disregard entirely those words in that statement of ministerial standards when one of his own ministers was the subject of a police raid—an Australian Federal Police raid?
I know a lot of people in this House have read the warrant, but maybe some people outside it have not. If you read the search warrant, it refers to section 478.1 of the Criminal Code, which makes it an offence for somebody to have unauthorised access to restricted data, and there is accessorial liability as well. The search warrant also refers to section 70 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, which also makes it an offence to give someone a document that you get as a public Commonwealth officer. What is the penalty for each of those two offences? The penalty is two years imprisonment. That is the seriousness of those offences that have been cited as a basis for the search warrant being issued.
When you hear the members of the government benches standing up and saying, 'This isn't important. There are other priorities. What are you talking about this for, opposition? I want to talk about infrastructure for five minutes,' unfortunately for the members of the government benches, integrity is important. Integrity is important because trust in politics is important. If you do not understand the importance of integrity, then none of you is fit for public office, because integrity matters to the Commonwealth. Integrity matters to the Australian people. Integrity matters to faith in our democracy.
In a time when there is so little faith in our democracy, a time when Lowy Institute polling is showing that people are not convinced of democracy as a concept and that there is disengagement across this nation from our democracy and from trust and faith in politics, these people have the gall to turn up here and say, 'It doesn't matter. What's integrity? Why are we talking about integrity?' We are talking about integrity because integrity goes to the heart of any government's character, and character goes to the heart of any government's ability to be trusted. Without trust, without character and without integrity, this government has no mandate and no basis. The Prime Minister should take action now under his own Statement of Ministerial Standards and stand up for integrity.
I love to listen to the member for Griffith. She is a very good speaker. She was obviously a lawyer. She is very animated. She is a bit monotonous at times but a very good speaker. If the member for Griffith wants to talk about integrity, I am happy to do it, because I just do not understand the previous speakers. They all want to talk about the member for Fisher, but he is not even on the MPI. I thank the member for Isaacs for the MPI because I agree with it wholeheartedly—I really do—but let's read the MPI:
The importance of integrity—
Which, obviously, the member for Griffith has just spoken about—
accountability, responsibility, and acting in the public interest in Australia's political system.
I agree with it wholeheartedly. I just do not know why you did not put the member for Fisher in it, if that is what you want to talk about.
But the point is that it is a great MPI. As the member for Petrie, I wholeheartedly believe in this MPI. We should have integrity, accountability, responsibility and public interest in everything that we do. I note that the students up in the gallery are listening to this. I say to them: these are great principles. We should abide by these things here and in everything we do in life. I say to the people of Petrie who elected me: as your federal member, that is what I strive to do every day when I am in this place.
I looked at a few definitions. What is 'integrity'? It is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. What is 'accountability'? It is being responsible, or being required or expected to justify actions or decisions. What is 'responsibility'? It is the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something. What is 'public interest'? It is the benefit or advantage of the community as a whole—the public good. All these are great things.
As members of this place, we know that we really do live in the greatest country in the world. We have freedom of race and religion. Business and work opportunities abound. We have a fair and strong democratic voting system, and our Constitution is brilliant. We are also a strong Commonwealth and we have had a strong democracy since we federated in 1901. These four points are all important in what we do. As the member for Petrie, I want to abide by those things every day when I come into this place.
As a federal coalition government, we are getting the budget back under control. We are trying to be 100 per cent responsible for the next generations—like those behind me in the gallery and like my children. But what do we see? Let's look at the facts. In 2007, when the previous federal coalition government left, how much debt did we have? We had zero.
Then the member for Chisholm and her friends and everyone else got in in 2007 and racked up $400 billion in six years. They are talking about responsibility? Give me a break! Fair dinkum. It is unbelievable. What else have we done in relation to the public interest? There is jobs. When I was elected, I know that jobs was a big issue, and it is something that I continually talk about. I have recently run a job seeker boot camp. We have delivered for small business and helped them with tax cuts for businesses that have under $2 million turnover and also with the instant asset tax write-off.
What is in the public interest? The public interest is about supporting jobs outside of this place and helping business thrive. What is not in the public interest? They talk a lot about accountability. Are those opposite prepared to be accountable for the decisions they made when, in 2007, they said they would be economic conservatives and they said they would not change the Howard government's Pacific Solution? I have spoken about this before. What we saw was 50,000 boats and 1,200 dead at sea—and you talk about accountability. Are you prepared to be accountable for that?
The member for Scullin wants to wind back the TPVs. He got up in this place and so proudly said, 'Yes, we're going to wind back TPVs.' What signal is that going to send, member for Scullin? You want to be accountable. Fair dinkum. Give me a break and get off your high horse! Member for Griffith, the first bloke I ran against when I ran for a state seat was a bloke called Gordon Nuttall. Do you remember him? He was the Labor member for Sandgate. He just did seven years jail.
I would like to start by commending the member for Petrie on his wonderful speech, but I just could not possibly do that as he did for the member for Griffith because it was a rambling tirade of irrelevance to this debate today. Anyone can submit a matter of public importance. Maybe the government should have done that today. Then it could have asked the Speaker to determine what was more important to debate today—the integrity of parliament or some rambling tirade about a road trip with Warren Truss. Maybe we could have talked about jobs. That would be good, because unemployment has risen under this government. Maybe we could have talked about debt. There has been a doubling of the debt by this government. Maybe we could have talked about infrastructure. But where is that infrastructure?
This is an absolute shame. Shame on you, government members, for not having any respect for this parliament and for not one of you treating with any dignity the actual topic under discussion today. Where is a senior minister from the Liberal Party prepared to be here today to talk about integrity and defend the Special Minister of State? This is no ordinary member of parliament. This is the member of parliament enshrined with protecting the integrity of this parliament. This is the man who was raided by the Australian Federal Police under a warrant relating to criminal offences not two or three years ago but just several days ago on 17 November 2015 when he had already been appointed Special Minister of State. All of this has been hanging over his head for a very long time.
The new Prime Minister—Abbott, Turnbull, Turnbull, Abbott, whoever we have this week or that—talked about an adult government and talked about government integrity. Mind you, the government also said, 'Good government will start today,' and a whole lot of rambling things along the way. Let's not forget that. But one of these days good government is going to start. Good governments starts with integrity. How can we have integrity and good government when we have a Special Minister of State with an enormous black cloud over him?
Let's talk about what was going on in this issue. This issue goes back a long way. I am probably more intimately acquainted with it than anybody in this room. Let's talk about how the Liberal Party denigrated the previous member for Fisher and former Speaker. Let's talk about how this all transpired. Let's talk about how those opposite were going to bring him down at any cost, how the now government and opposition of the day were going to have their way and topple a hung parliament. Let's put this into perspective. Let's talk about integrity. Let's talk about them not showing any respect for what the voting public had determined. We did not determine to have a hung parliament; the voting public gave us that parliament. It was then up to the parliament to ensure it ran appropriately—and it did. It ran appropriately. It introduced bills and passed legislation. That is unlike the current government, which has a whopping great majority but no legislation coming through. Those opposite talk about being a good government and doing things, but like what? Name one thing. I would be fascinated to hear about it.
We had the individuals in Peter Slipper's office trawling through his personal diary. We all have a great relationship with our staff, and we should. Think about this individually. Do you trust your own staff? Surely we should be able to trust our own staff, because we all choose them and employ them? Surely the former member for Fisher had the right to have trust in his own staff? His staff were asked to plot against him because those opposite believed he had been up to criminal intent. Indeed, in the last few minutes 60 Minutes has released the entire transcript about what happened on that day. They asked Mal Brough: 'Why did you do that? Why did you ask him to get the diary entries?' He answered, 'Because I believed Peter Slipper had committed a crime.' If he believed it, he should have taken it to the police— (Time expired)
I cannot believe my good fortune—in fact, the good fortune of everybody on this side—in being invited to talk about the importance of integrity, accountability, responsibility and acting in the public interest in Australia's political system. Talk about an own goal! Here we go. I hope I will get to talk with sufficient time to detail the worst case I know of to do with lack of integrity, lack of accountability, irresponsibility and not acting in the public interest—the destruction of the irrigation system in northern Victoria under a federal government policy instigated under Labor's watch.
It began during the worst drought on record when Penny Wong, senator for South Australia and the then minister for the environment, hit on a great idea. We all knew that there had to be water found for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. The expectation was that it would be used for environmental works and measures. But someone whispered in her ear, 'Irrigators are desperate. The banks have their foot on irrigators' throats. They want them to relieve some of their drought debt. Why don't you put a tender out and suggest irrigators sell their water to the Commonwealth? The banks will make them do it.' She thought that was a brilliant idea. It was an untargeted, uncapped $50 million tender in the middle of the worst drought on record.
Tragically, half of my irrigators in the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district, an irrigation system as big as Tasmania and once the food bowl of Australia, were forced to sell by the banks and by their lenders. That water disappeared out of their irrigator market for all time.
Not sufficiently satisfied with that dismantling of our irrigation system, the Brumby-Bracks Labor government also saw an opportunity to pipe irrigators' water to Melbourne. Melbourne was not at any time considering recycling water. Their desal plant turned out to be a white elephant—too expensive to turn on.
There was a first stage of the project, where the state government provided $1 billion to help shut down the system, but then Tony Burke, the then minister for the environment, had another marvellous idea. He said: 'Look, those irrigators all sold their water, didn't they? Half of them sold their water when the minister for the environment offered that tender, so they mustn't want to be irrigators anymore. Let's go in and put another $1 billion of federal money into a second stage of the project. We will then take another 204 gigalitres out of that system, with the first 224 gigalitres going to Melbourne Water and the Victorian Environmental Water Holder.'
The 224 gigalitres plus the 204 gigalitres to go to the Commonwealth are the equivalent of the whole volume of Sydney Harbour. It also means the death, potentially, of dairying in northern Victoria—the jobs that go with that, the transport sector, all of the marketing and the exports. Labor did not care. They just rubbed their hands with glee and said, 'Bring it on. We'll get another 204 gigalitres for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. No, it can't use the water it's already got—it's only used half in its pool—but let's rip another 204 gigalitres off the irrigators. It sounds like a good idea.' In fact, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder carried over more than 350 gigalitres last year because it could not use it for the environment. It just put 22 gigalitres on the market the other day because it could not use it for the environment. I wonder what the integrity was in that!
We just had a mid-term review of the great project, which is now called the Goulburn-Murray Water Connections Project mark 2, of the then minister for the environment, Tony Burke. The mid-term review says that this is an abomination. The project aims are unclear. Reporting is inadequate and confused. The amount of water savings the project can deliver remain unclear. Forecasting data points to a project falling further behind each month. The governance and communication between all parties mean the risk is not communicated, understood, managed, elevated and actioned between parties in a timely manner. Communications with landholders include confusing, inconsistent and delayed interactions.
This is an abomination. The plan ordered by Labor and paid for by the federal government never once looked at the agricultural productivity in the GMID, the sustainability of the infrastructure leased to Goulburn-Murray Water to manage afterwards, the value for money for the investment by taxpayers, or the long-term sustainability of the irrigation system itself. That is why I say that the opposition lacks integrity, accountability and responsibility. It has not acted in the public interest. It has destroyed the lives of my irrigators. It should hang its head in shame.