Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Ministerial Conduct

4:09 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | Hansard source

This matter of public importance provides an opportunity for the Senate to review the performance of this government's first six months in office. The Statement of Ministerial Standards, which was announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in December 2013, contains the following words:

Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries are entrusted with the conduct of public business and must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.

This replaced the previous government's statement of ministerial standards of September 2010, which had different words:

Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries hold high public office and are entrusted with considerable privilege and power. The people of Australia are entitled to expect that, in the discharge of their duties, they will act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.

We know that ministerial standards were introduced by the Labor government in 2007 following the appalling behaviour of the Howard government, which saw in its very early days a whole series of ministers being forced to resign for their failure to fulfil their commitments in regard to those highest standards of integrity and proprietary. We particularly saw in this Senate in those early days of the Howard government that the Prime Minister took the view that enough was enough after a number of ministers had been forced to resign and that there would be no further resignations from the ministry.

We know in some respects it is a philosophy that has been carried over to the new government of Mr Abbott, although some will say that today is an example of where the best of ministerial traditions has been upheld. Let us be clear about this: Senator Sinodinos has stood aside in the interests of the government out of political expediency. He has been stood aside as a result of the urgings of members of the coalition and of one of the biggest backers of the coalition, The Australian newspaper. This morning it essentially said to the government that Senator Sinodinos would have to stand aside because of the political damage that he was doing to the government. So it was not a question about ministerial standards as such; it was about political expediency.

If we follow the events of today and look at these things carefully, we will see that in the case of Senator Nash there was a conflict of interest. Issues were raised about her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival—who, I might remind the Senate, was vetted and approved by the Prime Minister and by the Prime Minister's chief of staff—following the extraordinary developments that occurred around the junk food industry and, in particular, the relationship with Cadbury. We well know that Cadbury has a very special relationship with this government. Cadbury was the beneficiary of a grant to support its operations in Hobart, allegedly on the basis of tourism but really on the basis of what the press statement at the time said, which was that it was all about changing their business model. It was in complete contrast to the approach that this government had taken on industry policy elsewhere.

We know that personal connections are very important. We know that in the case of Mr Furnival there was quite extraordinary speculation around what was the cause of Mr Furnival's resignation. I recall a press report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 February 2014, which stated:

… Mr Furnival's proposed appointment was held up by the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, due to concerns over his background and commercial interests.

I asked myself: where did that come from? Where did that report come from? Was that not an example of the chief of staff actually leaking information against ministers? I think this is the problem that emerges in circumstances where political expediency becomes much more important than the maintenance of ministerial standards—because we know how long it took for there to be a resolution in regard to the questions that surrounded Senator Nash and her chief of staff.

As I said before, we know that there is a case in regard to the operations of Cadbury which we have yet to hear the full details of, but we know that it is an example of a single act of co-investment by the government where so many others were found unworthy. So I am looking forward to the examination of that matter in detail, when that grant is actually made. We know that Senator Nash intervened personally in the taking-down of a new health rating website only hours after it was launched and we know that Senator Nash claimed that it had nothing to do with her chief of staff's ties to the junk food lobby. To this day, Senator Nash has yet to adequately explain the policy operations of her office in regard to the healthy star website.

We know that there is a very strong case of secrecy within this government which has developed with regard to Senator Nash in an attempt to dodge, avoid, answering basic questions. It is a fundamental requirement of ministerial conduct to treat the parliament with respect and not to seek to use claims of public interest immunity in such a way as to subvert the proper work of the parliament in understanding the exact nature of government policy. In fact, it suggests that anyone asking a question about Operation Sovereign Borders, for instance, is almost an act of treason; it has now got to the stage in this parliament where it suggests that the mere act of asking such a question is to provide aid and comfort to people smugglers. Clearly, that is not consistent with the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy and not consistent with the highest standards of integrity and probity.

Then, of course, we have the case of Senator Sinodinos. The Independent Commission Against Corruption, in its proceedings on Monday, was looking at a number of ministers in the New South Wales government, the Premier and other ministers—and in fact former Labor minister Mr Costa, whom I know Senator Brandis waxed lyrical about this morning. There were actually statements to the effect that there was no evidence whatsoever of corrupt behaviour by a number of them. I quote the commission transcript directly:

… we've looked carefully at the activities of Mr O'Farrell and Mr Pearce and we have found no evidence to implicate either in any corruption.

Again, in regard to Mr Costa, it says:

… ICAC has uncovered no evidence of corruption on the part of Michael Costa.

But, when it came to the question of Senator Sinodinos, it says:

It's presently difficult to offer observations on the conduct of Mr Sinodinos. He has other involvements which will come under scrutiny in Operation Spicer.

So what we do know is that, in regard to ICAC, there are serious questions that are being answered. But they are not questions that the minister, the minister who has now stood down, was prepared to answer in this chamber. It would have been quite appropriate, quite straightforward, to explain the contradictions in the position he has put to this chamber and answer the allegation that he has actually misled the Senate. No, what we saw was every effort being made to avoid scrutiny, to avoid accountability and to seek to denigrate others. Senator Brandis, when you talk about smears, I recall only too well you in this chamber saying that we had a criminal in the Lodge. Even your best mate, Andrew Bolt, said you had gone too far. So you are only too happy to throw abuse around, but then you seek to claim that those who raise legitimate questions are engaging in smear campaigns. This is a government that undertakes witch-hunts by way of royal commissions, a government that seeks to denigrate— (Time expired)


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