Senate debates

Thursday, 25 September 2014


National Independent Commission Against Corruption

4:39 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Senator Collins, thank you for making my speech easier. You have spent the last seven or eight minutes outlining the history of the Greens' very important engagement on this issue here in this chamber. Actually, we have raised this issue prior to 2010. Senator Bob Brown, my predecessor, has raised this previously. It has been a long crusade for us to try and get a federal ICAC and better scrutiny of parliamentary processes—and I will get to those processes in a minute. I am encouraged to hear Senator Collins say that this is potentially a fork in the road for this chamber and we may get some support from the Labor Party to put in place a process now. It is really about priorities. As Senator Collins has highlighted, this matter has been brought to this chamber twice in the form of legislation and it has been referred to a committee. And yet, nearly five years later, there has not been any significant movement at all on the establishment of a federal body. Of course, it has to be done in the right way. All of the concerns raised by Senator Collins are justified and valid. But we have been debating this for a long time and it is time that we actually did set up this body, along with a suite of other measures which I also agree with—and I will touch on those in a minute.

One of my favourite Australian authors, David Gregory Roberts, said: 'The only thing more ruthless and cynical than the business of big politics is the politics of big business, and when the two come together you have the perfect storm.' What he means by the business of big politics is quite simple: it is about getting political parties elected; it is about putting your interests and those of your party first and making sure that, at polling day, you hold onto power or seize power. The politics of big businesses is also pretty simple: it is about getting what they want and getting deliverables and outcomes for their shareholders. Nobody would dispute that. We are visited by lobbyists in this building all day every day. They are unashamedly here to look after the interests of their shareholders, their stakeholders. And it is not just business lobbyists. There are also unions and environment groups. In pretty well established theory these groups are often referred to as special interests—and sometimes they are also called vested interests.

I have spoken on this at least four or five times in speeches since I have been in the Senate, which has only been two years. I was quite chuffed when I got an email from an American couple who had been travelling in Australia. They were driving their RV and they must have had parliament on the radio—probably for want of knowing what a better station might be! Nevertheless, they heard the speech I was giving on this matter and they contacted me when they got back to Florida. This gentleman said that their local church had been talking about this issue recently. He pointed me to a couple of reports which I have since read with great interest.

One of those reports talked about the illusion of participatory democracy. It said individual voters who turn up to vote in elections—which of course they should do in this country, unlike in the USA—are assumed to be the best informed they can possibly be on critical issues. Of course, most voters go to elections with a huge array of issues in their minds—some of which may stick out more than others. Sadly, many also go to polling booths with very little understanding of or real interest in what is going on around them and how they are going vote. However, within that same democracy we have special interest groups that are highly organised, highly resourced and highly motivated, and they have a whole set of tools in their tool kit that they can employ to get the outcomes that they want. The illusion of participatory democracy is that we think we run this country when we vote governments in. But what goes on behind the scenes in terms of lobbying—whether it be the lobbying of ministers, senators or individual MPs—is actually what determines parliamentary outcomes, legislation and government decisions.

This gentleman—I will not name him because I have not asked for his permission—referred me to a report published just last year by Harvard University. The report—and it is now a book—was written by Professor William English. The title is Institutional Corruption and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy. The author has two key recommendations. He basically says democracy is the best system we have got but, unfortunately, it is subject to corrupting influences, the key one being that is easily corrupted by rent-seeking interests. Rent-seeking interests, just for the record, are the same thing as special interests and vested interests, but in the case specifically of rent seeking we are dealing with businesses who are looking to protect their profits or grow their businesses. He comes to two conclusions: in a liberal democracy like ours, there are only two ways that we can prevent this corruption of our democracy, and the first and foremost is to put in place substantial investigative efforts that uncover and communicate abuses of democracy. Of course, he goes on to talk a lot more about these special interests and the fact that really our democracies are easily hijacked by rent-seeking interests.

When you look at corporate donations—I am talking specifically here of rent-seeking interests and businesses—it raises a question. It would be questionable for any corporation to act against the interests of shareholders and put out money in political donations if it did not think it was going to get a good return on that investment. So it is a simple question: why do corporations give money to political parties? Sometimes they give money to both the major parties; it is not just the current government, the Liberal Party, here. Why do they give money to governments and to political parties? You have to draw the fairly obvious conclusion that they want something in return: they want influence in return.

This issue has been very near and dear to my heart, because in Tasmania my path to standing here in the Senate today has come through a very large decade-long campaign against a polluting pulp mill in my backyard in the Tamar Valley, near the ocean where I surf and recreate. It is way too much to fit into 20 minutes, and I talked a lot about it in my opening speech to the Senate, but the issue of political donations to the federal government during this campaign was a very hot topic in Tasmania. It was covered extensively by the media. There has been a lot of literature written on it. There have been entire books written about the corruption, or perceived corruption, around the Gunns pulp mill, which took years to assess; went through all sorts of processes, including a corrupted process; was pulled out of the state government assessment; was rammed through parliament, with parliament becoming the planning body; and then, of course, went to federal parliament for approval.

I just want to go through some information here on an example of what a federal ICAC could look at. It is a very real example. Senator Canavan talked earlier about how there is no evidence that he can see that we need a federal ICAC. I would ask him to have a look at the history and the background in the last decade surrounding the Gunns Limited pulp mill and the processes around that. This is an article from The Australian dated 10 October 2007 by Matthew Denholm, who is a very good journalist:

Gunns's donations to the major parties have long been contentious in Tasmania. The company gave $70,000 to the state division of the Liberal Party and the Liberal-linked Free Enterprise Foundation between November 2004 and April 2005.

I just note that I have read today that the Free Enterprise Foundation—and Senator Brandis, one of the greatest legal minds in the country, would be able to point out to me if this is incorrect—is currently the subject of an investigation by the New South Wales ICAC over payments to the New South Wales Liberal Party relating to property developments. It is the same foundation that received funds from Gunns federally in 2004-05. This followed the 2004 federal election, in which Mr Howard announced the continuation of old-growth logging and a far more modest forest protection policy than was put forward by the then Labor leader, Mark Latham. It was a fascinating time in history; once again, there is no time to cover it today, but for anyone who is interested I would thoroughly recommend reading about Mr Latham's lightning trip down to Tasmania, his visit with Bob Brown to the old-growth forests and what followed afterwards.

Former state Liberal leader Bob Cheek outlines this accusation in his book Cheeky: Confessions of a Ferret Salesman, which Senator Bushby has very possibly read. In the lead-up to the 2002 state election, he was the leader of the Liberal Party in Tasmania. Do not ask me about the ferrets, but he actually was a ferret salesman before he went into politics.


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