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

That is the truth. He claims, Senator Brandis, that Gunns executive John Gay showed him two cheques, one a guaranteed donation of $10,000 and another for $20,000, 'to come if I locked in the right answer to the question'. The question was, 'Will you continue to support the existing forestry policy?' which of course was about access to old-growth forests.

It has gone down in infamy that Mark Latham wanted to shut down old-growth logging and in the end John Howard was quite happy to keep open the idea that potentially—and certainly at the time—a world-class pulp mill would be built in the Tamar Valley and four million to five million tonnes of native forest per annum would be fed into that pulp mill. Over the life of the project, 20 to 30 years, we are talking about most of the old-growth forests left in the state being fed into this monster if it had gone ahead.

Further down the track, where we had the federal approval of this project—the Liberal Party were in government at that time as well—The Australian reported:

TIMBER company Gunns donated $56,000 to the Liberal Party in the weeks after the Howard government gave conditional approval for the company's $2.2billion Tasmanian pulp mill.

Annual political donation returns released by the Australian Electoral Commission yesterday reveal Gunns donated $64,750 to the national and Tasmanian divisions of the Liberal Party in the 2007-08 financial year.

Of this, $56,700 was donated to the Liberals in the time between then-environment minister Malcolm Turnbull's conditional approval for the mill on October 4, 2007, and the federal election on November 24 of that year.

This is the interesting part:

The donations were made in six payments ranging, from $900 on October 12—

prior to the approval—

to $25,000 on November 13.

So these payments were staged, they trickled in and they increased in value after the approval going into the election. My predecessor Senator Brown raised this in the chamber. The Australian reported:

… Bob Brown said the funds raised serious concerns and questions about "the influence of political donations". "You have to wonder why Gunns gave not just one lump-sum donation to the federal Liberal Party between the announcement of the go-ahead for the pulp mill and the election, but a series of donations … Couldn't Gunns make up their minds? Or was there some flow of information between the party and the company?"

Anyway, that year—you may also be interested to know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle—Labor received only $1,986 from Gunns, and that was donated on 8 August 2007.

So this issue is an example of the type of transparency that people would like to see. They would like to see these types of things investigated. It may be that there are no findings of corruption made in instances like this—

Senator Brandis interjecting—

But my point is an important one, Senator Brandis, through you, Chair: this is what the public expect from us. They want to see increased transparency, and they do not understand why a chamber full of politicians, who could potentially all be investigated in the future, are dragging their heels on trying to institute a body like a federal ICAC. They see that as a conflict of interest. It is quite an irony that we are not happy to be put under further scrutiny ourselves and to have the actions of our parties scrutinised. And that is not acceptable. Remember this illusion of participatory democracy? A lot of people in this country and around the world are talking about the problems with our democracy, in the sense that it is so easily hijacked.

I do want to talk a little about Tasmania. All states have a version of an ICAC. In Tasmania, unfortunately, we have an integrity commission which has very limited powers. One of the first things our new Integrity Commission did—and it was only established in 2010—was to investigate corruption around the Gunns pulp mill. In a 2012 leaked report, the commission reported—and this is about the construction of the Tamar Valley pulp mill—that: 'The Commission presently lacks the legislative capacity to adequately investigate whether the government's support for the proposed pulp mill was improper.' It received confidential submissions—hundreds of confidential submissions, and I do not know the detail of those submissions—but it lacked the ability to actually do this investigation. There is a whole series of recommendations that the Tasmanian Greens, currently led by Kim Booth, have made, to try to get much stronger teeth for this Tasmanian Integrity Commission. But it really raises these questions about whether we have a role for a federal body that could also look at instances like the ones I have just discussed.

Such a body has been mentioned in the chamber already today by Senator Collins, around FoFA. And there is a difference between personal corruption and institutional corruption. Sometimes the line is blurred. The ICAC in New South Wales is looking at examples of personal corruption where individual politicians or public servants may have received inducements for favours. Institutional corruption is a lot harder to define. It is about these things like special interest theory. How beholden are governments and politicians to the big end of town or to special interests? But I am convinced from the FoFA inquiry—which I was on with Senator Bushby, who is here in the chamber—that the Australian Bankers' Association made a very clear statement that they had expected the government to deliver a watering down—and 'watering down' are my words; that is not what they said, but they had expected it to deliver changes to the FoFA regulations. It is all in Hansard. Ms Tate gave that evidence at the Senate inquiry. I asked why they had not changed their compliance systems in time for 30 June, and she said:

We do have an expectation, because we had bipartisan support prior to the last election that these things would happen.

They are the exact words she used. What sort of deal was done between the government and the Australian Bankers' Association—the big banks—I do not know. But when I look at—

Senator Bushby interjecting—

Senator Bushby, through you, Chair: this is all about perception. This is about what the public think when they look at this. Following that, you rammed through, tried to get through, legislation. When that failed, you changed, and you brought in regulations before 30 June. You rushed them through on a Sunday afternoon so that they could not be scrutinised. You did a dirty deal with the Palmer party to get your regulations up. Now you are trying to get your legislation through the parliament, prior to the release of the financial services inquiry report, and prior to the release of a sensitive report by ASIC very shortly on the same issues that FoFA was trying to address. It is clear to me that there is a rush on to get these changes to FoFA done, and I understand, from my time on the inquiry, that it is because not only does it impact the sales-driven business models of the big financial services companies but also it is going to cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in compliance to meet the FoFA regulations by 30 June. To me, that is a very clear example of where your government has chosen to side with big business, with the big end of town, over Seniors Australia, over Choice, and over other groups, because—let us call it a deal—that is a deal that you did with the banks, to get that done. And, coincidentally, you were the beneficiaries of large donations from the banks, going into the federal election, which occurred after these discussions with the Australian Bankers' Association about delivering these outcomes on FoFA. You could say that was a coincidence, but most average Australians, who expect higher levels of transparency from their government, would look at it and go: 'You delivered for the banks.' That is a choice you have made. That is rent-seeking, by anyone's books, if it is true, and I think it is. And it could also be viewed as institutional corruption.

So these are the types of things that I think Australian voters, Australian citizens, expect to be addressed by such a body. I will not go into the details, but Senator Rhiannon has talked about the Canadian model. And I agree with Senator Collins on what was said earlier: these things need to be done properly; they need to be thoroughly investigated. But let us get on with it. We seem to have agreement from the Labor Party that we should now enter into this process to have a federal body. There are other things we can do around lobbyists' registers and a whole suite of other things we could do to tighten this up. Let us not do it for ourselves; let us do it for the Australian people. It is what they expect, and it will certainly increase the confidence that they have in us as decision-makers in this parliament which they voted us into. (Time expired)


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