Senate debates

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


Venezuela: Human Rights

8:23 pm

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

I rise in the Australian federal Senate this evening to talk about the deterioration in the country of Venezuela. This is a short but very important speech. Former Greens leader Bob Brown spoke in this august chamber about his visit to both Venezuela and Brazil when he was making representations to officials about the release of Greens politician Ingrid Betancourt, who was being held captive by FARC in Colombia. The reason I am speaking tonight is because I want to draw the attention of both the Australian parliament and the Australian people to the escalating human rights abuses and deteriorating political situation in Venezuela. I have had a number of representations from the Venezuelan Australian community on this issue, and I would like to give a shout-out tonight to my sister, Kerri, who originally brought this situation to my attention.

I asked questions during the recent Senate estimates to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They started by telling me that there are nearly 4,000 Venezuelan Australians currently living in Australia. My research suggests that that is a significant underestimate. DFAT then went on to tell me that there has been quite a long-running process of escalating civil unrest and difficulties in Venezuela. In November 2016, Australia expressed concern during the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process about the deteriorating situation. In September 2016, we joined 28 nations in making a joint statement about Venezuela at the UN Human Rights Council. In October 2016, our then ambassador to Venezuela made representations directly to the Venezuelan Ministry of Foreign Affairs outlining those concerns, and officials here have reiterated our concerns directly with the Venezuelan embassy here.

I understand that the Venezuelan community here would like us to increase our representation on this dire situation. There is currently a petition circulating among the community calling on the Australian parliament to speak out, to raise the issue among the Australian and international community and to provide aid in the form of food and medicine. It lists other things, including the reopening of consular assistance to Venezuela. Let me speak plainly: the situation in Venezuela right now is a disaster. There are food and medicine shortages and hyperinflation, which has made it impossible for people to afford food even when it is available. Crime has escalated to levels that we could not possibly imagine here in Australia. Perhaps I will draw listeners attention to a recent Four Corners episode on this exact situation that can be downloaded through ABC iview.

Some of this situation stems from a sudden drop in the oil price, but much of the trauma appears to come from an increasingly antidemocratic and corrupted government under President Nicolas Maduro. It is hard for Australians to understand the turmoil that is going on right now in Venezuela. Here are some of the things that Amnesty International has documented: the government continues to use excessive force against protesters and political opponents—my understanding is that in 80 days of protest over 75 people have now been killed; there are spates of arbitrary arrest and jailing of political opponents and critics; political opponents are being accused of unfounded crimes and placed before military rather than civil courts; police and security forces may have carried out extra-judicial killings; and the national intelligence service is arresting critics for crimes against the homeland. They often target politicians and journalists. This has occurred to opposition leaders and to editors of the major newspapers.

At the heart of this is President Nicolas Maduro, seemingly doing anything he can to cling onto power. Despite losing a parliamentary election and despite attempts by the opposition to initiate recall of the president, I understand that the president has used what is in effect his own supreme court to overrule these democratic actions. This stemmed from what was called 'the mother of all marches' on 19 April this year. Millions marched that day and there have been running protests ever since that day. The president has responded by expanding the national militia to half-a-million people, all armed with rifles. It is also my understanding that the protesters are democratic and peaceful but are met with force and violence from the government.

I would like to recognise the courage of the many Venezuelans who are facing this antidemocratic regime with such dignity and strength. I hope that the Australian government will continue to advocate to the international community to apply pressure. I also hope we can work with NGOs to provide aid in the form of food and medicine.

Now to my adjournment speech that I gave last week. I would like to put a little case study together and refer directly to an article in the Tasmanian Times I referred to—in the last paragraph. The article is by Mr John Hawkins from Chudleigh, and you can download it on The article is termed 'Why ...?' and was written on 20 April 2017. In this article, John Hawkins outlines that on 27 January 2006, Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz became the federal Minister for Forestry in the John Howard Liberal government. Hawkins then states:

On the 16th March 2006, some 6 weeks later, Abetz lunched with Ian Blanden, CEO of Gunns Plantation Schemes, and discussed the Gunns Pulp mill, MIS plantations and the 12 month pre-payment rule with no sunset provision.

'These matters', at the time were, 'vital to the future solvency of both Gunns's business' and many in the MIS forestry plantation industry. Hawkins notes:

This conversation was documented by the Chairman of Gunns Ltd John Gay in a letter to Abetz dated 29 March 2006 on Gunns Ltd company letterhead and sent to the Minister. (Document 1).

Hawkins also notes:

Three weeks later on 21 April 2006, Gunns gave the Liberal Party—

a donation of—

$50,000 … which was accepted.

Hawkins asks: why? He then asks:

Was this a donation made in an attempt to influence the thinking of the Minister to act in favour of the company—

Gunns Ltd. He says:

A large political donation made outside the electoral cycle is unusual. It was, I suggest, made with the sole aim of gaining the ear of the Minister for Forests, one Senator Eric Abetz.

He then goes on to say:

Abetz was in a position to protect and promote the highly-profitable Ponzi Nitens Woodlot Managed Investment Scheme … that were at this time keeping Gunns Ltd solvent. The demise of these schemes through ATO action caused their promoters to finally call in the liquidators.

I went into this in significant detail in the first half of this speech.

At the time, Senator Abetz was negotiating with Minister Peter Dutton, then Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, on changes to managed investment schemes. I just note that the $50,000 donation to the Liberal Party was authorised by Mr John Gay, the CEO at the time, who was subsequently convicted of insider trading but who was then chairman of Gunns Ltd. Mr Hawkins further states:

By 22 June at the latest … Abetz reports to Gay—

This refers to document 3, a letter from Senator Abetz to Mr Gay. Mr Hawkins continues:

Unaware of this $50,000 … donation, I wrote to the Financial Review expressing my concerns.

Mr Hawkins also comments on a letter he wrote to The Ageregarding Bob Brown. Mr Hawkins says that Senator Abetz threatened to sue him for defamation over his comments in these two letters but that Senator Abetz then withdrew. This particularly annoyed Mr Hawkins, who dug in deeper and went through FOIs to uncover more documents. In the end, he claims:

Abetz then sent two goons to my front door to threaten me. I informed them that the days of the Third Reich and jackboots were over and that they should return to their master and tell him that I would pursue him to the grave.

This is a public document on a public website and available for anyone who wants to read it.

Mr Hawkins claims that these political donations, which were made to the Liberal Party—as I outlined last week—and also to the Labor Party, were unduly influencing policy, which later turned out to be a total catastrophe for so many investors around this country, not to mention rural communities. I would note for anyone interested to read document 7, which is Mr Hawkins' letter to Mr Abetz, where he says: 'I am not saying anything about personal corruption. I am just saying that it looks really bad that you took donations of $120,000 after you became forestry minister and after you changed MIS policy which favoured these companies. His letter states:

I have no problem with corporate gifts to political parties during election campaigns, but when you back a winner after the race and the bet is accepted this is easily misconstrued and can have sinister connotations.

Your thoughts would oblige.

…   …   …   

John Hawkins

This is very important, as I stated last week, because the current matter of public interest is significant around political donations. It is not just a national issue; it very much applies to my home state of Tasmania. There is legitimate concern in the community that not everyone has the same opportunity to lobby decision-makers or to donate to political parties, and that those with the deepest pockets and the most power and connection are better able to influence policy making. The secretive way most lobbyists and donors currently operate means that the public cannot be confident that decisions are being made in the public interest and on merit, after considering a broad range of views. The Greens have before this chamber three private senators' bills for an independent ICAC, an integrity commission and donation lobbying reform. It is time that we actually got on with it. (Time expired)


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