Senate debates

Thursday, 2 March 2006

Government Accountability

4:15 pm

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate notes that:
over a decade in office the Howard Government has established a new low for government integrity and accountability; and
the Howard Government’s record is littered with scandals involving rorts, waste and incompetence.

Today the Senate is debating the proposition that the Howard government has grown arrogant over its 10 long years in office and has established a new low in government integrity and accountability. This is a timely debate—and not just as a counter to the orgy of government self-congratulation to which the nation has been subjected over the past couple of weeks. A new low in arrogance was established just this morning, when government senators voted down a proposed inquiry without debate. The proposed inquiry concerned Australia’s aviation safety regime and the role of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in particular.

It is appalling that government senators put the interests of the government ahead of the travelling public, but what makes their behaviour contemptible is that not one government senator spoke in the debate before voting the inquiry down. What we saw this morning was a gross abuse of the parliament. It is behaviour we have seen the government build up to over the eight months it has had an iron grip on this chamber. It is just staggering arrogance.

Abuses of other kinds, including the abuse of public trust, have been part of this government’s stock in trade over the 10 long years it has held office. In this week of so-called restrained celebration of the government’s decade in office, it is useful to reflect on the government’s real record—not the record celebrated at the coalition booze-up in the Great Hall last night, not the record which has been subjected to the soft-focus treatment by most of the national media, but the real record of this government: a record characterised by incompetence and littered with scandal and waste.

Let me first turn to the funding fiasco known by the Australian public as regional rorts. This was rorting of hundreds of millions of dollars through Regional Partnerships and the Sustainable Regions Program. This was rorting directed to the extraction of maximum partisan political advantage from the expenditure of public money. Labor vigorously pursued this issue through an inquiry by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee—an inquiry this government would not have allowed had it had the numbers in the Senate, as it has now. Last year’s committee report conclusively demonstrated that the Howard government will do whatever it takes to maintain its grasp on power.

In a pattern we have seen time and time again, the government’s abuse of these funding programs gathered pace in the lead-up to the 2004 election. Grants were approved against departmental and local advisory committee advice. Grants were approved even though they did not go within a bull’s roar of qualifying under published program guidelines. In relation to the Regional Partnerships program, the Australian people learned that the government had operated a set of shadow guidelines that meant that any grant could be approved, no matter what. The Australian people were genuinely surprised, I think, by the abuse of the Regional Partnerships program in the three months leading up to the calling of the 2004 federal election.

In June, July and August 2004, Regional Partnerships grants worth more than $71 million were approved—more than one-half of all the approved funding since the commencement of the program on 1 July 2003. The committee’s analysis of approved Regional Partnerships grants to 31 December 2004 showed that in rural seats the average amount of funding approved for government held seats was $1.5 million; for Labor seats, $1.1 million; and for Independent seats targeted by the National Party, $4.9 million. In metropolitan seats, the average amount of funding allocated to government held seats was $180,000, while Labor seats were allocated just half that amount.

A whole swag of Regional Partnerships projects have become bywords for rorting. Who could forget the grants to fund: a steam train that would not go, a creek that dredged itself, a milk company that folded before the ink on the funding announcement was dry, an ethanol company worth $1 that is still yet to produce a drop of fuel, and a hotel funded to run ‘Wacky Wednesdays’ and ‘Stump Bikini Babes’ while, just down the road in the same community on the Atherton Tableland, a community was crying out for potable drinking water.

Beaudesert Rail, the train that would not go, has received millions of dollars from the government but has not steamed a kilometre of track in years. Tumbi Creek is the New South Wales Central Coast creek that dredged itself. A2 Dairy Marketers is the dodgy company that got a dodgy grant at the insistence of disgraced parliamentary secretary De-Anne Kelly. Primary Energy is the ethanol company based in John Anderson’s electorate that got more than $1 million to do everything except produce a drop of ethanol. And who can forget the Atherton Hotel—the world famous home of ‘Wacky Wednesdays’ and ‘Stump Bikini Babes’ and recipient of a $500,000 Sustainable Regions grant courtesy of the government. As I noted earlier, the recipient of that grant was favoured over a community nearby that does not have access to potable drinking water and was convinced not to apply.

The Senate’s detailed examination of Regional Partnerships and the Sustainable Regions Program has exposed the Howard government’s lack of commitment to the development of Australia’s regions. The only commitment it has, the only commitment it has ever had, is to maintain office, whatever the cost to the nation.

Of course, Regional Partnerships and the Sustainable Regions Program were not the first regional funding vehicles this government has rorted. The Dairy Regional Assistance Program was used by the government to buttress the coalition’s political fortunes in electorates right across the country. Two of the biggest recipients were, not coincidentally, the electorates held by the current Leader and Deputy Leader of the National Party.

Just as with Regional Partnerships and the Sustainable Regions Program, there were some real beauties funded under Dairy RAP. These included the Beaudesert polocrosse field, just a short drive from an existing world-class polocrosse field. Despite being fully funded, it consisted of no more than a paddock with a toolshed and a locked gate. Other projects this government funded under Dairy RAP included a wine appreciation course at a Brisbane private school, construction of duck igloos and the expansion by a boomerang company into parquetry flooring. Many of those, of course, have boomeranged on the government over recent times. Dairy RAP was a national program, but this government has never hesitated to target its rorting more narrowly.

The Eden Region Adjustment Package is a good example. It was designed to deliver a political outcome for the coalition, not a sustainable economic or social outcome for regional Australia. One of the notorious projects funded under the Eden RAP is Matilda’s Bakery. This project was granted $967,000 in December 2000 and promised to create 46 new local jobs by 2005. It closed in June 2005 after 3½ years of unsuccessful trading. Before it closed it was subject to legal action by the Australian tax office for failing to pay GST and group tax. Minutes of creditors meetings show that the bakery did not own its part Commonwealth funded building when it fell into financial difficulty—that is, the money provided to set it up went to another entity. The member for Eden-Monaro and newly appointed Special Minister of State, Mr Gary Nairn, has conceded the bakery was a financial risk and could not have obtained a bank loan at the time the Commonwealth made its grant. Certainly a bank would have made sure it secured its investment with a mortgage.

I understand workers’ entitlements, including superannuation, remain outstanding. No-one in the government, least of all Mr Nairn, has been moved to assist the workers who have been so badly done by. It is noteworthy that none of the workers at Matilda’s Bakery have received the sort of assistance directed to National Textiles—this is the Prime Minister’s brother’s company that failed, leaving a $4 million shortfall in entitlements owed to some 340 workers. The National Textiles company failed and the Howard government directed funds from the Regional Assistance Program to pay the shortfall and approved $2 million worth of retraining funds for retrenched workers. That is the sort of assistance that has been denied to the workers at Matilda’s Bakery. Why? I guess the only reason that is apparent is that they did not work for the Prime Minister’s brother.

A second notorious project in the Eden Region Adjustment Package is the Sea Horse Inn at Boydtown. This project was granted $451,000 for refurbishment in December 2000, promising 43 new local jobs by 2005. The inn closed for refurbishment but, five years later, half the term of the government’s period in office, it has not reopened. There is a promise of Easter, but I think we are more likely to see the Easter Bunny than to see that open this Easter. In a failed third project under the Eden package, the vessel the Spirit of Eden was awarded $190,000 in June 2000 and promised three local jobs by 2005. The vessel is no longer moored at Eden—it is moored up the coast—and generates no local jobs.

Not one of these projects, valued at more than $1½ million, can point to a single local job just four years after taxpayers’ funds were granted. At the time the Howard government announced the Eden RAP, it pledged that it would ‘only fund projects which have evidence of generating real and permanent jobs’. There is nothing real or permanent about the jobs that were promised under those programs. The only real and permanent job that interested the government was the job of the member for Eden-Monaro, Mr Nairn. It is only the jobs on the benches opposite that motivate the Howard government when it comes to regional development. It is the one characteristic that all the government’s regional programs share.

I want to broaden my focus and have a look at the issue of the integrity of those who hold office in the government. Senators will remember names like Woods, Sharp, Jull and McGauran, not in connection with good public policy, but in connection with travel rorts. The senior member of this government to fall under the travel rorts cloud was Bob Woods, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Family Services. He resigned from parliament in February 1997 for ‘family reasons’. It only later emerged that he was under police investigation for travel rorts. But Woods was not alone in rorting travel entitlements. Three Howard ministers—Sharp, Jull and McGauran—were forced to resign in September 1997 over claims that they had lodged false travel claims, mismanagement and cover-ups. The Prime Minister came to office promising to raise the standards of parliamentary life. His 1996 A guide on key elements of ministerial responsibility emphasised ‘the necessity of adherence to high standards by people occupying positions of public trust’ and said, ‘The Australian people have this as their entitlement.’ This turned out to be, of course, another ‘non-core’ promise.

A decade after the election of his government, there is no behaviour which the Prime Minister will not tolerate in preference to requiring a ministerial resignation. Exhibit A is Senator Amanda Vanstone’s continuing tenure in the Immigration portfolio. There is no other minister in the history of this Federation who would have survived as she has under any other Prime Minister. If you cannot get the sack for locking up mentally ill Australians in immigration detention or deporting physically ill Australians due to the colour of their skin, then no minimum standard of conduct can be breached.

In fairness to Mr Howard, while he will not sack anyone for incompetence, he does not mind moving them on when their use to him expires. The old Commonwealth Employment Service had a motto: the right person for the job. The Prime Minister has his own motto when it comes to jobs: the right mate for the job. Over the past 10 years he has appointed over 120 mates, colleagues, supporters and former flatmates to publicly funded positions. These appointments include plum overseas postings and to the boards of organisations like the ABC, the National Museum and Telstra. A good number of them have, however, backfired spectacularly. Robert Gerard’s appointment to the Reserve Bank board comes to mind as does Bob Mansfield’s job on the Telstra board—and, perhaps most memorable of all, David Flint’s stewardship of the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

Let me now turn to the rorting of public money through government advertising. In 1995, the then opposition leader, Mr Howard, committed a future coalition government to introducing guidelines for government advertising. He said:

We will ask the Auditor-General to establish a set of guidelines and we will run our advertisements past the Auditor-General and they will need to satisfy those guidelines.

But, once in government, another non-core promise was a commitment that was quickly abandoned. Prior to the 1998 election, the Howard government spent $15 million of public money promoting the Liberal Party’s proposed goods and services tax. This was just a warm-up for the 2004 election, where the pre-election spending rose to $78 million. Since the election, we have seen advertising campaigns for such things as the government’s extreme industrial relations agenda. The likely bill for that is $55 million.

No area of waste for which this government is responsible is greater than the waste of our nation’s human capital. The simple fact is that 10 long years of Howard government inaction on education and training has resulted in a national skills crisis. The government’s incompetence is reflected in the number of young Australians that are turned away from TAFE: 34,200 Australians were unable to gain a place at TAFE in 2005, which is an increase from the 34,100 of 2004. The number of Australians turned away from TAFE is growing at the same time as our skills shortage is growing.

Since 1997, the proportion of young Australians who complete year 12 and go on to university has dropped by 20 per cent. There has also been a drop in Australian students at universities for only the second time in 50 years. To top it off, Australia is the only developed country to reduce investment in tertiary education over the past decade—an eight per cent cut compared to the OECD average increase of 38 per cent since 1995. This legacy will long outlive this government, just as the legacy of the government’s attack on workers will outlast it.

The first wave was the 1996 changes to workplace relations legislation. The second was the 1997 war on the waterfront. Not having to fight a war offshore in that year, the Howard government decided to declare war on the waterfront workers. Mr Howard established his version of a coalition of the willing with Patrick Corporation to take on waterside workers. The Howard government said that they wanted to improve waterfront productivity, but the truth is that they wanted to replace the workforce with non-union labour. Taxpayer funded consultants engaged by the government devised a strategy that saw Patrick’s Stevedores training military commandos in Dubai and the expulsion of dock workers from their jobs. I clearly remember the shocking television images of workers being menaced by armed security guards, clad in balaclavas, protected by Rottweiler guard dogs.

How necessary was this Howard government devised strategy, which was probably illegal in its planning and conduct? It seems to me that it was not necessary at all. Productivity on the waterfront has increased in recent years. That is not due to the political and industrial thuggery of the government but to the willingness of the Maritime Union of Australia, waterside workers and waterfront employers to work together, as they had been doing in the lead-up to that campaign.

It is telling, but those are not matters that the government will dwell on when it seeks to bask in the glow of its generated image of 10 years in office. We have a Prime Minister who started campaigning for office by making a number of promises. This is a Prime Minister who promised there would never, ever be a GST—a promise which he decided was a non-core promise. This is a new and sinister type of politics that we are experiencing in Australia.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you still fighting the GST wars, Kerry?

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I am fighting the issue of government integrity. If you do not believe in it, Senator, then I invite you to tell us why you do not believe in government integrity.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wonder if you are being honest about why you did not mention the 1998 election. Don’t you think that would make a difference?

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I wonder whether you will be honest, Senator, in dealing with matters that you are well aware of. I am aware of your statutory declaration, but perhaps you can tell us what you really said about rodents—

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Address your remarks through the chair, please, Senator O’Brien.

Photo of Kerry O'BrienKerry O'Brien (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I am reminded of comments about lying little rodents et cetera. I am not sure what words were used, and I know there was a statutory declaration, but I would like Senator Brandis to tell us what the words were that were used in the context of his remarks about a rodent that have been so publicly noted.

There are other rorts, scandals and outrages that I could detail, but the sad truth is that after 10 years of Howard government there have been so many that 20 minutes is just not enough to cover them all. The whole time allotted to this debate could be expended on the current wheat-for-weapons scandal alone. But, notwithstanding the attention the AWB scandal has received this year, it is important to remember that the whole period of this government’s office has been characterised by standards that do not befit a modern democratic nation like Australia. It is a legacy that we will make sure the Australian public are well aware of in the lead-up to the next federal election.

4:35 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I welcome the opportunity to raise, on behalf of the government, the question of the accountability of the government to this parliament and to the public and to reflect upon the achievements in setting new and higher standards in the last decade. In doing so, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, it is appropriate for me to begin by acknowledging your role as a senator, your role as a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts and Audit and your other committee work, and your being a very active and, with respect, intelligent participant in the debate on accountability and on the mechanisms of accountability of government to parliament. This is not a purely party political issue. Nevertheless, since this is the 10th anniversary of the election of the Howard government, it inevitably invites comparison between the standards of accountability then and the standards of accountability now.

I want to begin by reminding honourable senators and anyone else who might be listening to the broadcast of how low standards of accountability had sunk by the time of the end of the last Labor government 10 years ago today. Because it is 10 years ago, it is easy to forget the pass which Australia had arrived at under the prime ministership of Mr Paul Keating. Mr Acting Deputy President, I am sure you would agree with me on this: the most profound obligation of a government to be accountable is the obligation to be accountable to the parliament—in question time, in parliamentary committees and through the parliament’s other processes—and in particular at the real point of political conflict and accountability, question time, both here and in the other place.

It is instructive to remember the attitude of the last Labor Prime Minister to that central, solemn obligation of accountability. You might remember what Mr Paul Keating said to the House of Representatives about question time. He said:

Question Time is a courtesy extended to the House by the Executive branch of the government ...

Mr Keating’s imperial delusions did not end with clocks and other pretentious Louis Quatorze artefacts; they extended to the entire style in which he ran his government. Nowhere was that imperial arrogant attitude more manifestly on display than in Mr Keating’s attitude to the core obligation of a Prime Minister as leader of the government to account to the parliament at the most critical stage of the parliamentary process for scrutiny of the executive government. ‘Question time is a courtesy extended to the House by the executive government.’ What a disgraceful attitude! Yet in that one remark there was captured everything you needed to know about the attitude to parliamentary accountability and parliamentary scrutiny of the last Labor government. The Australian people were wise to it, and that government suffered its long-deserved quietus 10 years ago today.

Mr Keating was the man who also for the first and, I hope, the last time in Australian history actually edited the number of occasions on which he appeared for question time. For the only time in Australian history, we had a Prime Minister who said: ‘I won’t even condescend to come into the House of Representatives for question time every day. I’ll appear twice a week. I will vouchsafe to you, I will extend you the courtesy of my presence, twice a week.’ For half the days of the parliamentary year there was no capacity to hold that Prime Minister to account. That was the attitude that had come to pass in Australian politics by the time of the last Labor government, which mercifully expired 10 years ago today.

We heard a lot of wild claims from Senator O’Brien. Like me and most of the senators present in the chamber, Senator O’Brien was not a member of parliament 10 years ago, at the time of the 1996 election. But I would encourage him and others who may be listening to this debate to reflect upon what happened 10 years ago in another of the core areas of accountability—not to the parliament but to the public. That is a question I know you, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, are very interested in. It is the question of accountability for fiscal management, accountability for financial management. Although today we mark the 10th anniversary of the election of the Howard government, tomorrow we mark another anniversary: the 10th anniversary of the exposure of one of the greatest deceptions in the history of Australian politics—the fraudulent concealment of the budget position by the then Minister for Finance, Mr Kim Beazley. Let me remind you lest you have forgotten what happened.

In 1995, at the time of the 1995 budget, the budget papers projected a budget surplus of some $3.4 billion. But as early as September 1995, as we now know, the Treasury was warning the Keating government, and warning Mr Kim Beazley in particular, that that estimate was awry: the budget would not be in surplus; it was likely to be in deficit. Yet Mr Keating and Mr Kim Beazley went through the 1996 election campaign well knowing the Treasury’s advice and lied to the Australian people about it. On 1 February 1996, during the course of the election campaign, Mr Beazley said this at a press conference:

We’re operating in surplus and our projections are for surpluses in the future.

Notwithstanding that, five months earlier he had been warned by Treasury officials that that was not so.

But, in any event, let me come back to the exposure of that fraud 10 years ago tomorrow. On 3 March 1996, Mr Howard, newly elected as Prime Minister, fresh to office, was briefed by officers of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. At the time, Mr Howard told the story and I will read what he said:

... the day after the election I walked up from the Intercontinental Hotel to the Commonwealth office in Phillip Street—I think all Australians and particularly members of this House—

because this was said in the course of an answer in the House of Representatives—

should understand this sequence of events—and I was handed by the Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet a booklet of documents, the blue book, that had been prepared for the incoming government. As he knows better than most on the other side, a like book had been prepared for him—

he was addressing Mr Beazley—

and for the former Prime Minister if he had been successful. That book clearly spelt out the fiscal reality. It was available to me the day after the election and yet you—

addressing Mr Beazley—

and your former leader told the Australian public that it was too hard to assemble.

Mr Costello, the new Treasurer, takes up the story. He was briefed in turn by the Secretary to the Treasury on Monday, 4 March 1996—another 10-year anniversary we celebrate two days hence. Mr Costello said:

Let me make it entirely clear that on the day after the election and on the Monday thereafter the Secretary to the Treasury disclosed to the Prime Minister and to me the state of the accounts as forecast by Treasury for 1996-97. They were put out not in a press release from the government. They were put out in a press release from the Treasury, signed off by the Treasury itself.

Let me make it entirely clear ... that, as early as September in the previous year, the joint economic forecasting group was warning the government that its budget would not be as bottom line as was said in the budget papers and there was a blow-out on the cards for 1996-97.

On 12 March 1996, the economic and fiscal outlook was released by Treasury on the instructions of the new government. That revealed what the Treasury had been warning Mr Beazley and Mr Keating about as early as September the previous year: that, far from there being a surplus of $3.4 billion, there was a projected deficit of $4.9 billion representing a shortfall in the budget projections of $8.3 billion—the so-called $8 billion black hole.

How is that for accountability? The Prime Minister and the finance minister—now the Leader of the Opposition—with ministerial responsibility, well knowing that the budget would be in deficit, run an election campaign asserting that, on the basis of the projections they had from Treasury, the budget would be in surplus. How is that for accountability? Those were the standards practised by the Australian Labor Party then.

So what did the incoming coalition government do? In conformity with an election promise, this government introduced for the first time in Australian history—and I know it is something that you, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, have congratulated the government for its initiative in doing—a charter of budget honesty, not a piece of political rhetoric but an act of parliament imposing statutory obligations. Among those statutory obligations is a statutory obligation on the secretaries of the departments of the Treasury and finance to publicly release a pre-election fiscal and economic outlook report if a general election is called. Under the act, the Charter of Budget Honesty Act, that must be done within 10 days of the issue of the writs. And at every election since the 1998 statute was passed, before the 1998 election, the 2001 election and the 2004 election, that statutory obligation has been performed to the letter so that never again can we have the disgrace of the Prime Minister and the finance minister lying to the Australian public about the state of the budget. How is that for accountability?

We did not hear that from Senator O’Brien. Perhaps Senator O’Brien was ignorant of the Charter of Budget Honesty—I should not be surprised. But that more than anything else is not a token, not a rhetorical gesture but a statutory obligation, which this government imposed upon itself and has faithfully observed ever since to ensure that in government’s most fundamental obligation—its obligation to be honest with the Australian people about how it manages their money—both sides of politics and whichever party is in government at any given time are held to neutral, objective scrutiny and accountability by the departments of Treasury and of finance.

I have dwelt at some length upon the 1996 deceit—because, as you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, I have something of a taste for history and I like anniversaries—and of the exposure of the great budget fraud of 1996. This was not merely to demonstrate the pass which we had reached by the time the last Labor government was ignominiously thrown out of power by a long-suffering public but also to show that, once you descend from the level of rhetoric, which is the only level at which Senator O’Brien seems to be capable of operating, into the hard language of the law and statutory obligation about core government functions and, in particular, about the obligation of a government to be honest about the budget position—

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Lundy interjecting

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Lundy, you would not know a budget if one jumped out of a tree and bit you, if the relevance of your questions at estimates is any indication. When it comes to the core government functions, this government has set not only a benchmark for itself unmatched in Australian political history but a new benchmark for all other governments.

In the time left to me, let me turn to other things because, although accountability to the parliament and accountability to the public by being honest during election campaigns are among the core elements of accountability, there are other mechanisms, as you know well, Mr Acting Deputy President. Senator O’Brien touched on Senator Vanstone and the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon affairs and he chastised Senator Vanstone. Why? Because Senator Vanstone participated in the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry which collected all the evidence and made some findings adverse to departmental officers and that report was published.

Senator O’Brien mentioned the AWB affair. How did this government respond to the AWB affair? By constituting Mr Cole, a respected lawyer whose objectivity is not in question, as a royal commissioner, giving him the widest terms of reference and instructing that all material that was relevant in the hands of any government department or agency should be offered to the Cole inquiry, which of course is proper.

If this government were a government seeking to avoid scrutiny—and I interpolate to say that nobody is suggesting that mistakes were not made—or if this were a government seeking to avoid its obligations of accountability, why would it have set up the Cole royal commission? Why would it have set up the Palmer inquiry? Why would it have set up other public inquiries or inquiries the reports of which were published and which, in the case of the Rau inquiry, contained criticisms of the government? If it had followed the precedents of the last Labor government, either there would not have been an inquiry or the report containing criticism of the government would have been suppressed.

I commissioned some research from the Parliamentary Library. I asked them to look and tell me how many commissions of inquiry had been established during the 13 years of the previous Labor government. Do you know how many there were? There were 12. Those 12 royal commissions were in general, subject to an exception I will mention in a moment, directed to issues which were not a source of political embarrassment for the government of the day or a source of political controversy, like the royal commission into the Nugan Hand Bank. That was nothing to do with the government of the day. There was a commission of inquiry into the use of chemical agents in Vietnam, which had nothing to do with the government of the day; the royal commission by former Senator McClelland into British nuclear tests in Australia—a royal commission into events that happened in the 1950s; the royal commission by Justice Morling into the Chamberlain case, which was not a matter of political controversy—at least not in federal politics—and not a matter of sensitivity to the government of the day; and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which was not a matter of political sensitivity to the government of the day because no allegations of misconduct by any minister of the government of the day had been made. The only inquiry that the government established in that 13 years that might be thought to relate to a matter of contemporary, present political controversy was the inquiry into the leasing of Centenary House. Before you of all people, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, we do not need to rehearse the sorry story of Centenary House.

So that is the difference. It is the difference in the standards of accountability to parliament, both through question time and through parliamentary committees. It is the difference in the accountability to the Australian public—in particular about the core function of the government, the management of their finances—between the deceit of Mr Beazley, Australia’s worst finance minister, and the transparent honesty of this government, which actually imposed upon itself and future governments statutory obligations of transparency that had not been there before. It is the willingness of the government to take on the chin and expose criticisms that are politically embarrassing—for example, as during the Palmer inquiry or as perhaps we will see during the Cole inquiry—rather than sweep it under the carpet. Nobody says that governments or ministers do not make mistakes; the test is whether they own up to them, whether they come into this chamber and whether they go before public inquiries, wear the political pain and answer to the people.

4:55 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

When the Prime Minister, John Howard, was re-elected at the federal election in 2004 and gained control of both houses of this parliament—an absolute majority—he undertook to the Australian people that he would not abuse his control of both houses of parliament. Yet what has occurred since has demonstrated that that commitment to government integrity and accountability was indeed a false one. It reflects what has gone on in the decade of the Howard government.

Whilst people can argue about the specifics of various scandals and rorts which have gone on—and I will refer to some of those—the things for which Prime Minister John Howard will be remembered in history are his failures in accountability in terms of where Australia sits in the world. He will be remembered for taking Australia to the war in Iraq because of alleged weapons of mass destruction. It was a false claim based on false intelligence and it has contributed to misery in Iraq. It is unjustified. What we have had since is the Wheat Board scandal finding that, when the Prime Minister was sending Australian troops to Iraq supporting President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, at the same time the Australian Wheat Board was abusing the UN sanctions regime and giving kickbacks. So, whilst at the time condemning Saddam Hussein, the Prime Minister was running a government overseeing the Australian Wheat Board, which was involved in what will be the greatest scandal of this government.

But, to go on, there is now sufficient evidence in the public arena to show absolutely that government ministers knew. They knew what was going on. Just this week in relation to Minister Downer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, every document coming in for up to five years clearly showed that they knew what was going on with the Wheat Board in Iraq. Where is the Prime Minister’s code of conduct for his ministers? He brought in a code of conduct with much flair, but of course the code of conduct has disappeared as his ministers continue to be exposed, one after the other. Up to five of them are implicated at the moment in the Wheat Board scandal. We went to war on a lie. We have profited from that war via the Wheat Board scandal, and it is something for which Prime Minister Howard will be remembered.

But, even more profoundly than that, he will be remembered for the ‘children overboard’ affair. He will be remembered because it was the most disgraceful manipulation and exploitation of an appalling situation, in which people were trying to leave the persecution that they had suffered in their own countries and come to Australia to seek asylum. In a politically opportunistic way, the Prime Minister exploited the xenophobia and racism that were evident in the Australian community at the time, increased the levels of fear and announced that people were indeed throwing their children overboard.

It was an appalling scandal and, in the investigation into it, there was a lot of pressure brought to bear on a number of people with regard to that investigation. Nevertheless, the Australian people now know that there were no children thrown overboard and that it was in the context of an election campaign. Something Australians will be extremely ashamed of, as they look back on it over the years, is that a prime minister won an election on the back of a lie about asylum seekers throwing their children overboard. I want to return to that in a moment or two, in relation to suspected illegal entry vessel X, the SIEVX, but before I do I want to refer to a couple of other areas in which this government will be seen to be totally lacking in accountability and integrity.

One area is climate change. We, as a globe, are facing the greatest security threat of our time with climate change. A report released yesterday gave a peek into what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will say when they release their report in April. It says that the top limit of how high temperatures are likely to rise by 2100 has now been taken away. Earlier, a top limit had been set of between two to 4½ degrees being the likely temperature rise. Now some scientists say and some models show it could go as high as 11 degrees. There is talk of possible major climate accidents, including the possible disintegration of the west Antarctic ice shelf. If this were to occur, we would see a sea level rise of five metres.

Australia and the United States have refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol and, worse than that, have gone out of their way to frustrate and undermine efforts in every global negotiation for more stringent activity to be taken on climate change. Currently, both countries have policies which will take us nowhere near achieving the minimum of a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As people look back on this decade of the Howard government they will say that it was a complete decade of lost opportunity to address the greatest security issue of our time.

In terms of integrity and accountability, what is even worse is that we now find that the Howard government has used its influence to delete significant sections of scientific reports and has lent on the CSIRO, which is Australia’s premier research institution, to influence its research directions, such that we now find the CSIRO increasingly focused on coal and the fossil fuel economy rather than on renewable energy. We see it falling behind in climate modelling. We see the models that were being developed in Australia completely underfunded, to the point where scientists cannot do the public interest research which may lead to the breakthroughs that we need on a range of issues facing us at this time. Public interest research is essential, yet the head of the CSIRO has said, ‘It is partnerships or perish.’ In other words, science has to go to business with cap in hand and take what it can get, and the public interest research is not being done in Australia. I put that straight to the Howard government as a complete lack of accountability to the Australian people on climate change.

I now want to talk about political donations. We are about to see a new low standard in accountability in politics. At the moment, if a company gives more than $1,500 to a political party, it has to declare that donation. Declaring political donations is one of the best ways of being able to show where political parties are funded from and to being able to see if undue influences are being brought to bear on policy. What do we find? We find the Howard government proposes to lift that limit to $10,000 for companies, so that if you give up to $10,000 you do not have to declare that the company has given that amount of money. That will lead to corruption in the Australian political process and in our democracy. I would argue that it demonstrates a complete lack of government integrity and accountability.

That comes on the back of the government in the Senate refusing to provide papers that were asked for by opposition members, most recently in the house this week when we asked for the correspondence between the Prime Minister and Gunns. Gunns, the timber company in Tasmania, gave the Liberal Party $50,000 as a donation at the last federal election. The government has just given them $5 million in return. That is about the best return on an investment that you could get anywhere in the country at the moment, and it signals a very poor level of accountability. I say that because the Prime Minister said that the $5 million would be for a feasibility study if Gunns proceeded with a chlorine-free pulp mill. They have not. They have proceeded with a native forest based pulp mill, which will use chlorine dioxide. It is absolutely not what the Prime Minister said he would give them the money for, yet Senator Eric Abetz could not wait—he was falling over himself—to give Gunns the first instalment of $2½ million even though this pulp mill is not economically viable. Even if you take out the issues about the environment, the economic viability is not there. The global price of chemical pulp is collapsing and has been collapsing over the last 30 years. If you look at that, you ask yourself: why would anyone bother investing in something when the price of the commodity is on a downward trend?

What I want to specifically raise today, in the context of the 10th anniversary, is the sinking of the SIEVX. I begin with a quote from one of the SIEVX survivors, who said, ‘Wherever you look you see the dead children like birds floating on the water.’ I do not think many people in the Australian community realise that on or about 18 October 2001, a small overloaded fishing boat left the Indonesian port of Bandar Lampung in Sumatra carrying 421 people. The next afternoon, the boat sank. The following day, after about 20 hours in the water, 45 survivors were rescued at sea by Indonesian fishermen off West Java. One hundred and forty-six children, 142 women and 65 men died in the sinking of the boat which later become known as the SIEVX.

The sinking of the SIEVX occurred during the 2001 federal election campaign in which issues about refugees figured in a very divisive way. The earlier rescue at sea by the Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, of a group of refugees whose boat had foundered prompted the federal government to set up Operation Relex, a military operation which aimed to prevent any boats carrying possible refugees from reaching Australian territorial waters. In November 2001 alleged people smuggler Abu Quassey was arrested in Bandung, West Java. On 13 February 2002 the Senate voted to set up a select committee to inquire into A Certain Maritime Incident—that was the alleged throwing of children overboard, and it also inquired into events surrounding the sinking of the SIEVX.

On 23 October 2002 the Senate inquiry report A Certain Maritime Incident was tabled. The committee found it extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur, and remain undetected, in an area where Operation Relex, a major theatre of Australian military and civilian operations, was taking place. The report found no negligence or dereliction of duty in relation to the relevant Australian authorities but found it disturbing that none of the relevant authorities carried out any review despite the public furore surrounding the tragedy. Further information about aspects of the SIEVX tragedy continue to emerge and the matter is being pursued every time we hold a Senate estimates hearing and as we move more motions in the Senate.

On 7 November 2003 the alleged people smuggler Khaled Daoed was extradited from Sweden to Australia to face charges over the SIEVX, and on 27 December 2003 Abu Quassey was sentenced to five years imprisonment in Egypt for homicide through negligence in relation to the SIEVX and to two years on charges related to assisting illegal immigration. On 14 July 2005 Khaleed Daoed was sentenced by a Brisbane court to nine years in prison for people-smuggling.

But what we want to know—and this is where the accountability of the Howard government comes in—is: why will they not release the names of the 353 people who died? The community and the families of those people want to know. They want the certainty and they want the names. At least three lists have been circulated at various times to various people but the government still will not provide the 353 names. There is a move to build a memorial to the SIEVX here in Canberra in line of sight of Parliament House so that forever the federal government and the people in this house of parliament can look down on that monument which is to be called A Landmark of Conscience. I think that is an absolutely apt name for it because people want to know what actually happened with the SIEVX. What level of accountability do the government have in relation to this? What we want to know is: why do the government continue to deny that the SIEVX sank in the Operation Relex area of operation despite clear evidence that it did so? If the government set up Operation Relex, why were they not following this particular boat and why did they not come in and rescue the people? Did they know the people were there and did they let them drown?

Why will the government not come clean on what its disruption activities were in Indonesia? Why will it not release the protocol related to the memorandum of understanding with the Indonesian National Police? Because the protocol enabled the Australian government to oversee the disruption activities that were carried out. We want to know what those disruption activities were, and whether they included allowing those boats to be sabotaged before they left Indonesia. As the government admits, it has identified two organisers of the SIEVX disaster and both have been prosecuted and convicted, so why cannot the Australian Federal Police now answer all of the outstanding questions to enable the survivors to finally understand what happened? Why does the government continue to ignore three years of Senate demands for a full independent judicial inquiry into the SIEVX and into people-smuggling activities?

I have met some of the survivors of the SIEVX and I cannot understand to this day why they have not all been interviewed by the Federal Police about what they know and what they saw. They were in the water for that period of time; they were in the water for 20 hours. Many of them say that they heard noises in the area. Others say that there were substantial lights in the area and, as I indicated previously, the federal government had set up Operation Relex to look for illegal entry vessels coming to Australia—that is the Navy and the Air Force. Let us have the records from the Navy and the Air Force as to where they all were at the time that this vessel sank because until we get to the bottom of this we have a situation where 146 children, 142 women and 65 men died trying to come to Australia, and the suspicion is that somehow the government knew that they were there.

It is in the government’s interest, and it is in the whole community’s interest, to get to the bottom of this because the survivors need to know what happened and the Australian government ought to tell the Australian people what it knows about what happened. As long as the government refuses to answer the questions, refuses to release the lists of names, refuses to release the protocol it had with the Indonesian National Police about disruption activities in Indonesia, we are never going to know what actually happened.

I can assure the government that it does not matter whether John Howard stays another five years or whether the Prime Minister is replaced by somebody else as leader of this government, the scandals that have hit Australia in this decade of the Howard government will stay and the Howard government will be remembered ultimately for Guantanamo Bay and the failure to stand up for an Australian citizen, David Hicks; for the kowtowing to President Bush over Guantanamo Bay; for taking Australia to an absolutely unjustified war in Iraq against the better judgment of the United Nations; for the SIEVX; for the ‘children overboard’; for a grossly unfair system of welfare and support in this country; and for leaving a generation of university students with such a debt that they have to delay getting on with their lives because they have to pay back those debts. An indebted future generation of young Australians will remember John Howard for the decade in which they have to try to pay back the fees that they have had to pay because of your policies. I think you are going to find that the Howard government is rapidly going to disappear into history as one that set a new and lower standard of government integrity and accountability in Australian politics.

5:15 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O’Brien’s motion before us reads:

That the Senate notes that:
over a decade in office the Howard Government has established a new low for government integrity and accountability; and
the Howard Government’s record is littered with scandals involving rorts, waste and incompetence.

The key words that we are asked to react to are ‘low’, ‘integrity’, ‘accountability’, ‘rorts’, ‘waste’, ‘incompetence’ and ‘scandals’. The issue of evaluating a government such as that of John Howard, the Prime Minister, is difficult at this time because it is a work in progress. It is 10 years on its way, and more years are to come. I think you need to separate a judgment of such things into a number of areas but, for the purposes of my remarks, I will separate my judgment into the areas of politics and policy.

If you look at the Prime Minister from the perspective of politics, you will see that he deserves to be admired. I find that there is a churlish inability of many people who are opposed to the ideas and political positioning of the Prime Minister to recognise his political competence. It is no accident that there have only been two prime ministers who have reached double figures in time serving the Australian people in 105 years of our country’s history. It requires good health, luck and all those sorts of things but, most of all, it requires a great deal of political skill and ability. For my own part, I want to acknowledge that I recognise and respect that ability and the way in which he has been able to overcome both his critics and opponents to apply his view of how Australia should be governed.

I am also affected in my remarks by a natural respect I have as a small ‘d’ democrat for the institutions of democracy and for our Constitution. Therefore, I have a natural respect for the prime minister of the day. It is a respect I accord to those prime ministers I have known, Mr Gough—I am sorry, I mean Mr Whitlam.

Photo of Rod KempRod Kemp (Victoria, Liberal Party, Minister for the Arts and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

That is very familiar.

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I often call him Gough. I am giving away my contacts. Mr Whitlam, Mr Fraser, Mr Hawke, Mr Keating and now Mr Howard are all remarkable men in their own ways. However, the motion before us requires us to address the negatives. That is where I would move away from an assessment of political skill and ability to an assessment of policy and outcomes, of process and practice. In evaluating that, you cannot throw out a political judgment. One of the strong issues that is emerging is that, if the slogan once used to be ‘It is the economy, stupid’, it is now increasingly becoming ‘It is the society, stupid’.

Throughout the Western world, there is a divorce—a separation—between economic trust and political trust. It was notable that, when the last election was underway, the Prime Minister came out and said, ‘Who do you trust?’ He played to his strengths. When I looked at an interesting assessment today, I saw that there was a clear division: much higher marks for economic trust as opposed to what I would describe as political trust. If you are going to leave a good assessment behind you, you need to have the ability to have people say, ‘You deserved my political trust as well as my economic trust.’

Before moving on, I indicate that today is my own anniversary. Ten years ago, I was elected for the first time. Being a senator, I only discovered that after a few weeks of the churning of machines and the counting of papers. Nevertheless, I was elected 10 years ago but, being a senator, you take your position from 1 July. I think that, in a number of respects, I have carried the same portfolio for 10 years, which is quite a record in itself. In this Senate, I can think of only one office holder who has continually held the same office for 10 years—that is, Senator Grant Chapman, who has been a very able chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services. It is not easy to stay holding onto something and holding your own either. I move away from my own anniversary of election and back to the topic at hand.

The assessment I saw today which caught my eye was by In case they are listening, I do not need another subscription; I am already paying for one. They had about 18 members of the commentariat in a table of opinions. By the way, I do love the word ‘commentariat’. It has those overtones of fear and monolithic politburo sort of attributes. They had 18 distinguished members of the commentariat assessing the government and Mr Howard for things like economic competence, social cohesion, honesty and fairness. The large gap between those was very notable. The economic management was nearly at seven, averaged across the 18, whereas the honesty measure was just above four. One should take note of that.

The government emphasises money so much that, in their relationship with the Australian people, they sometimes remind me of a couple that stays married because he has money and therefore she stays with him. If there were economic hard times, one wonders whether the Australian people would still vote for the coalition government. I once said, some years ago, that I thought that if the conservatives—and I refer to conservatives, not liberals—had a heart, they could govern forever.

That is probably why, one of these days, you will lose government: because of the areas in which you have lost trust; because of your assault on civil liberties; because of the lying and mendacity that are attached to things like children overboard; because of a kind of wilful, blind ignoring of social atrocities, such as have occurred in our mental health system and detention centres and such as the detention of people without trial; because you are snooping on phones, increasing the powers of the police and increasing the authoritarian aspects of our state; and because you are doing things to our society that lessen our rights and our freedoms, such as refusing to conduct a royal commission into child abuse and allowing sex trafficking to be openly conducted in this country for many years until pressure caused you to react. I am glad you have done something about it. But there is too much concentration on the economy. Too little concentration on society and rights counts against you in the end.

One of the things I like about this government is that it reflects, overall, a good aspect of Australian society—that is, a low level of corruption. Given that governments—and even parliamentarians—and people in public office have the ability to make decisions that can profit others, there is an extremely low level of corruption of people in our system. I am glad of that and I admire that in our system. Of course, at certain local government levels you find some sleazy practices—and, please God, one of these days they will be wiped out. But we do not have a corrupt system when it comes to people. What has developed instead over the last 10 years worries the pants off me—that is, the corruption of process. I think that is a real problem for us.

One of the areas where the government can rightly claim great advances, I think, is in the expression of financial statements and in the accumulation and availability of financial data, although I must admit that some of the budgetary processes and portfolio budget statements are extremely opaque. But I think that is a result of a culture and an ideology that have been supported by all sides, including my own, as we have moved to accrual accounting and a devolution of financial matters and responsibility. By and large, I have seen a significant improvement in the Department of Finance and Administration over the time I have been in this place.

I acknowledge that the Charter of Budget Honesty was a significant step forward. I had hoped that it would have been done better, but it certainly was a significant step forward. So, too, might I say, was the Intergenerational reporta great initiative of the Treasurer. I think he should be given credit for having the determination to take a long-term view. Generally speaking, short-termism—whether it is in your business, your family, your home or anything else—is short-sighted. I think a longer-sighted approach to government is desirable and it is one of the reasons, incidentally, that I support four-year fixed terms for the House of Representatives: it might make them slightly less short-term in approach.

I also believe that overall the government has remained accountable to parliament and, in fact, has improved its accountability to parliament in the lower house. I am a bit disrespectful of the House of Representatives because I always regard it as the house of the executive. But, nevertheless, the Prime Minister and his ministers do front up and take on the opposition and vice versa, and it is a fairly vigorous interaction.

Having said all that, I think accountability to parliament could be much improved. I am one of those who argue that parliament should set its own budgets and all the executive should have is the right of veto, not the right of setting it. The parliament represents the people in a far broader sense than does the government. There is dishonesty in financial matters. There is the dishonesty of calling the GST a state tax. The Auditor-General, the opposition and we Democrats all believe it should be properly counted in the Commonwealth figures. A lack of accounting has been exposed. I note that the shadow minister who has responsibility in this area, Senator Sherry, is in the chamber. He and I have been trying to gee up the government in terms of the special accounts area and all that sort of thing.

There have been awful failures of the government, resulting from ideology. Ideology, like extreme faith or fundamentalism, is always profoundly flawed. The sale of the properties that belonged to the Commonwealth has just been a grotesque loss of public assets. What they have done is flog off properties cheaply and then lease them back at enormous profit to the new owners of those properties. It has been a great loss to the people of Australia.

I often note, in my interactions with government senators, that they have far higher standards than the government itself. If you are dealing with a government senator on a committee on accountability or honesty matters, pretty well all of them have good instincts and values. But their government does not necessarily reflect that. I would say that if you look carefully at the record of this government in terms of accountability you will find that most things it has done have been forced on it by the Senate, and then afterwards it says, ‘That wasn’t so hard; that actually worked out pretty well for us and it sort of soothed matters.’

I can think of no better instance than the row about parliamentarians’ entitlements that went on for the first half of the government’s term and culminated in a wonderful report—and I publicly thank Senator Faulkner for the strength of his support on that—by the Auditor-General, who did the first audit of parliamentarians’ entitlements in 100 years. The result of that is that we have a markedly improved system of reporting, exposure and commentary by the government in that regard. That was because the Senate made them do it; then they realised it was good kit and they have actually done a very good job in improving all that.

There are areas on which the government just has not responded to the Senate. For instance, government advertising is an appallingly corrupt process. It is a rort and a scandal at its extremes. At its normal levels, it is perfectly acceptable. Once again, the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee, ably chaired by Senator Forshaw, has produced some outstanding reports, one of them on government advertising and another on staff employed under the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act. They go right to the heart of what I was talking about earlier, and that is corruption of process.

One thing that worries me about Labor is that, if Labor are going to claim higher levels of integrity and virtue in this area, you have to show your ability to do that in the states. And, in the states, there is no better government than the Commonwealth; they have the same practices. If you are going to go for the higher ground, which I would like you to do and I know some members of Labor would like to happen, you have to start showing that you can do it in the states and territories as well. But the Labor senators’ contribution to these committee reports—because mostly these are non-government party reports, with minority reports from the government—have been absolutely terrific in terms of basic principles, which the government is not observing.

Appointments are often not on merit and they are subject to patronage. That is a scandal which needs to be resolved. Freedom of information has become just a skirt over the body of secrecy and hidden matters which are increasingly kept from parliamentarians. Whistleblowing is discouraged. The Senate order for contracts has been a great success, in my view. The areas of electoral matters and political donations remain, I think, problems, really corrupt processes, and they need to be resolved.

The question is of course: is it worse than it was under the 13 years of Labor that came before this government? Well, yes and no: yes, perhaps, in the sheer scale and effrontery of some of the abuses—far worse than Labor ever was on government advertising, for instance—but no in some other respects, where standards have been lifted because of pressure from the Senate.

If I were to summarise my attitude to this motion it would be this: I think government integrity and accountability is nowhere near the level it should be. I do not think it is so appalling that we should be ashamed, but it probably rates, at best, five out of 10 and it really could be massively improved. I think there are scandals which involve rorts, waste and incompetence, but I do not see any corruption of individuals; what I see is a corruption of process. My own prediction is that, eventually, the Howard government will come undone because of the honesty issue, because of a lack of trust in politics, and not because of economic issues, which is what they have hung their hats on so far.

5:34 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As we know, today marks the 10th anniversary of the election of the Howard government. And what have seen in those 10 years? We have seen 10 years of ministerial failure. We had the Prime Minister’s code of conduct, first released with great fanfare in 1996, hastily watered down once and then twice and finally junked. Let us recall a sample of those ministerial disasters—I only have 20 minutes so I cannot go through them all.

Minister Jim Short was forced to resign for failing to divest himself of financial interests in his area of ministerial responsibility. Industry minister John Moore was exposed for his shareholdings in technology investment and share-trading companies. Parliamentary secretary Brian Gibson lost his job because of a conflict of interest. Small business minister Geoff Prosser was running three shopping centres while he was a minister and he was forced to resign. Resources minister Warwick Parer had massive share interests in a coalmine and in other resource companies; he stayed, in breach of the ministerial code. Acting minister for communications Peter McGauran forgot that he owned 70 poker machines. Employment services minister Mal Brough promoted training courses which were actually Liberal Party fundraisers. Industry minister Ian Macfarlane was involved in a complex scam to rort GST rebates from Liberal Party fundraisers. Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron kept up his practice as a surgeon, in breach of the code.

Mr Howard himself was found to be in breach of his own code when he failed to resign as a director of the Menzies Research Centre. Mr Howard misled the parliament over meetings he had held with ethanol producer Manildra’s boss—massive Liberal Party donor Dick Honan. It was eventually proved that the meetings did occur, and three weeks later the government increased trade penalties against a Brazilian ethanol producer. Parliamentary secretary Warren Entsch’s concrete company won a massive government contract in breach of the code. Peter Reith was appointed as a consultant to defence contractor Tenix immediately after resigning as defence minister. Health minister Michael Wooldridge signed a $5 million building deal for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and days later, after resigning as health minister, was employed by the college as a consultant. Senator Coonan, as Minister for Revenue, avoided paying a land tax. She was then exposed and forced to resign as a registered director of an insurance dispute resolution company operating from her own home.

Wilson Tuckey, then Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, heavied a state police minister on behalf of a family member. Parliamentary secretary Bob Woods retired from politics when he was under police investigation for travel rorts. Communication minister Richard Alston’s family trust held Telstra shares. Peter Costello, the Treasurer, appointed Liberal Party megadonor Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank board despite being told by Mr Gerard that he was involved in a 14-year-long tax evasion dispute with the Australian Taxation Office. Three ministers—John Sharp, David Jull and Peter McGauran—were forced to resign as a result of travel rorts involving false claims, mismanagement or cover-ups. Parliamentary secretary Bill Heffernan was forced to resign over fabricated claims against a High Court judge. We had all that and much, much more.

What else have we had over the past 10 years? Ten years of public policy failure. A partial—very partial—list would include the massive pork-barrelling of the $1 billion Federation Fund program; the scandal over the budget leak about MRI machines; the development of a culture of assumption and denial in DIMIA while Mr Ruddock was minister for immigration, which the Comrie report called failed, catastrophic and dehumanised; the wrongful and scandalous deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon; the wrongful and scandalous detention of Cornelia Rau at Baxter detention centre; the utter incompetence of veterans’ affairs minister Danna Vale over roadworks at Anzac Cove; the rorting of the $500 million Regional Partnerships program, with massively disproportionate grants being allocated to coalition seats—not to mention the Tumbi Creek and Beaudesert Rail scandals under the same program; support for the training of scab labour in Dubai to work on the waterfront; and the use of dogs and security guards in balaclavas during the waterfront dispute, as waterside workers were sacked under the cover of darkness with the loss of all entitlements and, in some cases, personal possessions.

The Prime Minister introduced the GST after promising he never, ever would. The Howard government have sponsored many attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the courts, including repeated slurs by Senator Heffernan in this chamber and in Senate estimates. They scrapped the free Commonwealth dental health scheme for low-income people. They put back the cause of reconciliation irrevocably by refusing to say sorry to the stolen generations. They blurred the line between church and state by the disastrous appointment of Archbishop Hollingworth as Governor-General of Australia. Within days of coming to office the Howard government sacked six departmental secretaries and have since politicised the Public Service so that officials will never offer frank and fearless advice. In fact, the government have encouraged a culture where advice of any kind from a public servant is not welcome. They have increased government staffing of ministers and parliamentary secretaries from 293 when they came to office to 430 now, many paid above the salary range.

They cynically manipulated public sentiment about asylum seekers for political advantage. They refused to sign the Kyoto protocol to deal with our greatest global environmental challenge: climate change. They sponsored attacks from the former communications minister Richard Alston and from government backbenchers over alleged ABC bias while making partisan appointments to the ABC board. They introduced draconian industrial legislation to strip away the hard-won rights of Australian workers. They introduced the flawed Pacific solution, which has seen detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island remain open without any detainees. They have allowed an Australian citizen, David Hicks, to be held overseas without charge or trial for more than four years and left him to face a highly flawed tribunal process without making any efforts to ensure he will have a fair trial. Then there was the dithering over preferences to One Nation, giving succour, as a result, to Pauline Hanson and tacit approval of her racist views.

There was the billion dollar bungling of major defence upgrade and acquisition projects. There was the massive blow-out of $2 billion in the Commonwealth’s consultancies bill. There was the complete fiasco of the family tax benefit debt trap, which has slugged millions of Australian families with over $1.5 billion in debts. There is the fiasco of child-care shortages and the broken promise of the government on the child-care rebate. And of course we have had the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, presiding over private health insurance premium hikes, which have totally absorbed the government rebate. We have also had the plunge in bulk-billing rates and the breaking of the health minister’s promise not to increase the Medicare safety net threshold. We really have seen 10 years of sleaze, deception and manipulation.

We would be here all night if I had time to list every sorry exploit of the Howard government, but I do not. A mere sample includes: National Textiles, the company headed by the Prime Minister’s brother, Stan Howard, which was bailed out by the government to the tune of $4 million; the infamous Peter Reith telecard affair; the lies and deceit of ‘children overboard’; and then this nation being committed to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction while the government claimed that they were not aiming for regime change in Iraq. But when the government’s claims about weapons of mass destruction proved false, of course regime change became the justification for the war in Iraq. Never before has an Australian government sent our troops to war and lied to the Australian people about the reason for doing so.

We had Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty heavied for doing no more than stating the obvious about the increased terrorist threat in Australia after our involvement in Iraq. We have had public servants and senior defence officers forced to take the blame over the government’s denials about their knowledge of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. We have had an unprecedented amount of public money splurged in advertising campaigns—as the Auditor-General has reported—to promote Liberal Party policies in the lead-up to the last three federal elections when the Howard government was in office. We have even had the government write the name of the Federal Liberal Party into electoral legislation on 33 occasions to strip the Liberal state divisions of public funding. They even now use the parliament for their own dirty factional work.

Despite the farcical denials that we have heard about Senator Hill’s appointment, he is about to become the 18th former Liberal Party politician to be appointed by the Howard government to a plum diplomatic post. Mr Howard perverted the accepted definition of an election promise. He broke promises willy-nilly but just redefined those broken promises as ‘non-core’ promises.

What about the Nixonian leaking of a classified document to Andrew Bolt in order to politically assassinate its author, Andrew Wilkie, while not vetoing the leaker from contesting a Liberal Party preselection ballot? We also had a situation where Mr Howard’s government engineered the sleaziest of deals with a former Labor senator, Mal Colston, to promote Colston to the deputy presidency of the Senate in return for Colston’s vote on crucial legislation. How low can you go?

We had the unprecedented gagging of public servants before estimates committees just a week or so ago. Mr Howard himself, his senior minister, and his entire government have turned a blind eye to kickbacks paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime to ensure wheat sales. At the same time, we had Mr Howard self-righteously proclaiming that Saddam Hussein is a ‘loathsome dictator’. They turned a blind eye to our single-desk wheat exporter, who practically became the banker of the Baath Party in Iraq. They turned a blind eye. Who knows where that money ended up? Who knows what it paid for? What we do know is that under the government’s own terrorist legislation, if someone acts recklessly and funds turn up in the hands of terrorists, the guilty party is subject to life imprisonment. You go to jail and they throw away the keys if you recklessly engage in an action under our terrorism laws where financial resources end up in the hands of a terrorist. Let us see what happens in relation to the Howard government, which has acted as Saddam Hussein’s banker.

Of course, all these sins mean nothing to the Howard government. After all, how can it repent what it cannot recall? This government, and its hand-picked sycophants, suffers from the worst case of collective amnesia in medical and political history. What are the bywords of the Howard government? ‘I cannot recall,’ ‘I don’t recollect,’ ‘I wasn’t informed,’ ‘I can’t remember,’ ‘I have no recollection of that.’ Best of all, we had Trevor Flugge of AWB fame claiming, as his defence, that he is hard of hearing. It seems to me the whole of this government is hard of hearing. It is certainly deaf to the cries of conscience.

5:53 pm

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a sad day for Her Majesty’s opposition. February was going to be the month of the smoking gun and it has just petered out. We now have a clapped-out popgun to show for the ALP’s activities over the last month. The smoking gun became the clapped-out popgun. Clearly, what we have seen today is an opposition that is incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities to the Australian people. It is an opposition that in 10 years has not learned one lesson. Don’t you think that at the end of 10 years of a government you might have seen those opposite walk in here and talk about what their plan was for Australia for the next 10 years—a plan to get themselves out of opposition and into government? All we had was a pathetic group of speeches that showed the decline that the Australian Labor Party is now in.

Even the once great John Faulkner, who is clearly getting towards the end of his time, the man who was responsible for Cheryl Kernot, the man who nearly—and thank God he failed—had Mark Latham as Prime Minister of this country, was talking to us about government accountability. I will go back to one particular incident—I could talk all day about this—as I was there. Some said that I was actively involved, and it is not a comment that I will rapidly deny. It is the sports rorts affair with Ros Kelly. Senator Faulkner and others have got a gall to come into this place and talk about government accountability. How dare you talk about this subject. This is the party that with the backing of a Labor Party Prime Minister, for five months, tried to con the Australian people into believing that this was a minister who had done nothing wrong. At the end of five months, when Ros Kelly finally resigned, what did we find out about government accountability ALP style? We found out that Minister Kelly had gone down to the basement and, with four or five people, trundled out four or five blackboards and had written down on the blackboards the names of Labor marginal seats and beside them had written, ‘grants for sports facilities funding’.

That was the most obscene abrogation of ministerial and parliamentary responsibilities we have ever seen in this country. As was said at the time, Mr Squiggle must have written them up there because the minister apparently knew nothing about them. I vividly remember the look on Ralph Willis’s face when I produced a fax sent to him by Minister Kelly suggesting that he might want to get in touch with her very quickly because she noticed that he had some applications in for funding. How you have got the gall to talk about government accountability is absolutely beyond me.

I am sure others on this side have talked about it, but in the time left to me let us have a little discussion about Centenary House.

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

Photo of Michael RonaldsonMichael Ronaldson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You pack of absolute con men! You are public con men, and you dare come in here today clothed in this large veil of decency. You are totally indecent in relation to Centenary House. Not once have I heard you apologise for ripping off the Australian people. This was the biggest heist in this country’s political history by a political party. Centenary House is going to shame you all until you go to your political graves. The interesting part is that you are slowly but surely all going to your political graves—Senator Ray is going, Senator Faulkner is going. The turnover of the ALP in the Senate is quite remarkable. You are not deserving of the title ‘Her Majesty’s opposition’. You are an absolute farce. To come in here today and talk about government accountability is a bit like the tooth fairy putting out a press release saying that Father Christmas is a farce. You need to have a good, long, hard look at yourselves and actually have a plan for this country rather than the sort of sniping that we have seen today. I actually feel a bit sorry for you because I think at this stage you are pathetic.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time allocated for this debate has expired.