Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Senators’ Interests Committee; Report
On behalf of Senator Johnston, the Chair of the Standing Committee of Senators’ Interests, and in accordance with the Senate resolution of 17 March 1994 on the declaration of senators’ interests, I present declarations of interests and notifications of alterations of interests in the Register of Senators’ Interests lodged between 2 December 2008 and 22 June 2009 and move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
The Register of Senators’ Interests was introduced, rightly or wrongly, for senators to disclose money, gifts et cetera that they have received. It seems to me, reading the document that has just been tabled, that it would make good sense if there were to be a requirement that actual details be provided. We now have in this place a senator who has been the beneficiary of, on my estimation, over three-quarters of a million dollars in a personal account of which he is the sole signatory—$739,000, but nothing disclosed for about 10 months. The so-called disclosures that we get, making up that $739,000, include such things as ‘anonymous donation, $10,000’, ‘another anonymous donation, $5,000’, and so it goes on. The account is in Senator Bob Brown’s sole name.
If any political party leader in this country, be it Mr Rudd, Mr Turnbull or Mr Truss, had a slush fund of this nature, I know what our friends in the media would do. That man or woman would be pilloried for not having accountability—
Madam Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. Senator Abetz just cast a slur on my colleague by referring to his declaration of interests as something to do with a slush fund. I ask that he withdraw that.
I am happy to withdraw the term ‘slush fund’. Let it be known that these so-called anonymous donations are being made into an account that stands in the name of RJ Brown and that he is the sole signatory for it. He has now received over three-quarters of a million dollars, which he uses as he deems appropriate. Whether that can be described in the terms that I have just used is, I think, for listeners and others to determine for themselves, and that is why I have been willing to withdraw the comment.
Accountability has been asserted and demanded time and time again in this place and elsewhere, especially by the Leader of the Australian Greens, yet Senator Bob Brown has shown a complete lack of accountability in relation to his own finances. If any other parliamentary leader in this country had processed over three-quarters of a million dollars through his own personal accounts through donations—many of the large ones just being described as anonymous—there would be an outrage, as there should be. It seems to me that, if we, in this day and age, are saying it is appropriate for parliamentary leaders or indeed any parliamentarian to personally be the beneficiary of such sums and the sole dispenser of those funds, it really does make a mockery of the so-called disclosure laws. Rather than donating to a political party, you are just giving an anonymous donation to a parliamentarian, who will then use the money as he or she deems appropriate. There are other issues of course with Senator Brown’s fundraising. Those matters are, I think, of genuine and great concern, and I have spoken about that in this place before.
It also seems to me that, if somebody makes a so-called disclosure in this place and provides a list of names, it is singularly unhelpful just to provide that list of names without providing the addresses so that those people can in fact be verified. Might I add that those that have been provided to us were only flushed out because I raised this matter in this place some time ago and, as a result, Senator Brown felt compelled to disclose a list of donors. When you have donors like ‘D Smith’ or something like that, it is singularly unhelpful to know whether that is in fact a true person or whether that person resides in Australia or indeed the United States. We do not know where these funds are coming from. And the most glaring and outrageous so-called declaration is when you simply put in ‘Anonymous, $10,000’.
It reminds me of that little activity that the current Treasurer of this country undertook when he was formerly the secretary of the Labor Party in Queensland, trotting around with a paper bag to the Australian Democrats. That is very much on the public record.
Senator Arbib, are you denying that occurred? Of course you are not, because Mr Swan has been in the game of looking after mates for a long, long time. Having said that, let me return to the subject of the matter and that is Senator Brown and the Australian Greens. This is a matter that I believe Senator Brown now has to come clean on, and any of his so-called anonymous donations should be handed over to consolidated revenue or some other fund and a full disclosure should be made. Sure, the rules allow you to say, ‘I got an anonymous donation of $10,000’ or ‘I got a donation from D Smith’, who just might happen to live in the United States of America. But that is not disclosure in any sense of the word or within the spirit of what is actually being proposed here.
I can understand that people get small gifts. I am the beneficiary of them from time to time. You declare them and say who it was without actually putting a value on them, because you do not necessarily know how much they are worth. But when you are dealing in cash and money you know the exact amount and you know the person who it has come from, unless of course it, very conveniently, is anonymous. If we continue to allow members of this place to say that they have received anonymous donations and, as a result, to escape the Register of Senators’ Interests requirements, or to simply put down names that cannot be verified by way of an address, it seems to me that we are not getting to the situation that this register of interests was in fact designed to get us to.
I call on Senator Brown and the Australian Greens to indicate and say to us that it is not acceptable to put in a list, ‘amount donated through bank, name not disclosed, $10,000’. It must be traceable. You must be able to ask your bank, ‘Where did this money come from?’, and a full and clean declaration of it should be made. Scattered throughout this document are huge numbers of donations. In relation to the report that has just been tabled, I happen to note that about 10 months worth of donations to this personal fund for Senator Brown’s sole use has not been disclosed to us. There is a requirement, as I understand it, to indicate your gifts within a certain period of time, and it is not 10 months.
Given the publicity that he personally sought and gained in relation to this particular fund—trying to get more money—it seems to me that it is vitally important that full disclosure be made by Senator Bob Brown and the Australian Greens, because three-quarters of a million dollars in anybody’s language is big money, huge money. For one parliamentarian to personally deal with those sorts of sums of money rather than deal with them through his or her party’s organisation or through a trust account in a legal firm or an accounting firm, where it can be audited and publicly made available, is something which falls below the threshold of accountability that the Australian Greens so regularly demand of everybody else. But, of course, that is what we know about the Australian Greens—one rule applies to them and another to everybody else, and that is the duplicity which I seek to expose this evening. (Time expired)
I rise to comment on the report of the Standing Committee of Senators’ Interests. I preface my remarks by saying that cowardice is not something I admire. I find it cowardly in the extreme that Senator Abetz should use the parliament as cowards’ castle and make all kinds of innuendo and reflections when he knows full well that what he was tabling on behalf of the chair, the declaration of interests, was the information that is being made public for people to consider. I have to reflect that the only paper bag that I know of in Australian politics in recent times was the one that was received by the former Premier of Tasmania—the Liberal Premier of Tasmania—Robin Gray, who accepted—
Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. As I was saying, in the Carter royal commission report, which was a judicial inquiry established after an attempt to bribe a member of parliament to cross the floor, it was revealed in the public interest and on the public record that a paper bag containing approximately $10,000 was handed to the then Liberal Premier of Tasmania, Robin Gray. There was a whole inquiry into the kinds of transactions that took place—including, might I say, those involving the company called Gunns Kilndried Timber at the time and also Examiner-Northern Television. It so happened that the chair of both, Edmund Rouse, kept in the company a cash box of unmarked notes, undeclared, which was revealed in the Carter royal commission. He used that money for matters to advance the companies’ interests, including—and I think this is of extreme interest in the Senate here—for the purposes of trying to bribe a member of parliament to cross the floor because, as Edmund Rouse said at the time, his companies’ interests in Gunns Kilndried would be adversely affected by the coming to power of the Labor-Green accord, because at the time he was trying to effect a takeover of Kemp and Denning in the forest industry.
So let us not have this kind of innuendo. What is being tabled here is a record of senators’ interests, and in those interests my colleague Senator Brown has declared the interests that he has and, indeed, the donations. Furthermore, as Senator Abetz knows full well, those donations were to pay the legal costs associated with a court case which was brought about because Senator Abetz, when he was the forest minister, was facilitating the logging of the habitat of threatened species—namely, the wedge-tailed eagle, the swift parrot and the stag beetle. The Federal Court found that the Commonwealth was failing to protect those threatened species, and it was then that the Commonwealth—I believe it was Senator Abetz—with the Premier of Tasmania at the time, Paul Lennon, changed the Regional Forest Agreement to undermine what the Federal Court had said. They changed it to say that the Regional Forest Agreement protects threatened species, when the Federal Court had shown that in fact it does not. Once they had changed it retrospectively, it was then Forestry Tasmania that appealed, with the support of the Commonwealth and the Tasmanian Government—Labor and Liberal in there using taxpayers’ money—having retrospectively changed the RFAs, to appeal against the Federal Court decision and have it overturned. Senator Brown’s court expenses were incurred by him in trying to protect the forests’ threatened species because the Commonwealth, under Senator Abetz as the forest minister, was failing to do so.
Furthermore, the Auditor-General found that the forest minister—namely, Senator Abetz—in overseeing the disbursement of Commonwealth funds, had not taken particular care with his own department. It was found that DAFF, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, had completely mismanaged the disbursement of those funds. The Auditor-General said that they did not disburse those funds in an accountable way and brought in a whole lot of reforms. Senator Abetz was the minister, and apparently he did not take that much interest in what his department was doing, or he would know that there was no proper oversight. The Auditor-General found that there was no proper oversight. So let us not come in here listening to all this innuendo that Senator Abetz is trying to spread in this chamber. In fact, if anyone needs to be accountable, it is Senator Abetz for having spent all that taxpayers’ money in an appeal—the Commonwealth intervention in that case cost the taxpayers $436,000—in order to guarantee that the Wielangta habitat was destroyed and that the Commonwealth sent the wedge-tailed eagle, the stag beetle and the swift parrot closer to extinction.
History will show and the record will show that that money was raised to pay for court cases in the public interest, and the community knows and understands that. That is why the community came forward with such generosity to make sure that those court costs were covered so that Senator Brown and the Greens could continue to do what we do in this place, and that is stand-up for Australia’s natural environment, our threatened species; stand-up to protect ecosystems against the chainsaws in the hands of senators like Senator Abetz and our current forests minister. I will come to that shortly in relation to another statement.
I want to make it very clear that the whole purpose of this register of interests is to have senators register their interests. That is what my colleague Senator Brown did. The register of interests is there for public scrutiny. It is available publicly. It is disgraceful that Senator Johnston has abrogated his responsibility as the chair to Senator Abetz in the tabling of this report in order for Senator Abetz to make the slurs that he is currently making. If the chair wants to table the report, so be it, but I do not believe that the report contains the kind of innuendo and disgraceful accusations that Senator Abetz is making. I want to make it clear to the Senate that the report does not say any of those things; they are simply the words of Senator Abetz, who cost the taxpayer $436,000 in order to drive threatened species to extinction. It is he who ought to be fundraising to pay taxpayers back, because they do not elect members of parliament to drive their threatened species to extinction.
Thank you for the reminder, Madam Acting Deputy President. Senator Milne did stray far and wide from senators’ interests. We got a spray on a variety of issues. Senator Milne indicated that we are talking about a register of senators’ interests. That is correct. The Register of Senators’ Interests is to register what moneys, donations or gifts you have received. How can the public of Australia ascertain that, when you have ‘anonymous, anonymous, anonymous’ and large amounts? There is no indication of what person is donating to what senator if the details are not completed. A question I pose is whether the Register of Senators’ Interests should be more firm. Maybe this is a matter that should be addressed to the committee chair, and the committee chair can look at tightening up some of those provisions—if in fact there is a gap. And what does happen to senators who do not register their interests within the required period of time? Is there a penalty? Is there some recourse? Is 10 months too late? Many questions have been asked in this debate.
Senator Milne raised the issue of Senator Brown’s legal costs—the $239,000. Those legal costs were incurred because a matter was challenged in a court and that court has determined that matter and found that costs should be awarded. I am sure that Senator Brown would like costs awarded to him if he were found in the right, if things were the other way around. That is exactly how the legal process works. Senator Brown has to accept the valid position of the courts when the courts award costs. Where has the surplus gone? I believe Senator Brown has indicated publicly that the surplus funds that Senator Brown has publicly called for are going to other people who have committed offences, such as damaging contractors’ equipment and delaying the lawful processes of people in private enterprise. That is where the surplus funds will be going. I wonder whether the people donating these funds realise that.
He said, ‘in damaging contractors’ equipment’. That is a crime, and I ask Senator Parry to provide that information to the police. The Greens have asked that people responsible for destroying contractors’ equipment be named to the police, and I would ask Senator Parry to name those people to the police.
Yes, it is. There was also an allegation made that Senator Abetz was not exonerated. The Auditor-General completed an inquiry into the matter that Senator Milne raised, and Senator Abetz was exonerated. This is now a spurious allegation made in the chamber which would have gone unanswered, so it is important to correct the record on that matter.
It is rather curious that we end up with a Register of Senators’ Interests that has gaps, and I am sure that if a senator from the opposition left gaps this big it would be pointed out to us and there would be shouts from on high. Senators on our side tend to complete their register of interests in the spirit of what they should do. I understand there are guidelines written for senators, indicating how they should complete their returns, and I do believe that Senator Brown complies with the guidelines written in the spirit of the register of interests. I think Senator Brown owes it to the Australian people to complete the Register of Senators’ Interests to indicate where the money comes from and how much comes to him, and possibly indicate that in a timely manner, which is certainly less than 10 months.
I thank Senator Milne and the other speakers in this debate. I mentioned this matter at lunchtime, and it seems to have rankled with Senator Abetz. I have listed all the information that I have, except of course names and addresses, which Senator Abetz wants, but I am not going to have good citizens of Australia hectored by this man who is driven by hate for the people who—
In anybody’s language it is a reflection on a senator to say that they are driven by hate, and it clearly has to be withdrawn. That a senator has to get up to defend themselves against that is regrettable.
I am very happy to do so and to say instead that Senator Abetz is driven by a love of the greenies and the folk who defend his forests in his state and the beauty of those forests and wildlife, which he champions in the way we have just witnessed. His concern for them is new and is heart-warming!
Let me get serious on this again. The fact is that Senator Abetz, as minister for forests, intervened in the Wielangta Forest case quite unnecessarily in a politically driven move at the expense of the Australian taxpayers. His QCs were employed on taxpayers’ money; he did not have to raise money like I did, he just went and plundered the public purse. The difference between me and him is that I have asked the public, on behalf of the residents and other people of Wielangta, to support this case, and thank goodness they have. Thousands of good-hearted Tasmanians and other Australians and some people from overseas, very few of them have wished to donate, and they have. Let me say that it is something that Senator Abetz would never get a response to, because he is an agent of destruction of forests. Take a point of order on that, if you will, Senator Abetz. I repeat it: he was the minister for forests—
Madam Acting Deputy President, I have been invited by the speaker to take a point of order to object to the term that I am an ‘agent of destruction of forests’. In accepting that challenge, can I indicate that, as a member of the Howard government, I saw hundreds of thousands of extra hectares added to World Heritage listed areas and the reserves in my home state of Tasmania.
And quite false—there was no such addition to the World Heritage areas in Tasmania under the Howard government. Though the minister was minister for forests, I ask him to go back and look at that, because he will find that he is quite wrong. What I wanted to point out and underline here is that thousands of people did generously donate to the court costs over the four or five years. It was proven in the courts, and logging was stopped because of the disruption of forests and the habitats of rare and endangered Australian species.
That finding still stands. The interjecting Senator Abetz knows that. And it was on a technical point in a higher court of law that the costs were awarded at the end of the day. The fact is that the public response—because of Australians’ love of forests and wildlife—has enabled that bill to be paid to Forestry Tasmania. What I also should say here and make very clear is that we announced that that money was being raised much more rapidly than I could have believed, within three days. Had we not put a stop to it, the funds raised would have been multiples of that quarter of a million dollars for forests and wildlife in Australia. It was absolutely stunning and heart-warming to see the response of the Australian people against the decisions made by those in power who should know better, like Senator Abetz. What I was explaining before his last lot of interjections was that he took, in his own self-interest as well as that of his party and the then Howard government, a political decision to have highly paid QCs and others sit in a court where they were not able to take part in the debate on evidence before the Federal Court but ran up huge bills. The minister did this knowingly right down the line, and at the end of the day the cost to the public has been $436,000—double the amount of costs that I had to pay. You note that there is no quibble from Senator Abetz on this score. What I repeat here today is that Senator Abetz is morally obliged and ethically obliged to repay that money to the Australian people which he plundered out of their funds when he was minister, for a partisan political purpose, to foster the logging of Wielangta.
The difference between Senator Abetz and me is that I stayed quiet while he was speaking but he is not prepared to do the same, because he is very embarrassed by this. He knows he is a loser when it comes to this debate and he knows he did the wrong thing. What I say to Senator Abetz is: you go out and ask the public to raise money on your behalf and give to you through your good offices the $436,000 that you owe the people of Australia for your mistaken and politically partisan and antiforest decision to take that course of action.
There you go, Madam Acting Deputy President. He is yelling and enraged in here because he cannot defend that position. He owes an apology to the people of Tasmania and the people of Australia for that misbehaviour when he was minister for forests.
On the point of order: it is not ministerial staff. He said that whilst I was minister I misbehaved. It was ministerial misbehaviour. I was the minister. Therefore, suggesting that somebody is engaged in ministerial misbehaviour is clearly a reflection and needs to be withdrawn.
Yes, I do. I have a further point of order. We are on broadcast and Senator Brown indicated clearly that Senator Abetz is sitting here enraged. That is not correct. He is not enraged and I think that is a misrepresentation. People who cannot see the chamber hear Senator Brown saying that Senator Abetz is enraged, and that is incorrect.
Honourable senators interjecting—
There is no point of order. Other senators are interjecting to say that he looks enraged to them, and that is how it seems to me. The senator should apologise for his behaviour as minister for forests, because it was wrong, unacceptable, presumptive and without communication with the Australian people that he plundered their purse to pay $436,000 for his wasted contribution to the courts on this occasion.
I want to finish by saying this: the decisions being made by serial governments at national and state levels to destroy much more of Australia’s great forests, the inspiration they give us as Australians, the habitat they give to our fellow creatures, the amazing beauty of them and the adventure and creativity that they provide for Australians—setting aside their role as the biggest carbon banks on earth, hedging against the onrush of cataclysmic climate change—are something that I and my fellow Greens senators and many, many more Australians will stand and defend against through this period of wanton destruction at the behest of people like Senator Abetz. If he thinks that in some way or other he is pressing a reverse button, he is very mistaken yet again. He makes lots of mistakes but on this one where there is a commitment to protecting Australia’s forest heritage, its wildlife and its rare and endangered species the campaign is simply going to increase until the right decision is made that that unnecessary destruction must come to an end and we as a nation can rest proud that, as with the end of whaling under a more enlightened Liberal government in 1978, we have been able to do the right thing by this national heirloom and what should be, but are not, World Heritage status forests.
Question agreed to.