Senate debates

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Grants Allocation, Future Fund

3:06 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Finance and Deregulation (Senator Wong) to questions without notice asked by Senators Sinodinos and Cormann today relating to the ministerial code of conduct and to the appointment of the next chair of the Future Fund.

There is a Yiddish proverb that says, 'a half truth is a whole lie,' and when people are evasive, misleading and nefarious we find that what they are doing is covering up the issue. The premise of Minister Wong's response was that no recommendation was given as to who should be the head of the Future Fund. Quite obviously, and apparently, this is not correct. This is not so much a question about the capabilities of the former Treasurer of Australia, the person who actually took us out of recession, the person who was appointed by the Labor Party—the Hon. Peter Costello. This is not a question about Mr David Gonski, a very respected businessperson. It is absolutely a question about the honesty in the answer delivered by Minister Penny Wong.

Sometimes you do not have to see the truth to know the truth. Quite obviously there was a recommendation and, quite clearly, Minister Wong has said on a number of occasions in both the printed media and in this chamber that no recommendation was given. But we have found out conclusively that there was an oral recommendation given. If she believes that is not the case, then she is calling David Gonski a liar. If she believes that Peter Costello does not have the 'requisite capabilities', then why did the Labor Party appoint him to the Future Fund?

We have a litany of inconsistencies. A minister who has been held up in the past as being of more honourable character than maybe some others has now sullied her own name and created questions about whether she has misled this place or the general public. It is quite evident that the statements of Mr Gonski are completely incongruous with the statements of Minister Wong. If Mr Gonski did not give a recommendation, as she states, then that clearly indicates that Mr Gonski did not give a recommendation that Mr Gonski should be the leader of the Future Fund. So he did not recommend himself and I would suggest that he knows himself better than anybody else. So he obviously did not believe that he had the requisite capabilities to be the leader of the Future Fund and we have clearly found that he recommended, in an oral form, that Mr Costello be the head of the Future Fund. Yet this is not the story that Minister Wong is telling us. So this is yet another sign of the complete lack of capacity for the truth that is so self-evident in the Labor Party.

On the requirement of the presentation of documents, they have hidden and slithered and sleazed away from delivering the truth so we can all see it. When Minister Wong was asked about the presentation of documents, we got yet another statement. She said the chamber voted against the presentation of documents. You can see even in her words that she is avoiding the facts, that she is hiding the truth. The chamber? No, the Greens and the Labor Party voted against the presentation of documents. In a later little dissertation of her own, she referred to the great Peter Costello. Well, if it is the great Peter Costello, then surely this is the same great Peter Costello that she says does not have the 'requisite capabilities to be head of the Future Fund'.

The Australian people now have a situation where Minister Wong has become, in a funny way, very similar to a former President of the United States, George W Bush. They had a selection criteria as to who was going to be the Vice-President of the United States. They made a person who was head of a giant oil field service company in Dallas the selector. That person's name was Dick Cheney. Later on President Bush rang up Dick Cheney and told Dick Cheney to select himself. It is strange, isn't it, how after a period of time there is this almost Orwellian place where we find it very hard to tell the men from the pigs and the pigs from the men. But we have arrived at this spot now. To be honest, it is not about Mr Gonski and it is not about Mr Costello; it is about the Labor Party, it is about Minister Wong and it is all about lies.

3:11 pm

Photo of Nick SherryNick Sherry (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. The contribution that we just heard from Senator Joyce—and members of the Liberal opposition in their questioning of the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator Wong—frankly highlights both hypocrisy and distraction. That is what the Liberal Party is about in raising this issue. Let me go to the issue of hypocrisy on the appointment of Mr Gonski to the Future Fund. The process has been clear, the appointment has been made. It has been made before the current chair's, Mr Murray, position was to lapse, I understand, by some four weeks.

The Liberal opposition have criticised my colleague, Senator Wong, a fine finance minister, on a number of grounds. Firstly, they talked about transparency in the process. Nothing could have been more thorough and comprehensive and transparent than the process that Minister Wong went through. Compare the process and the comprehensiveness over the last year with that of the past. Where was the open and transparent process when Mr Costello, as Treasurer, appointed the original members to the Future Fund? Why is the Liberal Party criticising the comprehensive and thorough and transparent approach of my colleague, Senator Wong, when they did not apply the same set of criteria and standards when Mr Costello was establishing the Future Fund? Why didn't they apply the same standards? It is hypocrisy.

Mr Costello was a Labor appointee to the Future fund. We did not see many Labor appointments to anything by the former Liberal government when they were in power. I just remind the chamber that Mr Costello is amongst a number of appointments of former Liberals by a Labor government recognising the qualifications that they have to make an ongoing contribution to the public policy debate in a range of positions. This is hypocrisy from them yet again. The Liberal Party come in here and criticise a Labor government for not appointing a former Liberal Treasurer when a Labor government in fact appointed him to the Future Fund. And it appointed a number of other former Liberal and National Party people I could mention. We did not see any of that from a Liberal government when they were in power—again, hypocrisy. But I think the ultimate hypocrisy is that the Liberal Party come in here and criticise us for not making Mr Costello leader of the Future Fund when they never had the confidence to make him leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister. That is rank hypocrisy. The Liberal Party come in here and plead with the Labor Party, 'Please make Mr Costello leader of the Future Fund when we didn't make him Prime Minister.' That is the ultimate hypocrisy and, frankly, the ultimate insult to poor Mr Costello. I am sympathetic to him on at least that score. But it is yet more hypocrisy from those opposite.

If you look at the process that Minister Wong has gone through as the finance minister compared to the previous process of Mr Costello as Treasurer with the original appointments, it is an outstanding example of transparency and thoroughness. A few people got their noses out of joint—and I am not here referring to Mr Costello particularly. I looked at some of the commentary and briefing from some members of the Future Fund last year suggesting in a range of ways that they should be chair of the Future Fund. They got their noses out of joint. They were not appointed. That is part and parcel of what this is all about in terms of the public debate. I notice a couple of people saying: 'Shock horror! The government's actually made an appointment!' Shock horror: governments have been doing that at a federal level for the last hundred years. Governments of the day—Labor and Liberal—have been making appointments to chairs and a whole range of other authorities, so to criticise the minister on that ground is, again, rank hypocrisy.

I could speak for the next five minutes about the number of Liberal and National Party political appointments that have been made. It is hypocrisy— (Time expired)

3:16 pm

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Treasurer) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Wong is not telling us the truth about her involvement in the selection of the new chair of the Future Fund. Very clearly again in question time today Minister Wong was hiding behind tricky semantics. What is now clear for all to see is that Mr Gonski told the government that, in his considered opinion, Mr Costello was the most qualified person on the Future Fund board to be its next chair. Minister Wong today was unable to reconcile Mr Gonski's public statements today that the government was told that a majority on the Future Fund board wanted Mr Costello to be the next chair with her own claim that Mr Gonski did not make any recommendation about who to appoint.

There are some important points to be made in relation to the Future Fund. It was the coalition government that established the Future Fund. We established the Future Fund in government to invest the budget surpluses Peter Costello delivered year after year. Ten out of 12 coalition budgets, of course, were surplus budgets. The first one was not, because we inherited a $10 billion black hole and $96 billion worth of government net debt left behind by the then Labor government. The Future Fund would not exist if it were not for Peter Costello. After the last coalition government had paid off $96 billion worth of Labor debt, we set up the Future Fund to put money aside to fund the future Public Service superannuation liability. Every single dollar of capital in the Future Fund has come from Peter Costello's budget surpluses. Labor has not put a single dollar of capital into the Future Fund. Having inherited a strong $22 billion surplus, having inherited $70 billion worth of Commonwealth net assets, Wayne Swan and Penny Wong have turned that around to deliver $167 billion worth of accumulated deficits and taken us to $133 billion worth of government net debt. In the 12 months from December 2010 to December 2011 the budget deficit for this financial year has blown out by a staggering $25 billion. No wonder Wayne Swan and Penny Wong did not want to appoint Peter Costello chair of the Future Fund; clearly Wayne Swan and Penny Wong did not want to be shown up by somebody who actually knows what he is doing.

David Gonski was asked by the government to sound out the Future Fund board to identify who should be the next chair. The verdict was clear: the most qualified person on the board to become its next chair is Peter Costello. But this incompetent, dysfunctional and divided Labor government could not rise to the occasion. They did not have it in them. You do not have to look any further than the Treasurer's press releases about former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to see what a churlish, politically vindictive character our Treasurer is. They could not get this decision right.

The only thing that disqualified Peter Costello from being appointed as the next chair of the Future Fund is that he is a Liberal. This is churlish and politically vindictive in the extreme. Most Australians would not agree with the judgment of this government that being a Liberal should automatically disqualify you from being appointed as the chair of a board like the board of the Future Fund. Most Australians understand that it was Peter Costello who set the Future Fund up and that it was Peter Costello who through sound financial management and surplus budgets put all of its capital in place. People across Australia know that Peter Costello would have provided fine service. Indeed, Mr Gonski, who has now been appointed by the government and whose appointment we have welcomed, actually had the same perspective on the issue.

Then, of course, there is the issue of the Gonski memo. Mr Gonski provided a two-page memo to the Department of Finance and Deregulation summarising the views of Future Fund board members about who should be the next chair of the Future Fund. What does Minister Wong's office do? Minister Wong's office walks up to the press gallery and hands a copy of that memo to Laura Tingle from the Australian Financial Review. She is allowed to read it. She is allowed to know what Future Fund board members think about this, but we, the Senate, are not. I advise the Senate that today I have lodged an FOI application asking for the release of that particular memo, because I think it is in the public interest for it to be released. (Time expired)

3:22 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, here we go again, with those opposite once again avoiding the main game in this motion to take note of answers debate. We did have questions from Liberal senators today about some serious policy issues. Senator Ryan asked a question about small business. Senator Williams asked a series of questions about rural and regional health care and rural and regional roads. But, again, they avoid the issues that matter to the people of Australia. They are not interested in talking about tax reform in this country. They are not interested in actually talking about providing benefits for small businesses. And why is that? There is one simple reason: it is because those on that side are opposing a tax cut for small businesses in this country.

It is almost like we are living in a parallel universe—because it is us on this side, the Labor Party, that are supporting a tax cut for small businesses in this country. We are the ones out there advocating for small business at the moment, saying that they need some tax relief, saying that some of the benefits of the mining boom need to be shared equally amongst other areas in our economy that we recognise are struggling under the weight of the resources boom in this country. But those opposite come into this place and again want to avoid the main game and instead want to discuss procedural issues—and, when you look at the position that they have got themselves into on policy and costings of policy, it is no wonder.

We all know that they are planning $70 billion worth of cuts to services when they fund their election promises as we get closer to the election. Australians who are worried about their health care, who are worried about the future of Medicare, who are worried about their reliance on the childcare rebate to make ends meet, who are worried about their tax cuts and who are worried about the increases in their pension want to know from those opposite what their policy is on these important issues that affect the lives of everyday Australians. But, once again, those opposite are not willing to discuss those issues. The reason is simple: it is because they are planning $70 billion worth of cuts to services that affect the lives of ordinary Australians. It is no wonder they do not want to talk about those issues. I would not want to talk about those issues either if I were them. How can you sell $70 billion worth of cuts to services for working Australians?

Those opposite come in here because they have their knickers in a knot about the fact that their scorned former Treasurer has not been appointed as the chair of Australia's Future Fund. We need to ask the question: why is Peter Costello scorned? Why is he feeling this scorn? There is one simple reason. It is because those opposite did not appoint him as their leader and Prime Minister of this country. When they had the chance to tap John Howard on the shoulder, they avoided the opportunity because they did not believe that Peter Costello was up to it. They did not have the confidence. Despite John Howard being Prime Minister for 11 years—11 years as leader of their party—and despite him being on the nose when it came to the polls and the views of the Australian public, those opposite did not have the confidence to tap John Howard on the shoulder and give the job to Peter Costello. They did not have the confidence, they did not have the trust, they did not have the faith in Peter Costello to lead their party or to lead their country. Now they want the Labor Party to clean up the mess that they created.

I have asked myself why that is. Why is it that they are now asking us to clean it up? I have got to say that I think it has a lot to do with guilt. I think their Christian guilt has got the better of them. Look at you: you are all laughing but that is the real reason, isn't it? Your Christian guilt has got the better of you. You know that you missed the opportunity of a lifetime to appoint Peter Costello as leader. You know you all feel bad about it. You know you cannot sleep at night when you think about the fact that you dudded him, and now you want us to fix up your mess. Unfortunately, we do not govern like that. For those opposite it is unfortunate, but we do not govern like that. We are not into righting the wrongs of the Liberal Party and making sure that their guilt over the past disappears. We believe that David Gonski is the best person to chair the Future Fund and that is why he has been appointed. (Time expired)

3:27 pm

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers given by Senator Wong to questions asked by me and by my esteemed colleague Senator Cormann. May I begin by saying that I am surprised that we on this side are being accused of having a conscience. This is new for the Labor Party: they accuse us of having a conscience! I will approach this debate in that spirit.

I think the answers in question time today displayed that yet again Labor is failing to stand up for the principles which they laid down from 2007 onwards in terms of the standards they would apply on various issues. We were told in 2007 that there would be a new regime of accountability around a whole slew of important issues: grants—which I will come to in a moment—government-funded advertising, FOI, election funding, governance of public organisations and statutory authorities. On all of these issues we were told it was a new dawn. The tawdry Howard regime was gone—

Photo of Jacinta CollinsJacinta Collins (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

Interesting to hear you describe it that way!

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

and we were all going to be held to a much higher level of accountability. I will come to you in a minute, Senator Collins, if you like. The fact of the matter is that, in that time, Labor did implement those new standards and then proceeded to either ignore them or water them down on the way through. If I look at government advertising, for example, we were promised a new regime—a regime which included a much more active role for the Auditor-General. But when push came to shove around important items, like the much-lamented carbon tax, for example, the government watered down the guidelines about the extent to which outside bodies and outside experts would be allowed to scrutinise these major pieces of government expenditure.

So advertising failed. We come to the grants process we were talking about today in question time. Again, a fail. Senator Wong was unable or unwilling to name the ministers who, in 33 cases, had failed to disclose that they made grants in their own electorates. This was a requirement that this government had put in. It is not something that we required of them. In our time we had robust internal processes for this sort of thing. Labor made a big song and dance about the fact that it was a new dawn in this area, yet the minister has failed to hold those ministers to account—House of Representatives ministers in all those cases. In particular she has failed to hold to account those ministers who may have made grants against the recommendation of their own department. Again, it is a failure of transparency. Fail on that one. Going further, I note that if Penny Wong's department had reviewed the 33 cases and determined there was no concern why could she not name the ministers? What have they got to hide? If a department has the information, as opposed to the Audit Office, how can it be audit in confidence? The fact of the matter is that the information is out there. We know there are 33 cases and the minister should have named them.

I could go on to a slew of issues around FOI and electorate funding, where promises were made by the government and have not been kept. But we come to the governance of the Future Fund, and again we have a seriously corrupted selection process. Why? First of all, we had a search firm given the job of identifying candidates and its job was cut short. We are then told that David Gonski, a respected figure in corporate Australia, was brought into the equation. He seems to have been given the job of talking to the guardians of the Future Fund to ask them what they wanted. You do not ask someone what they want unless you are seriously going to take their views into account. It seems that Gonski was sent off to do that. He came back with the answer. They did not like the answer, so there had to be a further process. It shows the lack of imagination and the lack of contacts and networks of this government, and this Treasurer in particular, in corporate Australia. They could not think of anybody else but the person who happened to be in front of them. As good a person as he may be and as well connected as he may be, they had no alternative—and they were up against the clock: they had to do something; they had to appoint someone. They looked around the room and they said: 'Well, Gonski's here and he doesn't seem to be demurring. Maybe we should get him to do the job. Maybe he'll be okay.'

Then we have the farce that Senator Cormann has highlighted so well around the leak to the Financial Review. How absurd is it that the Financial Review has more access to the workings of this government than this parliament? What an insult to this parliament. We have to do much better than that. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.