Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Matters of Public Interest
Register of Senators' Interests
I wish to raise as a matter of public interest Senator Sinodinos's statement of private interests. As senators may recall, Senator Sinodinos entered the chamber in the dying moments of the previous sitting week to confess to omitting several company directorships from his statement of private interests, and to attempt to clarify his very murky dealings with the increasingly infamous company known as Australian Water Holdings. Not only was this a cynical attempt from Senator Sinodinos to deflect attention away from his dodgy dealings but it is not how—
Thank you Mr Acting Deputy President. I was not reflecting on Senator Sinodinos, but indeed reflecting on the content of his contribution to the Senate in the adjournment speech of last sitting Thursday.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator has now explained why it is she is reflecting on Senator Sinodinos. She used the phrase 'dodgy dealings'. That implies impropriety, and you should, applying the standing orders, require her to withdraw that imputation. If it were said outside this chamber it would be plainly actionable.
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. What I was about to say—and to remind Senator Brandis, as he full knows—is that this is not the way the Senate usually deals with personal explanations. But I will come to that in a moment.
It was, however, a remarkable confession, received with great scepticism by senators on this side of the chamber. Senators would be aware of the significance of honouring the very important obligation to maintain a complete and accurate statement of private interests. Holding office as a senator is a privilege that carries with it an obligation to behave at all times with the utmost integrity and to act in the public interest. I am sure that none of my Senate colleagues would argue with this very important statement of principle, even those on the other side of the chamber. I am sure we would all agree that a critical component of our ethical obligations is making a full and frank disclosure of our private interests so that the Australian people can have confidence that our private interests do not conflict with our official duties as senators.
It is indisputable that those who hold leadership positions ought to be held to an even higher—I stress, an even higher—standard than normal. Senator Sinodinos, for example, is the shadow parliamentary secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, a position of great trust. The Australian people expect those of us who are privileged to hold such positions to lead by example, and they will rightly condemn us when we fail to conduct ourselves appropriately. Political life is littered with sad tales of those who lost office because of impropriety, maladministration or indeed misconduct.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator has now plainly reflected on Senator Sinodinos. She has accused him of impropriety and dishonesty. I take you to standing order 193, substanding order (3):
(3) A senator shall not use offensive words—
it is not possible to dispute that the words Senator Collins has used are offensive—
against … any member of such House, … and all imputations of improper motives—
the senator herself used the word 'impropriety'—
and all personal reflections on those Houses, members or officers shall be considered highly disorderly.
Senator Furner, I am inviting you as a neutral chairman to rule that the assertion of impropriety against the senator, which was Senator Collins's very word—
Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting—
On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President, I was listening to Senator Collins's contribution and have just listened to the first point of order that Senator Brandis raised and to his second point of order—I was listening very carefully. Of course, Senator Brandis would be right if a senator had been accused of impropriety; that would be disorderly. But, as I heard Senator Collins comment, I would respectfully suggest that she used words to the effect—I cannot say I can recall precisely the language used, but they were effectively words to the effect—that 'political life is littered with examples of impropriety'. That is the context in which Senator Collins used the word 'impropriety' and I suggest that it is actually a statement of fact. If it were applied to a senator or, as Senator Brandis says, to any member of a house of parliament in this country, that would be disorderly. But I think that in the context it was used it was not disorderly. I tend to be a stickler for these sorts of things, so I would respectfully make that submission to you on the point of order in this case.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order on your ruling. Where a point of order is raised, you take debate on that to help you assess the issues. I was on my feet to do that and I was going to assist you by pointing out that, when the opposition accused Senator Conroy, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, of failing to properly do his duties in not reporting that he had stayed at a house with Mr Obeid, the President at the time said that that was not appropriate. I am suggesting to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that you should follow that precedent.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a new point of order. Senator Furner, you refused to allow Senator Macdonald to continue to address you. The time limited for Senator Macdonald to address you had not expired. No senator had objected to the remarks made by Senator Macdonald, but you of your own volition, at a time when a senator was within his time period and not out of order, simply brayed at him—
I have a new point of order. Senator Furner, when you ruled, as you did a moment ago, that I should sit down, I had not finished addressing the point of order that I was raising. In fact, I had not even made my point of order. You sat me down without ruling the point of order not to be a valid point of order, and therefore you prevented me from exercising my rights as a senator to make a point of order and, further, you did not discharge your obligation as the presiding officer to deliberate on the point of order. Senator Furner, I have no objection—no senator could have any objection—to the presiding officer ruling the point of order out of order, but you did not do that. First of all, you did not hear the point of order; secondly, you did not deliberate on the point of order; and, thirdly, you did not rule the point of order out of order.
I have already made my reasons—
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Excuse me. I have made my reasons clear: that there were no improprieties directed to Senator Sinodinos made in the address in this speech by Senator Collins.
The new point of order, Senator Furner, is this: when you indicated in response to my previous point of order that you had in fact given a reason, the reason you then recited did not relate to the point of order I had taken. It related to an earlier point of order on which you had already ruled. So I ask you to give the reason for your ruling on the point of order taken by me most recently before this, which you have not ruled on.
Senator Brandis, I think I have covered off in terms of the point of order I made in regard to the earlier point that was made. In terms of what you were discussing subsequent to that point—it was a matter in terms of sitting you down—I made the decision on that basis due to the fact that there was no time limit, as you were referring to in your point, and it is not a matter of time to have that point of order relate. Therefore, they were the grounds on which I sat you down.
It seems as if Senator Brandis's ailments from question time are extending into other components of debate in this chamber, because Senator Brandis needs to listen to what I actually say rather than what he fears I might say. So I will repeat the point that, roughly, Senator Faulkner relayed quite correctly. The point I made is that political life is littered with sad tales of those who lost office because of impropriety, maladministration or misconduct. So I suggest that Senator Brandis actually listens to what is being said here rather than what he fears is occurring and not interrupt the debate for 10 minutes with spurious points of order.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The senator is reflecting on Senator Conroy for not putting in his register of interests that he stayed with Eddie Obeid.
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. Senator Macdonald raises one example, but perhaps I could give him another. Senator Bernardi, Senator Sinodinos's predecessor as shadow parliamentary secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, resigned from this position after admitting that he had failed to meet the standards of conduct expected of those holding high public office.
The circumstances of the Senator Sinodinos's confession are very concerning and they leave several important questions unanswered. Senator Brandis, I am not seeking to answer those questions or, indeed, imply what the answer may be. I am raising before the Senate that there are many unanswered questions.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order relating to standing order 193 about imputations. It has been resolved many times by presiding officers that imputations may be cast both by assertion and by question.
An interrogative statement may just as easily be a breach of standing order 193 for carrying an imputation as in a court of law an interrogative statement may be held to be defamatory if it contains a defamatory imputation. Senator Collins has now said that she considers that she is at liberty without violating standing order 193 to ask any questions she chooses.
The fact is that, although of course a senator may ask questions, it is possible, by the manner in which a question is phrased and the context in which it is asked, to be in violation of standing order 193 and, given the context that arises from what Senator Collins has already said, which you may or may not have heard, she has violated standing order 193.
On the point of order, I just do not think that Senator Brandis can continue like this unchallenged. It is starting to get ridiculous. Not only is he hearing things that have not been said, but now he is anticipating his fears, not through any question that I have raised that makes any imputation, but that I might. This is just absolutely ridiculous. You are time wasting and you should allow us to continue with this debate.
On the same point of order, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker, I believe on this that you should rule that all senators are obligated to conform with all the standing orders of the Senate, including of course standing order 193. I believe that whoever is presiding should be referred to by title and not by name, I would suggest, and whoever is presiding is obligated—and in this case it is you, Mr Acting Deputy President—to ensure that those standing orders are adhered to.
I am prepared to rule. I have been listening carefully to what Senator Collins is saying even though that has been difficult with some of the interjections coming across the chamber. I do not think that she out of order at this point. Senator Collins, continue.
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. As I indicated, Senator Sinodinos's statement leaves several important questions unanswered. Senators should ask themselves whether Senator Sinodinos's last-minute confession complies with both the letter and the spirit of the requirement to fully and frankly disclose their private interests.
Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. You just heard Senator Collins say, 'Senators should ask themselves whether Senator Sinodinos's last-minute confession complies with the letter or the spirit of the standing orders.' Although dressed up as a question, that is plainly an imputation and I ask you to rule accordingly that it is a reflection on a senator in flagrant breach of standing order 193(3).
Back to these questions: To begin with, Senator Sinodinos did not make his last minute confession of his own volition. Rather, he was dragged into it kicking and screaming—
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Indeed, I was making the same point that Senator Sinodinos made in his contribution. He came forward after questioning from a journalist who had covered the holes in Senator Sinodinos's story. One wonders whether—
One wonders whether Senator Sinodinos may have ever corrected the record if the forensic research necessary to uncover these failings had not occurred. In addition, Senator Sinodinos did not make his confession in an open and transparent manner—
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Senator Sinodinos did not make his confession in an open and transparent manner, instead waiting until five minutes to midnight to enter the chamber at the last moment—
Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. Senator Collins just said, 'Senator Sinodinos did not make his disclosure in an open and transparent manner.' That is the verbatim of what she said—
That is a reflection on Senator Sinodinos, plainly in breach of standing order 193(3). To say that a senator's statement to the Senate was not made in an open and transparent manner is a reflection!
I was making the point that Senator Sinodinos's disclosure was presented in the last sitting week, at the very last moment likely to attract the least possible attention before the chamber and offered no opportunity for any other senators to respond. Senator Sinodinos's decision to execute this mea culpa in this regrettable fashion robbed the Senate of the opportunity to promptly address his behaviour, because the Senate did not sit again, as we all know, until approximately a week and a half later. I have heard it remarked that this was a cynical and manipulative measure, but I will leave that to the commentariat to reflect on.
Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. Importantly, I ask the Senate to consider whether Senator Sinodinos's explanation for his failure to declare his interests is plausible. Senator Sinodinos essentially said that he had forgotten several company directorships and insinuated that this failure was due to an ignorance of the rules for declaring private interests. I seriously question whether Senator Sinodinos's assertions pass the person-in-the-street test or indeed any test that any senator in this place might seek to apply. Senator Sinodinos is a seasoned corporate operator and a career capitalist, with executive experience with some of the world's largest corporations, including the National Australia Bank, Goldman Sachs and JBWere. I question whether it is plausible that an experienced corporate executive would simply forget several company directorships. I also question Senator Sinodinos's feigned ignorance of the rules relating to the declaration of private interests. Senator Sinodinos should be well versed—
Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order in relation to standing order 193, 'Rules of debate', at item (3), which says:
A senator shall not use offensive words …
Fair enough; she is not being offensive, but it goes on to speak against 'all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections'. Accusing a senator of 'feigning' something is the same as saying that a senator is lying. You cannot construe it in any other way. In relation to what was a very serious, sober and thoughtful contribution by Senator Sinodinos, saying that Senator Sinodinos was feigning something is a reflection on him.
I will withdraw the words 'feigned ignorance', but I will continue to ask senators to make their own conclusions on the quality of the contribution, because Senator Sinodinos should be well versed in the private interest obligations that apply to all senators. It is well known that Senator Sinodinos was a longstanding chief of staff to former Prime Minister John Howard. In this role, Senator Sinodinos was responsible for disciplining coalition MPs and senators for failure to comply with private interest rules and other scandals that may have occurred. What is more, Senator Sinodinos ascended to the office of chief of staff after his predecessor, Grahame Morris, was forced to resign in disgrace after it emerged that he had covered up failures by Howard government ministers to meet their private interest obligations under the Standards of Ministerial Ethics. Senators might recall that so many ministers—
Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I seek your guidance and assistance in this matter: the reference to Mr Morris resigning 'in disgrace'. I know that there are clear standing orders in relation to reflections on senators, but I just seek your guidance on reflections on those who do not have the opportunity to defend themselves in this place.
I was indicating just now that senators might recall that so many ministers fell foul of the Howard government's ministerial code that Mr Howard was forced to further water down his already weak standards for fear that he might otherwise be left with no cabinet. That is how many casualties there were during that time.
I remind the Senate of the sorry tale of former Senator Santo Santoro, who resigned as a minister and left the Senate under a cloud of deep suspicion after his gross failure to properly declare scores of share trades was revealed. This is a scandal that has haunted Mr Santoro to this very day, and I would not be surprised if it remains burned in the memory of Senator Sinodinos. It has been reported that Senator Sinodinos, as John Howard's chief of staff, was intimately involved in responding to the ethical crisis that Mr Santoro's regrettable behaviour sparked within the coalition. In these circumstances, I question whether anybody could sincerely expect the Senate to believe that Senator Sinodinos is ignorant of private interest rules. Further to this let us consider the detail of the multitude of company directorships that mysteriously slipped Senator Sinodinos's mind. These are not just a couple of not-for-profit directorships as suggested by Mr Abbott. That simply does not stand scrutiny. First we have Senator Sinodinos's directorship of Move to Live Pty Ltd, which the senator described as a healthcare company. I believe there are unanswered questions about Senator Sinodinos's involvement in this company. These are serious questions indeed and they relate to the much-maligned Santo Santoro.
What Senator Sinodinos did not volunteer to the Senate during his late-night mea culpa was that Santo Santoro was deeply, intimately involved in Move to Live. Senators may be interested to learn that the now-infamous Mr Santoro,who, as I previously mentioned, was forced to terminate his own political career as a result of drastic failings of judgement, was also a director of this company. Senators opposite complained, but indeed I am not even quoting the former Prime Minister John Howard on this matter, which would certainly add some more meat to these bones. But, I return to Senator Sinodinos. It turns out that Senator Sinodinos and Santo Santoro sat around the Move to Live board table. Why did Senator Sinodinos fail to mention Santo Santoro's involvement in this company? Given Santo Santoro's own history with private interest matters, are we to believe that Senator Sinodinos thought Mr Santoro's involvement was not a legitimate matter of public interest? Was Senator Sinodinos concerned that revelation of his involvement with Mr Santoro would raise damaging questions about his own political judgement? Was Senator Sinodinos trying to hide something? Is Senator Sinodinos hiding any other aspect of his involvement with Move to Live or the operations of the company?
There are serious questions that must be answered about Senator Sinodinos's corporate links to this disgraced former politician. As Senator Brandis is fully aware, this is not the first time that Senator Sinodinos has been caught out exercising poor judgement and establishing murky associations. The committee of privileges—
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. This was not a question. Senator Collins, in breach of standing order 193(3), reflected upon Senator Sinodinos by saying this was not the first time he had been caught out, implying wrongdoing in relation to murky associations. The assertion 'caught out' implies a person has been exposed in wrongdoing. That is plainly a reflection on the senator.
I was about to remind Senator Brandis of the work of the Senate Standing Committee of Privileges into how Senator Sinodinos was heavily implicated in the Godwin Grech affair.
Senator Brandis interjecting—
Senator Brandis, I would ask you again to stop screeching across the chamber. I do not really care what you are pointing out, Senator Brandis; it is disorderly to yell across the chamber, and again I ask you to desist. Senator Collins.
During that time of the Godwin Grech affair, Senator Sinodinos was in a private sector job with the National Australia Bank, emailing as the Regional General Manager Government Business Performance and GoNASB Professional Development, according to the documents that were tabled in the Senate with the report. One questions why Senator Sinodinos—Mr Sinodinos at the time—was conspiring with a senior public servant who was leaking false information to the press. We know that is what Godwin Grech was doing. Was this core business for the National Australia Bank? Senator Sinodinos was also implicated in Mr Grech's making special effort for a strong financial donor to the Liberal Party and he also knew of Mr Grech's lies to the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. These are all matters that have been tabled before the Senate. Senator Sinodinos has, it seems, a long history of blurring the lines, exercising poor judgement and acting in his and the Liberal Party's own interest, yet this is the man Tony Abbott trusts for advice.
My next set of questions relates to the intricate web of Liberal Party entities to which Senator Sinodinos has belatedly declared his directorship. As the former president of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, what role did Senator Sinodinos play in the establishment of these entities? Why is it necessary for the Liberal Party to operate such an impenetrably treat complex corporate structure? What tax benefits does the Liberal Party derive from this structure? Can Senator Sinodinos guarantee that the Liberal Party has not utilised this tricky corporate arrangement to evade its tax obligations or its workers compensation, insurance, superannuation or other obligations?
Senator Sinodinos was appointed to a casual vacancy in late 2011. Shortly thereafter, he submitted a statement of private interests that omitted directorships of several companies: Move to Live, Firestick ICT, Bunori, Liberal Asset Management (Custodians), and Liberal Properties Ltd.He had failed to declare directorships— (Time expired)