Senate debates

Monday, 3 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:13 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Sinodinos) to questions without notice asked by Senators Wong and Carr today relating to Australian Water Holdings Pty Ltd.

There were two issues I think which were very clear today in question time: the first is that the Assistant Treasurer sought to dismiss the questions from opposition senators on the basis that this all occurred a very long time ago, prior to his entry to the Senate; the second is that we saw the Assistant Treasurer refuse to answer key questions and refuse to take the opportunity provided to him, as a minister in question time, to ensure that the public was clear about his response in the face of facts which simply do not add up.

I want to make a couple of points. We are asking questions which have been raised in the public arena about a contract which was awarded to the company Australian Water Holdings by Sydney Water Corporation. Serious questions have been raised in relation to the process by which this contract was awarded and a range of other matters concerning Australian Water Holdings. It is a matter of public record that the Assistant Treasurer had significant interests in this company before he entered this place, including during the time when this contract was being discussed. When Senator Sinodinos entered the Senate in October 2011, he declared AWH shares on the Register of Senators' Interests, but in February 2013 he told the Senate the shares had never been issued and he had renounced any entitlement to this shareholding. I would note that the interest was only renounced on 26 February 2013, well after the senator entered the parliament, and in fact the senator engaged in activities relating to AWH, including the opening of an office, in July 2012. I make these points simply to reflect the fact that the defence of this all being in the distant past does not bear up to close examination.

The questions that were asked by opposition senators today related specifically to a statement made by Senator Sinodinos, whilst he was a senator, to this chamber—a very important statement, a statement such as other senators have been required to make from time to time. This was the opportunity for the Assistant Treasurer to make clear to the chamber and to the Australian public some of the issues which are raised by his statement to the chamber and facts as they have subsequently been reported. First, the very bold assertion—which the Assistant Treasurer says he stands by still—was made to this Senate:

I played no role in the awarding of the January 2012 contract to AWH by Sydney Water.

That was a very categorical statement. However, in the face of the fact—and, as I understand it, this was conceded today in question time by the Assistant Treasurer—that the Assistant Treasurer actually wrote to Sydney Water, copied to the New South Wales Premier and minister for finance, seeking a meeting to discuss the contractual relationship with Australian Water Holdings and Sydney Water, one would think the Assistant Treasurer, the man with responsibility for business law and practice and corporate law, would take the opportunity to explain how that fact could be true at the same time as the fact in his statement that he had no role was true. He could have explained how those two things could both be true—because they do not add up—but he chose not to.

The other question which I asked today which was ducked, which was avoided, was whether or not—and this is been reported publicly—the Assistant Treasurer in fact attended a meeting to discuss this relationship between Australian Water Holdings and Sydney Water. That has been publicly reported. That is inconsistent, one would have thought, on the face of it, with the statement that was made previously by Senator Sinodinos, and again he had the opportunity today to clarify. He had the opportunity today to explain how it is that both statements can be true. He was asked if he attended a meeting. That has been reported on the public record. I invite him to tell us if he in fact did and how, if he did attend such a meeting, that can be consistent with the fact that he said to the Senate that he ruled out any involvement whatsoever in the awarding of the contract, because those facts do not add up.

The final thing—and my colleague Senator Carr may well go to this—is that he was asked whether or not he stood to benefit in any way from the awarding of such a contract, and he declined to answer. He declined to answer. That is a question a minister should answer. (Time expired)

3:19 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

It is astounding that we sat through 55 minutes of question time today before we saw anything remotely akin to a policy question from those opposite, anything coming at all close. In the meantime, from the government side we heard questions in relation to the impact of the carbon tax on jobs, and particularly jobs in the finance and airline sectors; we had questions on the very fragile and concerning situation in the Ukraine; we had questions on the matter of drought relief and how we will assist those struggling in our rural communities; we had questions around the standards and level of respect that should be applied to our defence personnel; we had questions on border protection and the wonderful inroads being made in securing our borders and stopping the dangerous flow of asylum seekers to Australia; and we had questions around the immense accomplishment already being achieved by Senator Scullion and the Indigenous affairs portfolio in relation to getting more young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schoolchildren at school.

These were the significant policy issues asked about by government senators in question time today, and yet on the other side all we had was attempts—pathetic attempts at that—at sleaze and innuendo from a line-up of senators whose past associations, frequently, with some of their Labor colleagues stand up to no scrutiny whatsoever. Frankly, it is astounding that this modern Labor Party would want to come in here today and ask questions of the nature they are asking when at this very point in time their former colleague the former member for Dobell Mr Craig Thomson is awaiting sentencing for crimes that he has been convicted of; their former federal party president Mr Michael Williamson went into custody today awaiting sentencing for crimes that he has been convicted of; and their former pick of Speaker awaits judgement for charges that have been levelled against him. Frankly, the idea that those opposite would come in here with no evidence, with nothing but hopeless innuendo and allegations that stretch credibility far beyond belief, when their track record is so damning—and so damning in judgements held up by the courts—really does beggar belief. It is astounding that those opposite would go down such a pathway.

We know it is not just the activities of those specific convictions that I referred to; there are those issues around the whole operation of the trade union movement, which every single member opposite is a member of. There is the whole operation of many of the trade unions and the operation of the slush funds in the trade unions that former Prime Minister Julia Gillard conceded were common practice. How many of those opposite would like to come in here at some stage and confess whether they have been the beneficiaries of a slush fund, whether they were ever elected to union roles on the basis of the slush funds in the unions and whether their supporters, those who put them in their positions and gave them their preselections, have ever been beneficiaries of the union slush funds that Ms Gillard said were common practice throughout the trade union movement?

We just heard Senator Wong come in here and attempt to stretch credibility even further with her suggestions around the Assistant Treasurer. She said she wanted an explanation that had not yet been given in relation to Senator Sinodinos's statement that he played no role in the awarding of the January 2012 contract to AWH by Sydney Water. I have heard Senator Sinodinos in this place on multiple occasions and outside give very clear explanations. It is not that hard to understand: prior to coming into the Senate he had another job, he fulfilled that job, he resigned from that job on coming into the Senate and as a senator he played no role. It is a fairly clear-cut matter. The attempts by those opposite to besmirch his reputation—in the face of what all their associates have been guilty of—stand no test. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to table a letter signed by Arthur Sinodinos dated 29 August 2011. I understand the government has seen this and agrees.

Leave granted.

I want to refer to Senator Sinodinos's speech on 28 February. He came into the chamber late in the adjournment debate—at 10 past 10, in fact—and made what I thought was a highly unusual set of declarations regarding his involvement in the company Australian Water Holdings. He said:

… the cost of being in public life is, where possible, to make full and frank disclosure. I am disappointed that it took a journalist to remind me of these directorships on this occasion.

This was a speech where he acknowledged he had failed to declare directorships of no fewer than six separate companies. It was an extraordinary speech in that he also went on to say:

… I was shocked and disappointed to learn that a company whose mission I believed in and was passionate about was financially linked to the Obeid family.

It was an extraordinary proposition because the day after he was made chairman of this company arrangements were made for the Obeid family to buy one-third of the company, a company of which he had been a director for two years prior to being on the board of that company. It is quite extraordinary. He went on to say:

I played no role in the awarding of the January 2012 contract to AWH by Sydney Water. I was by then in the Senate and Mr Michael Costa, who succeeded me as chairman, was responsible for securing that agreement. I understand from public statements by New South Wales government ministers that this process was conducted at arm's length between the two parties to the contract, AWH and Sydney Water.

The contract referred to an exclusive 25-year, $500 million deal with state owned Sydney Water—a contract awarded without public tender by the O'Farrell government, contrary to the advice of the New South Wales Solicitor-General. It caused the valuation of Australian Water Holdings to increase by some $65 million—a company which Senator Sinodinos had a claim of a five per cent holding in. He was a major beneficiary of that growth. To claim he had nothing to do with these contractual arrangements is clearly not true. It is not true, because the letter I have tabled today explains how he wrote to the Chairman of Sydney Water on 29 August 2011 seeking an urgent roundtable with the shareholding ministers in Sydney Water.

I find it extraordinary that, in a statement to this Senate about his statements of pecuniary interests he is making as a senator about past actions, he claims not to know anything about these matters. I find it quite incredible that he can explain what appears to be his attendance—and I would like to hear whether my impression is correct—at a meeting with the Premier's Chief of Staff, Mr Peter McConnell, on 28 September 2011 at 10 am, confirmed by email sent the previous day from the CEO of Australian Water Holdings to the Premier's office.

Let us not forget that Senator Sinodinos, as he is now, was very busy at this time. On 26 August 2011 he publicly confirmed he was seeking preselection for the Senate vacancy left by the resignation of Senator Coonan. As late as 12 July you were still opening the buildings of Australian Water Holdings—the Newcastle office, for instance. When you try to give us the impression you know nothing about these matters I find you quite disingenuous. I ask you a simple question: why don't you follow your own advice here and give full and frank disclosure?

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Carr, you cannot ask a simple question. You have to direct your comments to the chair.

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | | Hansard source

I think the Senate is entitled to a declaration of full and frank disclosure from you, Senator, to this chamber, particularly at a time when you have already made a statement about previous neglect of your responsibilities in terms of your pecuniary interests. It is quite an extraordinary proposition for you to say today that these are all matters that are going to come up before ICAC—and, indeed, they will—but you have a responsibility to this chamber. You have made a declaration. As senators we are all required to make an accurate declaration and that is the matter before us at the moment. Have you correctly declared to the Senate? When you are seeking to correct the previous failures, have you further misled the Senate?

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before calling Senator Bushby, I remind senators to direct their remarks to the chair, not directly to senators.

3:29 pm

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I find incredibly curious Senator Carr's suggestion that the Register of Senators' Interests requires you to detail your past actions or past holdings. The Clerk of the Senate is in the chamber; she may care to clarify that later on. My understanding is that the obligation is to detail any current interest that might impact on decisions made in this place, not those interests that one may have held prior to coming into the Senate. I suspect that there are many senators on the other side who would be quite concerned if that were the standard.

Mr Deputy President, I do not think you would be surprised that the opposition in this place continues to focus on slur and innuendo when, as you would be aware, there are many policy matters of great significance to Australians that it continues to ignore. These include issues such as the carbon tax and the impacts that is having on industry right across Australia. We heard last week from the CEO of Virgin, who highlighted the fact that the single biggest thing we could do to help the airline industry in Australia is get rid of the carbon tax. Where were the questions about the carbon tax and how we can assist industry in Australia? Where were the questions about Labor's legacy of rising unemployment and the rising debt that the nation faces? There were no questions on those. Where were the questions about the airlines? Labor has chosen even to ignore asking questions about Qantas, which would be highly relevant this week to members opposite, I would have thought. Where were the questions about the impact of Labor's decisions on the challenges that Qantas now faces? Internationally, there is one major, significant world issue, the current uncertainty in the Ukraine. It was up to us to ask a question about that. Where were the questions from Labor concerning world developments that could impact on Australia? There were no questions on that at all. Instead, they chose to spend almost all of question time, almost all of the questions they had available to them, casting further slur and innuendo.

We are taking note of answers to questions asked about the Assistant Treasurer, but today is not the first opportunity we have had to look at this. The opposition asked questions about the Assistant Treasurer and his holdings in Australian Water Holdings last year. What changed today? What changed is the fact that they have spent the last two or three weeks chasing another minister. That chase has come to nought. They thought they had something; they thought they could smell blood. They have chased it hard but it has come to nothing. They spent all of one day last week in an estimates hearing asking questions, banging their head against a wall, trying to get a ministerial scalp. The reality is that it came to nothing. What are they doing now? They have changed tack and are chasing another minister. That is typical of Labor. They are far more interested in a fight. They are far more interested in chasing the prey and playing the politics than in arguing about what might be the best policy for Australians, about what might be in the best interests of Australians. Those opposite think they can smell blood and, like frenzied hounds, they are going in for the kill. But is there any blood? Days of questions in this place and also in estimates to Senator Nash have revealed none. That is because there is none. They were asking questions of the Assistant Treasurer today. They have asked questions about this matter previously. There is no blood, because there is nothing to find, nothing to discover. Now, having failed dismally with the first minister, they have moved onto a second.

They should be doing what any aspiring government should—that is, closely examining the issues, policies and initiatives to ensure that the desired effect is delivered. In their case, they do not show any interest in the outcomes of the policies that they look at. They are only interested in the media spin that they can get out of it. When they were in government they were far more interested in the media impact of their announcements rather than the actual outcomes that might be delivered from the things that they were announcing. I suspect that there was an awful lot of asking going on in the then Prime Minister's office: 'What can we announce tonight to fill this hole in the media spin cycle?'

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

What about the opening of the ASIO building?

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Exactly. The opening of the ASIO building.

Photo of Mitch FifieldMitch Fifield (Victoria, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

No-one's in it!

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brandis and Senator Fifield are exactly right. There was a whole series—possibly even hundreds— of announcements that were made by the previous government about policy initiatives that they were going to deliver on. Six months later nothing had happened, and they were quietly swept under the carpet. It is typical of Labor. We have seen the same in Tasmania, with Tasmanian Labor doing exactly the same thing. That is one reason that I think we need to see a change down there in less than two weeks time. (Time expired)

3:34 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand to take note of questions answered by Senator Sinodinos. I want to go first of all to the profile of Senator Sinodinos on his own website—the website of the Liberal Senator for New South Wales and the Assistant Treasurer. I think this demonstrates the cover up that is on in a range of areas with the coalition, the lack of transparency and the lack of openness in a whole range of areas. Senator Sinodinos in his biography outlines the work that he did while he was the senior economic adviser for the opposition leader, Mr John Howard. He outlines the work he did as Chief of Staff when he was working for the Prime Minister. He outlines work in 2006 when he was with Goldman Sachs, JBWere and the National Australia Bank and when he held various other corporate appointments. He outlines charity work he has done. He indicates that he was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia in 2008. Then he jumps from 2008 to 2011, saying that he returned to politics in 2011. There is not one word about his relationship with Australian Water Holdings. That is typical of the coalition. They are trying to cover up something that should be in the open for the Australian public. Why wouldn't you want to cover that up?

When you look at what Australian Water Holdings did over the period before, during and after Senator Sinodinos's term as chairman of that company, you will see that the Liberal Party did very well—thanks, very much—out of Senator Sinodinos's time at Australian Water Holdings. In 2009-10, they received $13,000 in donations; while in 2010-11 the New South Wales Liberals received $51,603, the federal Liberals received $10,000 and the federal Nationals received $10,000—a total of $84,603. So the money was flowing in.

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

How much did you receive from corrupt trade unions, in the Labor Party?

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The Attorney-General asks how much I received from corrupt trade union dealings. I can say very clearly that I have received nothing in relation to corrupt trade union dealings.

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

You, the Labor Party.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brandis, why don't you just walk out with me after this; we will call a press conference and you can make that assertion publicly.

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

What about the Labor Party?

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Will you do that? Will you come out and make that assertion publicly against me? You will not do that because you have no guts and no credibility.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Cameron, address your remarks through the chair, and those on my right will stop interjecting.

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

This is what happens when there is a question on the coalition that needs to be answered. The Attorney-General tries to cast aspersions on his fellow senators when there is absolutely no basis for those assertions. What we have here is a clear position where Senator Sinodinos made financial gains from Australian Water Holdings. Who for one minute out there in the general public would understand how, when you become a chairman of a company in New South Wales, you stand to gain $5 million in a period of 12 months. These are questions that have to be answered. These are questions that need to be open to the public. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with and Senator Sinodinos has not answered these questions. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.