Senate debates

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Australian Water Holdings

3:06 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 Opposition senators today relating to Australian Water Holdings Pty Ltd.

We saw today the continuing cover-up, in the Abbott government, of Senator Sinodinos. There are some extraordinarily serious public allegations which have been made against this minister, and you would have thought he would have taken the opportunity in question time today to front the Australian people and to front this chamber to answer legitimate questions, as the man who is responsible for administering business law and practice. I say this as he scurries out of the chamber. If he took his ministerial responsibility and the standards of ministerial conduct seriously he would come in here—

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: the accusation of 'scurrying' has certain connotations and it is quite inappropriate. Senator Sinodinos is a busy minister and has many things to do—

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not a point of order, Senator Macdonald. Resume your seat.

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

If this government, this minister and this Prime Minister took the ministerial standards seriously, then they would ensure that this minister not only answered questions today but also gave a proper and full explanation to the Senate, and through it the Australian people, in response to the serious allegations which have been raised and which were touched on in his statement, which he gave some time ago, but which have not been added to since. In fact, the silence of Senator Sinodinos in the face of these allegations really speaks volumes—that he is willing to engage in an avoidance of all questions. In this he is aided and abetted and led by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, who represents the Prime Minister in the Senate, to ensure that questions not be answered.

We know from what has been printed publicly that there are a great many allegations—extraordinarily serious allegations of corruption in the public arena. I invite those opposite to consider the statement of counsel assisting the Independent Commission Against Corruption yesterday and I suggest that the facts which are outlined in that statement indicate that, while the Assistant Treasurer was a director and later a chairman, Australian Water Holdings was engaged in deeply repugnant activities. Some of them include the gouging of huge amounts from taxpayers by overcharging, the use of that money to pay highly inflated remuneration—including, allegedly, $200,000 a year, plus bonuses, to the Assistant Treasurer for a couple of weeks work—and not to mention the issue of large donations to the New South Wales Liberal Party and the attempt to secure a lucrative contract with the New South Wales government through deeply corrupt means. All of this corruption is swirling inside AWH while the Assistant Treasurer was a director of the company. He was a director between late 2008 and late 2011, and this was when the worst of the alleged improper conduct, which we heard about yesterday in the corruption commission, was underway.

The revelations before the corruption commission are disgusting. Again I say: corruption is evil whenever it occurs and whoever is involved. I say this: Senator Sinodinos must give the Senate a full account of his involvement in Australian Water Holdings, including all the details about what he stood to gain if the company succeeded in securing the contract. I say to the Senate that the carefully worded statement to this Senate on 28 February by this minister is inadequate at best and at worst it deliberately obfuscates. It is vague about his knowledge of the Obeid family's involvement; it fails to disclose the enormous financial benefit he stood to receive—a $20 million payday, revealed at ICAC yesterday—which was not discussed at all. His only explanation is that he knew nothing. He was a director; he was a chairman of the company; he was getting a couple of hundred thousand for a couple of weeks work; he was sitting on a share deal that would have made him a multimillionaire. But he did not know anything about what was going on in the company. This is simply not believable and he should come in and make a statement to clear this up. (Time expired)

3:11 pm

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

What we have seen in this chamber today is a complete and utter abuse of question time, as those opposite sought to establish some type of kangaroo court. They came in here devoid of any sense of due process and devoid of any sense of relevance to the public policy issues before Australia today and simply tried to slur the good name of a good and hardworking member of this Senate.

The behaviour we have seen from those opposite is outrageous. It is so outrageous in fact that they spent most of question time in complete defiance of the usual standing orders and practices of this Senate. How humiliating and embarrassing for the opposition to come in here and have no fewer than five of their questions ruled out of order by their own President—by the man they appointed as President. Any president would have done so, because the questions were so transparently out of order. How humiliating for long-serving senators like Senator Wong and Senator Collins, who I note have slunk out of this place. How humiliating for them to come in here and not understand the rules that have effectively been in place in this Senate for the bulk of the 113-year life of this Senate. How humiliating!

The President rightly quoted on a ruling from the 13th edition of Odgers by former President Kerry Sibraa, dating back to 30 August 1988, when he said:

Questions may be put to a minister relating to the public affairs with which the minister is officially connected, to proceedings pending in Parliament, or to any matter of administration for which the minister is responsible in a personal or representative capacity…This is an overriding rule: that a question must seek information, or press for action within a minister’s responsibility. The chair will disallow any question where it is clear that it is not within a minister's responsibility.

Clearly, those opposite have never bothered to sit down and look at the standing orders. They have never bothered to look at Odgers. They have not even listened when past rulings have been given. It is so embarrassing and humiliating, especially to see the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Wong—a former Leader of the Government in the Senate, somebody who has been here for 12 whole years—who apparently has so little knowledge or capacity to be able to frame a question so that it is within orders.

Colleagues in the Labor Party of Senator Wong, Senator Collins and Senator O'Neill must be embarrassed by what they have seen today, particularly colleagues like Mr Albanese and Dr Leigh, who just today had been very public in their view that there is a proper place for the examination of these matters, that there is a proper way to treat these matters. Indeed, they are right. There is a proper time and a proper place, and it is not through the Labor Party attempting to establish some kangaroo court process here; it is through proper processes, the same proper processes that people like Mr Greg Combet and Senator Doug Cameron fronted up and gave their cooperation to and which Senator Arthur Sinodinos has said he will turn up and give his full cooperation to. He will give his full cooperation just like Senator Cameron did, just like Mr Combet did. That is the right time and right place for these matters to be addressed. That is where they will be addressed.

I am proud to have Senator Arthur Sinodinos as a colleague. He is a fine Australian. He has served this country with distinction as chief of staff to our second longest serving Prime Minister, as a former Treasury official, as a senator, as today a minister. He is somebody who has done wonderful things for this country and will continue to do so into the future. The reality is that those opposite are coming in here and attempting to besmirch his reputation with questions that are based on matters that occurred before he was in the Senate. They are attempting to suggest that because it is out of order for him to answer those questions here there is something to hide. He will answer those questions in the right place at the right time, where it is appropriate, not here and back down to the bullyboy tactics of those who seek to establish this place as some kangaroo court rather than a parliamentary chamber. (Time expired)

3:16 pm

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

In February last year, before he became a minister, Senator Sinodinos made a statement to the Senate regarding his involvement in the company Australian Water Holdings. Then earlier this month in question time Senator Sinodinos made clear that he stood by that statement and that, in fact, he stood by all of his previous statements on AWH. We now know that the personal loan agreement with members of the Obeid family that Senator Sinodinos informed the Senate about in his statement is a sham. The personal loan agreement was in fact a 30 per cent shareholding in AWH.

We all know that Senator Sinodinos served concurrently as a non-executive director, then as chairman of AWH and as the treasurer and later president of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, and did so concurrently. Yesterday we heard in ICAC that Senator Sinodinos's joining the board of AWH was to open lines of communication with the Liberal Party. According to counsel assisting the Independent Commission Against Corruption, there is 'evidence he tried to do so'. Compare this to Senator Sinodinos's earlier statement to the Senate, where he said donations from AWH—and I quote him directly—'were handled by the management of the organisation at their discretion'.

I want to say this for the record. I will be really blunt here. I abhor the actions and behaviour of those corrupt Labor figures who are involved in this matter. I abhor their behaviour. I have nothing but utter contempt for those people and I think every senator on all sides of the chamber knows that that is the case. But I do believe that what is appropriate now as far as Senator Sinodinos is concerned, at a minimum, is for him, as Senator Wong has suggested, to make a full and comprehensive statement to the Senate about his dealings with AWH. I think it is essential if for no other reason than that Senator Sinodinos is sworn to administer the Department of the Treasury, because he has got ministerial responsibility for the Corporations Act 2001, which specifies the four main duties of company directors: care and diligence, good faith, proper use of position and proper use of information. Any Assistant Treasurer whose conduct or actions as a director have been raised in a hearing such as that now underway in New South Wales ICAC I believe must be fully transparent in the Senate. Any Assistant Treasurer must be able to assure the parliament, the Australian public, that in their private capacity they have also upheld the law and have demonstrated the highest standards of personal integrity.

Today in question time some questions were asked by the opposition. Some of those were ruled out of order. Of course then we had the complete contempt of the Senate where a dorothy dix question was asked and then answered by Senator Sinodinos. I thought those questions did deserve a considered and comprehensive statement, the content of which the Assistant Treasurer can be accountable for in this chamber. I believe he should make that statement and make it forthwith. There is nothing to stop him doing so. There is nothing to stop him answering these questions if he wishes to do so. I urge him to make the statement. I suspect his future as a minister depends on it. (Time expired)

3:22 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The depths of despair to which the Australian Labor Party have sunk have never been more clearly emphasised than in today's question time. Clearly, the questions committee of the ALP has gone on strike, like good union members. They have realised that there is pointless activity happening here—that is, question time. There was not a single question that the Labor Party have been able to or been prepared to ask about the policies of government, which is what question time is all about. What do they revert to? They revert to smears and attacks on the credibility of a person who has already given impeccable service to this country and who will continue to give impeccable service as a minister of this government for many years to come.

I cannot understand what Labor Party senators do not understand about the President's ruling: 'The question is out of the order. It is not relevant.' You would excuse Senator O'Neill, because she has only been in the Senate a little time, but Senator Wong, the leader of the party in the Senate, who has been here for some 12 years, could not quite understand the President's ruling. The questions were simply not in order, but she continued to besmirch members of the Senate whose credibility is impeccable.

People in glasshouses should not throw stones. We might ask: what do Labor senators know about that disgraceful exhibition at the front doors of this building 10 or 12 years ago, when the brass doors were knocked down by a group of people, including many unionists—rabble!—out there who were trying to damage Commonwealth property? Perhaps we will get a statement from the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate about what happened on that occasion and whether those people involved ever paid for the damage done to Parliament House.

The questions today very often referred to Mr Eddie Obeid. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't Mr Eddie Obeid a former Labor member of parliament? If you want to know what Mr Obeid did, can I suggest to Labor senators opposite that you go and talk to your former Labor parliamentary colleague, Mr Obeid. Perhaps Senator Conroy could do that when he is picking up the keys for Mr Obeid's chalet up in the snowfields. I understand Senator Conroy was the recipient of that benefit.

Perhaps we should look at the training mine that ICAC referred to when my namesake—and I have often thought over the last few years about changing my name by deed poll—in New South Wales, Ian Macdonald, who was engaged in corrupt conduct with former CFMEU boss John Maitland about that training scheme rip-off perpetrated by members of the Labor Party who were in the New South Wales parliament at the time. This training mine proposal had the written endorsement of Mr Greg Combet, a Labor member of the other chamber and a former senior member of the Labor government.

We remember that former senator Bob Carr promoted Eddie Obeid. It has been suggested—I do not think he has yet been convicted of anything—that he is corrupt. It was former Labor senator Bob Carr who also promoted my namesake, Ian Macdonald, a Labor member of the New South Wales parliament, into his ministry. And all senators opposite stood by and protected Craig Thomson, who we now know, according to a court decision, is guilty of corrupt conduct. The President of the Labor Party in New South Wales has also been convicted of corrupt conduct.

If Labor senators want to ask questions about allegedly corrupt conduct, can I suggest they talk to Mr Obeid, Mr Williamson and Mr Craig Thomson. While they are at it, they might also talk to Mr Gordon Nuttall, a former Labor minister in my state of Queensland, who is currently serving time in jail for corruptly receiving bribes. Perhaps if my Labor friends opposite want to know about real corruption, they might ask their own colleagues rather than try to besmirch the reputation of a great Australian. (Time expired)

3:27 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the answers given by Senator Sinodinos today to questions from the opposition. The questions went to the personal integrity of the senator and whether ministerial standards that apply to a minister of the Crown have been upheld by him. One thing is increasingly clear in this matter, and that is the considerable gap between what the minister said to this parliament in his statements of 28 February and his reaffirmation of 16 March and the information that is now emerging from the New South Wales ICAC inquiry into Australian Water Holdings.

Unfortunately, we have seen today in the minister's lack of a fulsome response to these questions the contempt that this government has for this place as a place of account. This parliament is a place where the Australian people can and should get the facts and the truth about what is going on. Instead, today we again witnessed the arrogance of this government—a government that hides reports it does not want the electorate to see, a government that half discloses the facts and, even then, only after a process of shaming and painful extraction. Today we again saw the lack of a fulsome response from the Assistant Treasurer of Australia. This is a government that seems determined to treat this place and the Australian people with contempt by not approaching transparently and honestly the questions that are on offer for them to provide an account to the Australian people. Indeed, the heading of an article in today's Australian Financial Review, 'Politics of sewerage', is a very fitting one. There is a stench in the air here today that takes away from the important work that should be happening in this place and by which Australians expect us to govern for their benefit.

I note that in New South Wales three of Senator Sinodinos's Liberal Party colleagues are similarly under investigation by ICAC. The member for Terrigal, Chris Hartcher, made much noise about an 'honourable sacrifice' in stepping down from his ministry while he was being investigated. The member for Terrigal, the member for The Entrance and the member for Wyong have all resigned from the state Liberal Party while they are being investigated. This was made out to be a great virtue; they argued they were doing the 'honourable' thing.

Here in the Senate, all we asked for today were some answers to legitimate questions that arise because of this enormous gap between the statements that Minister Sinodinos has made in this place and what is now on the public record, as the ICAC inquiry has started in New South Wales. He has just stonewalled. Despite the deliberate obfuscation, we are committed to pursuing the facts and the truth from the Assistant Treasurer, and that is what today's questions were seeking to ascertain.

Does Senator Sinodinos, now declared a person of interest by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, really think that he can come into this place and continue to refuse to answer questions from the Senate? Surely the unanswered questions that hang over him about his role as Treasurer of the New South Wales Liberal Party and his simultaneous appointment as a director of Australian Water Holdings now call into question his capacity to uphold the law and demonstrate high standards of integrity. Surely the unanswered questions about the payment of $200,000, plus bonuses, for less than 100 hours work per year call into question his capacity to uphold the law and demonstrate high standards of personal integrity. Surely the unanswered questions about the bundling of donations to the Liberal Party being charged back to Sydney Water's expenses call into question his capacity to uphold the law and demonstrate high standards of personal integrity. And surely the unanswered questions today about the sham arrangements that seem to have been part of the business model of Australian Water Holdings at the time that the minister was a director call into question his capacity to uphold the law and demonstrate the high standards of personal integrity expected of ministers.

At best, the few words offered by the Assistant Treasurer today constitute a fobbing-off of legitimate concerns. This place deserves better. It deserves a better and fulsome response from the Assistant Treasurer. The Australian people deserve better from their elected officials. Standards matter, especially in the areas of business law and practice for which this Assistant Treasurer is responsible. The Prime Minister promised the Australian people a more mature and honest government. That is not what we have seen on display here today. What we are seeing is a government that is there not for the people but for the government's mates—a government that is sanctimoniously squawking its superiority here day in, day out but that is silent under scrutiny. I am calling, as Senator Wong and Senator Faulkner have, for a full and comprehensive statement to the Senate to correct the record and bridge the gap between what is now in the public domain and what the senator put on the record. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.