Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Matters of Public Importance

Ministerial Conduct

4:09 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The President has received the following letter from Senator Moore:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Prime Minister's failure to uphold ministerial standards.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

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

This matter of public importance provides an opportunity for the Senate to review the performance of this government's first six months in office. The Statement of Ministerial Standards, which was announced by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in December 2013, contains the following words:

Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries are entrusted with the conduct of public business and must act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.

This replaced the previous government's statement of ministerial standards of September 2010, which had different words:

Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries hold high public office and are entrusted with considerable privilege and power. The people of Australia are entitled to expect that, in the discharge of their duties, they will act in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and propriety.

We know that ministerial standards were introduced by the Labor government in 2007 following the appalling behaviour of the Howard government, which saw in its very early days a whole series of ministers being forced to resign for their failure to fulfil their commitments in regard to those highest standards of integrity and proprietary. We particularly saw in this Senate in those early days of the Howard government that the Prime Minister took the view that enough was enough after a number of ministers had been forced to resign and that there would be no further resignations from the ministry.

We know in some respects it is a philosophy that has been carried over to the new government of Mr Abbott, although some will say that today is an example of where the best of ministerial traditions has been upheld. Let us be clear about this: Senator Sinodinos has stood aside in the interests of the government out of political expediency. He has been stood aside as a result of the urgings of members of the coalition and of one of the biggest backers of the coalition, The Australian newspaper. This morning it essentially said to the government that Senator Sinodinos would have to stand aside because of the political damage that he was doing to the government. So it was not a question about ministerial standards as such; it was about political expediency.

If we follow the events of today and look at these things carefully, we will see that in the case of Senator Nash there was a conflict of interest. Issues were raised about her chief of staff, Alastair Furnival—who, I might remind the Senate, was vetted and approved by the Prime Minister and by the Prime Minister's chief of staff—following the extraordinary developments that occurred around the junk food industry and, in particular, the relationship with Cadbury. We well know that Cadbury has a very special relationship with this government. Cadbury was the beneficiary of a grant to support its operations in Hobart, allegedly on the basis of tourism but really on the basis of what the press statement at the time said, which was that it was all about changing their business model. It was in complete contrast to the approach that this government had taken on industry policy elsewhere.

We know that personal connections are very important. We know that in the case of Mr Furnival there was quite extraordinary speculation around what was the cause of Mr Furnival's resignation. I recall a press report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 15 February 2014, which stated:

… Mr Furnival's proposed appointment was held up by the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Peta Credlin, due to concerns over his background and commercial interests.

I asked myself: where did that come from? Where did that report come from? Was that not an example of the chief of staff actually leaking information against ministers? I think this is the problem that emerges in circumstances where political expediency becomes much more important than the maintenance of ministerial standards—because we know how long it took for there to be a resolution in regard to the questions that surrounded Senator Nash and her chief of staff.

As I said before, we know that there is a case in regard to the operations of Cadbury which we have yet to hear the full details of, but we know that it is an example of a single act of co-investment by the government where so many others were found unworthy. So I am looking forward to the examination of that matter in detail, when that grant is actually made. We know that Senator Nash intervened personally in the taking-down of a new health rating website only hours after it was launched and we know that Senator Nash claimed that it had nothing to do with her chief of staff's ties to the junk food lobby. To this day, Senator Nash has yet to adequately explain the policy operations of her office in regard to the healthy star website.

We know that there is a very strong case of secrecy within this government which has developed with regard to Senator Nash in an attempt to dodge, avoid, answering basic questions. It is a fundamental requirement of ministerial conduct to treat the parliament with respect and not to seek to use claims of public interest immunity in such a way as to subvert the proper work of the parliament in understanding the exact nature of government policy. In fact, it suggests that anyone asking a question about Operation Sovereign Borders, for instance, is almost an act of treason; it has now got to the stage in this parliament where it suggests that the mere act of asking such a question is to provide aid and comfort to people smugglers. Clearly, that is not consistent with the proper functioning of parliamentary democracy and not consistent with the highest standards of integrity and probity.

Then, of course, we have the case of Senator Sinodinos. The Independent Commission Against Corruption, in its proceedings on Monday, was looking at a number of ministers in the New South Wales government, the Premier and other ministers—and in fact former Labor minister Mr Costa, whom I know Senator Brandis waxed lyrical about this morning. There were actually statements to the effect that there was no evidence whatsoever of corrupt behaviour by a number of them. I quote the commission transcript directly:

… we've looked carefully at the activities of Mr O'Farrell and Mr Pearce and we have found no evidence to implicate either in any corruption.

Again, in regard to Mr Costa, it says:

ICAC has uncovered no evidence of corruption on the part of Michael Costa.

But, when it came to the question of Senator Sinodinos, it says:

It's presently difficult to offer observations on the conduct of Mr Sinodinos. He has other involvements which will come under scrutiny in Operation Spicer.

So what we do know is that, in regard to ICAC, there are serious questions that are being answered. But they are not questions that the minister, the minister who has now stood down, was prepared to answer in this chamber. It would have been quite appropriate, quite straightforward, to explain the contradictions in the position he has put to this chamber and answer the allegation that he has actually misled the Senate. No, what we saw was every effort being made to avoid scrutiny, to avoid accountability and to seek to denigrate others. Senator Brandis, when you talk about smears, I recall only too well you in this chamber saying that we had a criminal in the Lodge. Even your best mate, Andrew Bolt, said you had gone too far. So you are only too happy to throw abuse around, but then you seek to claim that those who raise legitimate questions are engaging in smear campaigns. This is a government that undertakes witch-hunts by way of royal commissions, a government that seeks to denigrate— (Time expired)

4:19 pm

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

Today is a sad day because we have seen a great Australian, a good Australian, a good man, a good senator and a good minister step aside from his duties. That is unfortunate. As I said in this place yesterday, I am proud to call Senator Arthur Sinodinos a colleague; I am proud to call him a friend. He is someone who has made an outstanding contribution to public life in Australia and someone who I am confident will continue to make an outstanding contribution to public life in Australia.

We have seen in this place over the last couple of days an unfortunate, regrettable and terrible smear campaign waged by those opposite, who have attempted to turn this fine institution, the Australian Senate, into nothing more than a kangaroo court where they have ignored any sense of proper processes; where they have ignored any sense of fair process; where they have simply, for their own base, political ends, sought to smear and bring down the reputation of a good Australian, a good senator and a good minister. They have lost all sense of perspective in this matter. When challenged to identify what the specific wrongdoings or allegations are against Senator Sinodinos, they have been found wanting.

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

They couldn't say a thing.

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

As Senator Brandis rightly highlighted then, and before today, the Labor Party—from Senator Wong down—have been unable to specify a single act of wrongdoing by Senator Sinodinos, yet they have continued with their smears. They have ignored the fact that Senator Sinodinos has made very clear to this Senate and to all Australians that he will cooperate fully with the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales.

He will cooperate fully in those proceedings, as many witnesses have done before—most recently, as he highlighted yesterday, former Labor minister Greg Combet and current Labor frontbencher Senator Doug Cameron. They both cooperated with ICAC proceedings. They cooperated with ICAC proceedings as witnesses, just as Senator Sinodinos will, but they were not subjected to the same type of smear campaign that Senator Sinodinos has faced. There were no calls at the time for them to step aside from their positions. Yet the Labor Party has done just that in relation to Senator Sinodinos. In fact, they have gone further than that in calling for the resignation of Senator Sinodinos, yet they have not even been able to cite an allegation against him, let alone an act of wrongdoing.

There is a right place and a wrong place for the prosecution of these things. The right place is the appropriately established tribunal that sits in New South Wales, the ICAC, where Senator Sinodinos will give his evidence. The wrong place to go over matters that predate not only his career as a minister but his career as a senator is this Senate chamber. This is the wrong place. This is not a court in which to assess these matters that predate his time as a senator. The right place is the ICAC, where he will give his full and complete cooperation.

Sadly, Senator Sinodinos has, for the good of the nation and the good of the government—so we can get on and focus properly on the big public policy challenges Australia faces—stood aside today. As the Prime Minister has rightly indicated, it is the right and decent thing for Senator Sinodinos to do and what you would expect from someone who has given so much to his country and so much service over such a long period of time. As the Prime Minister rightly indicated, he looks forward to Senator Sinodinos's restoration to the ministry in due course, once these matters are handled.

This is not of course the first time this has occurred. We should all keep in mind precedents where ministers have stood aside and rightly been returned. These precedents have included both ministers and shadow ministers. One example was Phillip Lynch in the Fraser ministry. He stood aside but, following an official inquiry that found no illegal or improper doings, rightly returned to the ministry. Ian Sinclair was rightly returned to the ministry following investigations into allegations made against him. Wayne Swan stood aside for a period of time as the shadow minister for family and community services but eventually returned to the frontbench and became the Treasurer of Australia.

There was also the amazing case of Mick Young. Mick Young stood down from the Hawke ministry on 14 July 1983 following the revelation that he had disclosed matters of national security. A royal commission upheld those allegations—yet do you know what the Labor Party did? They re-elected him unopposed to the ministry. Allegations were upheld, yet they re-elected him unopposed to the ministry. He was again forced to stand down at a later stage in relation to other matters—and the Labor Party again reappointed him to the ministry. So there are good precedents where people have been exonerated, as I am sure will occur with Senator Sinodinos, and there are other precedents, such as that of Mr Young on the Labor side. In his case they simply ignored due process and reappointed him to the ministry.

This government will apply the best of ministerial standards throughout its term. We will ensure, as we have done, that full disclosures are made, as they have been, across the government and that those disclosures are applied and adhered to in order to ensure that no real or perceived conflicts of interest occur amongst ministers, parliamentary secretaries or their staff. We will make sure, unlike those opposite, that we run a clean show.

We heard earlier today the very long list of people, from state and federal parliaments and Labor Party ranks, who have done wrong—in some cases ultimately finding themselves in jail. The two relatively recent cases that spring to mind are those of the former national president of the Labor Party, Mr Williamson—national president only a couple of years ago during Ms Gillard's prime ministership but today in jail—and the former member for Dobell, Mr Thomson. Mr Thomson was a member of the Rudd and Gillard governments who left parliament only at the last election. Today he is awaiting sentencing.

Those opposite come in here and smear the name of a good man, yet have absolutely no track record of their own that they can stand by. Those opposite come in here and use this Senate as their own kangaroo court rather than allowing the right proceedings to occur in the right place.

Senator Sinodinos is a great Australian. He came here as part of a Greek migrant family. He is a great Australian success story—somebody who grew up as the son of Greek migrants and went on to become the longest serving adviser of Australia's second-longest serving Prime Minister. He is a man who has given much, not just to the government of this country but to charities and other organisations, including the Mary MacKillop Foundation, the Aboriginal Employment Strategy and the Australian Institute of Management. He has been recognised as an Officer of the Order of Australia for his service to government, to the community and to the Greek community in particular. He has been recognised as one of the great public policy minds of this country. I have no doubt that he will rightly be back and that those opposite will be seen in due course to have smeared a man for absolutely no reason and with absolutely no rationale whatsoever.

4:29 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

This debate needs to be seen in the wider context of strengthening our democratic process. We urgently need politics to be cleaned up in this country. That needs to go much further than just dealing with the issues of today around Senator Sinodinos, because there is a real thread through so much of this work with regard to lobbying and how it is conducted in this country. But it goes much wider than that, and that has implications for political donations. Our houses do not fully come under freedom of information requirements; there is the question of how entitlements from members of parliament are managed; there are codes of conduct for ministers and MPs and the need for those codes to be legislated—these are all highly relevant to this issue. You can see why there is increasing cynicism from members of the public. They do see MPs as a protected species—and that applies to all of us—because what has happened today damages the standing of parliaments and the parliamentarians who attempt to do this work, and the very fabric of our democracy is undermined. We need to address greater transparency and improve accountability so that the public can scrutinise the work more readily, because that certainly is not possible at present.

I start with the issue of donations, and this certainly goes back to how the Prime Minister operates. In the latest release of data from the Australian Electoral Commission that came out on 1 February, we saw that tobacco and mining money still found its way into the coffers of the coalition, and the alcohol industry was there to benefit both Labor and the coalition in that case. Imperial Tobacco and Philip Morris spent about $4.5 million under their own names, and the Alliance of Australian Retailers—which just seemed to appear out of nowhere but really had so much to do with plain packaging—dispersed $9 million. The Minerals Council of Australia reported $4 million and the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies reported $2.2 million. This, interestingly, was around the time of the debate about the mining tax, and it is worth remembering that those companies spent $22 million on advertising. These are big companies influencing and being very close to key politicians in this place, and people are not able to open a window on how that influence is exerted and what discussions go on behind closed doors. That it is certainly very relevant to what we are discussing here.

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

Have you heard of the register of donations?

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

While I did not hear the interjection from Senator Brandis—but I am sure it will be very interesting—he might be interested in this aspect because it is another area where we need to clean up politics. Through some of the debates that are currently occurring in terms of how political parties operate, there are some interesting discussions around the need for standards for political parties in terms of how they operate, particularly if they are going to run in elections, be registered and gain public money. Should there be some standard regarding democracy within political parties? I was interested to read in July 2011—and I do note this was before the current government was formed—that claims emerged of possible vote tampering during elections for the State Executive of the New South Wales Liberal Party. The accusation that the Herald reported was that up to 80 ballots had been identified where the original vote had been changed using correction fluid to follow the ticket put forward by the hard or religious right faction. I use that example as another reason why we need to clean up politics and explore ways to ensure that the highest standards are followed.

Then there is the issue of entitlements. When this government came to office, the whole issue of entitlements really got a working over with those extraordinary reports of various government members claiming entitlements to go to weddings. Senator Brandis and former Senator Joyce—both now ministers—used money to go to weddings and denied any wrongdoing. Then we had some very interesting statements about this from Minister Malcolm Turnbull. When he was asked about $15,000 that was claimed by some senior coalition ministers to attend three different weddings, he said, in this case with regard to Minister Julie Bishop, that she made 'a very valid use of her travel entitlement' when she claimed $3,445 to pay for flights home from the lavish wedding in India which we have heard a great deal about. Where it becomes very interesting is that Mr Turnbull's comments were made on the same day that news reports emerged that Prime Minister Tony Abbott repaid $1,094 in travel expenses he had charged taxpayers for attending the 2006 wedding of former MP Sophie Mirabella. This does not need to occur. It really is so damaging. Mistakes are made with entitlements, and I am obviously aware that these things can happen. In this case, I felt the claim for weddings went a bit too far.

I would again highlight what the Greens have been advocating. The Scottish parliament has a very simple website where you click on your MP and you can see how the expenses have been paid. The transparency is there. The accountability is there. The public have an understanding of how public money is being spent by their publicly elected people, and that is certainly how it should be. In this context, it is interesting to note that former Prime Minister John Howard did see what some would say was an opportunity. Others would say he was doing the right thing—although I think some of his colleagues thought that he went too far—when he campaigned when he came into office in 1996 for tighter rules on entitlements. He did promise, and eventually delivered, a new code of conduct for ministers. Interestingly, it led to five ministers going in his first term. Sadly, it seems, the lesson that the coalition learnt—and maybe it is a lesson some others took from that—is that we have weaker rules around entitlements, and many would say that ministerial responsibility barely exists these days. This is another area where we need to clean up. It is very easy. It is public money. I will say it again: it is public money being spent on public duties by publicly elected people. Let us have it on an easily accessible website—that is so easy to do in this day and age.

The issue of lobbying is a thread that runs through so many of the problems that we have confronted in recent weeks. We have heard about how Senator Nash ran her office. We are yet to hear more about the operations of Senator Sinodinos. But the issue of lobbying, of people trying to gain influence, is certainly there.

Clearly lobbying has an important role in the democratic process; that is a given. It is a right for people to engage in this way. But, when they do, we need to think about how it operates and what information is then available to people, because right now there is so little information that the public can access when it comes to lobbying.

We need to have a code of conduct for lobbying legislated; that is long overdue. When the Greens were successful in setting up an inquiry to review how lobbying is conducted, unfortunately and disappointingly Labor voted against it. The coalition did vote for it. But then we hardly called any witnesses, so it was controlled in that way.

What is clearly needed is this. As the Greens have been putting forward, we need a commissioner of lobbying. The definition of 'lobbyist' needs to be expanded to include in-house lobbyists. Records should be kept of the discussions that are held when lobbyists meet with ministers. Also, the code needs to cover not just ministers but all MPs. Clearly, in this day and age, with the way politics work, backbenchers and crossbenchers can play a key role in the final decisions governments make. So those meetings also should come under any code.

In conclusion, this is a valuable debate. We need to be looking at how we clean up politics in many areas: political donations; codes of conduct for MPs in general; the issue of entitlements. Transparency and accountability need to be the foundations of how we work.

4:39 pm

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

I am very pleased to participate in this debate and to bring the attention of the chamber to the Prime Minister's failure to uphold ministerial standards. It is quite clear that what we witnessed today, what we saw from the Prime Minister, is another example of coalition secrecy and coalition cover-up. I take the view that the Prime Minister has either deliberately tried to cover things up or failed to understand the seriousness of the issues surrounding the AWH inquiry at ICAC.

The coalition fought long and hard on this issue today and yesterday. Senator Sinodinos looked, at one stage, as if he was not going to move; he was going to tough it out. But this is a serious blow to the government, to have such a senior minister forced off the front bench.

I take the view that the PM should have acted earlier. The PM should have acted earlier because not only was it clear that there was a problem surrounding the appearance of Senator Sinodinos at ICAC but the view, in some quarters, is that it could be a serious problem.

Those opposite, on a number of occasions, have raised my appearance at an ICAC inquiry, to try and say, 'Well, anyone can be called to an ICAC inquiry to give evidence.' That is true. Anyone can be called to an ICAC inquiry to give evidence. But let me tell you: when I was called to ICAC, I was told, from the first contact with ICAC, from the ICAC investigative officers, that I was not a person of interest and all they wanted to do with me was to clarify some facts. I was not a person of interest. That is somewhat different from what Senator Sinodinos is facing—and I will come to that in a minute.

When we talk about sleaze and guilt by association, there has been the sleaze and guilt by association from the other side because I had a knowledge of Ian Macdonald—not Senator Ian Macdonald but the disgraced Ian Macdonald of the New South Wales government—for some 30 years, as did many other politicians on both sides of the political fence. But what I did when I went to ICAC was to decline to have an order under section 38 of the ICAC Act made. What that means is: if you seek an order under section 38, then you get various protections as a witness. The evidence you have given is subject to an objection or a direction under section 38 of the ICAC Act and it cannot be used subsequently in criminal or disciplinary proceedings except in proceedings for offences under the ICAC Act. I took the view that I had nothing to hide. I took the view that I did not need any special protection.

Senator Sinodinos yesterday said to me that if he needed any advice, he would ask me for some advice. Well, I will give Senator Sinodinos a couple of pieces of advice. The first piece of advice is: when you go to ICAC, tell the truth. Tell the truth—that is my first piece of advice to Senator Sinodinos. My second piece of advice to Senator Sinodinos is: do not seek protection under section 38 of the ICAC Act because—if you are as squeaky clean as your colleagues are saying you are; if the Prime Minister has got so much confidence in you—why would you seek a section 38 protection under the ICAC Act if you have got nothing to fear? So two pieces of advice to Senator Sinodinos: tell the truth and do not seek protection you do not need. Those are the two pieces of advice from me to Senator Sinodinos. We will see in a couple of weeks whether he takes that advice, especially in relation to telling the truth and to seeking protection that you really do not need if you have done nothing wrong. So let us see what he does with that.

I bet Senator Sinodinos would love to have the character reference that I got out of ICAC. I bet he would love to know that ICAC is going to say the same about him that ICAC said about me. Let me tell you what ICAC said about my appearance at ICAC. I quote chapter 3 from the report:

In many instances, Mr Macdonald’s evidence is contrary to that given by his former political colleagues of high seniority and certain trade union associates, such as the Hon Luke Foley MLC, Anthony (Tony) Maher and Senator the Hon Doug Cameron (all of whom were impressive witnesses, not shown in any material respect to have given false or incorrect evidence).

They said that I was an impressive witness and that I told the truth. That was my appearance at ICAC, simply because I knew someone over a period of time and simply because he was involved in the same political party as myself. But that is not the case with Senator Sinodinos. Clause 30 of the opening statement by counsel assisting the inquiry says this:

Based upon PricewaterhouseCoopers' valuation, if the PPP came through Mr Sinodinos would have enjoyed a $10 million or $20 million payday.

And further:

"It is presently difficult to offer observations on the conduct of Mr Sinodinos. He has other involvements which will come under scrutiny in Operation Spicer."

…   …   …

"It is quite transparent that Mr Sinodinos’ true role in Australian Water Holdings was to open lines of communication with the Liberal Party. There will be evidence that he tried to do so."

That now brings me to the article in today's Australian by Dennis Shanahan, who says:

Sorry, senator, you don’t have a choice—

that is, to stand down. I do not know why Dennis Shanahan felt he had to say sorry. Maybe because he completely misunderstands what is going on in ICAC. He goes on to say:

Sinodinos is in limbo for at least the next two weeks, before he’s due to give evidence to ICAC, with only the vague suggestion of guilt by association through corruption and the developing sleazy theme of being a "door opener" to Liberal politicians.

I do not know that counsel assisting the ICAC inquiry, Mr Watson QC, is developing a sleazy theme or if that is an allegation from The Australian to protect a wounded, former frontbencher from the coalition, but it is no sleazy thing. That is what ICAC are saying they will have a look at: the relationship between Senator Sinodinos and the Liberal Party and the role he played.

Let me finish up on this. I think ordinary Australians around this country would be horrified to think that someone could get $200,000 a year from a company to do 100 hours work—while the same company did not have the money to pay its tax account—and to have an opportunity to pick up $10 million to $20 million. These are the issues. And if you want a royal commission in this country, let us have a royal commission into the sleaze in the business community when people do that with shareholders' funds. (Time expired)

4:49 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased that Senator Cameron welcomes a royal commission into sleaze and corruption and grubbiness because, indeed, I can announce to Senator Cameron—and I am sure it is no surprise to him—that there will be one into the union movement in this country. And that is brought about by the sleaze, grubbiness and disgraceful conduct that we continually and repeatedly hear about. But I do not want to pursue that too diligently today.

This is one of those most difficult days. It is difficult for me as a politician because I find that the gruelling aspects of public life are enough without having to deal with the smear, the innuendo and the character assassination that have been trumped up and that we have seen thrown at Senator Sinodinos today.

I would also like to put on the record that Senator Sinodinos has done the right thing and the honourable thing. When spurious allegations are hurled at you, you can answer them but then you have to make a decision that is in the interests of your party and in the interests of the people of Australia and, if you are a frontbencher, you stand aside until they can be cleared and dealt with. Senator Sinodinos is an honourable man and he has done exactly that.

But that is in stark contrast to those on the other side, those who ran the protection racket, as Senator Birmingham referred to before, for Craig Thompson. He was a man who was entitled to the presumption of innocence but, in the face of overwhelming evidence, it was galling to hear his defence rather than to hear those on the other side say: 'He should stand aside or separate himself from the parliament to answer these allegations.'

Similarly, we can talk about the references to Ms Gillard when she was Prime Minister and her alleged involvement in a union slush fund in which money was misappropriated—that is the appropriate word. She facilitated the misappropriation of that money through the establishment of a slush fund. There is an ongoing police investigation into this. But we were told that it was misogynistic to inquire into that and that it happened such a long time ago.

Let me make this point to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, and to the people of Australia: criminal conduct, notwithstanding that there may be a statute of limitation, is inexcusable under any circumstances and every politician and every member of the public should, in a legal sense, be held fully to account for their conduct when they are in this place and before they come into this place. If they have done the wrong thing, then bang, hit 'em up for it.

But what strikes me is that not one person, either at ICAC or in this chamber under parliamentary privilege, has levelled an allegation of any substance against Senator Sinodinos. Somehow they object to how much he was allegedly paid or supposedly paid to chair a business and an organisation. Somehow they are condemning him and his ability to be a frontbencher and a valued member of the coalition team on the basis that he was involved in an organisation which was tainted by Labor Party members of parliament. We are talking about that guy Eddie Obeid, the guy who has successfully destroyed the New South Wales Labor Party. He has bubbled up all the uncomfortable excesses and all the excrement that has been hidden underneath by the New South Wales Labor Party for far too long.

You can go back to: where were they when Mr Paul Keating as Prime Minister was allegedly making millions of dollars out of the piggery? Where were they saying 'Stand aside' then? Where were they when there were allegations against former Senator Richardson with suggestions that he was involved with prostitutes and bribes and all sorts of things like that? Where were they saying 'Stand aside' then? Where were they with Ms Gillard? There was a protection racket. It is ingrained in those members of the union movement and the Labor Party to protect their own. On this side of the parliament I will protect my own too when I think they have done the right thing and I will be scathing of them, just as people have been scathing of me when they think I have done the wrong thing.

The point I want to make is this: there is not one substantive allegation that has been put—not one suggestion that Senator Sinodinos has done anything whatsoever inappropriate. And this is before he got into parliament. I support Senator Sinodinos in standing aside. I think it is important that he gives evidence to ICAC. I am sure he will get a good character reference from ICAC, just as Senator Cameron claimed that he did. But the point is this: we have had trial by character assassination and it is unbefitting of this parliament to score political points simply to try and destroy a political opponent inappropriately. (Time expired)

4:54 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the matter of public importance today on the Prime Minister's failure to uphold ministerial standards. This government has been constituted for a mere six months. In that short time we have seen the trashing of ministerial conduct and accountability and a contempt for this parliament. For most of this year, this Senate has dealt with matters of impropriety by government ministers. As Senator Wong articulated well this morning, this Prime Minister is a dangerous combination of arrogance and weakness. He leads an arrogant government that refuses to be accountable. He leads a weak government that sets itself standards and fails to uphold them. And, worse, this is a Prime Minister who led an opposition which sought at any opportunity to attack the personal integrity of Labor Party and Independent members of the 43rd Parliament. He sought to bring arguments before this place well before anyone had had their time in court, and yet he displays the most curt arrogance in dealing with any serious matters of his own, or his side's own, doing. It is a government that is but six months old and that has already become more arrogant about its responsibilities than any government in living memory. It is a government that has adopted Joh Bjelke-Petersen's famous 'Now, don't you worry about that' approach to public life.

No-one took that approach in this morning's debate more so than Senator Brandis. With the utmost bravado, Senator Brandis spoke of Senator Sinodinos's character, of his numerous public awards, of the coalition's wonderful associations with business, of their superior character, of their superior knowledge of things worth knowing about. You can tell that Senator Brandis is enjoying his position. But as the first law officer of this land, you would expect him to have a bit more self-control, a bit more grace, in dealing with matters of such sensitivity. Given his successful attempts to drag out the debate this morning to delay a vote, he must have known of the senator's intentions to stand aside just before question time today. One would assume that Senator Abetz and the Prime Minister also knew of Senator Sinodinos's intentions. The country knew about it. The Financial Review reported Senator Sinodinos's musings this morning.

And this isn't the end of the matter. Senator Sinodinos may have temporarily stood aside but many questions still remain unanswered. If the Prime Minister is serious about ethical standards, he will require Senator Sinodinos to make a full disclosure about his involvement in AWH. Further, it is incumbent upon the Prime Minister to explain his knowledge of Senator Sinodinos's involvement with AWH and the steps he and his office have taken to examine this matter.

This afternoon, moments before question time, we had former Assistant Treasurer Sinodinos stand down from his position in the ministry. Senator Sinodinos has made the decision to temporarily stand aside for the duration of the ICAC trial, and the Labor Party welcomes his decision. However, the Senate has not received an explanation from Senator Sinodinos about his dealings with Australian Water Holdings. Senator Sinodinos came into the Senate at approximately 1.55 pm today to make a statement. His statement lasted approximately two minutes, leaving two to three minutes before question time. Why did Senator Sinodinos not use this statement to answer questions raised during the debate this morning if he has got nothing to hide? Why did he sit down with two or three minutes to go until question time? Why won't he answer the legitimate questions put forward by the opposition?

This morning, the Senate spent a number of hours debating the worth of Senator Sinodinos making a full statement to the chamber. We know that the New South Wales ICAC has heard disturbing allegations of corruption by persons associated with the company Australian Water Holdings. We know that Senator Sinodinos was firstly a non-executive director and then became chairman of AWH. We know that concurrently he served first as treasurer and then as president of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party. Virtually all of the behaviour alleged at ICAC occurred while Senator Sinodinos was with AWH from 2008 to 2011—alleged behaviour that includes skimming money off government contracts to be paid as excessively generous salaries and dodgy share deals. The Prime Minister must require that Senator Sinodinos make a full statement to the Senate about this matter. The statement this afternoon from Senator Sinodinos was purely political, not about providing ministerial accountability to this place and through this place to the Australian people. (Time expired)