Wednesday, 19 March 2014
Matters of Public Importance
Before I forget, I would just like to congratulate Senator O'Sullivan on a very fine first speech. Clearly a touch of the Irish remains—an irreverence, a lyricism, a wit and a touch of the troublemaker. I know all senators wish him well.
My friend Senator Claire Moore, as Manager of Opposition Business, is having a great week. As you know, I am a fan of Senator Moore, and when I received this MPI that was submitted for discussion this afternoon, 'The Prime Minister's failure to uphold ministerial standards,' I thought to myself, 'Well, either this is a joke or there is a deep touch of irony running through the MPIs this week.'
There is significant history behind this. If we go back to the previous two coalition administrations and the previous two Liberal prime ministers, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and then Prime Minister John Howard, there is no question at all that both Liberal prime ministers set the bar very high for their ministerial colleagues. Some, I remember, argued that it was too high. I recall the dismissal of Sir Phillip Lynch by Mr Fraser, and then of course John Howard, Australia's second-longest-serving Prime Minister, having to receive the resignations of several of his ministers. There was never a question at all in the past about Liberal prime ministers, leading a coalition government, setting the standards for our ministers too low. If anything, they have always set them too high. There was always discussion among the parliamentary party, the academic community and, indeed, the public suggesting that the standards were actually too high. No-one has ever said that there was a failure to uphold ministerial standards. I have never heard that before of a Liberal Prime Minister or a coalition government.
By contrast, we have the Labor Party—in particular, the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party. It looks like an episode of The Sopranos; it has become that bad. We have Mr Eddie Obeid, known around the traps, I am told, as 'Fast Eddie'. We have Mr Tony Kelly, known in Chinatown as 'Machine-Gun Kelly'. We have Mr Joe Tripodi, known down there in Sussex Street as 'Smokin' Joe'. Finally, we have Mr Ian Macdonald. He is just known as Bad Ian Macdonald, in deference to my friend the good Senator the Hon. Ian Macdonald. We have these characters running around, these party figures. They are jokes, really. They are parodies of Australian political life and often a disgrace to our profession and public life—let alone the former federal president of the Labor Party, Mr Michael Williamson. He is just known as a crook. Of course, what the Labor Party have done is besmirch the profession, lowered Australia's trust in public life and diminished public life as a whole.
We have them all running around, and those blokes have done the impossible: they have given the New South Wales Labor Party an even worse name. You would not believe it was possible after years and years of the New South Wales Labor Party, rotten since the Rum Rebellion and the Rum Corps, but now it is even worse under these blokes. How I miss all my old right-wing friends from Sussex Street, including Steve Hutchins. You will remember Steve Hutchins, Acting Deputy President Bernardi. He was my old friend. He used to always worry about reds under the bed. Now we only worry about Obeids under the bed. That is all we worry about now.
Now all we have is an allegation against Senator Sinodinos. What is this allegation? It is that he has had some dealings with New South Wales Labor Party figures, some of whom clearly are very unattractive people. Let me just get this right: Labor's idea of misconduct and a hanging offence in this parliament is—wait for it—associating with members of the Labor Party. That is an interesting turn of events, isn't it? That is what the Labor Party now believes. I have a confession to make. I am used to making confessions, although I have not done it in a church for a while, I have to say. However, I do make confessions. I too have associated with some very unattractive figures in the Labor Party. There are many to choose from. I also, however, have associated with some very attractive figures, even from the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party: Senator Faulkner, Senator Stephens and others. They are attractive people. You cannot say that someone should be put down or hanged because of associations with others. So I am just wondering if perhaps I should hang my head in shame because of my associations with attractive or unattractive people.
There is a serious point in this, though, and I acknowledge it. The Labor Party wants to claim a scalp, to claim a win, to claim that the coalition has as many ratbags in it as the Labor Party does—that we are full of crooks. That is wrong. There has been no allegation of wrongdoing made by anyone against Senator Sinodinos. Senator Sinodinos is a witness. He is a witness in proceedings of the New South Wales ICAC. Any citizen may be called in as a witness in proceedings before ICAC, as you know, Acting Deputy President Bernardi. Neither council assisting ICAC nor other witnesses before ICAC nor the ICAC commissioner himself have alleged any wrongdoing against Senator Sinodinos. There are no allegations per se. Attendance as a witness at an ICAC hearing is not in any way an indication of wrongdoing, as Labor senators in this chamber very well know.
If appearing as a witness is now Labor's new standard of impropriety and implies guilt, just think of the precedent that now sets. If appearance as a witness with no allegations against a particular senator now qualifies as a hanging offence or as misconduct, just think of the precedent that is setting. It is one hell of a precedent not just for Senator Sinodinos but for any senator in this place—indeed, any member of parliament. It is a bar many of us would be very scared to try to jump over
The royal commission, as you know, will soon be calling in a lot of witnesses, and a lot of those witnesses will no doubt be past and present Labor Party officials and identities. And who knows? Some of them may be members of the Senate or the House of Representatives. They may be called as witnesses. And what are we supposed to make of that? Just because they are asked to testify, are we supposed to imply from that that they are crooks? I am not going to be doing that simply because someone is called as a witness to testify in a royal commission about trade unions. Tempting though it might be, I think we should, as it were, hold our horses.
I do not always agree with Mr Albanese, but I heard him this morning when I was jogging away at the gym, doing my best. The member for Grayndler said: 'Perhaps we should just hold back. People are entitled to rely on the presumption of innocence—even members of parliament.' Mr Albanese was right, and any fair-minded person would agree with that.
But it is actually more than that. All of us—and perhaps I have been guilty myself—have to try to resist trying other members of parliament in forums like the Senate or House of Representatives where there really is no chance to test evidence. There is really no chance to test proof. This is totally the wrong forum for the taking of evidence and the examination of witnesses, because it does not happen. The veracity of witnesses cannot be tested. This is the wrong forum for it. Let's just leave it to ICAC.