Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Australian Water Holdings

3:16 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 Minister for Employment (Senator Abetz) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.

There are so many legitimate unanswered questions about the Prime Minister's knowledge of the issues which have been ventilated in this place and also before the Independent Commission Against Corruption in relation to Senator Sinodinos's dealings. Let us recall what occurred today.

Over the last two days the coalition government has chosen to do everything in its power to prevent Senator Sinodinos answering questions or providing information to the Senate on the allegations and facts which have been ventilated in the Commission Against Corruption hearing. We saw that yesterday, when questions were refused to be answered and points of order were taken. We saw that this morning when the government went through extraordinary procedural shenanigans in order to avoid having to have Senator Sinodinos attend the chamber, as per an order of the Senate, to provide a statement. This is not an abstract discussion. This is in the context of some very serious allegations of corrupt behaviour in relation to Australian Water Holdings, which have been put on the public record before the Commission Against Corruption. I refer senators to my discussion earlier today about some of those matters and how Senator Sinodinos's previous statement to the Senate did not adequately address the facts which have subsequently been put on the public record.

Today we saw the Minister representing the Prime Minister being asked a number of questions about the state of the Prime Minister's knowledge when he appointed Senator Sinodinos to the ministry—what he knew about Senator Sinodinos's dealings, as both director and chair of Australian Water Holdings; whether he knew that his minister stood to gain a personal benefit of $10 million to $20 million, described as a 'payday' in the Commission Against Corruption; and whether he knew, in particular, about donations provided to the Liberal Party, which were Sydney Water money being funnelled through Australian Water Holdings.

These are legitimate questions and Senator Abetz was not able to answer them. Whilst I appreciate he was in his representative capacity, I would make the point that these are matters which have been on the public record for a period of time. One would have thought that he could have been briefed but, more importantly, I make this point: questions have been asked for months about Senator Sinodinos's appointment to the ministry. I recall a lot of commentary about why it was that Senator Cormann was appointed to cabinet and not Senator Sinodinos, as had previously been touted. Why was it that, out of the potential list of, I think, 30, Senator Sinodinos was in fact the last on that list when he was, as those opposite have continued to assert, a man of great capacity?

That gave rise to the question as to whether there were reasons why it was that the Prime Minister chose to not only not put him in the cabinet and to prefer Senator Cormann but put him so low down in order of precedence. Those questions have been raised. The Prime Minister himself has said that there was no cloud over Senator Sinodinos.

Given that backdrop, it is somewhat surprising that the Prime Minister's representative in this place cannot answer legitimate questions about what the Prime Minister knew when. What I would say to this chamber is this: it is reasonable for the Australian people to know the answer to a number of questions. They are entitled to know what the Prime Minister knew about Senator Sinodinos's activities, dealings and conduct at AWH at the time he made the decision to appoint him to the ministry. They are entitled to know if the Prime Minister took appropriate steps to consider whether or not Senator Sinodinos ought be appointed to the station of minister in the light of those facts. The Prime Minister may well have made proper inquiries and he may well have come to a view. I think, given the circumstances that we have seen in the last 72 hours, it is incumbent on the Prime Minister to explain that. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I have only been here just under six years but I never cease to be amazed at the gall of those opposite. Whether it is on this side of the chamber or the other, all the contrived and confected outrage of Senator Wong, Senator Conroy, Senator Carr and various imitators of Statler and Waldorf cannot hide the profound duplicity of the Labor Party. I should add that it is not just those opposite; it is their Greens cousins down the corridor here. We sat in this chamber for the last few years and witnessed nothing less than a protection racket Tony Soprano would have been proud of. It was a protection racket to protect one of their own in the other place—a racket to protect Craig Thomson, who is now awaiting sentencing. The Labor Party and the Greens voted to prevent information that was presented in camera to a Senate committee getting to the Australian public. We knew what was in it because we could sit in those committees, Senate or joint. You knew what it was because some of you knew what it was like beforehand, and what he was like before he got here. Yet you have the gall to come in here and criticise someone else through sledging, slurring and making unfounded allegations. The Labor Party has absolutely no credibility on these matters.

The New South Wales ALP is so debased that the best people can do now is to come into this chamber to defer and deflect attention from the fact that a former ALP national president has been convicted and is going to jail and a former one of their parliamentary party is awaiting sentencing. So the best they can do in true Labor style is to sledge and to slur. At no point, as Senator Brandis and Senator Abetz have outlined, has there been an accusation of illegality or corruption. They stand behind 'We are just asking questions'—questions they would not let be asked about their own colleagues; questions they would not let be asked about Craig Thomson. They are asking questions in this chamber but they prevented information going to the Australian public about Craig Thomson, and they knew what it was: the unprecedented corruption in the Health Services Union; the use of members' money that has been found to be illegal. And they come in here and complain about an upstanding contributor to public life such as Senator Sinodinos with all the contrived and confected outrage that only a racketeer could muster. The Labor Party has become nothing more than a corrupted cabal of cronies where all the people opposite come here representing part of an alphabet soup because their union shareholders own a seat on those benches. When they are in office they launder money by giving it to the trade unions through training funds which then flow back to the Labor Party in donations and employment of organisers that campaign in seats. They have the gall to criticise people that have made a contribution to the private sector.

If I could turn to Senator Sinodinos, as Senator Abetz has said, his decision is one we regret but respect. As the Prime Minister has said this afternoon in the other place, it reflects the best and most honourable of Westminster traditions and this is the sign of the character of a man who has given our country such faithful service. Today Senator Sinodinos's actions point out the emptiness and the hollowness of the Labor Party. We sat here and witnessed the Labor Party protect their own because power is all they care about. I have seen them hand over $10 million to the Trade Union Training Authority, which then means that unions do not have to pay for training like every other business does. They are free then to employ more people or make more donations or pay higher affiliation fees or, dare I say it, get more hotel movies and more after executive committee entertainment.

The Labor Party by its attack on Senator Sinodinos has shown up its own failings—the fact that it has no standards, the fact that all it has is the ability to sledge and to slur, the fact that it seeks to hold other people to standards to which it will not hold itself. I notice Senator O'Neill shaking her head. The only thing a member of the New South Wales ALP should do is to bow their head, because it is the most corrupted organisation in the history of Australian political parties—

Opposition Senators:

Opposition senators interjecting

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

Order! Senators on my left, interjecting is disorderly.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (Victoria, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

and the best it can do is to sledge. It is a sign of the character of the man and the Labor Party has been found wanting.

3:27 pm

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

Today we had a situation where the Leader of the Government had to be reminded of what his responsibilities were to this chamber and to represent the Prime Minister and on behalf of the government be accountable to this chamber when it came to very basic questions about what the Prime Minister knew about the details surrounding the operations of Australian Water Holdings, and in particular the operations of Australian Water Holdings when the Assistant Treasurer had in previous arrangements been the chairman of that company and simultaneously Treasurer of the Liberal Party and later President of the Liberal Party in the state of New South Wales—situations which have now come to light as a result of proceedings in ICAC which we have seen reveal quite extraordinary developments.

I notice that Senator Macdonald is with us today. Senator Macdonald has been able to offer us all advice on what he saw as the Prime Minister and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin, enforcing 'a culture of obsessive centralised control phobia'. I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald of 4 December last year. They were out of touch with voters, according to Senator Macdonald, who had shown that the government of this country had come to the points of centralisation where every staff appointment from every backbencher, every committee appointment, every ministerial appointment, every parliamentary committee appointment into cabinet and other actions within the Liberal Party and the National Party were being determined by a vetting process made in the name of the Prime Minister but by the chief of staff of the Prime Minister. So on the very point of the Assistant Treasurer's appointment to the ministry, the question arose: what did the Prime Minister actually know of the circumstances surrounding the events in New South Wales and the corrupt activity of Australian Water Holdings? This was a question that was asked on 16 September, the very day of Senator Sinodinos's appointment to the ministry.

Mr Abbott made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, there was absolutely no cloud whatsoever over Senator Sinodinos. We simply ask this question: what did the Prime Minister do to satisfy himself—or, more importantly, what did the Prime Minister's chief of staff do to satisfy herself—that Senator Sinodinos was a man able to fulfil the role of Assistant Treasurer given the circumstances that have now been revealed at ICAC? In February of last year Senator Sinodinos put forward a proposition that he was the director of a company which had been surrounded by the stench of corruption. We know that he was the director of Australian Water Holdings for two years. He claimed to the Senate that he had no knowledge of the involvement of the Obeids in that company. He was shocked, he said, when he discovered this. He said he had no knowledge about the capacity of this company to divert donations to the Liberal Party when he was the treasurer of the Liberal Party. So the chairman of the company, the treasurer of the Liberal Party, knew nothing about the operations of the company and knew nothing about the fact that the Obeids actually owned one-third of the company at the time.

We have, as I said, an obsessive, centralised control and phobia in this government, yet the Prime Minister did not choose to establish the facts in this matter prior to the appointment of Senator Sinodinos. So I can understand why Senator Macdonald would be unhappy about the circumstances. I can understand why, faced with the circumstance where he was not able to secure a place on the frontbench, he might feel a little aggrieved at what is going on, just as many Liberal-National senators and members of the House of Representatives are very aggrieved that the vetting of staff in members' offices is being conducted by the chief of staff of the Prime Minister. You have to ask yourself this question: why was this situation allowed to develop when there is this level of centralised control within the government? I am sure that there are many senators in this chamber— (Time expired)

3:32 pm

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

I commence my contribution by indicating that I totally support and agree with the comments of the Prime Minister when he said:

Senator Sinodinos has done the right and decent thing … as you'd expect from someone who has given our country such long and faithful service.

He continued:

I look forward to his restoration to the ministry.

I think every fair-minded senator in this chamber would agree with those comments from the Prime Minister.

Labor has this confected outrage about the Obeid family. I say to the Labor Party senators: if you have a problem with Mr Obeid, if you want to know what he did with his money, if you want to know who he 'imposed upon'—if I can use those words—to get favours for his company, there is no-one better to ask than yourselves, because, after all, Mr Obeid was a Labor member of parliament. He was a colleague of many of those opposite. Senator O'Neill, who is to follow me, was a colleague of Mr Obeid's. She would have been subjected to the influences of the Obeid family.

We know that Senator Conroy was very close to the Obeid family because he actually stayed in their chalet for a night or two. Mr Tony Burke, a former senior member of the Gillard and Rudd governments, also shared in Mr Obeid's largess. Senator Cameron gave my namesake, the New South Wales Labor Ian Macdonald, a reference for Mr Obeid's preselection. If Labor senators want to know about the Obeid family, why doesn't Senator Cameron ask the other Ian Macdonald from New South Wales Labor all about them? He was obviously very much involved with Mr Obeid.

I noticed a rather interesting article in The Sydney Morning Herald by Ms Jacqueline Maley. She said:

The Labor Party has a surplus of corporate knowledge in the anti-corruption inquiry ''space''.

In recent years the appearance of one of its MPs before the Independent Commission Against Corruption has been such a regular occurrence it has almost become a comfort - a reminder that, even in this crazy, fast-paced world of ours, some things can always be counted on: death, taxes, and the strong civic interest colourful Labor characters take in the awarding of mining and water licences.

I think that sums it up very well. Ms Maley also drew our attention to the fact that the only Labor person who has actually called upon Senator Sinodinos to resign is Mr Kelvin Thomson, whose own credibility is somewhat circumspect when you recall that it was he who admitted providing a reference for the Melbourne crime figure Tony Mokbel.

The Labor Party come in here with these false accusations, trying to defer attention from the union movement—into which here is shortly to be a royal commission—and from many union officials. I would have thought the Labor Party would be more interested in pursuing this story where the Newcastle Trades Hall secretary said in the recent 'march in March' protest that Qantas boss Alan Joyce 'should be shot somewhere in the back of the head'. I would have thought that if the Labor Party were interested in standards and proper public activities in this country they would be calling upon the Trades Hall secretary in Newcastle to withdraw that or to explain himself. This is an absolutely outrageous thing to say. This is the Labor Party, of course.

Senator Lines interjecting

Senator Lines is only in the chamber because of people like the New South Wales Trades Hall secretary who show that sort of bile in a public forum. You can understand why the Labor Party so protect the union movement. It is because every single one of their senators is here thanks to the efforts of the union movement. Without the union movement, they would not be here. So they should get real. If they want to have an inquiry, why don't they have a look a look at the Trades Hall secretary in Newcastle?

3:36 pm

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

What a sight we have seen here today. In fact, I probably should not call it a sight, because we have not really seen what we should have seen. Instead, we have been treated to a minister in hiding—no less than the Assistant Treasurer of Australia. While this place was trying to get answers to some very simple questions about the senator's former business dealings, he could not even present himself to this chamber. Then on the cusp of question time—at 1.58—he disappeared again, but this time from the front bench. He was minister no more. That was without a good question being answered and without any indication of a fulsome explanation of the gap between what he has put on the record in this place and what is now emerging in the public place.

To disrespect the Senate in that way is a shameful indication of the modus operandi of those who are running this government. There has been no statement given and there has been no accountability to this chamber. That is a failure of the government to own up to the responsibility they have. Now that they are those opposite are in government and they are the ministers, they deserve to respond to this house. It is a fair and reasonable expectation. Instead, what we are seeing are dodgy deals done behind closed doors with the Prime Minister and his chief of staff.

'Command and control' is a term that we have heard used by this government, but in fact the command and control central has been operating out of the Prime Minister's office. It is well-documented in the media. I stand here this afternoon finding it very difficult to believe that the determination was for Senator Sinodinos to put the shutters down, to run and to hide from the scrutiny of the Senate, and to do it in such sneaky and unparliamentarily way at 1.58—just before question time.

Now, further, he has made his colleague Senator Abetz come in here, take questions and respond for him. I am here to take note of answers, but really we cannot take note of answers because today we have seen—once again—a failure by this government to give answers in the manner that is the custom of this place and the expectation of the people of this nation. We on this side are trying to get answers from Senator Abetz, the Leader of the Government in this place, about why Senate Sinodinos did not get the job of Minister for Finance after the election. What did Tony Abbott know as far back as September last year about the dodgy deals of Senator Sinodinos?

In the press today, we have seen an article by Mark Kenny, who asks the questions. These are the sorts of questions that the public—

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

I rise on a point of order. Senator O'Neill was reflecting on a colleague. She referred to dodgy deals by Senator Sinodinos. No Labor senator, to this point, has made any allegation against Senator Sinodinos. So are you the first, Senator O'Neill, to do so? You may want to consider what you have said and withdraw.

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

I would ask Senator O'Neill to consider those remarks and do what she considers is appropriate.

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

I think, with respect, that Senator Fifield has actually connected two completely different paragraphs in his conflation of those points.

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

Senator O'Neill, perhaps there might be another way in which you could word those previous comments.

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

I am going to say that there are many concerns in the public place about dodgy deals going on behind the scenes in many contexts. The scrutiny of the government has to be observed at the highest standard. Concerns are being expressed in the public place which are well represented in articles today by Mark Kenny in the Canberra Times and also by Norman Abjorensen. They want to know. Norman Abjorensen says, 'Answers are required from this charming man.' Mr Mark Kenny argues, 'Is Abbott's pass over of Sinodinos becoming clearer?'

These questions about the uncertain nature of why Senator Sinodinos—who was expected to take the finance portfolio—was given the position of Assistant Treasurer, have been lingering in the public place for a long time. It really makes us question, once again, what we know. When did the Prime Minister actually know and have concerns about some of the issues that are now being debated in the public place? But, sadly, we are not able to get a response here in the chamber?

It is hard to think that somebody would not have tapped the Prime Minister on the shoulder at some stage and raised his awareness about the minister being a director on the AWH board and funnelling money into the Liberal Party. Surely somebody knew and raised this question with the Prime Minister. But it seems it is not enough to stop someone from entering the ministry of a Liberal government. If it comes to public attention, their response is simply to hide, to cover up, and to then demote them out to the side for a short period of time. So, we will see.

Those opposite and Senator Abetz have made much about the importance of ministerial conduct, but the really serious questions that have faced this government are the standards of ministerial conduct by Senator Nash and now Senator Sinodinos, who has stepped aside while the inquiries of the Independent Commission Against Corruption are underway. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.