Senate debates

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Sinodinos, Senator Arthur

3:03 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 answer given by the Minister for Employment (Senator Abetz) to a question without notice asked by Senator Wong today relating to Senator Sinodinos.

Senator Abetz today continued what has now become a well-worn tradition—insofar as a government that has been in place for six months can have a well-worn tradition—of not being up-front with the Australian people. They have not been up-front with the public about what the Prime Minister knew about the details that Senator Sinodinos had in relation to Australian Water Holdings.

There are two bases on which Senator Abetz refused to answer or ducked the question. First, he asserted that Senator Sinodinos's conduct was not being investigated and his behaviour was not being examined; he was simply a witness. I simply refer Senator Abetz to some of the explosive evidence we have heard in the Independent Commission Against Corruption today and previously. I refer him to the opening submission of the counsel assisting, where, in part, he said that Mr Sinodinos would have enjoyed a $10 million or $20 million payday. He said:

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.

He went on to say more. So I again say that there are serious questions that Senator Abetz should have answered in relation to the Prime Minister's knowledge of certain matters, and also in relation to this particular issue.

In my first question I asked whether or not Senator Sinodinos would be stood down until both the anti-corruption investigations examining his behaviour—Operation Credo and Operation Spicer—are concluded. That was not answered.

In my second question I asked when the Prime Minister became aware that Senator Sinodinos's conduct was the subject of two investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and whether it was before or after the Prime Minister appointed him to the Treasury portfolio. One would think, given the controversy of this issue and the focus on this issue, that it is incumbent on Senator Abetz to provide that answer. It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister would not know about these matters, given what has occurred. I think it is relevant to the Australian people to know, when their Prime Minister appointed Senator Sinodinos to the position of Assistant Treasurer, what the Prime Minister knew about these two separate Independent Commission Against Corruption investigations.

The fact is that we have seen this week a Prime Minister that is not up-front with the Australian people. We have seen a Prime Minister that presides over a government which is secretive and arrogant and which refuses to account to the public for its actions. We have seen, in this chamber, the Assistant Health Minister, who took down the health-star-rating system web site after a phone call from a food industry lobby group. We have seen her mislead the Senate and refuse to answer legitimate questions about this affair.

Then we had Senator Sinodinos, who refused, prior to standing down, to make an explanation to the Senate about his involvement in Australian Water Holdings and to explain how it was that his statement could sit alongside the evidence that has been given to the Independent Commission Against Corruption—including, for example, what he knew about the Obeid family investment in AWH, and what he knew about donations to the Liberal Party being made while he was an office holder, both of the Liberal Party and Australian Water Holdings.

The facts are these: Senator Sinodinos has failed to explain his inconsistencies and he has failed to explain how his statement to the Senate can sit with the evidence that has been led or referenced at the Independent Commission against Corruption. This Prime Minister is a prime minister who promised an accountable and transparent government. Instead, what the public have got is arrogance. They were promised accountability; instead they have got arrogance. In this last period, what we have seen from the Abbott government is this: one minister gone, another minister censured and a chief of staff who has quit over a conflict of interest. What is clear is that Prime Minister Abbott is not leading the sort of government he told people he would; instead, he is leading a secretive, slipshod and arrogant government. We saw more of that on display in question time today with Senator Abetz refusing to answer straightforward questions about what the Prime Minister knew. (Time expired)

3:08 pm

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

Again today we have seen from the Australian Labor Party a party that cannot get on with the proper business and policy issues confronting Australia—a party that want to be distracted by the politics of smear, by the politics of envy and by the politics of distraction. Listening to Senator Wong then it is clear that the smear continues from the Australian Labor Party—the desperate smear they have been engaging in all week continues against Senator Sinodinos and they have been attempting to spread it across the government.

There could not be a more ethical act that Senator Sinodinos could have undertaken than to stand aside as he has done this week. There could not have been a more ethical act than of his own volition to have stood aside from his duties entirely, whilst he simply gives evidence to the ICAC—evidence to the same body that Mr Greg Combet has given evidence to and that Senator Doug Cameron last year gave evidence to. Senator Sinodinos will give evidence to exactly the same body. Because he is a man of such ethical conduct, because he is a man who puts country before self and because he is a man who puts government before self, he has stood aside from his duties so as not to be a distraction and to allow us to get on with the proper business of government. That is not the Labor Party's interest; their interest is to continue this politics of smear and to now allow any proper running of the country to occur.

It is not just the politics of smear, but, as I said, it is also a politics of envy. You note, Mr Acting Deputy President, that when the Labor Party are challenged to say what the allegations are—what the actual wrongdoing is—they can never cite them, but they will suggest: 'Senator Sinodinos perhaps was making money in an occupation he held prior to being in the Australian Senate.' They will throw around figures of what was earned or what could have been earned had business dealings gone through. They are not alleging a particular wrongdoing. They are, of course, trying to insinuate by the potential for income to have been made prior to him even being in this place that there is somehow some wrong attached to that. It is base class politics—politics of envy—coming from the Labor Party that people in business might occasionally make money out of being in business. There is nothing wrong with people in business seeking to make money. The Labor Party, rather than insinuating there might be something wrong about it, might make the allegation about it point blank.

Lastly, it is not just the politics of smear and the politics of envy, from those opposite but also the politics of distraction. On this day when they came into this chamber and voted against the repeal of the carbon tax, they were desperate to be talking about anything other than those matters that impact directly on Australian families and Australian businesses. Today the Labor Party voted to keep higher electricity prices and to put those electricity prices up again on 1 July of this year. That is what Labor senators did. They may have gone to the last election claiming that they had abolished the carbon tax and their lead candidate in the West Australian Senate by-election may even have been out there today claiming that he stood to abolish the carbon tax, but today every single Labor senator came in here—aside from Senator Pratt, who does not seem to be able to get to the Senate nowadays—and voted to keep the carbon tax. They voted to keep the carbon tax and to put it up on 1 July this year, costing businesses and families ever more.

Little wonder that they are trying to hide behind the politics of smear, the politics of envy and the politics of distraction at a time like this—rather than standing up for Australian people, Australian families, Australian businesses, Australian jobs and the policies this government is attempting to deploy to make this country competitive again, to reduce the cost-of-living pressures on Australians and to create new jobs for the future. These are the things we should be debating in this place. Senator Sinodinos wants to see our government get on and do that, and that is why he has done the honourable thing. It is a shame those opposite are incapable of doing it. (Time expired)

3:13 pm

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

It is always interesting to hear coalition politicians defending their own. What we had today was defence from Senator Abetz and now it is defence from Senator Birmingham using terms like 'smear' and 'sideshow'. Senator Abetz said that this is about a sideshow. Tell the Australian public that earning $200,000 for 100 hours work is a sideshow or standing up and saying that you are the chair of a company that cannot pay its tax while ripping $200,000 out of that company is a sideshow. I do not think the Australian public see that as a sideshow. I do not think the Australian public see making a personal gain of between $10 million and $20 million out of a company that was struggling to pay its tax bill as a sideshow. These things are not sideshows; these are serious issues for the Australian public and serious issues for this Senate.

I think it is a serious issue when massive executive salaries are paid to people in this company who are directly engaged with the Liberal Party—massive executive salaries when a company cannot pay its tax. That is not a sideshow by any stretch of the imagination. It is not a sideshow when you have donations to Treasurer Hockey's campaign from a company that can hardly pay its tax bill. I do not see that as a sideshow at all. And I do not see it as a sideshow when donations are going not only to the Treasurer but also to the Liberal Party itself from a company that cannot pay its tax bill. I do not see that as any kind of sideshow. And I do not see a sideshow when Michael Photios, the former Liberal minister, has a fee negotiated by Senator Sinodinos on his behalf to pay him a $5,000-a-month retainer and a $1 million success fee from a company that can hardly pay its tax bill. That is not a sideshow; it is a matter of serious public concern.

I do not think it is a sideshow when Senator Sinodinos told this parliament that he resigned from AWH as soon as he found out that the Obeids were part of the show and then we suddenly find out that the Obeids have been there the whole time. On the second day of Senator Sinodinos becoming the chair of the company, the Obeids were buying $3 million worth of that company. It just beggars belief that someone who had been a director beforehand and was then the chair of the company was unaware of who was behind a $3 million buy into the company, when it was the Obeids. It just beggars belief. Again, that is not a sideshow at all.

And it is not a smear when we say there are serious issues to be answered by Senator Sinodinos here in this place and there are serious issues before ICAC. It is not us saying that there is a problem; it is ICAC itself. On the opening day of ICAC, what did the counsel assisting say about Senator Sinodinos? He said:

Based upon the PricewaterhouseCoopers valuation … Mr Sinodinos would have …$10 to $20 million …

He went on to say:

He has other involvements which will come under scrutiny …

Further, he said:

It is quite transparent that Mr Sinodinos’ true role … was …communication with the Liberal Party.

That is not a smear from the Labor Party; that is what counsel assisting ICAC is saying. All their mates are in there looking after each other. This is a big public problem and it is anything but a sideshow. (Time expired)

3:18 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It seems the Labor Party is adopting President Obama's tactics of distraction and class warfare. I mention that only having heard the questions during question time, but after Senator Cameron's tirade over the last five minutes it has confirmed for me that that is your tactic: distraction. But it is not working, Senator Cameron, because of the strength of character and the example that Senator Sinodinos set us all as he stood aside yesterday. He was not stood down, as Senator Wong claimed. It is so typical of the Left to grab language and linguistics to enshrine their entrenched negative perspective on things. It is important that we bell the cat on it every time.

It is a distraction from the debt Labor left us and the $33 million in interest every day—Senator Cameron, as you leave the chamber. Every day we have to pay that off because of your reckless spending over the last six years. It is a distraction from the fact that at the last change of government you were left with zero debt—nothing to pay off—and yet you return it to us riddled with debt. We are borrowing $129 million a day just to service it, and there are some structural deficits within our budget that are going to take us some significant work to address and get under control. It is a distraction from the fact that you just cannot get over the election result. Here we are six months after the election and we are still unable to repeal the mining tax and the carbon tax, which they voted you out to do, before WA go to their Senate election. You are seeking anything that will ensure a distraction from that particular case.

There is the contrast between Senator Sinodinos's actions and the ALP. There is Senator Sinodinos's confidence in the process that is underway within ICAC, where he has been called as a witness. It is laid out in the statement he made in February last year that he is confident that the process will deliver the result that will see him back on our front bench as soon as possible, as soon as the process is concluded. It is honourable action; it is selfless. It is so typical of this man who has served Australia, has served his party, has served this government and has served this Senate with distinction. I refer the opposition to his statement on 28 February last year and call on them to allow the process to take its course. Do not come in here and use this place to chase phantom accusations. The opposition refuse to identify the accusations today—as I think Senator Fifield called on them to do—and they could not identify them yesterday either.

Earlier today in Senator Wong's contribution, she said we lacked, as a government, transparency. I would like to take the Senate to the Labor Party's version of transparency and the Noble House Chinese Restaurant in Sydney. According to a media report, former minister Albanese and Senator Cameron had a meeting with six senior Left Labor figures, including Mr Foley, at the Noble House Chinese Restaurant. They came to the 'consensus view' that Mr Macdonald—who, from ICAC reports, was found to be corrupt—would not be stripped of his preselection.

The way the Labor Party deals with transparency and accountability is very, very different from how we choose to do it. It is absolutely abhorrent that the opposition come in here and claim that our government lacks transparency and accountability. You claim we lack accountability. Let us look at the way you chose to govern this nation, the way you overrode cabinet processes, the way you rejected the people's will, the way you rejected parliamentary and committee processes and the way you rejected your own caucus processes. You have no track record on accountability or moral or ethical standing in this argument.

I refer to the statement that Senator Sinodinos made on 19 March in this place. He stood aside so that we could continue to do what the Australian people have elected us to do, and that is to get on with governing and with fixing Labor's mess. He stated that he is proud to serve in our government. We are very, very proud to serve with him and we look forward to the day when he continues to serve with us in delivering on the promises we made to the Australian people at the last election—the promises you are failing to let us deliver on.

3:24 pm

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

I rise to take note of answers to the questions that were put to Senator Abetz, the Minister representing the Prime Minister today. Senator Wong asked the minister to give some plausible indication of what the future arrangements are around the standing down of Senator Sinodinos, now departed for an unknown period from his role as the Assistant Treasurer while Operation Credo and Operation Spicer are concluded. We think it would be in the public interest to know some time frame is being considered by the government. Certainly the financial services sector would like to know, given the massive and dangerous changes being proposed by this government to the FOFA reforms, which come under that minister's responsibility.

I have to say that I am disappointed but not surprised by the minister's response. I am disappointed but not surprised because there is an emerging pattern here. Given the opportunity to put on the record the sort of transparent, clear and factual plan of the government to deal with the fact that it has had to distance itself from one of its senior ministers around the area of probity, the minister representing the Prime Minister in this chamber, Senator Abetz, chose to avoid the facts and to use instead weasel words to cover up.

We got a lesson in one thing today: this government's seeming obsession with prepositions. We were told 'Senator Sinodinos stood aside'—stood aside, not down. The fact is that Senator Sinodinos is off the front bench and he is out of his role because there are concerns about the probity of this minister. I doubt anyone was impressed by the affirmation from Senator Abetz today that Senator Sinodinos is intending to forgo his ministerial entitlements. I think ordinary Australians would have expected that was immediately the case, not a mere expressed intention.

I return to take note of what was not answered by Senator Abetz, who is representing the Prime Minister here today. The fact is that there is a now a great deal of uncertainty around the portfolio area that Senator Sinodinos was responsible for, with the former minister now caught up with Operation Credo and Operation Spicer. Surely the stakeholders in the portfolios that were overseen by the former Assistant Treasurer deserve a little clarity moving forward? The questions we asked remain unanswered. How long will Senator Sinodinos be out? The fact is that his former portfolio is now being held, in addition to his finance portfolio responsibilities, by Senator Cormann. What is going on there? Is this just a holding pattern? Surely, the Australian people deserve a bit more information than we got from Senator Abetz at question time today?

Further, despite the opportunity here today to put on the record a clear and transparent indication of when the Prime Minister became of aware of Senator Sinodinos's conduct, which is now subject to not one but two ICAC investigations, we are still none the wiser as a result of Senator Abetz's responses in this place today as to what the Prime Minister knew and when he or his office knew it. Operation Credo and Operation Spicer are no small investigations. Surely, someone from the former Assistant Treasurer's office or perhaps Senator Sinodinos himself would have advised the Prime Minister, his chief of staff or someone—anyone—in the Prime Minister's office that these investigations were underway and that Senator Sinodinos was caught up in them? Sadly, despite the opportunity to give us a clear and honest answer to the question about what changed between Tuesday, when Senator Sinodinos had the Prime Minister's full confidence, and Wednesday this week, when he clearly did not, we just cannot seem to get an answer from Senator Abetz. There is no fulsome explanation and there is no acknowledgement that something shifted between Tuesday and Wednesday this week. They are not revealing important pieces of information the Australian people have a right to know.

Why is he hiding from the Senate the new information that must have emerged to so change the Prime Minister's view in that 24-hour period—and all this just six months after forming a government? The fact that the questions today were not answered is another concern. It is alarming that, despite the outrage that is being expressed by the determined secrecy of this new Abbott government, we cannot get answers to these questions. We are concerned. Here is a government compromised from within already; a government that, after six months, is trying cover its tracks, deny facts and hide the truth from the Australian a people; a government that is secretive, slipshod and arrogant; and a government that is already unravelling because of its entrenched arrogance. The Australian people deserve answers to the questions asked today and this week, and this arrogant government— (Time expired)

Question agreed to.