Thursday, 25 September 2014
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Answers to Questions
That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today.
If ever there was an example of how out of touch the frontbench of the coalition are, it is the response that Senator Brandis gave to the questions about the male-only Savage Club. Senator Brandis joined a club where women are excluded. Senator Brandis has a responsibility as the Attorney-General to make sure that there is no discrimination, yet he joined a club that is based on discrimination. He joined a club that has some bizarre rituals that are unbelievable in a modern country. They are bizarre rituals that require members, when they are greeting a new member or when a new member is being initiated, to make guttural noises and to beat their chests.
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
Thank you. There is also some bizarre behaviour on the other side of the chamber from time to time especially from Senator Heffernan. In relation to these bizarre rituals, they do chest beating and they make guttural noises when they are beating their chests. This is what the coalition frontbenchers are engaged in. It is like Tarzan calling on Jane. It is like the silverback gorilla dominating his territory. The only problem is that there are no women there. There are no women in the place. It is male only.
What a bizarre proposition this is for a senior member of a government which has presided over the lowest number of women ever on the cabinet frontbench of any government in recent history. This is just bizarre. To go to a club based on privilege, a club for the big end of town, and simply ignore the right of women to join clubs or to engage is absolutely bizarre. In 2011 there was a big controversy at the Savage Club. The handrail at the Savage Club had to be raised by four inches and there was a huge argument within the Savage Club about it. It was reported in the media that one of the members said: 'Club president Jerry Ellis thinks raising a handrail by four inches to grind his personal axe will stop drunken imbeciles launching themselves over the railing. A drunken moron who is sufficiently sentient to climb over a balustrade is unlikely to find Jerry’s four inches of protection particularly daunting.'
The Savage Club has also said that it is 'the more sozzled alternative to the genteel Melbourne Club'. That is why they have got to lift the handrails up! This is really bizarre. It is a club that is based on 'bohemianism, free love, frugality and voluntary poverty'. I will not go into the first point in relation to Senator Brandis but I certainly know that frugality is not one of his main games. And they all have their own titles when they go to the club. Senator Brandis has picked 'Lord Brandis of the Bookshelf'! That is his title when he goes to the club. He will be beating his chest and making guttural noises and making sure women have no place at the Savage Club. What an absolute disgrace from a frontbench minister in this government. (Time expired)
Honourable senators interjecting—
I ask senators to come to order. I am quite distressed about some of the behaviour that has taken place at the commencement of this debate, and Senator Heffernan has indicated that he will return to the chamber to apologise to the Senate for that. I call Senator Birmingham.
There are some other people who should be offering apologies, Mr Deputy President, starting with the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Bill Shorten, and all of those opposite who are acting in a disgraceful act of distraction from a contemptible record of government. Fancy coming in here and pretending the Australian Senate is some sort of comedy show. Fancy coming in here and thinking this is a place for gag after gag on a day when the final budget figures of the last year of the Labor government have been handed down demonstrating what a disgraceful mob of managers the Labor Party were. Fancy coming in here on a day when the United Nations Security Council is meeting with the leader of the United States, our Prime Minister and many other major leaders of the world to discuss security issues facing the world and running this foolish line of questioning. Fancy coming in here in a week when we have seen a tragedy occur in Victoria and thinking that this is a sensible thing to ask questions about. Never have I seen such an error of judgement. Never have I seen such a poor hand played. Never have I seen an opposition engage in such an obvious attempt to distract from their failures and their track record with something that is completely foolish, completely silly and completely beneath debate in this chamber.
Today the final budget outcome for 2013-14 was delivered. Not one question on that was asked by those opposite.
Indeed Senator Abetz, well may you wonder why. The answer, of course, is that it revealed that Labor delivered six successive deficits in six successive years. Six out of six for their deficits, with their budgets racking up nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars in deficits—that is their track record. The final year came in with a deficit figure of $48.5 billion—the second largest deficit in modern Australian history. If I were a Labor senator, I too would be ashamed to ask any questions about that; I too would be ashamed to ask any questions about their budget record and the way they managed the Australian economy. But neither I nor anybody else on this side of the chamber would stoop so low as to play the silly games we have just seen from Senator Cameron and Senator Conroy, all of which, no doubt, is part of a coordinated attempt to distract the media from the serious issues facing this country, the serious challenge of rebuilding our budget, with some sort of silly little colourful side story that allows Senator Cameron to do a silly song and dance routine in this chamber.
There are far more important issues that this country faces and the world faces, and those opposite should hang their heads in shame for being part of this arrangement. Senator Conroy should be coming back into this chamber and giving his apology for asking such stupid, puerile and childish questions in the Senate chamber when there are far more important issues at stake. Senator Cameron should be coming back in here and giving his apology for performing a comic act that might go down well in the bars and clubs on a Friday night in Sydney or elsewhere around the country but is not a performance befitting a senator in the Australian Senate at a time when the nation has much bigger issues to worry about. Every man, woman and child in this country is having to deal with Labor's debt—with more than $1 billion every month that this government is having to pay in interest payments alone—and it will have serious implications for many years to come as we try to get this debt under control. Everyone in this country should be concerned about the security situations we are grappling with and the issues related to the nation's security and global security at present. Instead, what do we get from the Labor Party? Childish, puerile behaviour of which they should be ashamed. (Time expired)
Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I am instructed that during Senator Cameron's beating of the chest—I thought he was choking on his haggis—it was improper for me to assist him. I thought he was choking, so I banged him on the chest, but it did not seem to work. I might note that the CWA, if Doug had been a member in Sydney, probably would not have sold their building in Kings Cross, but whether he could get admission to the club I do not know. So I sincerely apologise to Doug if I, in trying to clear his chest, offended him.
Senator Heffernan, if you think that is a sincere apology to the Senate, you are very mistaken. I have never seen such a disorderly act as confronting physically a senator while they are on their feet making a contribution. I do accept that it was not malicious. If it had been, I would have taken other actions already. But I would expect a sincere apology.
Today I know there have been a lot of other events that seem to be taking people's attention at the moment, but I just want to draw people back to the response that was given by Senator Cormann to a question that I asked him regarding the Future of Financial Advice laws. What essentially has happened is that this is now a government that on a key part of policy, about how we deal with financial advice in this country, has been left stranded. Not only have the Council on the Ageing, Choice, victims' groups and National Seniors all in previous weeks and months come out to oppose the proposals and say frankly that what is being proposed by the government is not good enough and will take us backwards; you now, in recent weeks, have a situation where all four major banks and the Financial Services Council itself, who were previously the largest supporters of the government in this space and on this policy, have come out and said that they believe the approach by this government has failed and that we need to have some form of regulation.
I just want to draw everyone's attention to the words of Senator Cormann about the CEO of the Financial Services Council. He said that their actions are 'an absolute cop-out' and were 'putting up the white flag'. I never thought that I would be the person standing in this chamber defending the former leader of the New South Wales Liberal Party John Brogden, but I believe that the proposal he has put forward is one worthy of real consideration. I believe it is a step in the right direction. There has to be a higher level of standards and we have to look at how we regulate for that level of standards. Perhaps their ideas or other ideas are the right ideas.
But there is a real policy difference that is emerging here. Senator Cormann outlined the fact that there is a consensus that there needs to be a higher level of standards. I could not agree more. The difference that is emerging is how you actually create the higher level of standards. We on this side of the chamber believe you do that by making sure there are rules and regulations in place to protect people—consumers and those seeking financial advice—from exploitation. I reject the proposal put forward by Senator Cormann in his legislation that has been foreshadowed and certainly in the regulations that have been put forward and that we were, unfortunately, unable to disallow during that period, because this approach that saying, 'We'll let the market run free on this and remove regulations'—or what they see as regulations but we have argued are protections—will somehow increase the standard in an industry is simply not the case.
The financial services industry has been riddled with con men, crooks and criminals who have, unfortunately, given the industry as a whole a bad name. I do not want to besmirch all financial planners out there. I think there are a lot of incredibly good, hardworking financial planners who are trying to do the right thing. But there are a small group that are really damaging the reputation of this industry. What John Brogden and others at the Financial Services Council are now saying is that, to tackle this issue, there has to be some form of regulation and some kind of body. But I think what is more important is that now you have a position that is still being held by this government but that even the Financial Services Council itself, the peak body responsible for the finance industry, does not support. So not only is the minister not able to point to a single consumer or advocate group who actually supports their position when it comes to financial planning; you now have a situation where the industry itself is saying something needs to happen here. We have seen AMP in the last week, and we saw CommBank come out after some of the scandals regarding Commonwealth Financial Planning. We have seen the NAB, Westpac, ANZ and others, all major institutions, come out and say there has to be a better and higher level of standard, and the Financial Services Council has come out as well. This idea that they are putting up the white flag just demonstrates the approach this government has, as if it is only about the fight and the battle. It should not be. It should be about protecting the consumers.
I, too, rise today to speak to the motion to take note of answers given in today's question time—a very wide range of questions and a wide range of answers. There was not a great theme to today's questions, but there were perhaps a couple of themes that seemed to run through them today, and one of them was the constant regurgitation of the scaremongering around particular pieces of legislation that the government is seeking to put through this place to make changes in the community.
The first question related to higher education—and to this constant scaremongering about how if you make changes in the higher education space then that somehow has to be a bad thing. I know there are a lot of people out there in the community who perhaps do not like change—and obviously those opposite seem to have a bit of a problem with change, because they have not actually accepted the fact that the government changed on 7 September 2013. Notwithstanding that, there are, in this place, a myriad of very good pieces of legislation—legislation that has been put forward by a government that was elected by the people. In the space of higher education, we are starting to see a huge number of institutions coming out and saying that the changes to higher education are not only good but also absolutely necessary for the sustainability of a higher education operation in Australia into the next decade that is going to maintain its position as an education system that the world's students aspire to be part of, and ensure that our education system remains a world-class institution for Australian students as well. I think we need to stop focusing on scaremongering tactics—on blowing up small things to be totally out of proportion—and instead start focusing on the things that are positive.
As to Senator Dastyari, he is obviously very passionate about the financial advice area, but, once again, we have to be realistic about not penalising the majority of the sake of the minority. We need to realise that there has to be a balance between affordability, accessibility and protection. Senator Dastyari was obviously very focused on making sure that he found every single person who was ever going to say anything at all that could possibly support his argument. But, equally, there are people on the other side of the argument, and we never hear anything about them.
Once again we seem to be entering into a debate where we just focus on anything we can to make something negative, instead of focusing on the positive things. After all, we were elected to this place to actually deliver positive outcomes for the people of Australia. I do not question having a debate in this place. But, eventually, you have to accept the will of the people, and the will of the people was expressed on 7 September 2013.
I turn now to the comments that were made by Senator Birmingham in relation to the relative importance of activities that are happening in Australia at the moment and around the world, and I suppose I was particularly taken aback at the question from Senator Conroy in relation to the so-called discrimination issue that he raised, about male-only or female-only or gay-only or young-people-only or old-people only groups. I mean, there are a myriad of different groups in our society who choose to group together for common interests. We seem to be absolutely fixated on a group of men who want to meet together and only share the company of other men, but we never seem to have a problem if women want to meet together. As an example, our local CWA is full of women—no men are a part of my local CWA—but we do not get a question in this House to Senator Nash or Senator Payne about them being a member of a female-only organisation, even though Senator Nash would probably be a member of her local CWA. I think that was to trivialise the operations of this place. Then there was the brutal bluntness in the targeting of Senator Brandis today. The Attorney-General has the most extraordinarily important portfolio, yet the senator wasted a question to the Attorney-General on something absolutely frivolous—and something, I am sure, the public of Australia really could not care less about—when we could have been asking questions today on national security and what is happening around the rest of the world.
I rise to speak in this debate on the motion to take note of answers, in particular on Senator Cormann's answer to the question from Senator Dastyari in relation to the FoFA reforms. It is an area that I have come to lately, but, having now apprised myself of it, I am extraordinarily taken aback by the hoax that Senator Cormann is perpetrating on this industry.
Labor's FOFA reforms were introduced in the wake of the collapse of Storm Financial and others and the subsequent parliamentary inquiry into financial advice products. These were the most significant reforms in financial services in a generation and included measures designed to protect investors and help the industry to professionalise. They included things like the best-interests duty—requiring advisers to act in their clients' best interests. One would have thought that, logically, that would have been at the heart of any advice being given by financial planners. To require that to be legislated speaks volumes about financial planners—or, at least, an element of financial planners. The reforms also required advisers to get their clients to opt in to receiving ongoing service every two years, which was about ensuring that people would recognise that they were paying for a service. There was annual disclosure: statements were to be sent to clients annually, disclosing fees and detailing services to be performed—quite frankly, a no-brainer, but something that this industry had lacked. There was the provision on conflicted remuneration—an extraordinary provision. You would have thought that that already would have been at the heart of financial planners, but in this instance Labor had to take this stance of banning conflicted remuneration—for example, things like commissions paid on financial products provided to financial advisers. The whole basis of the FoFA reforms was to restore faith in a sector rocked by high-profile collapses, and an extraordinarily poor culture exhibited by a few rotten eggs in financial planning.
The other side have decided to junk all of this. They have junked it in a way as a milksop to that rotten core of financial advisers. They have looked at how they can ameliorate and wind back that financial planning legislation. They have also done it in an extraordinary way. You would have thought they would bring a bill before parliament and have it properly tested. But they did it by way of a huge hoax. They brought it in by regulation and then said: 'At some point in the future, we will bring a bill and the regulations will only be interim. We need it quickly. Thanks very much.' An extraordinary circumstance. In my years in parliament, I do not recall where a government have said: 'We'll legislate by regulation. We'll repeal the regulation and then bring forward a bill later.' They have done that, but it contains wind-backs of strong, necessary financial services legislation. But it did not stop there. They were caught out as well.
The Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances belled the cat on them. It came forward very recently and said this idea of bringing out a reg just does not stand up to scrutiny—and it did not stand up to their scrutiny. The committee said they wanted a bit more advice from the minister, and let's see what that will be. In addition, it is not clear to the committee which regulation-making powers are being relied on. There is even some doubt about how the regulations have been made. They want specific provisions to be made.
They also noted that the minister refers to legal advice obtained by the Australian Government Solicitor. On past occasions, the committee has sought and been provided with the legal advice. By the look of that, they do not think the regulations stack up and are made under the act. By the look of that, the committee therefore requests from the minister a copy of the legal advice obtained in relation to this matter. What a hoax that they have perpetrated. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.