Monday, 4 December 2017
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Prime Minister, Registered Organisations
That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) and the Minister for Employment (Senator Cash) to questions without notice asked by Senators McAllister and Cameron today relating to remarks made by the Deputy Premier of New South Wales and to evidence given at supplementary Budget estimates hearings of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee.
Well, if ever there was a cover-up, the cover-up is on by Senator Cash and the Liberal Party to try and hide the involvement of the Liberal Party, the involvement of Senator Cash, the involvement of the Fair Work Ombudsman staff and the involvement of ROC staff in the media, with the media turning up to a raid on a union office. It's an absolute disgrace. What Senator Cash has done over a number of estimates hearings is to hide behind sub judice, to hide behind an argument that there's an investigation being taken up by the Federal Police—an investigation that Senator Cash herself was forced to implement arising from the leaks that came out of her office after she misled the Senate on five occasions.
This is a minister with no credibility. This is a minister that stands up here day in, day out when parliament's sitting, attacking the trade union movement, attacking workers' rights to belong to a union, attacking collective bargaining, attacking workers' rights to have a decent superannuation outcome. This minister is an absolute disgrace and should resign. If she doesn't resign, then the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, should sack her. But we know how weak the Prime Minister is. We know he's a Prime Minister who has got no capacity to do the right thing.
The Registered Organisations Commission is supposedly an independent commission set up to oversee the registered organisations in this country. Mr Enright, the 2IC in the commission, has a lot of form. When this public servant was with the Australian Crime Commission, they had an internal dossier on his minister. He spoke about the nationality of his wife—what that's got to do with anything, I don't know. His wife's an Asian woman—a beautiful woman, a fabulous woman; I've met her on many occasions. That had to be in the dossier. He actually spoke about the alcohol consumption of the minister. He spoke about the minister's past and what the minister had done in the past. He spoke about the minister's personal life. And he spoke about the minister's views on police corruption and the views the minister had on his political colleagues. This is Mr Enright, who is supposedly there to be an independent administrator in this organisation—an absolute disgrace. The Fair Work Ombudsman was there, and there was a report about what was said between Mr Bielecki, the ROC commissioner; Mr Enright, his 2IC; and the Fair Work Ombudsman, Ms Natalie James.
This demonstrates that these organisations are not independent. These organisations are set up with a web of Liberal Party apparatchiks, Liberal Party sympathisers, to make sure that the Liberal Party's agenda to attack the trade union movement, to attack their political opponents, is alive and well. That's what's happened with this government—a rabble of a government. And the Fair Work Ombudsman, Ms Natalie James, denied that she had participated in this conversation. Mr Bielecki and Mr Enright conceded what they had said. But Ms Natalie James has questions to answer. The Fair Work Ombudsman should not be behaving in a partisan political manner. The Registered Organisations Commission should not be behaving in a partisan political manner. This is now the sixth time that Minister Cash has misled this Senate. (Time expired)
In a moment I'll respond directly to Senator Cameron's continued campaign of intimidation, smears and innuendo—a false campaign based on no or little evidence. But first I want to make one general observation. One of the things that has genuinely surprised me in my short time here in this place is the propensity—in fact enthusiasm—on the part of some colleagues to play the role of commentator rather than participant. In the questions from opposition senators today, we had not one question that went to the substance of any policy or political issue but question after question that went to personalities, that went to personal relationships, that went to leadership, that went to responsibilities—nothing that got to the core of the issues that the Australian people send us here to do.
Colleagues who've been here for a longer time than I have can perhaps advise me of whether or not this is a recent phenomenon. Perhaps those opposite are aspiring, like some of their former colleagues, to a career on Sky News after politics. Perhaps after 10 years of watching Insiders they're frustrated commentators, just waiting to get on the couch. But when Senator McAllister was asking questions about leadership and the Deputy Premier in New South Wales, when Senator Gallacher was asking questions about foreign interference—a worthy and important issue, but through the bizarre prism of Senator Brandis's personal responsibility for different aspects of the legislation—and when Senator Carr was asking Senator Brandis about a royal commission, again an important and worthy issue but again through the bizarre prism of who was responsible for it, not about any of the policy issues at stake, and when Senator Cameron was attempting yet another smear against Minister Cash and Senator Ketter was again asking a very strange question about the royal commission that didn't go to the substance of the royal commission, didn't go to the terms of reference, didn't go to the commissioner, didn't go to the budget, and didn't go to the length of time given to the commission but instead went to which ministers knew about it when—a bizarre focus—it seems to me that some people here wish more to be commentators than they do to be participants. And if they do, there are many career opportunities available to them, and perhaps they could vacate their seats for people who are actually concerned about doing the business of the people.
Coming back to Senator Cameron's contribution—yet another spray against Minister Cash, a minister of great ethics and a minister who has performed outstandingly in this role—we know why members opposite are targeting Senator Cash. They're targeting Senator Cash because she is an effective minister and she has proven time and time again that she can persuade this chamber to put through necessary, needed reforms to the industrial relations system that they oppose because of their narrow self-interest, because of their partisan interest, because of the way in which they are so tied to, so dependent on, the union movement. Senator Cash did not mislead the Senate. Senator Cash gave answers in Senate estimates that she genuinely believed to be true, and as soon as she found out that they were not true she came to the committee and immediately corrected her evidence. That is a better performance than some others in similar situations.
The Registered Organisations Commissioner, Mr Bielecki, and his executive director, Mr Enright, did not make the comments that were attributed to them by a journalist. They made much more mild-mannered comments than were attributed to them, which they told Senator Cameron and other senators who were there on Friday, and he should well know about that.
I find it most interesting of all, though, that Senator Cameron is now raising these decade-old allegations against Mr Enright about his responsibilities in a previous office. Mr Enright has been before the Senate committee that he now appears before probably a dozen times since then, and Senator Cameron has not asked him about this issue once. Labor senators have not asked him about this issue, to my knowledge, on any occasions—certainly none of the occasions when I was present. Yet they're now attempting to raise this issue in an attempt to smear Mr Enright and the commission he works for. It's very clear why they're doing that. They're doing that because the commission is now looking at a potential breach of the law by the Australian Workers' Union, an important union that supports the Labor Party and supports the careers of many senators within the Labor Party who are opposite now and no doubt will be making a contribution to this debate shortly. They have a conflict of interest and they are running a transparent campaign of intimidation and interference to protect the Australian Workers' Union from its alleged law breaking. The Registered Organisations Commission is doing exactly as it was established to do, and that is to investigate breaches of the law.
They are trying to intimidate public servants from doing their jobs. It is a disgrace. They should be ashamed of themselves. If they want to return to the actual business of the people of Australia, perhaps we'll see tomorrow in question time some actual questions on some actual policy issues rather than the attempted smears and intimidation that we saw today.
I rise, as Senator Cameron has, to take note of answers to questions that were put to the government with regard to the comments of Mr Barilaro and also Senator Cash's behaviour in recent times. I'm still quite shocked by the language used to describe a member of the Nationals party. As a Labor politician I'm used to hearing Senator Brandis and his colleagues on the other side admonish Labor in the most egregious terms. But it was pretty indicative of how chaotic, dysfunctional and lacking in unity this government is when they described the remarks of Mr Barilaro. And let's just get those remarks on the record. He said on Friday on Alan Jones's program that 'Turnbull should give Australians a Christmas gift and go before Christmas.' Well, it would be a nice Christmas gift. I could do with that wrapped up. I'd be very happy to see that under the Christmas tree. Mr Barilaro went on to say, 'The Prime Minister is the problem.'
He absolutely is, Senator Farrell. He's certainly right that the Prime Minister is the problem. If Senator Brandis had any respect—just a skerrick of respect—for the partnership that they pretend to the Australian people exists between the Liberal Party and the Nationals, he would hardly be describing Mr Barilaro's comments as 'the dribblings of some obscure politician'. I'm offended for the Nationals party. My heart is fairly breaking for the Nationals—what they've had to put up with in being the doormats to the federal government, to the Liberal Party, walking all over them. They suffered that terrible experience of a vote decline up in Queensland. They were going to take out the Palaszczuk government. They were all set to deliver for regional Queensland. Sadly, they came fourth in the seat of Rockhampton. It's been a disaster for them. The Attorney-General should have been a little more generous in his comments. Instead, he describes not the deputy premier of New South Wales—because Ms Berejiklian's not around—but the premier of the biggest state of Australia right now, Mr Barilaro, who doubled down today in his comments and said, 'Let my comments stand.' Let his comment stand, and let Mr Turnbull wrap himself up into a little ball and put himself under the Christmas tree of every Australian and say: 'I give up. I know I'm doing a bad job. I'm going to give you a Christmas present. I'm going to take the pressure off you. I'll give you a great turn. We'll have somebody else.' But who else? And Mr Barilaro said that too.
Well, I haven't got any idea about who else, and no-one over there has. There's no unity. There is no functionality. There is constant disarray. We've had, just in the last half-hour, a move to suspend standing orders yet again. That only happens when a government's not functioning well. Last week they had one to actually bring legislation on. Today they changed their mind halfway through the day because things weren't looking too good. 'Oh, no, we'll take it off.' That's what we see here every single day from this government: disunity, dysfunction and chaos—the three hallmarks that mark them out.
I'm very concerned about this sort of behaviour, which would be a disaster for any organisation outside this parliament—and certainly a disaster for a small business. I grew up in one; I know what it's like. If a small business ran their small business the way this government runs the parliament, a lot more people in Australia would be unemployed, and that's hard to say considering how bad the government are doing in that regard.
I also want to take note of some of the comments about the ROC. The problem with this government is that, when they're not focusing on the infighting and the division, they're attacking what is the only other major source of support for the Australian community—that is, they're after the unions at every single chance they get.
I'll take that interjection from Senator O'Sullivan—thank you very much, Senator O'Sullivan—who says that he's only after one union. That's not the truth. They're after every union. They're after the members of the union. They're after the money of the members of the unions. They're after the unions every single chance they get. But when they're called to account they don't want to answer questions. Senator Cash had an outrageous and shocking show just last week. The partisan behaviour by the Registered Organisations Commission— (Time expired)
Labor got 44 votes there, Senator O'Sullivan. This lady, Robyn, was there; she seemed to be quite a decent lady. As everyone was walking in to vote, she was saying, 'The coalition government, the National Party, have cut $300,000 from the finances for the Bundarra school.' It's a nice little school. Bundarra is a great little community. I spent many, many days of my life down at Bundarra with friends. I've had a few beers in the pub there. I said to this lady, 'That is not true.' I actually rang Senator Birmingham, and he said, 'Wacka, I'll get you the details', which he did. I go back to the point about being honest and speaking the truth: the federal funding for Bundarra school this year is $464,000. It's a good lot of money. It goes up to $703,000 within 10 years. That's almost double. I said to this lady: 'You can't keep doing this. You can't keep giving everyone false and misleading propaganda'—propaganda is what you'd call it—'to the people coming here to vote.' There was a sign, 'Save Medicare, vote Labor.' I remember 'Mediscare' from the last election, when the Turnbull coalition government was going to privatise Medicare. I said to the lady, 'If you owned a coffee shop and it took $10,000 gross income a week, but it cost you $21,000 a week to operate that coffee shop, would you sell it?' I said: 'You wouldn't be able to sell it. No-one would buy it. It loses $11,000 a week. Well, it's the same with Medicare. We collect around $10 billion in Medicare levy a year, and it costs around $21 billion to run Medicare.'
Senator Griff interjecting—
I'll bet Senator Griff wouldn't like to own a business like that and lose $11 billion a year. That would not be a good business, would it, Senator Griff? But this is what happens. The accusations in question time today that Minister Cash misled the Senate are simply wrong. She's been totally honest with her answers. She's clarified them on many occasions.
Back to the question from Senator O'Neill about John Barilaro, Deputy Premier and Nationals leader of New South Wales. I have known Baro, as we call him, for a long time. He's a good mate of mine. I vehemently disagree with what John Barilaro said about the Prime Minister. I vehemently disagree with him.
I'm sure that Senator Farrell is getting quite worried, because the polls are starting to turn. The polls are starting to turn, Senator Farrell, and people are going to realise that you lot—
Senator Farrell interjecting—
Mr Shorten polled down again this morning. It was great to have the Prime Minister in New England on Saturday night when they counted the votes. And guess what? Senator Cameron went up to New England to campaign for the Labor candidate.
He did, Senator O'Sullivan. But where was Mr Shorten? We never saw Mr Shorten in New England. It was probably too far for him to travel, or maybe he didn't know where it was. What was the vote of the Labor Party in New England? It was 11 per cent primary. Fancy getting 11 out of every 100 people to vote for the Labor Party.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
It was an increase from the last election. The vote went up to 11 per cent. It was quite amazing. Of course, the people of New England know what Labor are about. They still remember when the live cattle exports were banned—a decision which brought the beef industry to its knees in the country towns and abattoirs where I work. They actually made a field day out of it, because they had to truck the cattle so far across Australia they couldn't export them. It was terribly cruel on the cattle. They know what the Labor Party think of regional Australia. Labor didn't build one mobile tower in six years—not one. We've built 672 new and upgraded mobile towers—and there are more to come.
The truth has always been handled carelessly by Labor, and they were doing it again in question time here today. Nothing will change. The people are waking up to you, and we're going to make them fully aware of your dishonesty. (Time expired)
Fortunately we are finished with that particularly woeful contribution from Senator Williams, who I do have some respect for. If one wants to talk about elections, one only has to look at my home state of Queensland. The election result there speaks a lot about the general public's view in relation to the LNP.
Some decades ago, Bob Hawke coined the phrase: 'If you can't govern yourself, you cannot govern the country.' That was also quoted by former Prime Minister John Howard—with approval. He identified that issue as well. But what we have now is a government which seems irreparably split and divided across a whole range of different axes. We see this split within the National Party and we heard the very regrettable comments made by Senator Brandis today about the 'dribblings of some obscure politician', talking about the second most senior politician in New South Wales, the largest state of this Commonwealth. Is that a way to speak about a person who holds a very high office within one of the states of our Commonwealth? In fact, Senator Brandis went on to say that it was the first time he'd ever heard of Mr Barilaro. This is the Attorney-General talking about a person who is a member of the coalition in another state. This demonstrates open contempt for Mr Barilaro. Of course, Mr Barilaro seemed to reciprocate when he doubled down on his position, stating that he stands by what he said on Friday: that his comments were a reflection of what he has heard on the ground. So this is a politician who actually talks to people on the ground about what's going on.
It was interesting to note that, during the course of question time today, we didn't see any of Mr Barilaro's National Party colleagues in this place rising to his defence to say that he had actually hit the nail on the head. In fact, we have seen Mr Joyce come out and said, 'It's odd that he's never raised these matters with me personally.' Mr Chester, the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, said that Mr Barilaro's comments are silly and stupid. This is the way that they treat their fellow coalition members. Coming back to the Queensland election, Mr Barilaro made the very telling point that if you think that federal issues didn't have an effect in the Queensland election, then you've got to be kidding yourself. In fact, he said it's a joke for the Prime Minister to indicate that those issues didn't come into play in the Queensland election results.
This is a coalition which is deeply divided, and I don't say that with any sense of comfort or satisfaction, because this is the government of Australia, and the people of Australia look to the government to attend to the issues that they are concerned about. When a government is internally divided—as they are—sniping at each other all the time, then they cannot be focused on the issues which are of concern to the people of Australia.
One looks at the issue in relation to the Registered Organisations Commission. I was present at the estimates hearing on Friday, in relation to Senator Cash. It is quite clear that we are seeing a huge cover-up in relation to what is going on with the Registered Organisations Commission. It got to the stage where Senator Cash refused to answer a question from Senator Cameron about how long Mr De Garis had worked in her office. She refused to indicate the starting date for Mr De Garis—he is the principal media officer—when he commenced working in the minister's office. How can that be part of any reasonable application of the public interest immunity? That certainly can't be an issue that is affected by the other issue relating to court proceedings that are underway at the moment. That just shows you the extent of the cover-up that we're seeing here, Madam Deputy President. It's time for the Prime Minister to step in to show some leadership. Let's see the government pull together. We need to see some leadership in relation to Senator Cash: the Prime Minister needs to sack her. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.