Tuesday, 5 December 2017
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
Banking and Financial Services
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Attorney-General (Senator Brandis) to a question without notice asked by Senator Ketter today relating to the proposed Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.
The question that I asked Senator Brandis related to the issue of the banking royal commission and the incredible about-face that this government has taken in respect of this particular issue. This Prime Minister, for more than 600 days, argued that a banking royal commission will do nothing. There are so many examples of what this Prime Minister and this Treasurer have said over the past 12 months or so to try to avoid the cause of a banking royal commission.
Back in September of last year, we saw the Treasurer describe the Labor approach of having a royal commission as 'a crass populist approach'. The Treasurer, in April of last year, described the call for a royal commission as 'a cynical exploitation of people's genuine concerns and the politicisation of their pain by the opposition'. This is the sort of contortion that this government now has to go through to distance itself from what it has said in the past on a royal commission. In a question time in September of last year, the Prime Minister indicated:
A royal commission can do nothing … It cannot change a law, it cannot change a regulation, and more importantly—most importantly—the compassion you seek to offer to your constituent cannot be fulfilled by a royal commission, and you know that …
So these are the sorts of comments that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have made over the past 12 months to avoid the need for a royal commission. The Prime Minister has also said:
… a royal commission … will enrich the legal profession … take many years and end up, no doubt, recommending the types of measures that are already in this year's budget.
Well, this year's budget came up with a cracker: having the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, which is the Prime Minister's attempt at trying to take—and I quote him—'real action' on dealing with the consumer complaints about the banking system. We will be debating that bill a bit later on, but it's quite clear that that bill essentially, on the one hand, is a repackaging of the ombudsman services that we currently have without any new powers being provided to those schemes and, on the other hand, is actually a step backwards because we're abolishing the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal. So, rather than real action, this is a step backwards in the fight to protect consumers against the ravages of the greed of the banking system. The Prime Minister has said in the past, 'We're not having a royal commission; we're taking action.' Well, these most recent comments and this amazing backflip stand in stark contrast to the comments that this Prime Minister has been making over the past 12 months.
Today in question time, Senator Brandis indicated that the reason for the about-face was, to use his language, the 'very wild' comments that have been made publicly about the banking system, which he said were the real risk to stability. This is reminiscent of what he has said earlier in the week, and it's quite clear that this government is acting at the behest of the banks. The banks have dictated to this government the terms of reference on this royal commission and the time frame. The time frame is specifically designed to avoid an in-depth analysis of the real issues. When this Prime Minister says that it is regrettable that we're going to be having this royal commission, I'm just flabbergasted by that as a senator who's participated in the economics committee's inquiries into financial scandals involving the major banks. We went through that and listened to the pain of those people who have had their lives destroyed, their finances destroyed and their family arrangements left in tatters. Yet this Prime Minister says that the stories of those people do not matter.
I know what Senator Macdonald, who is sitting beside me, is thinking. Senator Macdonald is thinking exactly the same thing I'm thinking: Australians have the right to be confused when they hear about the position of Labor senators this afternoon. After all the barking from Labor senators and others in the community about the need for a royal commission, you would have thought, with the government having delivered a royal commission, that they would have been in this place applauding and saying, 'This is a responsible and necessary thing to do', because that would have been the consistent position. If Labor had come into this place supporting the royal commission, that would have been consistent with the sorts of things they've been saying for many months with regard to the need for a royal commission. But, of course, Labor are not consistent. Labor are not consistent on this issue, and they're not consistent on other issues.
It's been clear to me and others that the community and customers of banks require that their issues are better addressed, including with regard to some of the decisions that banks are taking, how banks treat customers and how banks are balancing the competing interests of looking after shareholders and shareholder value in our banking system while at the same time responding to the very genuine concerns and needs that customers of banks have raised themselves.
This is Tuesday of the last sitting week for the year. We only have one more question time tomorrow and then another question time on Thursday—and I know that Senator Macdonald shares my interest in making sure that that is the end of the parliamentary sitting period for this year so that we can get back to our communities and get back to northern Queensland, in Senator Macdonald's case, and Western Australia, in my case. I thought Labor was off to a very good start in question time this afternoon when Senator McCarthy talked about personal income tax cuts. You would have thought that the government talking about and making plans and preparations for personal tax cuts for Australians would be a good thing and would be the sorts of things that people in this place would stand up for and endorse—but no; Labor senators tried to suggest that the government putting its mind to personal tax cuts was a bad thing.
I would argue that personal tax cuts are not only necessary for Australian families; they are actually timely for Australian families. When you reflect upon the success—
When you look at the success of the government's economic performance, as detailed in the final budget outcome document that was released in September this year—the prudent financial management that is demonstrated in the outcomes of the last budget that was released in September 2017—you can see that the government is making necessary steps to save taxpayers' money. What's the right thing to do when taxpayers' money is being saved? Those savings should be returned to taxpayers and their families and to businesses themselves.
So I would have thought that this afternoon Senator McCarthy would have come into this place and said, 'Yes, media reports about personal tax cuts for Australian families and businesses next year are a good thing', because that would have been the consistent position. But that is not what we've seen this afternoon. A royal commission, which I think many in the community would agree is a necessary step, has been delivered, has been announced. But Labor senators in this place want to suggest that somehow that is something we should be embarrassed about and that it is something that is not worthy.
As we finish the year 2017, the challenge for Labor is to start to recalibrate its thinking, because 2018 is going to be about the economy. It is going to be about the economy. We know that the government already can tick off media reform; it can tick off childcare reform; it can tick off school reform; it can tick off industrial relations reform; it can tick off the issue of same-sex marriage—it can tick that issue off because, because fingers crossed the matter will be resolved in the House of Representatives before the end of the week—and then this government and the opposition should unite in making sure that economic interests and economic concerns are front and centre. Why? Because we know—Senator Macdonald and I know—that as we travel around communities, especially regional communities, people say to us, 'cost of living pressures'. That is your challenge for 2018. (Time expired)
There have been many occasions over the past few months when the most appropriate theme music for this coalition parliament, run by an inept and ill-suited Prime Minister, has been the circus theme music, and I'm sure we all know that. But let's take a closer look at the Prime Minister, who last week backflipped with the agility of a circus performer, because, let's face it, that's what he has made this parliament, a total circus. He is a Prime Minister who has been dragged kicking and screaming into establishing a banking royal commission. Much like the highwire act, where people gasp at the daring fortitude of a circus performer—and I'm not suggesting for a moment that the Prime Minister is that, because I'm thinking he has probably failed and fallen to the ground—the Prime Minister has the banks in the dress circle seats watching and waiting for his every move.
The Prime Minister is celebrated by some as someone who understands business. I think he is mostly celebrated by himself, because when one has a look back through his business dealings, one can see he is really an eastern suburbs fast-buck artist. He took a clip through a number of his friends' business dealings: his dealings with OzEmail; his turn as a CEO of a mining company in Russia in the '90s—and one can get the Parliamentary Library, of course, to give you a full explanation of what happens in mining circles in the former Soviet Union, and how one does business in that environment.
The other analogy is that the Prime Minister is really like Hiro Onoda. Perhaps people aren't really familiar with Hiro Onoda. He was the Japanese soldier who was persuaded to come out of hiding at the end of the Second World War—three decades after the war had finished, where he had been hiding in the Philippines jungle. Hiro Onoda came to be seen by some as an example of the extraordinary lengths to which some Japanese soldiers would go to demonstrate their loyalty to the then emperor in whose name they fought. Much like the Prime Minister, who wouldn't recognise the sense of having a banking royal commission, the banks saw the sense of being able to draft the terms of reference themselves. The terms of reference of course do not contain the word 'bank'. If one was online one would add after that: 'LOL'.
Let's take a closer look at some of his friends in the banking world. On 28 October 2015, Andrew Robb appointed Alastair Walton as a senior trade commissioner and consul general to Houston. On 23 June 2017, the foreign minister appointed him as the replacement for Mr Nick Minchin as Australia's consul general in New York. I should explain that Mr Walton worked with the Prime Minister at Goldman Sachs JBWere, and Mr Walton has made some very interesting statements about the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's aptitude for his task of being Prime Minister. Firstly, Mr Walton calls the Prime Minister a very close friend. But he has this to say, 'In banking you're saying to clients: "Here's this transformative transaction and here's what it can do for you."' Alastair Walton ran Goldman Sachs's investment banking business in Australia after Mr Turnbull left the firm in 2001. Bankers know, 'how to sell change', he said. According to Mr Walton:
They also need to cope with the less glamorous aspects of politics … It's the branch meetings, being nice to everybody, working out who is in the factions … Bankers aren't trained to do that. Most would be utter failures.
And I think the jury has well and truly come in on the Prime Minister's aptitude, or lack thereof, for dealing with people.
Of course, Goldman Sachs JBWere have also thrown in quite a lot in donations to the Liberal Party. They've given $64,000. They've given another donation of $50,000, which was noted 'as approved by Terry Campbell and Paul Sundberg'. Another was for $3,000, which was noted as 'cheque request by Alastair Walton for donation' and made out to 'Wentworth conference'. (Time expired)
First of all, I congratulate Senator Ketter on his appointment as Deputy Whip. I find Senator Ketter a decent and honourable person. Certainly, he will add some lustre to that seat on the other side. So congratulations.
It might be that he went to Villanova. It might be because he was with the 'shoppies'—or whoever. But I do congratulate him. I'm pleased that Senator Ketter, in proposing this motion, spoke about a policy issue—one that I disagree with him about. I'm sure Senator Ketter is intelligent enough to have heard and understood the Attorney today, yesterday and last week explaining about the banking royal commission, but he chooses to continue to misrepresent the facts, and I will come back to that.
I am disappointed with the other speaker from Labor on this debate, Senator Kitching, who I had started to develop some professional relationship with. Senator Kitching, can I just say to you: be careful where you go in making baseless personal allegations against people like Mr Turnbull, a self-made millionaire, who—
Mr Turnbull, a self-made millionaire, has worked very hard for everything he has. Once Senator Kitching and the likes of her start on this course of action, we might start talking about Offset Alpine and the association with many Labor members of parliament. We might talk about coalmines that were given away by Labor members of parliament in New South Wales to their unionist mates, with considerable sums of money changing hands. We may start talking about direct bribes paid to a Queensland Labor Party minister.
Well, Bill D'Arcy, Keith Wright—the list goes on, Senator Brandis. All I'm saying to someone relatively new like Senator Kitching is: be careful where you go on this. You expect this from people like Senator McKim, from the Greens, who simply can't help himself. But I just warn senators against embarking upon this sort of approach. If you have a policy attack, fine.
Getting back to the subject of Senator Ketter's motion to take note of the answer he was given by Senator Brandis, Senator Brandis has explained this and Mr Turnbull has explained this—it's not our preferred position. All of the quotes that Senator Ketter used in the past are accurate regarding those. I've said that myself, not that that matters at all. It isn't the way we want to go. I've often said that these royal commissions just put money in the pockets of already wealthy lawyers and give journalists a two-year free go without having to do a lot of work. They don't achieve much. The government has, by contrast, already implemented a lot of legislation which will address some of the real problems with the banks.
But, in talking about this policy issue, I noticed how different Senator Ketter's question was to the approach of Senator Cameron and Senator Kim Carr, two of the loudest members in this chamber, who clearly exemplify what we understand about bullying at union meetings. You'll notice they always pick on a female senator, one who, I might say, takes the fight up to the corrupt unions, continuing to expose the CFMEU and other unions for their absolute corruption and their criminal activities that are before the courts all of the time. The Labor Party hates this, and so Senator Cameron, Senator Carr and a few others embarked upon a program—
Senator Macdonald, could you resume your seat, please. I just remind you that the taking note was from Senator Ketter, to take note of answers from Senator Brandis. I accept that you did say you would get back to the royal commission. I was listening intently. I'll just remind you that, whilst it is a broad-ranging debate, it is around the royal commission.
You weren't listening carefully, because I just did return to that and I said what I thought about the commission. But you've distracted me, for the few seconds I've got left, from talking about the ungracious attack on Senator Cash by Senator Carr and Senator Cameron—they know she is the one who will continue to expose the Labor Party and the unions for the criminal associates they are. (Time expired)
I rise to also take note of the answers to the questions posed by Senator Ketter regarding the banking royal commission. The banking royal commission is something that one side of politics has been totally consistent on since before the last federal election. The cause of a banking royal commission is something that federal Labor has been taking up for some time. We did not need a disastrous vote in the Queensland election, such as we saw from the LNP, to prompt us into action. In fact, Labor has moved around 23 times, in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, to establish a banking royal commission. On each and every one of those occasions, the Liberal and National parties voted together to block it from going ahead. I think there is no policy area—and there are many you can choose from—that demonstrates more clearly the weakness and ineffectiveness of the National Party representatives that come down here from Queensland, supposedly to stand up for people in regional Queensland, than this one.
Every time that Labor pushed for a banking royal commission and put forward a motion to establish one, either in the Senate or in the House of Representatives, not only did the Liberals vote it down but who voted with them on every single one of those 23 occasions? It was the National Party representatives from Queensland. That's how committed they've been to establishing a banking royal commission—each and every time they voted with Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister, to block these attempts from going forward. It's not really that surprising because we've seen exactly the same behaviour from them on a multitude of issues. Every time the Prime Minister and his Liberal Party colleagues have voted to grant tax cuts to business and to millionaires—sending billions of dollars to the top end of town—the Nationals have voted with them. Every time they've voted for cuts to health care, including in regional Queensland, the Nationals have voted with the Prime Minister. Every time the Liberals have voted to cut penalty rates in regional Queensland, the Nationals have rolled in and handed over their votes. The disaster that is the rollout of the NBN across regional Australia—you never hear anything from the National Party, criticising it or putting forward ideas to fix it. They just stand in line, time after time, to support their Liberal Party masters. Again, there is nothing that demonstrates that more than the banking royal commission and the failure of the National Party to take any action to deliver this until very recently.
The reality is that the National Party only started ratcheting up any pressure on this government about a banking royal commission when they got an absolute shellacking in the Queensland election a week and a half ago. Right across regional Queensland, the LNP's vote absolutely collapsed to a point where, for example, in the electorate of Capricornia, the LNP ran third or even fourth in every state seat encompassed by the federal electorate. The same can be said of other regional seats held by National Party representatives, like Flynn and Dawson. That's why we've seen the National Party jump into action: not because they care about regional Queenslanders who are getting ripped off by the banks, not because they want to actually demonstrate their independence from the Liberal Party; the only reason they have acted is that they are terrified they are about to lose their own jobs here in Canberra because regional Queenslanders have woken up to them.
Now the government wants credit for having set up the banking royal commission. We know the only reason they did it was that the Nationals finally discovered their spine and their own mates in the big banks decided to back in a royal commission. They knew the end was in sight. They had to give up the fight against a banking royal commission. They put through the letter to the Prime Minister saying, 'Okay, we'll have a banking royal commission,' and, literally within an hour or so, the Prime Minister was out there giving the banks what they wanted—a royal commission on their terms.
It's interesting. Obviously over the last week we've seen an incredible amount of disunity within the government about the banking royal commission and other issues. But, even after the National Party got their way and got the banking royal commission that they had failed to support Labor on on 23 occasions, the disunity continued. I noticed an article by Paul Kelly in The Australian on 1 December which quoted a cabinet minister referring to the bill put forward by Senator O'Sullivan that was going to establish a banking royal commission. The unnamed cabinet minister described Senator O'Sullivan's bill as 'a train wreck of thought bubbles'. The disunity in the government is still rife. They have no respect for each other. They cannot govern Australia. (Time expired)
Senator McKim, I clarified with Senator Bernardi. I was going to put the question. I asked whether it was on the same matter. He clarified to me that, yes, it was. We have a speakers list here and the last speaker is from the crossbench, which Senator Bernardi is a member of. Please continue, Senator Bernardi.
Whilst I don't support a royal commission into the banks, I understand that the government has chosen to do it for politically expedient motives. But there is a very important area that I think the government should explore. When most people want to borrow money or access funds, they go to a bank. They play a legitimate role in our financial system. However, I'm deeply concerned that there are some people who occupy these Senate benches who think it's okay to go to a billionaire benefactor associated with the People's Republic of China and the Chinese government in order to access funds to pay for their bills. If you want a royal commission that is going to make a meaningful difference to Australia, Australia's body politic and its way of life, it shouldn't be into the banks; it should be into the whisper, the stench, the migration of corruption into our body politic and the agents of influence from foreign governments who are openly and wilfully seeking to influence the politics in this country.
We know on the record that there is a compromised individual on the other side of this chamber who has been compromised by agents of influence from the Chinese government. That is a travesty for this body politic. It is a travesty that those on the Labor side seek to cover up Senator Dastyari's involvement and engagement in undermining our national security issues. He thinks it's okay to have his $1,600 or $1,800 travel bill picked up by an agent of influence from the Chinese government. That is where a true royal commission into money needs to come from—not the banks, which operate in a sanctioned way and operate within a legal framework, notwithstanding they may have some failings. It is in this shadowy underworld where agents of influence from the Chinese government are not only seeking to compromise politicians in this place but seeking to compromise our educational institutions and seeking to compromise the major political parties.
I congratulate the government on their moves today in seeking to redress some of these influences. But I do want to put on the record that, when I read that the Attorney-General had offered security briefings to major political parties about political donations and the potential for compromise, I wrote to him as a crossbencher, of a very modest political party, seeking a briefing on what we could do to prevent that. Some months have passed, and I regret the Attorney-General hasn't even sought to respond to my request. I can only presume that he knows there is no undue influence within the Australian Conservatives or he knows that it is simply the major parties that have a problem with being compromised by foreign agents—but whatever.
If the government are serious about this, and if the Labor Party are serious about trying to identify where our financial system is going wrong, look no further than those who are on the take, those who get their bills paid by agents of influence from the Chinese government, or they get their marching orders and their scripts and they go and have Chinese-media press conferences, undermining not only Australia's national sovereign position but their own political party's position, or they go around to a compromised Chinese billionaire's house and warn him that he might be under observation or surveillance by one of our national intelligence agencies.
This is where the real scandal is in our financial system. This is where the real scandal is in our body politic. You can score all the cheap shots you like off each other, but until you address the elephant in the room—and that is Senator Sam Dastyari—then we are pushing it uphill. I can tell you that now. While Senator Dastyari sits in this place, you cannot be sure that what he is saying is his own words; it could be scripted words from the people who are pulling the strings. If you want to clean up the financial system, if you want to clean up the body politic, you will cut the financial ties to the People's Republic of China. That is critical; that is pressing; and we should have a royal commission into that rather than one into the banks. (Time expired)
Question agreed to.