Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

National Security, Foreign Donations, Workplace Relations

3:10 pm

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

I move:

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 Carr, Farrell and Sterle today relating to proposed laws concerning foreign donations and influence and to a 7.30 report concerning drivers for Tip Top.

The politics of this government is no longer about the battle of ideas or adherence to principle. We have heard very pejorative words used today—and we've heard all week—about the attacks on individuals. This is a government that has descended to assaults upon the character of individuals.

It was Malcolm Turnbull who came into office purporting to be a man of integrity. He was a man who said he would treat the public with intelligence. He said they would not be treated as idiots. What we have seen is that this government is now conducting itself on the basis of personal smears. We know that they've cast aside all assertions to be acting on terms of principle. We no longer have a conversation in this country about the values that should shape this country. We no longer have a conversation about the sort of country we want Australia to be. It is a conversation now that the Prime Minister—in fact, he discourages his front bench—is not interested in engaging in.

We see a proposition advanced with real venom on a premise that simply is this: that Bill Shorten and leading members of the Labor caucus are this government's and this Prime Minister's social and intellectual inferiors. This is what you get when you are falling behind in 24 news polls. It's a desperate measure seized upon by desperate men and women in desperate times. This is a government that is even willing to suggest that Labor MPs and Labor senators are traitors. No evidence is ever suggested to ascertain the truth of that matter, other than to imply that the security agents of this country support such a contention. What a preposterous idea: that the Attorney-General will engage the security agencies of this country in the domestic politics of the Commonwealth.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I've never done so.

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

Yes, you have. You've done it repeatedly in this chamber and in the press on a regular basis, for which you should be condemned. The hypocrisy on this question is absolutely breathtaking. You don't care who you throw under the bus—even your former trade minister. No wonder he comes out and makes his contempt perfectly clear for the politics that you're now engaging in. Why is it that he says it's quite clear that you're engaging in a shameless and unethical political stunt?

Huang Xiangmo of the Yuhu Group has been a very generous donor to the Liberal Party—over $1 million. Of course, that's on the public record. When they accepted that money it wasn't an act of treason. However, when the Labor Party is engaged with this man, there is a completely different and double standard. When the leader of this government appears in public with these individuals, it's regarded as perfectly legitimate, because it's the Labor Party that's unworthy and Labor politicians that are somehow illegitimate.

This government, because of its desperation, has now in a shocking attempt been reduced to smearing the reputation of Bill Shorten, because he has been so successful. They have so completely underestimated the willingness of the Australian people to engage in a proper conversation about the future direction of this country. You don't care about the consequence: the consequence to our democratic policies; the consequence to our institutions, our universities; and the consequence to our relationship with our No. 1 trading partner. You don't care about the consequence of the misuse of intelligence or the partisan use of the police forces of this country. You'll do anything you can to trash the reputations of individuals and this country's democratic processes. It's a process for which you should hang your head in shame, because it will not work. When Andrew Robb calls you out, you know just how desperate you've become and how shockingly puerile this government is— (Time expired)

3:15 pm

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thought the questions were about foreign donations and counterespionage but the outrage, or the feigned outrage, we have just seen from Senator Carr points to the fact that in actual fact their leader is the person who is under significant pressure at the moment for the simple reason that the contention put forward by Senator Carr fails the pub test. For the average person in the street who looks at the conduct of people in this house—whether they be crossbench, government or indeed opposition members who have been held to account by the Labor Party over section 44, where there has been no ill will and no suggestion of conduct that is not loyal to Australia—there has been all kinds of outrage from those opposite. Yet, if we go to the wording of section 44 of the Constitution, it says that disqualification applies to any person who:

… is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power.

We have seen Mr Shorten protect and not admonish or hold to account, in a similar standard, somebody who has clearly conducted himself in a manner that members here—even members opposite—have recognised is not appropriate. But the outrage that is thrown at people who failed section 44 under citizenship is not thrown at those who the pub test would say have actually breached that in terms of 'obedience' or 'allegiance' to a foreign power. Because it's not about donations to a political party; the issue here was personal donations and conduct directly related to things that breached the Labor Party's own policy. That is the issue at hand here. The policy area that Senator Carr referred to and the questions that were asked went to the proposed legislation around political donations, tackling foreign interference and espionage. They are the serious issues of government that the Turnbull government is getting on with in the national interest.

The government has put forward legislation to address the issue of foreign donations that will actually ban foreign donations, unlike the proposal that was introduced by Mr Shorten in February of this year which purports to ban foreign donations but actually has significant loopholes. The definitions of foreign property don't take into account the actual owner of the asset, just where the asset is held. So the effect of that is that there are many ways that legislation, or that ban, could be circumvented by using money that is already in an Australian bank account. So it goes to the heart of the fact that this is a government that actually sees a problem and provides a considered solution that will have not just the headline of a fix but also a policy that will have the effect of banning foreign donations and that influence.

More broadly, the government is concerned, as are the Australian people, about foreign interference and espionage. It's not just occurring here in Australia. On a recent delegation to the European Union, I heard firsthand evidence from countries who are concerned about a range of foreign interference in their news cycles and their political systems right through to what we hear in America about the use of Facebook ads to push false news and create dissent and division in communities. In Australia we have concerns about pressure on people, who are of a different ethnic origin living in Australia, to support the views of a foreign government. We see universities under pressure about what they will or won't teach. We see actions taken at conferences and symposiums in Australia where, essentially, speakers are shut down by the actions of foreign delegates.

There are a range of ways that we see foreign interference. These reforms will mean that we are going to address the threat of political interference by foreign intelligence services or, indeed, by other governments and their representatives, whether they be formal or through business or expatriate links. It is in the national interest that the government is doing this, and it is a shame that, on such an important topic, those taking note from the other side should resort to attacking the person and the character, in this case, of the Attorney-General and of the Prime Minister, as opposed to dealing with the substantive issue, which is an issue that goes directly to our national interest.

3:20 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the answers to questions that I put to Minister Cash today. I cannot believe what I heard today. What a disgraceful episode that was. I asked the minister and the government when they became aware of some shocking employment conditions at Tip Top, where one driver died in the car park from a heart attack. His family were interviewed last night on 7.30 and they said that they believed their husband and father had been driven to an early grave. He had worked six months without a day off—working seven days a week and sometimes 17 hours a day. The lack of empathy I got from the minister could not have been more embarrassing or less caring. All she wanted to waffle on about was some funding for some roads—and, if someone has a problem with a truck, get on the internet or something.

Tip Top is a name that has been around forever, but I for one will never purchase another Tip Top product—and I reckon Australia should get in behind me. Tip Top are a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, which just weeks ago reported a profit of over A$27 billion. These so-and-sos at Tip Top are squeezing the supply chain down to the point where people are dying. One poor man who had lung cancer was so ill that he couldn't go to work. When he rang up, do you know what the response was from Tip Top—that brand on the shelves at Woolworths, Coles, Aldi and the like? Their answer was: 'We don't care how crook you are. You have a contract; get in here.' He couldn't afford to put a driver on. That is the way that he was treated by this multibillion-dollar raider from Britain. What a disgraceful company!

The minister, in her response to my question, accused me—it's on the record—of trying to spin a political point when I spoke about the 301 deaths on our roads involving articulated vehicles. I get really, really wild about this as an ex-long distance truck driver. I carved my living on the roads, the highways and byways from Perth to Darwin, starting off as a 15-year-old in the removal industry and then running my own trains up there on a fortnightly basis. I know the pain that truckies go through. I know the lack of quality lifestyle that they have. I worked for a company which wasn't all that fantastic in paying, sometimes—but, fortunately, we were a collective. When we weren't paid right, we had the ability—in those good old days—to withdraw our labour. We could park our $200,000 rigs out the front of the yard and say, 'We're not moving, because we aren't being paid a rate that can pay off our fuel bills, fix our trucks, pay off our trucks, feed our families and pay off our house payments.' These poor devils working for Tip Top have had rate reductions.

I want to mention the two drivers from Tip Top who came here from Sydney, because they are brave men. Mark Goldfinch and Paul Clapson came here yesterday to tell their story to Australian legislators. Not one coalition government member—Liberal, National, LNP—would meet with them. Why not? Then the minister gets up in question time—like some complete; I won't say that word because I will have to withdraw it, and I can't put my tongue around a nice enough word—and tries to push away these deaths that have been experienced at one bread company, because the poor devils have had $1,000 a week taken off their remuneration, and treats my question and my concern about deaths on our roads as a political stunt. I am absolutely concerned about the deaths happening on our roads.

I'm the son of a long-distance truck driver. I'm the father of a long-distance truck driver. I absolutely have fears every night: are my mates and my son safe out there on the highway and are other road users safe out on the highway? Every truck in this country should have a driver that is rested safely. He or she should be paid a rate that will cover their fixed costs and their variable costs, and give them a working wage—not wage theft from so-and-sos, like these mongrels here from Britain Tip Top. And I'm not making this up. So I challenge anyone from Tip Top, if you're listening, to write me a letter and tell me I'm wrong; tell me that Mark Goldfinch, Paul Clapson and all their mates—about eight of them—haven't had wage theft. What a disgusting company!

3:25 pm

Photo of Jane HumeJane Hume (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The emotional plea from Senator Sterle was, indeed, stirring. I don't doubt for a moment his sincerity. I do doubt, however, his accuracy. It was, indeed, those opposite that tried to destroy the trucking industry. The government, in fact, with the support of the crossbench, were the ones that took action to urgently abolish the RSRT and to put an end to its payments order, which directly threatened the livelihoods of tens of thousands of owner truck drivers and their family operators. That payments order caused crippling financial hardship and emotional distress to thousands of owner-drivers. It was very bad for small business; it was very bad for owner truck drivers; it was bad for families; and it was bad for the economy.

The RSRT was implemented in 2012 by none other than Bill Shorten. It was done to appease the Transport Workers Union in order to silence their public opposition to the Julia Gillard carbon tax. The payments order was designed purely to push owner-drivers out of business and into the employ of the large transport companies, making them a workforce that, of course, would be much easier to unionise. This government was not going to stand by and watch the livelihoods of those tens of thousands of people be destroyed. So, in 2016, with the support of the majority of the crossbench of the Senate, this government abolished the RSRT and saved the livelihoods of those thousands of small businesses—those thousands of owner-operator truck drivers. Mr Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition, has made it clear that Labor supports the re-establishment of the RSRT and of the pay order. Labor continues to support the destruction of the tens of thousands of small businesses throughout Australia. It is entirely impossible not to feel enormous empathy for the men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by the unnecessary ordeal caused by the tribunal's unfair payments order.

Owner-drivers, as we all know, are the lifeblood of the economy. We simply couldn't survive without them. This government will never do anything which threatens their viability with significant implications across the country. By abolishing that tribunal, the government has been able to provide $4 million per year to vital road projects, including contributions to the Heavy Vehicle Safety Initiative package that delivers chain-of-responsibility education and improves heavy vehicle monitoring. It has funded research into heavy vehicle driver fatigue to inform the development of future fatigue arrangements. It has also provided safer freight networks in areas identified as higher risk. It has contributed to the Black Spots Program and to the national Heavy Vehicle Safety and Productivity Program and the Bridges Renewal Program to deliver the key infrastructure to improve heavy vehicle safety outcomes. It has also gone to developing a master industry code of practice. It has gone to developing safety, education and awareness campaigns. It has also provided pilots for the new livestock transfer infrastructure.

While I feel for Senator Sterle and I can hear the emotion in his voice, I suggest to you, Madam Deputy President, that they are, in fact, crocodile tears—that there is an extent of theatre and of performance art to Senator Sterle's allegations today.

I've surprised myself today because I do tend to agree, to some extent, with Senator Carr. He was right when he said that this is a government that was elected because of its principles. Indeed, the announcements made yesterday by the Attorney-General, by the Prime Minister and also by the Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann, suggest that we are acting on those principles.

It's not just rhetoric. It's not just empty words. We are acting on those principles. The behaviour of those opposite, while not the cause of it, certainly demands it; it certainly inspires it. This is a government of principle. This is a government that's acting in the national interest. It's a government that's doing what Australians expect of it. It's a government that is getting on with the job of looking after the interests of not just some, not just a select few, but all Australians.

3:30 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of answers given by Senator Brandis and Senator Cash and, in doing so, acknowledge what a lacklustre and insincere response we heard from Senator Brandis to questions regarding the introduction of foreign donations legislation. We know how insincere and lacklustre it was because Senator Brandis has been silent on the matter of foreign donations legislation for months now, if not years.

I think it was back in June when, on Sky News, Senator Brandis talked about how the government would introduce in the spring sittings legislation to ban foreign donations. Yet here we are, the day before parliament rises for the year, and Senator Brandis is flagging that, finally, the government wants to introduce foreign donations legislation. We know why this is. It is a political stunt by this government to show that it is finally doing something about foreign donations to political parties, unlike the Labor Party, which has for years been trying to legislate in this manner, both in government and in opposition.

There is a bill on the table right now that Mr Shorten tabled to ban foreign donations to political parties. It's been on the table for over a year, and yet the coalition has deliberately ignored this bill and tried to obfuscate and prevent any kind of debate being brought on simply because it is not interested in banning foreign donations. It is continuing to take foreign donations into its political coffers for the various elections that it has to fight. I have a very good question for Senator Brandis: is the Liberal Party taking foreign donations for the current Bennelong by-election?

What is really clear here is the government's insincerity in dealing with this issue. As Senator Farrell asked Senator Brandis, why did the coalition in 2010 vote against laws to ban foreign donations? Why has the coalition, time and time again, voted against laws—laws that are in place in the United States, in the UK and in Canada, and that Labor has been trying to legislate for in this place for years—to ban foreign donations? This government is not interested in doing that because it is quite comfortable continuing to take such donations.

If Senator Brandis were serious about this legislation, then the parliament would have sat last week so that the debate could have continued and so that we could have passed this legislation this year. But he is not serious about it at all. He has been dragged kicking and screaming to deal with it because of the politics that has come to light surrounding the issues at play—issues that, of course, the Liberal Party know very well they are tainted with themselves.

If we look back through the history of donations legislation in this parliament, it was under the Hawke government all those years ago that we set a disclosure threshold for political donations of $1,500. What did Prime Minister John Howard do the moment he came in? He lifted that threshold to $10,000—a $10,000 threshold for disclosure of donations. Not only did Labor's legislation that Mr Shorten introduced a year ago look at the issue of banning foreign donations; it also looked at the issue of thresholds. It also looked at the issue of banning anonymous donations to political parties. It also looked at the issue of donation splitting. It looked at a range of disclosure issues to ensure that we build in an automatic, instinctive process to ensure we are accountable, including donation disclosure in as close to real time as possible. All of that has been on the table in this parliament for over a year. The Labor Party have wanted to ban foreign donations for over a year. This government has not.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You kept taking them!

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

No. The Labor Party has not taken foreign donations since July this year. Despite the government not wanting to debate it, we banned them anyway. (Time expired)

3:35 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

The motion to take note of answers moved by Senator Carr made reference to Senator Sterle's question. I take a point of difference with Senator Hume when she suggests that Senator Sterle was less than serious or was putting a bit of theatre into it. I have no doubt that Senator Sterle feels very passionately and strongly on behalf of truck drivers. I have no doubt that his concern for their welfare is very genuine. I do not agree that increased rates of pay or somehow resurrecting the RSRT will make the circumstance which he described today any better, notwithstanding the fact that I understand how difficult it is that a man who was suffering from cancer had to fulfil his contractual obligations.

I would like to make this point, and it is a serious one for this chamber: the minister may have been giving an answer that Senator Sterle didn't appreciate, but, during her answer, multiple points of order were taken, although there were some directly relevant responses. Senator Sterle took one himself, and I think that was reasonably genuine. Senator Cameron took a point of order as well. I think Senator Sterle took another one, and there could have been Senator Wong also. I'm not sure whether she took one. But there were three, four or maybe even five points of order, which meant the minister wasn't even able to get out a response that might have illuminated the matter. I think those were spurious points of order. They didn't assist in our ability to get the answers that Senator Sterle was, I think, quite genuinely seeking.

There was a repeal of the RSRT last year by the government. That was due to a change of mind by the Nick Xenophon Team. I recall that Senator Xenophon, when it was introduced, invoked that same sort of emotive response, about someone who was tragically killed by an out-of-control truck whilst they were changing a tyre on the side of the road. Anyway, after examining the merits of it and recognising that there really is no correlation between road safety and rates of pay when it comes to truck drivers, the Senate, in its wisdom, changed the legislation. I supported that, because, notwithstanding the emotions and the personal commitment that Senator Sterle and others have in this space, I don't think it's entirely relevant to the Tip Top contractual obligations that were raised today.

I guess the point is that, if we want to get answers to questions, and there is a requirement for direct relevance in this space, then it is incumbent upon all of us to not raise multiple points of order seeking to score political points, because then the person answering the questions might not be tempted to score political points themselves and might actually come within cooee of responding to the question.

I also make the point that yesterday, in taking note of answers, there was some discussion about national security issues, and this was something that Senator Carr also moved a motion about, in response to Senator Brandis's concerns. The concerns about national security are not confected. They're absolutely serious. There is a quite genuine need for reform in this place. It's on both major parties, who have taken donations from individuals whom ASIO have warned them about. We have the circumstance with Senator Dastyari, who has warned an individual that they may be under surveillance and they should go outside to discuss it, free of the authorities' listening devices. I find that extraordinary, and I find it extraordinary that it's defended on that side of the chamber, because I know that even Senator Dastyari's close friends can't defend it. They were giving him counsel and advice, which is completely contrary to what Mr Shorten, Senator Carr and others are saying in this place.

If we're serious about trying to restore some faith and confidence in the body politic, if you're serious about wanting to ensure that people have at least an understanding that we're trying to act in the national interest here, you cannot defend the indefensible. You've got to put aside the tribal message and you've got to call it out when it's wrong. Senator Dastyari is completely wrong in this space, and I think anyone that defends him here is completely wrong. The Australian public know it. As Graham Richardson, a former Senator, says, 'The mob will work you out,' and the mob have worked this out pretty quick. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.