Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Great Barrier Reef Foundation

3:03 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Education and Training (Senator Birmingham) to questions without notice asked by Senators Keneally and Ketter today relating to a grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

What a bumbling performance from Senator Birmingham! What a pathetic performance from a cabinet minister, who was unable to deal with any of the questions with any substance during his answers. It's quite clear that this is an absolute rort, handing half a billion dollars over to a small foundation with six employees, when it should have actually been providing more resources to the CSIRO or to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. These are the areas that have the scientific knowledge. These are the organisations that know what's happening in the Great Barrier Reef. It's quite clear that Senator Birmingham doesn't have a clue about what's going on.

I'm not surprised Senator Birmingham doesn't have a clue, because the Prime Minister doesn't have a clue either. This is a government in its death throes. This is a rabble of a government, unable to deal with the real issues that affect ordinary Australians. This is a government so consumed by its internal conflict, so consumed by looking after its own jobs, that it doesn't care about the Great Barrier Reef. It doesn't care about ordinary working people in this country. This is a government that is so bad that it can't come up with a reasonable argument—not one decent argument—as to why it would hand half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money to the mates of the Prime Minister and the mates of the Prime Minister's wife. That's what's happened here.

This is about the big end of town looking after the big end of town. So what do they do? They hand them half a billion dollars on the basis that they are supposedly the experts in fundraising in the private sector. Well, maybe the people who are on the board should just put their hands in their own pockets, because these are the people with the $17-million-a-year salaries—the mates of Malcolm and Lucy. These are the mates getting half a billion dollars of public money. It's an absolute outrage. And, if there was one thing that this government could do to actually justify it, we would have heard it by now. Questions have been asked every day this week as to why this government would hand half a billion dollars of taxpayers' money to their mates in the big end of town—to some small organisation, employing six people—when we have the CSIRO and the Great Barrier Reef marine council ready to get the money. They could get the money, they could use the money and they could actually use it well.

The reason they won't give it to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is that that authority actually believes in climate change. The authority actually knows that man-made pollution is causing problems. It's causing problems with water quality, problems with the crown-of-thorns starfish and causing calcification. But, because the authority recognise that climate change is a reality and this lot over here want to deny it, they are not going to get a cent. It's the same with the CSIRO. The CSIRO is the pre-eminent research body in this country. They act in the interests of the community. They act in the interests of industry. They are there to make sure we achieve our international and national responsibilities. Yet this mob want to hand half a billion dollars to a small organisation that happened to be mates of the Prime Minister and mates of the Prime Minister's wife.

Senator Birmingham was absolutely pathetic. He can't handle his own portfolio, he can't handle this. This is a government in decline. It's a government that should go. (Time expired)

3:08 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You can see why Senator Cameron is more interested in his old mate Eddie Obeid and the bad Ian Macdonald—both in jail in New South Wales—than he is about what's happening here. Senator Cameron talks about the Great Barrier Reef council. Well, Senator Cameron, sitting in my office now I have mayors from five councils in the Townsville region—Palm Island council, Hinchinbrook council, Townsville regional council, Burdekin council and Charters Towers council—but there is no-one there from the Barrier Reef council that you're talking about. This just shows how particularly inept and inaccurate Senator Cameron is. He is leaving the chamber. I was going to actually tell him where the Great Barrier Reef is. Quite clearly, a Sydney based senator has obviously never, ever been there.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Macdonald please resume your seat. Senator Keneally.

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Deputy President, I would like to call to your attention that Senator Macdonald has just reflected on another member's exit from the chamber.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. I do remind you, Senator Macdonald, that it isn't appropriate to refer to whether senators are in or out of the chamber. But please continue your remarks.

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, Madam Deputy President, I'd forgotten that. Every time I speak and then leave the chamber, Senator Cameron mentions it. I don't remember Senator Keneally taking points of order then. Maybe she's worried about her former cabinet ministers, Mr Obeid and the bad Ian Macdonald, who are both languishing in jail, and she's not thinking very clearly about these things.

Senator Cameron doesn't even know the names of the groups in North Queensland. As the Senate well knows, I live up there, I interact with people who work there and I understand the Barrier Reef. Senator Cameron makes the accusation that we're not doing anything about man-made pollution and the crown-of-thorns starfish. Yet, if he looks at this package of half a billion dollars, they are two of the specific areas that this money will be used to address. The crown-of-thorns starfish is being specifically targeted under this new program, with additional boats going out and picking them up.

I have to tell all of the senators on the other side just where the Barrier Reef is. It's up off the North Queensland coast, starting around Bundaberg and going right up to Thursday Island. I tell them that because none of the Labor Queensland senators live anywhere outside of Brisbane. We had former Senator McLucas in the Senate at one stage. I didn't often agree with her but at least she was based in Cairns. She wouldn't be making these stupid comments about the Great Barrier Reef. Former Senator McLucas and I at least know where the Barrier Reef is.

Senator Watt interjecting

Senator Watt, who's yelling out across the chamber, knocked off former Senator McLucas. He stabbed her in the back. But I hear the Labor Party's going to put a senator in North Queensland. One of Senator Watt's staffers is going to be parachuted into the Senate when they get rid of Senator Moore. What happened to gender equity in the Labor Party? You got rid of former Senator McLucas, you're getting rid of Senator Moore, and I understand, Senator Watt, you're going to parachute one of your male staffers into the Senate and then put them up in North Queensland. They'll be a great North Queensland advocate, I know that. But the Barrier Reef is something we are keen about.

I often say, 'Don't take my word for it; take the word of Save Our Marine Life,' an alliance of leading conservation organisations working to protect Australia's marine life. This group sets quite accurately out in its booklet called A big blue legacy: the Liberal National tradition of marine conservation, which I read from often, all of the work that Liberal Party and National Party governments have done over the years to protect the Great Barrier Reef. We're the first ones in there protecting it—we're the only ones there that know where it is, for a start!—and we know what to do to enhance the wonderful experience that is the Great Barrier Reef.

No doubt we'll have Senator Keneally get up after this—I'd be interested in her views as a Sydneysider. I hope she's been to the Barrier Reef. In fact I encourage all senators to actually go up to the Barrier Reef and have a look around. Talk to the people who work there. Talk to the people who understand it. Talk to farmers who are doing real things to stop pollution of the Barrier Reef. These five-minute experts—like other Labor speakers will be, no doubt—will be interesting to listen to. Those of us who understand the reef—and the mayor's sitting in my office—are ecstatic about the concentration that this government has put into the Barrier Reef and the substantial money it has provided to protect and enhance it.

3:13 pm

Photo of Anthony ChisholmAnthony Chisholm (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I wasn't going to talk about this but I can't resist the opportunity. This time last week I was actually having lunch in Ayr, which is Senator Macdonald's home town. I met with the local journos and members of the community, and do you know what the sad part was? Not one person said they were going to miss Senator Macdonald. They didn't even mention him. It is a very sad way for him to exit. The fact that his contribution today was just an attack on Senator Keneally and others, rather than defending the decision of this government, speaks volumes for this decision that they have made to give almost half a billion dollars to this foundation.

The questions today from Labor, from Senator Keneally and Senator Ketter, go to the heart of the government's problem on this issue. The inept justifications are laid bare. The lack of due diligence is evident. It is clear evidence of a government on the run. They are making up justifications as they go, with zero substance behind them.

At that fateful meeting on 9 April, the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and Energy and the chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation met. It was a cosy little gathering, if ever I have seen one, where the Prime Minister said, 'We're going to give you $444 million.' The response from the foundation is priceless, and it's one of key phrases that captured the attention of Australians. The foundation declared, 'This is like winning lotto'. That was a key point where Australians thought: 'Hang on a sec, this foundation described it as winning lotto. That shows you there was a lack of due diligence on the government's part.' It also shows you that this foundation was not up to it. They had six full-time staff. They clearly were not ready.

The questions that we had today proved the government's lack of due diligence and lack of effort to ensure that this foundation was up to the task. We know that before they handed over the $444 million there was no tender process, no application and no due diligence. The foundation described it as 'like winning lotto', a phrase that has made an impact with the Australian people.

The substance of the questions today go to a key government claim that they have been making repeatedly: that the Great Barrier Reef Foundation will leverage this $444 million for private donations. Yet they can't tell us how much the organisation has raised from private sources. If they had done due diligence, they would have an answer to that question. But, as Senator Keneally said in her question, Minister Frydenberg has used five different figures. First it was over $90 million, then it was around $80 million, then he said $65 million, then he said more than $60 million and then he said tens of millions of dollars. We know their own website said it was $57 million. The fact that the government had not done their due diligence on this key claim has been laid bare. The substance that they are trying to mount around this being a government decision that stands shows you the lack of effort that they have put in.

Then we had the second question from Senator Ketter, which further ripped apart the government's claim about the foundation's ability to leverage this donation. That is the fact that they have engaged a consultant to write their co-financing plan. If they were so good at raising money from private and corporate sources, they wouldn't need to engage a consultant. If they were so successful over their 20 years of life, they wouldn't need a consultant to do it for them. But the fact that they have had to go and do that just shows you that that key plank, which the government have been using to argue the substance of why this has happened, does not stand up.

The other part of this—which is also important—that has come out through the questioning of the Senate committee is that the government handed over this money, all $444 million, without getting a commitment from the foundation about how much money they were going to be able to raise. So they've got $444 million in the bank, but they have not said what they are going to raise from private and corporate interests. If that was a key plank of why the government was giving this mob the money, surely the government would say, 'This is what we expect from you.' But, no: they handed over the money and now they are scrambling behind the scenes to look like they went through some sort of due diligence process to justify the decision. They clearly haven't done it. We know there was no tender, we know there was no application, we know the foundation described this as winning lotto, and we know the Australian people are on to them. This is what is coming their way. The sooner the government realise and accept responsibility for what they have done and hand this money back, the better. The Australian people have no confidence in the foundation, and that is the fault of this government.

3:18 pm

Photo of James PatersonJames Paterson (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In question time today and throughout this week and in the take note of answers we've just had from Labor senators today, we've heard three novel concepts that you don't typically hear from the Labor Party. We've heard three new concerns that Labor have about this particular policy that they don't typically show in other areas of public life.

Firstly, they've shown a new-found concern for the careful use of taxpayer dollars. If only they had shown that when they were last in government. I will return to that in a moment. Secondly, they've shown a new-found and recent concern for proper process. That's something that, again, I didn't seen them particularly uphold when they were in government. I will return to that. And then, thirdly, they've shown a new-found scepticism about the fact that expenditure on environmental projects might sometimes be questionable. These are three new, different takes from the Labor Party that we're not used to normally hearing.

I will return to the first point that I made: the careful use of taxpayers' dollars. It is a little bit—just a little bit—galling to sit here and listen to lectures from the Labor Party about the careful use of taxpayer dollars. It's not something that they typically showed much sentimentality about when they were in government. We don't have to turn back the clock very far at all to remember the way in which they showed wanton disregard for taxpayers' dollars when they had the opportunity to be careful stewards of them. They are the party, after all, of pink batts. They are the party of sending cheques in the mail to people who are deceased, in the name of economic stimulus. They are the party which, when coming to government in 2007, inherited the most enviable set of books in the Western world and promptly went about absolutely smashing the nation's finances in just a few years. And they, of course, are the party which in this chamber have opposed virtually every single attempt that this government has made to fix the problem that they have caused and the wreckage that they have done to our budget. They have voted time and time again against measures designed to be more carefully stewarding of taxpayers' dollars.

When it comes to proper process, this again is a new-found and recent concern of the Labor Party. I did not hear and I have not yet heard—perhaps later in this debate or in other debates I will be surprised, but I did not hear—this same concern shown for perhaps the largest expenditure of taxpayer dollars ever conceived, in the worst and most shambolic process ever known, which of course is the creation of the National Broadband Network. It took place—we now know, thanks to media reporting and the benefit of hindsight—initially over a scrap of a napkin in the Prime Minister's VIP jet, between the minister, Stephen Conroy, and the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, during several flights around the country. The expenditure of tens of billions of dollars of taxpayers' money started on the back of a napkin on the VIP jet. That was not exactly proper process, and it's a bit galling to hear Labor senators come in here and question that today.

Finally, as I mentioned, they have a new-found concern that possibly the expenditure of taxpayers' money on environmental projects might not be effective. Well, I wish that was a trait that they showed more consistently and more widely and that they applied equally to their own policies as they are applying it to ours. It's almost as if their questions on this matter have been written by my friend Andrew Bolt. It's very reminiscent of his criticism of our government from the right flank, but it's somewhat unusual coming from Labor senators, on our left flank.

The real question is: what is actually underlying the Labor Party's criticism of this policy? What is really driving it? I think the senator who let the mask slip the most during questions this week was my fellow senator from Victoria Senator Kim Carr, who asked a question to the government about this earlier this week. In his question, he referred to the fact that the charity that's receiving this money is in fact a private charity. There was particular emphasis on the word 'private'. In fact, he almost spat the word 'private' in the chamber as he said it. Why was the government giving so much taxpayers' money to a private charity to undertake this work?

And that, I think, perfectly encapsulates Labor's real objection here. They believe that only public servants, only government agents—only the state—are capable of doing good environmental works or other good social works. They're deeply sceptical about the role of civil society, of private organisations, in delivering innovative solutions to the problems that we face.

I commend the government for thinking outside of the box, for looking at other ways to solve this problem, for not relying on the same traditional and sometimes unsuccessful methods to solve these problems, and for empowering a private charity to solve this problem.

3:23 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to participate in this take-note debate in response to questions asked by me and Senator Ketter of Senator Birmingham. Well, they say that success has many parents and failure is an orphan. We can't get anyone from the government to admit whose idea it was to give the Great Barrier Reef Foundation $444 million of public money. Minister Frydenberg has been asked. He's been asked in the parliament. He's been asked on ABC Insiders. He's been asked on 2GB radio by Ben Fordham. He refuses to say.

Yesterday, in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister was asked twice whether it was his idea to give the money to the foundation. He refused to answer on both occasions. You'd think, if this was such a magnificent idea, the person who conceived of it would be shouting it from the rooftops. Instead, we have people scattering away from this ill-conceived and ill-designed proposal, this maladministration of public money. This is a flawed approach, and it is an approach that leads directly to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to Mr Turnbull.

We only know through the scrutiny applied by the Senate process in estimates and in committee hearings that there was no grant application, that there was no public tender process. We only know through the scrutiny of the Senate that the foundation itself did not ask for this money. They had no conversations with anyone in government prior to 9 April about taking responsibility for nearly half a billion dollars of public money. And why is 9 April important? We now know, due to the Senate scrutiny process, that 9 April is the day the Prime Minister of Australia went into a room with Minister Frydenberg and no public servants and offered the chair of this foundation, Dr John Schubert, $444 million of public money—no due diligence; no grant application process; no contestability; no discussions. We now know, through the Senate process, there were no discussions with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. We now know, through processes in this Senate, that there were no discussions with the CSIRO. We know that this government seems to have come up with this proposal without talking to anyone whatsoever, and decided that it can gift this private foundation $444 million of public money.

And it is important to note that it's a private foundation, because this is public money. Now we are in the farcical situation of public sector science agencies, like the CSIRO, like the Australian Institute of Marine Science, having to go cap in hand to a private foundation to get access to public money to carry out public science to protect one of our great public assets, the Great Barrier Reef. This is an extraordinary set of circumstances conceived by a bunch of merchant bankers, including the Prime Minister, who think that it's okay to strike up a deal behind closed doors. The carelessness of public money being handed out in this fashion!

Now, the government waltzes around justifying this, a post-hoc justification, and saying that this foundation can raise additional money—that they can leverage $444 million and they can get additional money from corporates. They say on their website they've raised $57 million from corporates and philanthropy. They do not have audited reports on their websites to substantiate that, so maybe they could start by putting those reports up. We know the government hasn't done the due diligence because, again through the Senate process, we have heard from the department that they haven't even looked at the audited reports prior to 2011. So how can the government, as we saw today, stand up and say this foundation is a great fundraising machine when they don't even know if it's true? Not Minister Frydenberg, not Senator Birmingham, not the Prime Minister and not anyone from government can stand here and say how much money this foundation has raised in the past, or tell us how much it is going to raise in the future. They have privatised the Great Barrier Reef.

Question agreed to.