Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education, Ministerial Staff

3:04 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 Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education (Senator Cash) and the Minister for Finance and the Public Service (Senator Cormann) to questions without notice asked by Senator Cameron and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) today relating to the execution of a search warrant on Australian Workers' Union premises and to the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

What we do know about this government is that they are all about fear and smear. That's the modus operandi of this government. They ignore the national interest. They ignore the need to protect consumers against the banks. They ignore the plight of Australian families battling to put food on the table. They ignore declining living standards and wage stagnation. They ignore the need for proper funding in the public health system and in the public education system. All they do is sit around and try and smear the Leader of the Opposition. That's their modus operandi. And then they back that up with a fear campaign on refugees.

I don't normally quote TheBetoota Advocate, but its headline reads:

Opportunistic Refugee Inspired By Medivac Bill To Get Lost At Sea, Spend 5 Years In Nauru, Develop Excruciating Illness And Then Maybe Briefly Come To Australia For Medical Treatment Under Armed Guard

That really says it all. This is a nonsense from this government. They just try and use fear campaigns to divide the community and shore up their rabble of a government and their declining capacity to get things through this Senate and through the House of Representatives.

Minister Cash, a cabinet minister, has been anything but forthright in this parliament. She misled parliament on five occasions. She skulked and hid behind a whiteboard to try and avoid being pulled up on what she was doing. She has hidden behind public interest immunity to not answer questions on her involvement in the leaking of information to the press that the AFP said could have put their people's lives in danger. This is a disgraced minister, a disgraceful government and a government that is full of machinations and full of fear campaigns but don't look after the best interests of people in this country. This is a minister who should really start considering her position. She should just resign. And if she won't resign, then Mr Morrison should sack her. Here we have, day after day now, evidence coming out in court, under oath, that contradicts what Minister Cash has been telling this parliament. We now know that Minister Keenan's office was involved. Isn't it funny that we've got the Leader of the Senate, Western Australian; Minister Cash, Western Australian and Mr Keenan, Western Australian, all in there defending each other on what is basically a smear campaign on the Leader of the Opposition and a fear campaign to try and shore up their failing government.

Senator Wong simply asked had Mr Morrison sought reassurance on the statements by Senator Cash and Mr Keenan? We couldn't get an answer on that either. Wouldn't you think that even though he may only be a temporary Prime Minister, he should at least be seeking some reassurance about what's been happening in the courts against what these ministers have said in this place and have said publicly? There is absolutely no doubt that this minister, Minister Cash's office, engaged in what is basically criminal activity. This is a minister who presided over the ABCC when the commissioner of the ABCC had to resign in ignominy. It's about time Senator Cash resigned in ignominy as well. (Time expired)

3:09 pm

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As another senator from Western Australia, I too rise to take note of answers. There's one fear and smear campaign, in this chamber and in other venues of this parliament, that's been going on for quite a while now, and that's the relentless attacks on an absolutely fine minister from Western Australia, the outstanding Senator Cash—someone who has done an absolutely outstanding job in this government over a long period of time. Senator Cameron continues to roll the same questions out over and over again no matter how clearly Minister Cash has answered them in repeated forums, in estimates, over and over again. The obfuscation and misleading questions coming from those opposite just continue to be rolled out.

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And smear and innuendo.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As Senator Duniam says: smear and innuendo from those opposite.

Let's put a few facts on the table as to what this issue is actually about. This is all about the proper authorisation of donations made by the AWU and—surprise, surprise!—those opposite running a protection racket for the union movement yet again, as we see in this place constantly. What are those donations? A hundred thousand dollars to GetUp!, $25,000 to Mr Shorten's election campaign and other donations made by the AWU to various Labor Party election campaigns. There has been a refusal to provide documentation to the Registered Organisations Commission to show that the donations were properly authorised. Why is that such a big ask? Why is it such a big ask to show that donations were properly authorised, that the correct procedures were followed, when these very significant donations were made to GetUp! and to the Labor Party? That question won't be answered by those opposite. The refusal to provide this documentation dates back to August 2017—August 2017; we're in February 2019—when revelations about those donations were first raised by the media.

It was ROC, the Registered Organisations Commission, that made the decision to investigate these donations, and that has been made very clear at numerous rounds of estimates. What has also been made very clear at numerous rounds of estimates is that the AWU, the union, has expressly declined to provide documentation requested of it by ROC. The questions raised by those opposite are about the AWU trying to have a court prevent the Registered Organisations Commission investigating whether the donations were properly authorised or having access to documents seized by the Australian Federal Police in relation to the ROC's investigation. This is a legitimate investigation into very large political donations. We've heard a lot about political donations in this place over the last few years, a lot of fire and thunder and outrage, but this was $100,000 to GetUp!—$100,000 to an organisation that is specifically targeting members of parliament to try to have them unseated. This is a significant issue in our democracy. Those opposite, in protecting their union mates, protecting the union movement—running a protection racket—are attacking Minister Cash, attacking ministers in the other place and casting smear and innuendo towards them, when these questions have been repeatedly asked and repeatedly answered over a series of estimates hearings, some of which I've been at in my capacity as Chair of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee.

In my remaining few seconds I would ask a question of those Australians listening today. We've just had a series of events in Australia that you'd think those opposite would like to ask some questions about. We've had significant floods in Queensland and significant fires in Tasmania and other places—events that have cast a shadow over communities across Australia. We've had Labor voting to weaken our border protection. And what do they want to ask questions about? They want to ask questions about Minister Cash. (Time expired)

3:14 pm

Photo of Murray WattMurray Watt (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, isn't the scandal involving Senator Cash just unravelling more and more and more? This is a scandal that has gone on for 18 months now, and, just when Senator Cash thought that she was through the worst of it, that she'd be able to put a big whiteboard up in front of herself and skate through until the election, the truth is finally coming out in the Federal Court of Australia as we speak.

In the last two days we have heard extraordinary evidence from the former senior media advisor to Senator Cash, who infamously had to resign after his leaking of confidential police information was exposed through media reports and Senate estimates about 18 months ago. Now, in legal proceedings before the Federal Court brought by the Australian Workers' Union over this illegal raid, we have heard damning evidence from the former senior media advisor to Senator Cash about what he and his colleagues from this government were up to.

In summary: over the last couple of days what we have learnt in evidence given under oath, with risk of perjury charges if it's not true, from the former senior media adviser to Senator Cash is that initially he didn't want to answer questions about who was involved in this leak because he was concerned that he would incriminate himself. An admission of guilt if ever I've heard one. Then, when forced, he identified Senator Cash's former chief of staff as the source of the information which he then leaked. For many months now we have heard from Senator Cash and other members of this government that it was only her former senior media adviser involved in this—it was only one rogue; it was only one bad apple who was out there involved in this leak. Well, now we know, as a result of this evidence in court, that it involved two former staff members of Senator Cash. And not just two junior staff members; her former senior media adviser and her former chief of staff were in on this.

The evidence got even more extraordinary today in the court when we learnt from the evidence of the former senior media adviser that part of his motivation in leaking this information was to damage the reputation of the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten. What we've all known on this side of the chamber for some time now has now been spilt out into open court: this confidential information about a police raid was leaked to the media for political purposes, to damage the reputation of the opposition leader.

Now, I remembered evidence we received from the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police after this leak. He was extremely unhappy about the leak having occurred. He said that he always hates leaks about police information because it puts the lives of his police officers in danger. What we now know is that the former senior media adviser to Senator Cash was prepared to leak information about a police raid to the media and thereby put police lives in danger only to damage the reputation of the Leader of the Opposition. This is the kind of behaviour you expect in a banana republic. This is the kind of behaviour you expect in some sort of dictatorship, not in the country of Australia. But, unfortunately, that's where things have got to under this government.

Finally, the other evidence we saw in court today was where the former senior media adviser to Senator Cash admitted that it wasn't only her former chief of staff who was in on this; it actually crossed over different ministerial offices. He talked about this, and conspired to leak this information to the media with the former senior media adviser in the office of the then Minister for Justice, Mr Keenan. This involved not only two staff members of Senator Cash but also a second ministerial office, and who knows what else we're going to find out by the time the day is out let alone by the time we get to the evidence from Senator Cash on Friday. This new evidence goes directly against what Mr Keenan told the House of Representatives, where he claimed that no-one from his office was involved in this raid.

We've seen again today a complete unwillingness from Senator Cash and Senator Cormann to answer questions about this scandal. Initially, they said they didn't know. Senator Cash said she didn't know about this evidence in court, just like she conveniently didn't know about the leak in the first place—I don't think anyone believes that. Then they tried to write off this evidence: 'Oh, it's just evidence given to a court.' Well, it's actually evidence given under oath with the risk of perjury charges. The government knows how serious this is, and it's only going to get worse.

3:19 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is always a pleasure to join my colleagues in taking note of answers provided by ministers. It was very telling to listen to Senator Cameron's contribution at the beginning of this debate, when he rattled off a list of things that weren't being talked about in question time—health and education. It is a bit rich coming from Senator Cameron, when those opposite spent the entirety of question time trying to change the channel on the disastrous border protection policy they, in cahoots with the Greens, rammed through this place—the weakening of the border protection policies that this country has. In this business, this is what happens: political parties, in this case the Labor Party, that have done something they are not proud of—weakened our borders in this country—want to distract. They want to change the channel and change the debate. That is what they're doing here. They're doing a 'look over here': 'Everyone look. Here's something else to look at.' Of course, it is not something of interest to the Australian public. It is an 'inside the Canberra bubble' type matter. It is something I think the opposition should take note of.

There is an election coming down the train line, and we should be looking at things that actually matter to the Australian people, and not worrying about the Leader of the Opposition's reputation, as you clearly are—although I would argue that he himself has done enough damage to that, and through the royal commission as well. Listening to the contributions that have been made to this debate, and also listening to the questions and the motivations behind the questions asked by opposition senators, I had to ask myself why. I have already canvassed the idea that the Labor Party is trying to escape the reality of their appalling decision to undermine border security. I think it's fairly clear that that's what they are up to here. But why are they going after a very competent and well-regarded minister? It is because Senator Cash is one who has pointed out, repeatedly, question time after question time, some of the most disgusting examples of abuse of workers' rights undertaken by unions in this country—things that were revealed by the royal commission. It might amuse some senators, but they are serious matters. We only have to look at some of the things that were publicised through the royal commission. The response from the opposition is to attack, in the best way they can, to try to take down a minister who is actually highlighting to Australians things they need to know: the antics of unions in this country that needed to be dealt with. We only have to look at some of the things that came out of the Heydon royal commission. I refer to comments that Senator Cash made after the conclusion of the royal commission around things that were found. She said that the Heydon Royal Commission found that Bill Shorten, as secretary of the Australian Workers Union, arranged payments from numerous businesses to benefit the union rather than its members. Senator Cash further said, 'As secretary of the AWU, Bill Shorten'—the Leader of the Opposition—'traded away the pay and conditions of some of Australia's lowest paid workers. The AWU'—the union of which the Leader of the Opposition was secretary'—later received secret payments of $75,000 from Cleanevent'—a company that was in talks with Mr Shorten—'to maintain this arrangement. In addition, when Bill Shorten ran for parliament in 2007, a building company spent $32,000 hiring a staff member to act as his campaign manager whilst at the same time negotiating an enterprise agreement with Mr Shorten's union. These payments created a clear conflict of interest and were highly unethical.'

These are the things that Senator Cash has been highlighting all along—things that Australians need to know about. In response, instead of talking about issues that matter to Australians, such as—as Senator Cameron almost gallingly pointed out—health, education and indeed the Labor Party's terrible efforts at undermining border security in this country, we're talking about assassinating the character of a minister in this government. Let's forget about the fact that this matter is before the courts and that, as Senator Cormann, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, pointed out, there is a separation of powers. We are senators. We are not judges in court, yet the opposition seem to think they can do a much better job than Federal Court judges. They actually think that they can dictate what comes here and what justice is served in their eyes. Well, leave it to the courts. Do the right thing and perhaps start outlining a proper agenda ahead of the election, like what you are doing in response to the banking royal commission, rather than hiding behind your weasel words from Mr Bowen. (Time expired)

3:24 pm

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

I rise to take part in the debate in response to questions by Senator Cameron and Senator Wong. We are having this debate because today in the court we heard David De Garis, the former media adviser to Senator Michaelia Cash, give evidence and admit that reputational impact against Mr Shorten was part of his motivation for giving media a tip ahead of the raids at the AWU headquarters in Melbourne and Sydney in October 2017. We are here today asking questions of Minister Cash. We are here today having this debate because Minister Cash is refusing to answer questions. She is refusing to answer questions such as, for example: how does this align with her obligation under the Statement of Ministerial Standards to act through the lawful and disinterested exercise of the statutory and other powers available to her office? We are here today because the best that Minister Cormann can give us is a statement that the government maintains confidence in all its ministers. We are not hearing from Minister Cash or Minister Cormann direct answers on the circumstances around these AWU raids and the role that the minister and her staff may have played.

This is part of the ongoing campaign of fear and smear run by the government. This government is so devoid of vision, plans, reforms and a look at what Australia might look like over the next five years that all it can talk about is fear and smear—whipping up fear and scaring people, instead of giving them a vision for the future. For example, we heard the Prime Minister this week at the National Press Club. Here's what he didn't talk about. He didn't talk about schools. He didn't talk about hospitals. He didn't talk about Medicare. He didn't talk about child care. He didn't talk about the NBN. He didn't talk about climate change. He just tried to scare people with a dark vision of the future. That's all he has to offer.

I'll tell you what else he didn't talk about. He didn't talk about the fact that wages growth is the slowest on record. He didn't talk about the fact that company profits are growing at six times the rate of wages. He did not talk about the record-high gross debt. He didn't talk about the fact that 1.8 million Australians are looking for work or are looking for more work. He certainly did not talk about the fact that childcare costs are up 24 per cent, that power bills are up 15 per cent and that private healthcare costs are up 30 per cent. All we have from the government, instead of talking about, as Senator Duniam so eloquently puts it, things that matter to Australians, like schools, hospitals, Medicare, child care, the NBN and climate change, all the Prime Minister can offer us is whipping up of fear.

Wasn't he whipping up fear earlier today in his media conference? Wasn't he laying out the welcome mat for the people smugglers? Wasn't he just tempting those boats to start again? The Prime Minister of this country went out there and announced to the world that he is reopening a hotel for people smugglers on Christmas Island. Understand this: there is one person in Australia who wants the boats to start again and that is the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. He is out there tempting them, goading them. He is hoping that those boats come again, because he knows there is nothing that passed the parliament today that would restart the boats. That is the fact, and the Prime Minister knows it. But, instead of dealing with those facts, the Prime Minister has gone out on a campaign of fear and a campaign of smear, trying to whip up hysteria, trying to fearmonger and hoping the boats start again. He knows that it is turnbacks, offshore processing and regional processing that has stopped the boats and that nothing that passed the parliament today will restart the boats. What will do it is his rhetoric and the invitation of the opening up of a hotel on Christmas Island. That's what the Prime Minister is doing, and he is tempting those boats to start again. We see from Minister Cash fear and smear against Labor leader Bill Shorten. We see from this government fear and smear about the dark days ahead. But we do not see a positive vision for the future of this country.

Question agreed to.