Senate debates

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction

3:03 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment (Senator Birmingham), and the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to questions without notice asked by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate (Senator Wong) and Senator O’Neill today relating to ministerial standards.

Over the last two days, Senators Birmingham and Cormann have been asked on multiple occasions to explain the circumstances surrounding Mr Taylor and Mr Frydenberg and the meetings that they secured with the department about grasslands in the Monaro area. It is striking how unwilling they have been to add even the tiniest amount of detail to this story, and it's a big tell. I haven't been in this parliament and this chamber for as long as some of these people, but I have been around long enough to know that when you get answers like the ones that are being provided here, there is a cover-up going on. People are scrambling. The senators who have been answering questions in this place have been desperate to keep their hands off this. Every answer they've provided has referred to statements made by Minister Taylor or referred to statements made by Minister Frydenberg. They've been completely unwilling to verify with any confidence the set of facts asserted around these circumstances. That is because they are impossible to reconcile based on the available evidence.

It's probably useful to set out some of the facts as they've been reported. It's reported that in October 2016 almost 30 hectares of critically endangered grasslands were cleared in the Monaro area after the land was bought by Jam Land Pty Ltd. In November, a complaint is made by neighbours to the New South Wales and federal environment authorities and, on 7 March 2017, the federal department of the environment meets with representatives of Jam Land to discuss potential contraventions of federal environment laws. That's what has been reported.

We now know from documents obtained under FOI that, on 9 March—just two days after that first meeting when the environment officers go and meet with Jam Land—a meeting is sought by staff in Minister Frydenberg's office with officers from the department to discuss land clearing. The coincidence is striking, isn't it? Within a day, within a day of that first contact between the department and Jam Land, the minister's office is on the case, seeking a meeting from the department. An assistant secretary the following day is emailing his colleagues, talking about this call and quite clearly flagging concerns and anxieties about the position that the department is being placed in by the minister's staff. On 20 March 2017, a meeting in Parliament House with Mr Taylor takes place in relation to this listing of critically endangered species. At the request of Minister Frydenberg, a compliance officer from the department is present at the meeting.

Why does it matter? It's complicated, isn't it? The whole affair stinks of the kind of insider dealings that drive people nuts. The facts as reported give rise to very serious questions in relation to the ministerial standards—the standards that require our ministerial representatives to be honest, that require them to separate the public interest from their private interests. There are serious questions about whether the ministers in question were acting in the public interest or, instead, were acting to protect the interests of one minister and his family and their interest in a particular company, Jam Land.

There has been a discussion today about disclosure, as though that's enough. The facts on the table about disclosure suggest that nowhere near enough has been done. Not all the obligations have in any way been met. Documents tabled today show that Gufee, the company in which Minister Taylor is listed as a shareholder and an officer, has a clear financial interest in Jam Land. That is something you think might have been made public, might have been made known to the departmental officers who were involved in the meeting between Minister Taylor and Minister Frydenberg. But, no, because, in April, during estimates, the secretary of the department couldn't have been clearer. He said, in answer to a question: 'Senator, I can be quite explicit about this. I am not aware that the minister is a shareholder. I do not know that information. Minister Taylor has never raised that issue with me.' Ought not the secretary of the department have been informed that the minister he was meeting with had a direct financial relationship with the company against whom an investigation was taking place? This is not good enough.

3:08 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's all very good—the hypocrisy, Senator McAllister, of you to come into this place—given the history of the ALP and the scandals that you've been involved in. It's a bit hypocritical of you to come into this place and make those sorts of assertions. I will tell you why those opposite are doing this: because they have just suffered a really bad defeat at the hands of the Australian public. We won the election. You lost the election. Why did you lose the election? It's good for those opposite; they want to come in here and throw a bit of mud; they want to do this and they want to do that. You do not want to admit that, at the last federal election, you took to the Australian public a series of dud policies and that's why you lost the election, and I'd like to focus on that. You don't want to talk about some of the swings that you suffered, particularly in my home state of New South Wales.

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

Senator Wong, a point of order.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The point of order is relevance. I know that there seems to be a reluctance to defend Minister Taylor, but that is actually the answer of which we're taking note.

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

I do remind senators that we are taking note of questions from Senator Wong and Senator O'Neill to Senators Birmingham and Cormann. Whilst this is a wide-ranging debate, it is appropriate to address that subject matter.

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I would refer, in direct answer to that point of order, to the comments that were made and to the answers that were given by Senator Cormann and Senator Birmingham in relation to comments that have been made both here and in relation to what has been said in the House.

Senator Wong interjecting

I've been here. I haven't heard what has happened in the House. It is very clear that Minister Taylor has indicated to the parliament that he has complied with his obligations. Those are the comments of Minister Taylor. I accept those comments, and we should accept them as well.

As I was saying, those opposite are very happy now to steer away from their loss at the election. I was focusing on some of the swings that happened in some of the seats in my home state of New South Wales. For the Hunter it was almost 10 per cent; in Chifley, almost seven per cent; in Paterson, almost six per cent; in Shortland, almost 5½ per cent; in McMahon, almost 5½ per cent; and in Blaxland, almost five per cent.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That's not what we're debating!

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, you don't want to talk about that! You don't want to talk about your policies in relation to abolishing negative gearing, where you went around Australia and talked about the top end of town when most of the people who negatively gear property in this country are on an average salary of about $85,000. And those people who negatively gear properties do so to get property for their children and for the inheritance of their children, in most cases.

Franking credits: you attacked hardworking retirees, but you didn't do—

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

Senator Fierravanti-Wells, I have been listening carefully, and whilst you did come back to the taking note topic, I would just remind you again that this taking note is about questions from Senators Wong and O'Neill to Senators Birmingham and Cormann.

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I thought that I addressed that quite adequately—

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

Senator Fierravanti-Wells, you did momentarily, and then you—

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, I'm happy to do so again. As I've said, Minister Taylor has made comments in the other place. Senators Cormann and Birmingham have made comments in this place. I agree with what Senator Cormann and Senator Birmingham have said and I would refer the Senate to those comments.

As I was saying in relation to those opposite—in particular to their loss at the last federal election—it is interesting to see seats like Hunter, where Labor had an almost 10 per cent swing. Their assault on the coal industry was really interesting. As I was standing on polling booths for the state election, people came up to me whingeing about the Labor Party—and that is supposed to be their heartland. It is supposed to be a centre where the coal industry is so important, and people voted against them because of their assault on the coal industry.

Of course, there was the issue of religious freedom, which manifested itself also through the Folau sacking. The quiet Australians—that silent majority—rejected their policies, and they have to accept that. They have to accept that they lost the election. So no amount of muckraking or mudslinging is actually going to detract from that fact, that the Australian public rejected their policies. They elected us. They didn't want a return to the fiscal vandalism that we had for six years in this country when they were on the treasury bench. You, Senator Wong, in particular, as the finance minister gave us fiscal vandalism. (Time expired)

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

Senator Fierravanti-Wells, again, I would ask, if you're taking note again, to please remain broadly around the topic. It is not acceptable just to make one statement and then move completely away from the topic. I think I was quite lenient, but I would ask you to reflect on what taking note is about.

3:14 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to take note of the answers given by senators Cormann and Birmingham to the questions of senators Wong and O'Neill. That contribution from Senator Fierravanti-Wells was bemusing, but it reminded me of the tweet from the doyen of the press gallery, Michelle Grattan, who, I think yesterday, said, 'When confronted by a question, answer a completely different one.' That is the oldest deployment of political tactics in the book, so well done, Senator Fierravanti-Wells. I'm not sure Minister Taylor would take a great deal of comfort from your less-than-robust defence of his invidious position.

I listened to Senator Birmingham, who said, 'To the best of my knowledge'. That's reminds me of a statement by the honourable North Queensland member Senator Katter, who, when asked about his wife's interests, said, 'To the best of my knowledge, I know nothing.' It is the evasive answer. When in trouble, try to move yourself away from the problem. There is a problem here and it's a discrete problem that arises in this chamber and in the other chamber because of the quite appropriate scrutiny of these declarations. They are important democratic declarations. People in the community need to know if there is a conflict or the potential for a conflict. If you have a financial interest in a decision-making portfolio and it affects your own interests, it's got to be declared. It is a simple principle right throughout democratic society for good governance and due diligence. Minister Taylor seems to attract this lack of appropriate declaration. There were allegations around involvement in water pricing and contracts and sales. Now we have a clear trail of evidence wanting to be tabled in the Senate. The government has said, 'No, do it through the appropriate way,' and I'm sure that is exactly what will happen.

I filled out a senator's declaration of interest, and it's quite specific. There is a handbook to tell you how to do it. Senator Birmingham said that only direct interests need to be mentioned. That's not what the instructions to members of parliament say. It is any beneficial interest whether held by yourself, your partner, your brother or through an investment in another trust. The public need to know that the ministerial standards are being upheld and that the appropriate standards for members of parliament, either in the House of Representatives or the Senate, are being upheld.

The period is on now. The parliament has restarted. In the Senate we have until 30 June to comply with those published registrable statements of interest. This minister has a hang-up from previous parliaments. It will be really instructive to see whether the new declaration actually improves his record keeping and makes it a bit easier for the manager of government business and for the leader of the Senate to actually defend him, because I didn't see any resounding defence of Minister Taylor: 'I think he's done the right thing. To the best of my knowledge, he's done the right thing.' Senator Fierravanti-Wells came in and spoke about something completely different, so she obviously has no confidence that he has done the right thing because she never went within a skerrick of addressing the matter before the chamber.

It is the most vitally important thing that should be complied with at the start of each parliament and be maintained right throughout the parliament. It should act in conjunction with the ministerial standards. If we go to the ministerial standards of conduct by those opposite, it is contended that former Minister Pyne, former Minister Bishop, former Minister Robb—the list goes on—have not exactly covered themselves in glory in honouring those high ministerial standards. They have left the parliament, gone into great jobs within a really quick time frame, which looks to be dubious in terms of the standards.

Those on the other side don't have a good record here. To have a serving minister have allegations about this is not only untidy, it's completely inappropriate. He should have the professionalism, the honesty and the transparency to properly disclose, in the 110 per cent way that's required by the Australian people, all of his registrable interests so as to avoid the possibility of these allegations of undue and improper interference in either the bureaucracy or the way legislation is enacted in this country.

3:19 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think Minister Taylor has been very strong in defending his actions, as were ministers Cormann and Birmingham, in question time today. They have been very, very strong in defending Minister Taylor. Minister Taylor has stated quite clearly that he has not made representations to federal or state ministers or any federal or state government department officials in relation to his family investment company. What this shows is, what do Labor have to ask questions about? They're not going to ask questions about policy. They're not going to ask questions about substantive issues. We are seeing a classic 101 from Labor: run around, throw a bit of dirt and water and hope it turns to mud. It is disappointing to see that, after the people of Australia on 18 May made an informed decision about who they wanted to see sit in the Lodge and to be in executive power in this country, a party who failed to win—I've been there; I've lost more elections than most people in this place—have failed to come to terms with the decision of the quiet Australians.

Instead of understanding that, they are getting this dirt and water and throwing some mud around in relation to Minister Taylor. Minister Taylor's indirect interest in Jam Land Pty Ltd has been widely reported in the media and has been declared in accordance with the rules. It's simple. But this isn't stopping our friends in the Labor Party. This isn't stopping them, because of this policy vacuum, this vortex that exists on that side of the chamber at the moment. What they want to do is chase after people when there is actually nothing there to look at. Minister Taylor and ministers Cormann and Birmingham have been very clear in relation to the conduct and the compliance with the rules.

It is disappointing, because in this parliament and this question time there should be serious questions put to ministers and the government about policy issues. We welcome those questions. We welcome questions about what the government is doing to help Queenslanders and Australians—what we're doing in terms of cutting taxes and how that is helping Queenslanders and Australians; what we are doing in terms of drought. It is probably the worst drought that Australia has had in recorded history. I know that in my home state of Queensland there are still some children in parts of Queensland who are yet to actually experience precipitation falling on their heads. They are yet to experience the magic that is rain, because their property, their home town, is yet to receive rain. This is part of the brutality that is the Australian climate. But there were no questions about drought, no questions about how that is impacting upon rural and regional Queensland and how it is impacting upon those in the cities.

Instead, sadly, we have questions addressed to ministers impugning the conduct of ministers in relation to how they have made declarations in the register of interests. Minister Taylor has been so clear. It is so clear that the minister has been totally in accordance with the register of interests. Minister Taylor has provided assurance that he has had no association with the compliance action and has never made a representation in relation to it. This was confirmed at Senate estimates by the secretary of his department in April of this year. The secretary of the department has confirmed that the register of interests has been complied with. Yet, sadly, Labor wish to fill up question time with these questions.

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Waste question time.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Waste question time—thank you, Senator Smith. I'm sure the frontbench will probably get annoyed with me, because, instead of serious, hard questions about policies, what we're seeing from Labor is the throwing of mud—the use of dirt and water, mixing it together in the good old union jug and throwing it at those evil Tories on the other side of the chamber. That is sad. It is a sad reflection upon the modern Labor Party, and it is actually an indication of one of the reasons why they failed to connect with the quiet Australians on 18 May.

3:24 pm

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

Well, if Senator McGrath calls that a strong performance from Senator Cormann and Senator Birmingham, I'd hate to see a weak one! When you compare the performance of Senator Birmingham and Senator Cormann defending Minister Taylor today, compared to yesterday, that was a vastly different performance from senators Birmingham and Cormann. They obviously know that the minister has been less than truthful in terms of how he has presented himself to the House of Representatives on these important issues.

I think that, at the end of the day, what this comes down to, and what we are starting to see emerge from this government, is arrogance. We know they won the election. We saw the contribution from Senator Fierravanti-Wells, where all she could talk about was the election win. At least Senator McGrath spent a minute longer talking about the minister. But it was a very lame defence of the minister, and we saw the same from Senator Cormann and Senator Birmingham.

But this is an arrogant government and this is an arrogant minister, because they think the standards don't apply to them. We see that with former Minister Pyne and with former minister Julie Bishop, as to the way they have behaved, post-election, in terms of basically disregarding the ministerial standards. And the government has been prepared to defend them on that.

Again, this week, we've seen that the government has been prepared to defend Minister Taylor. It certainly was a different attitude today, though, in the Senate, where they were certainly not as strong in their defence of Minister Taylor in this chamber.

But what we know and what has been established is that there are basically two key phrases that Minister Taylor has used over the last couple of days. The first one is that he's had 'no association', and the second one is that he has been 'at arm's length'. I just want to go to those, because I think that they are important.

We've seen the evidence provided in question time today around 'no association'. But what we now know is that Minister Taylor was a director of Gufee, which has a joint one-third interest in Jam Land Pty Ltd, and Jam Land Pty Ltd has been investigated by the minister's own department, the Department of the Environment and Energy, as to illegal land-clearing and the poisoning of critically endangered native grassland in October 2016. So it is clear that the minister has an association with this property. So no more can the minister rely on 'no association' and to try to claim that he had no association with this property that has been under investigation by this department.

As to the second phrase, 'at arm's length': I think Minister Taylor takes 'at arm's length' literally—from the media, it seems he thinks, 'I was more than an arm's length away'! Obviously, it is a vastly different scenario when we know that he has an interest in this property and we also know that he organised a meeting that he was at with his own department where these issues were raised. So no longer can he rely on 'no association' and no longer can he say that he was 'at arm's length' when we know that he was involved in a meeting where this issue was brought up.

It became clear today from the performance of Senator Birmingham and of Senator Cormann that they changed tack from the way they answered questions yesterday, where they tried to appear quite confident. Today they were very cautious in their defence of Minister Taylor. We also saw that Senator Fierravanti-Wells did not try and defend Minister Taylor. We also saw that Senator McGrath danced around a couple of issues but wasn't prepared to defend Minister Taylor in this chamber.

We will continue to pursue these issues because we think that ministerial standards are important. We think that ministerial standards and accountability are important. But we also know that this arrogant government, if they aren't held to account, will continue that level of arrogance and will continue to go down that path where they treat the voters with contempt and don't treat issues of accountability seriously at all.

At the end of the day, where this will ultimately end up—as we continue to pursue these issues and to pursue Minister Taylor in this chamber and in the other chamber—is with the Prime Minister. He is the one who is responsible for this government. He is the one who has been arrogant post his election result. Again, I think that, on this issue of accountability, when it comes to Minister Taylor and to previous ministers, the Prime Minister needs to show some leadership on this issue and ensure that this minister answers the question. (Time expired)

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

The question is that the motion moved by Senator McAllister to take note be agreed to.

Question agreed to.