Thursday, 25 July 2019
I seek leave to make a statement of up to 10 minutes.
I thank the Senate. Well, isn't this fantastic? Let's be clear what is occurring. This is a motion to refer the allegations against Mr Taylor and Mr Frydenberg to a committee for investigation into actions which are corrupt, because it is corrupt to have a minister approach his cabinet colleague in relation to his own private interests, for him to get special treatment—whatever people think about the legislative framework—in relation to an investigation into him, which is not offered to any other landholder—not offered to anybody else—but which he gets because he picks up the phone to his mate. This deserves to be investigated, and the government are seeking to prevent a postponement of this motion because they want to vote it down. Well, can I be very clear—
If I heard correctly, the Leader of the Opposition alleged that a minister in the other place had engaged in corrupt behaviour—not alleged corrupt behaviour but corrupt behaviour—and, in those circumstances, I ask that it be withdrawn.
But I do say this: I think the Australian people, looking at a cabinet minister picking up his phone to his mate and saying, 'I've got a problem with some environmental legislation; can we make sure we have a meeting about it?' and sitting in the meeting with the compliance officer from the department about a matter that affects the value of his property—well, not every Australian landholder gets that, do they? Not every Australian landholder gets that. They might want me to withdraw the word 'corrupt', but I reckon I know what people out there would say. I reckon I know what people out there would say. And the government want to shut it down. They want to shut it down—
An honourable senator interjecting—
What's the interjection? You reckon it's okay, do you? You reckon it's okay? You reckon cabinet ministers should be allowed to ring up their mates and say, 'I've got a problem with one of my properties; can we fix it up, please, mate?'—because that's what's happened here. It is indefensible. It is a cover-up that the government is engaging in. And shame on any crossbenchers who are proposing to vote with the government to prevent an investigation into this. I understand that Centre Alliance, for example, don't want to support this. They want to support an ICAC, but they don't want to support this—transparency and accountability.
This is a protection racket for Mr Taylor—a protection racket. He has not disclosed his interests. He has failed to comply with the ministerial standards and he has engaged in behaviour that those opposite know is inappropriate. They won't allow me to say the word 'corrupt', but they know this is not kosher. I cannot imagine, as much as I might have my disagreements with Senator Cormann, that he'd pick up the phone and say: 'Mate, there's a problem with my property because of this legislation. Can we just have a chat with the department about it?' Would Senator Ruston do that, up in the Riverland? 'Oh, I've got a problem with this water licence. Can we just have a chat about that?'
This is exactly the point, Senator. If you think the minister's got nothing to hide, why won't you allow the inquiry to demonstrate that? If you reckon there's nothing to hide, why are you working so hard to make sure he doesn't have to answer questions and that departmental officers don't have to answer questions?
Senator Cormann interjecting—
Senator Cormann—he claims this is politics. When have you ever asked a cabinet mate to have a meeting with a department because there's a problem that related to one of your properties? Tell us when you did that.
Senator Wong is now directly asking me questions, which is, of course, disorderly. Nevertheless, I say again, Senator Wong is misleading the Senate. Minister Taylor did not do anything of the sort and her assertion is not based—
Thank you, Mr President. Well I invite you to tell me which other cabinet minister rings up one of their cabinet mates and says, 'You know this regulation you've got, well it's causing me a problem in relation to one of my properties. Can we please have a meeting with the department and also the compliance officer who might be engaged in the investigation and make sure it's all fixed up?' Who's done that? Senator Sinodinos wouldn't ever do that! Senator Ruston? She has a view about water licences. I can't imagine her ringing up and saying, 'I've got a problem with this water licence. I don't like that fact that the water prices have increased.' That's what he's done. It is extraordinary the lengths this government is going this week to protect a frankly very weak cabinet minister, but that's by the by. It's extraordinary, the lengths they've gone to make sure that the facts don't come out, that he doesn't have to answer questions. We saw in question time the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment, Senator Birmingham, very carefully saying, 'I am advised'—just a gentle side-shuffle; leave enough room. I think we all know why. It's because they're not sure he has done the right thing. They're defending him, but they're not sure he's done the right thing, because it absolutely does not pass the pub test.
Let's remind everybody of the facts. We know these from freedom of information documents. What they reveal is a gross misuse of public office. Following representations by Minister Taylor, Minister Frydenberg's office in his then capacity arranged a meeting between Minister Taylor, Minister Frydenberg's office and members of the Department of the Environment and Energy to discuss a listing which affected Minister Taylor's private landholdings. Let's just do that again. Minister Taylor communicates with Minister Frydenberg's office and a meeting is arranged between Mr Taylor, Mr Frydenberg's advisers and the department in relation to Minister Taylor's private landholdings. How many other landowners got that kind of special treatment? Who can ring up the then minister for the environment and go, 'Oh, I've got a problem. Could I have a meeting with the department?' He only got that treatment because he was a cabinet minister. That's the truth. And that is what is corrupt. Whether or not he got a benefit, whether or not it made money or didn't make money, whether or not there were any financial implications is actually not the key point. I don't know. The point is that it is a misuse of public office as a cabinet minister to ask for treatment from a colleague in relation to a general policy proposition that is not available to everybody else. That is not about public interest but is about your own private interests. It is actually extraordinary that people who are generally decent, as much as I disagree with their politics, can possibly defend this behaviour.
Another question is the scale and level of Minister Taylor's direct interest in the matters being discussed. This goes to Jam Land Pty Ltd. I saw someone on social media talking about money for jam. Jam Land Pty Ltd was the owner of the particular company. Let's be clear: Minister Taylor has a direct interest in Jam Land. He has it via another company—I think it's called Gufee Pty Ltd—which is a one-third owner of Jam Land. There is no declaration of Jam Land on his register of interests. The government's defence of Minister Taylor is that because he declared Gufee—which is another company that owns the shares in Jam Land—then that's sufficient. The whole point of declarations—the whole point—is that they go to declaration of conflict; they go to the declaration of conflict of interest. You put your register of interest in so that you disclose potential or actual conflicts of interest. How can you disclose a potential conflict of interest if you hide the fact that you actually are, via another company, an owner in the company that has the issue in terms of the property and the environmental regulation? It's just hiding behind companies. That's the government's defence: 'Oh, he declared it because he declared the other company.' That's not a standard that the public recognise.
Now, it's been put to me, 'Well, he didn't make any money out of it.' That's not the test. I don't know if he did or he didn't. I assume there was some impact on the value of the property or the use of the property—all of those issues can be explored—but that's not the test. The test is what is appropriate for a cabinet minister. I again go back to this: when there's been an environmental regulation imposed that affects your property, who else gets to ring up a cabinet minister in charge of a portfolio and say, 'Can I have a meeting with the department to discuss it'? It's only Minister Taylor. He's the only one. Do we really think that's the standard we expect of ministers of the Crown?
I say to the Senate: if this motion is voted against today, I will give notice that I will move precisely the same motion with one change—the date that it will be required. I'll move it again, and the crossbench can vote it down again, because I actually think Australians are entitled to expect this sort of accountability from a cabinet minister. Australians are entitled to expect that this chamber demands that accountability from cabinet ministers. We all know how little regard Australians have for our profession and for the democratic process, and we all, to varying extents, have to take responsibility for that. We certainly have to take responsibility for fixing it. One of the things is: people have to be accountable. It can't be one rule for coalition cabinet ministers and another rule for everyone else.
I seek leave to make a statement of three minutes.
Senator Wong has just outlined the facts of this situation very well. This is exactly why the Greens moved for an explanation from Minister Cormann, which was given on Tuesday. It was a very unsatisfactory explanation; it simply said that Minister Taylor had disclosed that he had some interest in a company that he tried to claim was completely unrelated to another company. Long story short, this minister is trying to get out of complying with the law that everybody else has to comply with. He's doing so by virtue of being a cabinet minister, and phoning his friend—the Treasurer, who was the then environment minister—to try to get special treatment.
We moved for an inquiry into this gross breach of ministerial standards. We weren't going to get support for that, for reasons that I will go into soon, so the Labor Party moved for their own inquiry. We don't care whose inquiry gets up; this needs to be investigated. Sadly, what's now happened is that we see the crossbench are saying they don't want to support either inquiry. Why not? Why are Centre Alliance and One Nation running a protection racket for this government and this cabinet? What are they getting out of this? Our understanding was there was some support for perhaps one or even both of these inquiries. That's now changed, and we want to know why. There is some very serious conduct—we think it's corrupt; it's certainly a breach of the ministerial standards—that, now, the crossbench might be turning a blind eye to, presumably because this government has pressured them not to back this inquiry. We know that there were arrangements made to support the tax cuts and to perhaps investigate some gas arrangements. That's Minister Taylor's patch. What is Minister Taylor now doing? What is he threatening the crossbench—Centre Alliance and One Nation—with? What has he offered in order that they don't vote for this investigation into Minister Taylor's own potentially dodgy conduct?
What is our job here, as senators, and what is our job as a crossbench? The Greens want to look into this flagrant corruption. As I said, we don't mind if it's our inquiry or Labor's inquiry. We'll vote for both of them. Ours is on for a vote on Monday as well, folks, and we'll be seeking support for that. But I have not yet heard a decent reason why we shouldn't look into this issue.
It's highly inappropriate for allegations and statements about 'flagrant corruption' to be made. Senator Wong withdrew that allegation in her presentation as well. I think Senator Waters should be required to do the same.
But this is exactly why we need an inquiry. With Senator Bernardi, who knows what he's going to do and where he's going to end up, but I hope that we can count on his support to look into what looks like very dodgy conduct by existing cabinet ministers. Our view is that ministers shouldn't be having a side business that makes them private profits, but our view is also that the Senate's job should enforce this ministerial standard if the Prime Minister won't. I call on the crossbench to back these inquiries.
I seek leave to make a short statement of two minutes.
I just want to state to the chamber that I've been shown evidence that Minister Taylor was asked to make representation on behalf of some constituents. I disagree—
Senator Rice interjecting—
If someone is presented with a concern by a constituent they should be allowed to go to a minister—I do that all the time. If I get a—
Senator Di Natale interjecting—
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
Senator Rice interjecting—
If I am presented with a concern by a constituent, I do go to ministers and I do ask them to get a briefing from a department. So what has happened is not unusual. It's not unusual for things that have happened to me. So, my problem with the motion, and Senator Wong's statement, is that there's an error of fact in there, in that—
Senator Di Natale interjecting—
Pursuant to contingent notice, I move:
That so much of standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Wong moving a motion to give precedence to a motion to enable Senator Keneally a statement of two minutes.
Honourable senators interjecting—
Thank you, government. Thank you, Mr President. I would like to ask Senator Patrick to reflect on the contribution he just made in this place, because what he has done is substitute himself as judge and jury. He has said that his judgement is superior to that of the whole Senate. It is actually the job of this Senate to make these types of determinations. Senator Patrick doesn't just get to stand up here and say he's seen a letter and, therefore, it is all okay and, 'Just trust us.' This Senate should have the opportunity to move these very serious allegations of corrupt activity by a minister of the Crown to an inquiry. This is a side of parliament that fails—
Point of order: Senator Keneally's actually making a brief statement to the wrong motion. What the government has—
Senator Wong interjecting—
It is a point of order. You've got to be relevant to what is before the chair, and my point is that what is before the chair is the government resisting this being dealt with—
Can I ask both Senator Cormann and Senator Wong to resume their seats. Once leave is granted to make a statement, the tests of relevance to a motion do not apply. Senator Keneally, having already been granted leave, has 1 minute and 14 seconds remaining.
What we have is an allegation of corrupt conduct by a minister of the Crown in a government that is refusing to bring in a federal national integrity commission, in a government that sometimes sits on the other side and yells out allegations about us over here but goes as weak as water when it comes to putting evidence before an inquiry that everything is tickety-boo over there. Well, if everything is tickety-boo over there, we wouldn't be hearing the weasel words of 'I am advised'. We would be hearing a robust defence.
As for Senator Patrick, who has substituted his judgement—he has seen a letter. Well, who's the letter from? Is it from somebody related to Minister Taylor? Is it from somebody—
Can we all see it? Here's a crazy idea, Senator Patrick: if we had an inquiry, these things could be put out in an evidentiary way and the inquiry could come to a considered position. These are serious allegations. They should not be dealt with in such a facile manner by Senator Patrick. They should go before an inquiry. It is unbelievable that the crossbench are going to play a protection racket—that Centre Alliance are going to play a protection racket—for this government.