Senate debates

Thursday, 8 September 2022

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Ministerial Conduct

3:15 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer by Senator Wong to the question which I asked today relating to the Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus.

Might I say that I'm absolutely gobsmacked by what is transpiring as we sit here today in the lower house with respect to the investments and the disclosures made by the Attorney-General, Mr Dreyfus MP. What is happening in terms of this issue in the lower house is absolutely extraordinary. There was, in history, a famous affair called the Dreyfus Affair, in relation to a Captain Dreyfus, who was wrongly accused of doing the wrong thing in the turn of the 20th century, but it will be very interesting to see how this unravels.

What we're finding out is that the Attorney-General appears, through his self-managed super fund, to have held a material interest in a managed fund called Greencape, which holds just over nine per cent of the shares or about $100 million worth of a company known as Omni Bridgeway, which provides class-action litigation funding. This is extraordinary—absolutely extraordinary! The Attorney-General!

I asked a question of Senator Wong in relation to the definition in the ministerial code of conduct, where it clearly says that the fund or trust must not invest to any significant extent in a business sector that could give rise to a conflict of interest with the minister's public duty. The Attorney-General is not permitted, under the ministerial code of conduct, to have an interest in a fund which invests in an entity which has a material potential conflict with the discharge of his duties. Here we have the Attorney-General of the country, through his self-managed super fund, with an investment in a fund called Greencape, which actually has a material interest in a class action litigation funder. This is extraordinary stuff. This could be the end of this Attorney-General. It is extraordinary.

I say this as someone who in a previous life was a company secretary and used to have responsibility of oversight of the company share trading policy. I can tell you, in terms of interpreting 'significant extent' from a general application in the corporations world, an interest of five per cent is considered material. In fact, any increase over five per cent in increments of one per cent has to be released to the Australian Stock Exchange through an announcement. It's considered a substantial shareholding.

Here we have a situation where the federal Attorney-General, through a self-managed superannuation fund, has an interest in a fund which owns nine per cent of a litigation funder. This is extraordinary. I don't see how he gets a way out of this. I don't see a way through this for the Attorney-General. On a plain reading of the ministerial code of conduct, he's in clear breach. This is not de minimis, this is not a few hundred bucks—a little one per cent here or there—this is an interest in his self-managed super fund which holds an interest in a fund that holds nine per cent of a litigation funder. The Attorney-General—you don't get away from that. Of all the ministers—I can excuse to some extent Assistant Minister Ayres—but for the Attorney-General to appear, on the face of it—and I'm looking at the article from The Age newspaper by James Massola on 8 September 2022 at 2.42 pm—this is extraordinary.

The Dreyfus affair. This will be known as the 'Dreyfus affair'. And just as Captain Dreyfus ended up on the literal Devil's Island in French Guiana, I suspect Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus is going to end up in the Devil's Island of the ministerial code of conduct. You don't come back from this. This is a material interest. This is a significant interest. That's what the code says. Senator Wong said it's all about intention. Yes, it is. It is, and I expect the Attorney-General, the first law officer in this nation, to actually discharge his responsibilities and understand the significance. Nine per cent? He owns an interest in a fund that owns nine per cent of a litigation funder. Absolutely extraordinary. The Dreyfus affair 2022.

3:20 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In question time today we heard these remarks about our Attorney-General from Senator Scarr when his own government set practically no standard at all. Not only in terms of ministerial accountability—

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You can't defend him, Senator Pratt. It's indefensible.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, I'm quite happy to. I don't want to be interjected on while I'm making my remarks, through you, Mr Deputy President. We have looked at this debate. These questions that have been asked of Mr Dreyfus—he has disclosed in his member's interests register everything that is required of him. On the other hand, we have seen countless episodes from members in the Liberal Party where we've been unable to even have a public debate about the nature of a conflict of interest, because they have squirrelled and hidden away their interests and their vested interests.

Mark Dreyfus, our Attorney-General, has been absolutely clear and transparent about his interests, and he has said very clearly that he expects to have to divest those interests if—if!—it should be satisfied that there is a perception of a conflict of interest, according to the requirements of the code.

This high standard that the Attorney-General has set and that this government has set is not a standard that those opposite were ever prepared to hold themselves to. There was not even a provision in the code of conduct of the previous government that would see someone divesting themselves of shares because of any perceived conflict of interest. We've seen this over and over again. Those opposite have had inherent conflicts of interest as ministers in the cabinet, making decisions whilst owning shares.

We have set a high standard, and there's nothing wrong with probing the merits of that here in question time. That's fine. That's appropriate. But we have a collective responsibility in this place—be we senators, members of the executive or not—to bear in mind what has gone on for decades before. We are pursuing, under the Prime Minister, a divestment process where these matters are ultimately asked about, and that is indeed what is taking place. Those opposite never held themselves to account in such a way.

Senator Wong, in responding to those questions, was very clear in what she said. The minister outlined that those questions have been asked about a number of ministers in the House this week and that they have been appropriately answered, based on the accountability of the ministerial standards. I liked the colour and flavour in Senator Wong's answer, where our leader said, 'That doesn't satisfy your thirst for some political chutzpah, that we should have such straightforward, clear, transparent processes.'

It's all very well for those opposite to seek to get some political mileage out of this, when they have never ever sought to set a decent standard at all. To that end, under the last government we did not ever see a national anticorruption commission that could also have oversight of such matters. We are very clear and positive in our duty to introduce legislation to establish a powerful, transparent and independent national anticorruption commission in the next session of parliament. (Time expired)

3:26 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Pratt would like to use a hundred days, or a hundred days plus, since the federal election to talk about the last 10 years. But let me make this statement: there is no virtue in raising the bar of ministerial standards if you're only going to lower the bar on compliance, and that is exactly what's happened.

We have a situation where the Labor Party, in seeking government, made much of the virtue of lifting standards of integrity in our country. I agree with that. Standards of integrity in our parliament and in our country need to be lifted. Indeed, I'm on the public record as supporting a federal integrity commission, and I will look with great interest when the government delivers its bill.

But the Labor Party have made much virtue of coming to government wanting to raise the integrity standards. Indeed, in the ministerial code of conduct, which contains Anthony Albanese's signature, he says:

Australians deserve good government.

The Albanese government is committed to integrity, honesty and accountability, and Ministers in my Government (including Assistant Ministers) …

Hold that thought—including assistant ministers.

… will observe standards of probity, governance and behaviour worthy of the Australian people.

That's what the Prime Minister not just said but signed off on in the ministerial code of conduct.

Labor is confused about integrity. It says: we're committed to integrity because we're going to have a national integrity commission. But in the first hundred days it seeks to abolish the mechanism for establishing integrity on our construction worksites. It says: we're going to abolish the construction industry watchdog. Then it says it's going to remove measures of transparency introduced by the coalition over the superannuation industry. On one day they want to be committed to integrity, but on the following days, by their actions, they remove mechanisms of integrity in our country. Wow!

We've had three parliamentary sitting weeks—just three parliamentary sitting weeks—and we now have five ministers, including assistant ministers, who are in breach of a ministerial code signed by the Prime Minister himself. We are seeing a conga line of Labor ministers in breach of the ministerial standards: in this place, Senator Ayres, the Assistant Minister for Trade; in the other place, Mr Bill Shorten, the Minister for Government Services and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We've heard comments in regard to the Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care. Add to that the Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories. Just three weeks of sittings, and already it is one, two, three, four, five ministers—five members of the executive government. Add to that Senator Scarr's contribution on the latest development, in just the last 45 minutes, in regard to the Attorney-General, Mr Dreyfus. Labor said at the election that it would make permanent and much-needed changes to standards of integrity and accountability in government. Labor said it would have the lowest tolerance for core integrity standards in government. Judge Labor not on what they said but on what they now do.

Some senators in this place have tried to make a virtue of the fact that Mr Albanese, in his ministerial Code of Conduct, has said, 'We're going to do better.' Well, the measure of integrity is not what you're going to do but the standard that you apply to those new measures. Mr Albanese, as the new Prime Minister, would do well to learn the lessons of past leaders in our country. And we would hope—it is our great ambition—that every day, every week, every year the standards of integrity in our parliament and our community are lifted. But these breaches of the ministerial code are a dangerous precedent, and they deserve a stronger response from the Prime Minister.

3:31 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It never ceases to amaze me that senators from the opposition can come in here and try to lecture the new Labor government about integrity. The previous speaker talked about learning from past leaders. Well, I can say one thing for sure—that those people on this side and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will not take any lessons from Scott Morrison, from Malcolm Turnbull or from Tony Abbott. We have set a very high standard when it comes to the ministerial Code of Conduct. We also have set out to the Australian people our plan when it comes to legislating a national anticorruption commission. We will deliver on that.

But let's not forget that the integrity of a government doesn't lie just with a ministerial code of conduct. Let's not forget the waste and rorts—and that's clearly what they were; they were rorts by the former government. So, the hypocrisy of those on that side—to come into this chamber and try to sing their virtues: 'We did nothing wrong.' Let's also talk about the dishonesty they perpetuate in this place in relation to the trillion-dollar debt they have left. This hasn't just been left to the Australian government, to the Albanese Labor government. This is a debt that has been bestowed on the Australian people. To come into this chamber, as they do, trying to say that this was all about the pandemic, is quite wrong. It is in fact a lie.

Let's also not forget the $20 billion in JobKeeper money that was paid to companies who profited. Let's not forget about the lack of integrity and honesty of those opposite when they were in government in relation to the billions of dollars spent on the French submarines—but there were no subs. What they did deliver was a blow to the French government and the relationship between the two countries. Again, because of our government's integrity, because of the leadership of the Prime Minister, we have gone about renewing and restoring that relationship. Let's also not forget—because I think this is one that will stay in the Australian psyche for such a long, long time—the $660 million car park rorts. Those opposite were going to build these car parks where there were no trains.

If you want to come in here and lecture us about integrity and standards, then I would say that people in glass houses should not throw stones. Let's also go back to—what was it?—the $100 million sports rorts. These are the same people who come into this chamber, as they did today in question time. I know there'll be a further contribution from those on the other side, but let's get real here. Do you really think that the Australian people are going to put their faith in what you say on the standards that your government set and that they would want to measure ours against those? Because they will not. They will not.

I know it takes a little while to get used to opposition. Those opposite are not very happy because today we have passed climate change—another election commitment that we took to the federal election—and so they're all a bit sore and a bit narky today. I guess it's been another long week. The former senator reminded us that we've only had three sitting weeks. Well, the reality is the Albanese Labor government is setting a standard, a very high standard, and we will work to make sure that our standards are upheld. But our standard is so much higher than anything that those opposite had when they were in government, and even that very low standard was never, ever met.

3:36 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Wow. We just heard about this side of politics being depressed after losing an election. We all know parties lose elections from time to time. When I first came into this place in 2019 what we saw on the other side was—how did Senator Cormann put it?—the seven stages of grief being displayed each and every day. What you can say about this side of the chamber is our tails are up. We're positive. We're fighting. We're holding this government to account, every time, every day. If we had more sitting days, you'd see them being held to account even more. Today people ask: Why do you need to hold them to account? Well, we just learned of our fifth example today.

The Attorney-General, Mr Dreyfus, the leading law officer of the land, can't even get right or understand what 'significant extent' means in the ministerial code—wow. Now, maybe it's okay for a foreign minister not to know what 'significant extent' means. Maybe it's okay for Senator Ayres not to know what it means—you know, he is just the Assistant Minister for Trade—but for the Attorney-General not to know what the term 'significant extent' means—

Honourable Senator:

An honourable senator interjecting

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, it would go down in writing and then be codified in very many places in law. You'd think that our primary, our No. 1, legal officer in the land would have some idea of what 'significant extent' means. It's talking about materiality; it's not talking about, oh, a little bit here or a little bit there. It has an actual meaning, and that meaning is written in the ministerial code that the Prime Minister himself has signed, as my good friend Senator Smith has shown us today.

The other side keep on talking about integrity, but talk is cheap, and we're seeing that daily from this government. They want to talk about integrity, they want to talk about parliament being a better place, they want to talk about it being more family friendly yet last night we saw, with the help of the Greens, that they guillotined debate. The Greens even guillotined their own disallowance motion. They just got rid of their own disallowance motion—like, really? This is transparency and a better parliament? I don't think so. Even the comments of my good friend Senator Hughes today in question time agreed that the way this government is acting towards people, particularly women in parliament, shows no respect. There's no respect even for their own code of conduct.

This is just an incredible show of hubris. They come in here and talk about this code and transparency and integrity, and, apparently, we're going to see an integrity commission come before the parliament sometime soon. Do we know when? We don't know when. They signed an agreement with Timor-Leste yesterday. I tried to get a copy of that cooperative defence agreement. It's not available. There is no transparency from this government, let alone with what's happening with their ministerial code of conduct. What did they say in the Pirates of the Caribbean? Something you lean to rather than something to be observed in the obvious.

So we're not going to take lectures from those on that side about integrity. We will look not at what they say; we will look at what they do. We will ask them to be transparent—we will demand that they're transparent—and we'll hold them to account in question time, in take note of answers and, in a few short weeks, in Senate estimates.

Budget estimates, I might say, have been cut down from the normal two weeks, or eight days, to five or six days. They're not even going to allow us to hold them to account during Senate estimates. I'm just waiting for them to cut the hours of Senate estimates as well, to be a little bit more family friendly. But it won't be transparent, and it won't be integrity.

Question agreed to.