Before I concluded my previous contribution on this, I was speaking about the fact that the government's so-called border protection regime is crumbling before our eyes. I want to note in that context that that was effectively admitted by the immigration minister, Mr Dutton, who, in a media release less than two weeks ago, admitted that people smugglers are still targeting this country. We were told as a people that this cruel and inhumane policy, based on punitive, indefinite detention offshore and boat turn-backs, would actually deal with the issue of people putting their lives at risk at sea—that is, people seeking asylum—and also would smash the business model of the people smugglers. Well, neither of those things have come to pass. In other words, all the cruelty, all the inhumanity and all the people we are breaking on Manus and Nauru is for naught. This is a public policy failure almost without precedent in our country's history.
The election of four One Nation senators to this, the 45th Parliament, should give us all pause for reflection about the degradation of the public debate in this country, but particularly the institutional weakness of the Liberal Party under the leadership of not only John Howard but also now Malcolm Turnbull. Remember, in 1996 Senator Hanson was just disendorsed by the Liberal Party for expressing bigoted views about Australia's first people. Now, 20 years later, not only does Mr Turnbull fail to disendorse bigots and xenophobes, but he also placates them, promotes them and even gives them senior ministries.
Remember, in 2008 Minister Dutton infamously boycotted the apology to the stolen generation. Last year he was caught making a bigoted remark about Cape York before what he thought was a hilarious joke about Pacific Islanders losing their homes to rising sea levels. Since becoming minister, Mr Dutton infamously said that refugees are 'illiterate and innumerate' and would be stealing Australian jobs. He then doubled down on his hate speech by despicably trying to link refugees to terrorist attacks in Turkey and France. Let us call out Mr Dutton's remarks for what they are: turning your back on an apology to the stolen generation is bigotry; joking about 'Cape York time' is, at the very least, casual racism; calling refugees 'illiterate and innumerate' job thieves is xenophobia; and linking asylum seekers to terrorism is divisive bigotry that should have stopped over 50 years ago. But rather than demoting or disendorsing Mr Dutton for his repeated public expressions of racism, bigotry and xenophobia, Mr Turnbull has made him his immigration minister. Instead of lancing the boil of racism and bigotry, Mr Turnbull has allowed it to take root at the very heart of the Liberal Party.
Australia's immigration policy has been written by people who do not believe that asylum seekers are worthy of humane treatment, but instead that asylum seekers deserve arbitrary punishment and indefinite detention. Our current policy seeks to dehumanise those who seek safety in our country and seek the protection of our country. Our current policy seeks to do so in order to try to send a message to the rest of the world. The Australian Greens do not believe that we solve humanitarian crises by creating new ones. We will never accept the cruel and broken logic of locking people up indefinitely in punitively inhumane conditions and doing everything we can to break those people, tragically damaging many of them, potentially for the rest of their lives. We cannot help the displaced people of the world by turning boats around to meet an unknown fate at sea or to deliver them into the hands of those they are trying to flee. We, as Australians, can do better, and we must do better.
The far Right of the Liberal Party have not been placated by being able to write our offshore detention policies. Now they want undermine our legal protections against racial hatred and abuse. The campaign against 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, effectively to destroy the integrity of that act, is being led by a rabble of media bullies, confused racists and self-anointed freedom warriors, none of whom seem to understand how this law works, how it operates or how it has been interpreted by our courts.
Section 18C makes it unlawful to 'offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person' on the basis of their 'race, colour or national or ethnic origin'. However, 18D of the same act creates widespread exemptions for artistic, political, scientific or academic communication, provided that that communication was done reasonably and in good faith. In other words: section 18D, which is ignored by those who want to destroy the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act almost as much as the rest of the country ignores the second verse of , provides sweeping freedom of speech protections. If these people, these self-anointed defenders of free speech, really cared about free speech, they would be moving to repeal the secrecy provisions contained in section 42 of the Australian Border Force Act. But they will not do that, because they want the veil of secrecy over what is going on in Manus and Nauru and Christmas Island and in Australian detention centres maintained. If they really cared about freedom of speech, they would be pushing for reform of our defamation laws. But of course they will not do that, because they are almost exclusively used by big corporations and politics to sue other people to try to keep them quiet.
Opponents of 18C say that the words are vague or set too low a standard, but there are clear precedents that set out exactly what those words mean. As Justice Susan Kiefel said in a 2001 case:
… offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate [are] profound and serious effects, not to be likened to mere slights.
On becoming Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott promised to change the law, with his Attorney-General, George Brandis, making his infamous claim, 'People do have the right to be bigots.' Of course Mr Abbott eventually backed down, following an impassioned and united from religious and other groups in this country. But just like the racism and bigotry that they seek to encourage, the anti-18C campaign has reared its ugly head once again. Having apparently never read a Facebook comment thread, these self-styled modern-day enlightenment thinkers of the IPA and their agents in this place—and there are many of them—claim that 18C is making Australians afraid to speak their minds. What utter, utter nonsense.
Even if 18C was a curb on freedom of speech, I ask this very simple question: what precisely is it that opponents of this section want to say or want to empower others to say that they cannot currently say without contravening that section? The only logical answer is that they want to either engage in or empower others to engage in racist hate speech. How much further do they want to go to poison our national conversation with abusive speech made in bad faith? The only answer is that they want to unleash more racism and bigotry. The Greens will not accept a weakening of the limited protections we do have against racial discrimination.
If we are serious about increasing freedom of expression in this country, then let us discuss the lack of diverse voices in our parliament and in much of the mainstream media. Let us talk about the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, between the very well off and the poor, and the disproportionate say that wealthy and corporate entities have in our political debate. Let us talk about the systemic racism and entrenched disadvantage that keep many minority voices silent and out of the national debate. Let us talk about the massive secrecy that surrounds our appalling treatment of people seeking asylum, including section 42 of the Border Force Act, which means people speaking out about abuse in detention centres, if they work in those detention centres, face up to two years imprisonment for blowing the whistle. These draconian limitations act as strong disincentives for workers to make disclosures about breaches of human rights in detention centres for fear of conviction or imprisonment.
Those who seek to destroy the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act by moving legislation that seeks to remove the words 'offend' and 'insult' from that legislation have spectacularly failed to make the case. For them to style themselves as warriors in defence of freedom of speech not only ignores the widespread protections contained in section 18D, not only ignores all of the other much more impactful restraints on freedom of speech that we have in statues in this country, it also ignores the fundamental and obvious truth that freedom of speech, like almost every other right that we have as citizens, is not an absolute right and never should be an absolute right.
That is why Australia needs a bill of rights. We have codified at length and in many statutes in this place our responsibilities as citizens, and rightly so. We do have responsibilities as citizens, and it is the parliament's job to codify those responsibilities. But we have not, to any degree, attempted in a meaningful way to codify our rights as citizens—even some of the most basic human rights that every Australian would support and which every Australian, to a degree, takes for granted. It is time that we had a bill of rights in this country, and I say to members of this chamber and, through this chamber, to the Australian people that the Greens will be moving on this in this term of the parliament. We will be drafting a bill of rights for Australian citizens so that we can codify the rights that we have, and not just the responsibilities that we have as citizens. I very much look forward to that debate occurring in this place.
I will commence, in responding to the Governor-General's address, by congratulating you, Madam Deputy President, on your election to your position and wishing you well as you help with the governance of this chamber. And I would like to thank the people of South Australia, not only for their confidence in the Turnbull government and the coalition to provide government but also personally for their support for me to return as one of their representatives in this chamber. By way of extension from that, I also thank the members of the Liberal Party, who have put their confidence in me to represent the views that we bring in relation to ways to grow our economy to provide opportunity for people to build a better nation not just for this generation but, importantly, for the generations that follow.
We cannot start this session of the parliament without recognising that there are colleagues who, through no decision of their own, are no longer with us, and I would like to recognise from South Australia Senator Sean Edwards, Matt Williams and Jamie Briggs, who have served the people of Australia, and South Australia in particular, and who are no longer with us. But at the same time it is my pleasure to be able to welcome Nicolle Flint, the new member for Boothby, and to congratulate her on the campaign she so successfully ran in South Australia.
For the majority of the time allotted to me I would like to talk about part of the coalition's plan for Australia's economy and how we will grow that economy. I will particularly focus on the second point of the plan that was presented to the Australian people, which is around how we can better leverage investment in defence capability to make sure our defence forces have the equipment they need when they need it and that we can use that investment to benefit the broader Australian economy. The reason I wish to focus on this is that there has been a lot of discussion around this policy, including among those who have seen attempts at reform in the past and are somewhat cynical as to whether in fact reform of defence procurement will have an effect, particularly as they look at past ANAO reports that have commented on previous attempts at reform. They have commented that all that has occurred has been greater complexity and more process, cost and delay, as opposed to actually achieving the outcomes. That view extends to members of the public who saw announcements during the election campaign as being purely politically motivated as part of a broader strategy in the national interest, through to the Productivity Commission, who have challenged the underpinnings of the coalition's policy around defence industry and defence capability and have said that it is a step backwards to some of the worst protectionism they have seen, through to members of the crossbench who advocate for quite an expansive protectionist position in defence.
The policy the coalition is bringing forward is none of those things, and today I would like to talk through why the coalition's policy position is different from previous attempts and what the levers are that will actually enable us to change, as well as to articulate a little of what should change and, importantly, to highlight those people who should be responsible for driving some of that change. The first question is: why is this policy position different? Going back to 2013, one of the things the coalition took to that election was the fact that there was a need for a root and branch review of the management of Defence. That came out of the 2012 Senate inquiry into defence procurement. The then shadow minister for defence, Senator Johnston, was a member of that committee. What came forward was the promise to hold a first principles review. That first principles review, delivered after the coalition was elected in 2013, has looked at the fundamentals of how Defence manages its business and, particularly in this area of procurement, the need to have a scalable procurement process so we no longer apply the same process to buying large pieces of capital equipment as we do to smaller buys. That has been a consistent complaint from industry: that there has been huge cost; in fact, sometimes the cost of actually tendering and running the assessment process, even for the Commonwealth, has been an unreasonably large percentage of the total value of the procurement activity itself. So significant reform is coming out of the first principles review.
Secondly, there is the white paper, which, for the first time, actually tries to align our strategic imperatives with the defence capability that is required and then, importantly, not only to identify the resources that are required to fund the pieces of equipment but, looking at the more holistic view of capability, also to look at what we need to fund to have all of those fundamental inputs to capability: the people, the training, the infrastructure, the doctrine—all of those things that go towards making a capability and that need to be funded. So there has been a more holistic view of capability in the white paper than we have seen in the past.
But the one that really impacts on the election commitment to drive a better outcome for Defence as well as for the taxpayer and the economy, through defence procurement, is the . The fundamental difference in this compared with the previous ones is the concept of defence industry as a fundamental input to capability. That is important, because it means that no longer do we see industry as something separate from Defence that Defence just draws on when and how it needs it without really caring about its sustainability. Instead, the service chiefs, as capability managers, actually have an interest—indeed, they have an obligation—to care about those elements of defence industry that are critical to the sustainment of effective, affordable and available capability, and I will come back to those three key words later. That is a paradigm shift from the culture that has been in Defence—and to a certain extent in government—in the past. I will talk about why that is important. It is because one of the key levers for change is understanding how we define value for money.
In the past, procurement activities have largely relied on competition to obtain value for money, and, despite a few tacit acknowledgements that you need to consider whole of life, that has focused very much on the procurement stage—the actual acquisition of capability. Now, that is fine when your barriers to entry are quite small and people can enter or leave the market fairly quickly. But, when you have large investments in infrastructure, training and skills, and manufacturing capability, it is not a sustainable approach. You cannot have a range of industry players compete for every project, and sometimes for every phase of a project, and expect that they are still going to be productive and efficient, with low-risk delivery of capability.
So the takes a different approach. It says we need to look at value for money across the project's whole-of-life. There is no point buying something really cheaply up-front if the subsequent contractual arrangements make it almost unaffordable to sustain. There is no point buying something really cheaply up-front if the back-end and through-life arrangements mean that that equipment is not available when the service chiefs need it to respond to government requests. There is no point buying something really cheaply up-front if we do not have the capability to keep that piece of equipment effective as the requirements of its role and its use against threats change. Value for money across whole-of-life means that Defence and the government need to understand which critical parts of industry we need to sustain; where necessary, repair or modify; and certify as equipment that is safe for use.
That does not mean, as some on the crossbench have indicated, that we should be doing everything here in Australia. Clearly, there are some things that it makes no sense to try and do here in Australia, because of either scale or complexity. For example, where there is a large, international user group of a piece of equipment with a common configuration, it is more sensible for us to tap into the engineering, design support, design assurance and manufacturing capability that support that large, international fleet than to try and do it here.
But where we have a small fleet of a unique configuration—pretty much all of our surface ships and submarines, and some vehicles, but particularly small aircraft fleets that are complex, like the armed reconnaissance helicopters—there is clearly a need for a sovereign capability in design assurance and some elements of manufacturing in order to, as a minimum, understand the consequences around equipment fatigue, repair schemes and the need to modify then certify as safe to use. In some cases, the only way to achieve that is through having the capability here to design, innovate, produce and sustain. So one of the challenges is: how do we decide what those areas are? If we are not going to do everything but we cannot afford to do nothing, how do we define where that middle road is?
One of the key elements of the is the creation of the Centre for Defence Industry Capability, and a key task of that group is to define what elements of defence industry are fundamentally important to our defence capability—where we should be investing in that sovereign ability of Australians, whether they be uniformed, public servants or in industry, to have that knowledge so that industry has the capability and capacity to design, manufacture and, importantly, certify as safe for use.
Other nations, such as Singapore and France, have well-developed systems. The Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade last year looked at the United Kingdom in detail. In 2005, the UK's industrial white paper explained the need for them to understand what their sovereign requirements were—and we see that in practice with things like their complex weapons program or, in 2009, their long-term partnering agreement around surface-ship building, where they said, 'We are going to avoid short-term competing contracts; we are going to have a long-term partnership with a joint venture that will build all of the UK's surface ships.' They have contracting models that drive productivity, efficiency and cost savings. In return, industry has the certainty of tenure to invest in its people and its facilities so that it can deliver those efficiencies and savings to the Ministry of Defence and the UK government. There is almost a warranty from the Ministry of Defence that, if they cannot line up consistent work, they will pay for that joint venture to keep people with those key skills employed, because in the long term, even the medium term, the cost of paying for those people to remain available and skilled is lower than it is to let their skills lapse and have to start again, with all of the attendant risk and costs associated with that. The Ministry of Defence have also taken the political pain of being prepared to say, 'We will consolidate down to three key shipyards,' rather than trying to sustain large numbers of shipyards in disparate locations around the country.
The Defence approach here to shipbuilding, and the coalition's commitment to a continuous shipbuild is a plan to consolidate down to Osborne in South Australia and to two key areas of shipbuilding activity in Western Australia. Some people were critical about this during the election campaign, saying that was all about pork-barrelling. But if you look at not only the commitment in 2013 to have a continuous shipbuilding plan but also the Rand review, which talked about the need to have a sustainable workflow, and overseas experience, you see that this is a well-considered, long-term strategic plan by the coalition to put our shipbuilding industry on a sustainable footing so that we have the capacity to make vessels for Navy that are affordable over whole-of-life, available when the Fleet Commander needs them and effective in their role. You only have to look back to 2011 and the collapse of the amphibious fleet, which led to the Rizzo review, to see that these are very real risks. They are not things that are just made up and fearmongering. We have seen quite dramatic impacts on our defence capability where we have not taken this whole-of-life view around how we should be sustaining defence equipment.
What will change? The procurement processes will change. The first principles review is already starting to drive change in that regard. The feedback that I have from industry is very positive about that. The culture needs to change. The strategic culture of government, both within the Department of Finance and the Department of Defence, needs to understand that we have to rethink how we assess value for money. It needs to move beyond a focus on competition over multiple phases of a contract to long-term partnerships for these areas where there are high barriers to entry. The individual culture needs to change. I encourage Defence, when they are teaching about doctrine, personnel training, collective training and other fundamental inputs to capability—not only at the senior levels but right down to their junior officer training—to train their young officers to understand the role that industry plays as a fundamental input to defence capability.
When I was speaking at an industry conference just a couple of weeks ago, I saw an example of that long-term culture manifested in somebody with a key role of managing capability in Defence. They said what they were really interested in was military off-the-shelf acquisition. That was saying to Australian industry that they just wanted to buy offshore without seeing the opportunity for those key elements of Australian industry to be involved in development of the innovative technology and IP that makes the capability of our Defence Force greater—here you can think of current things like CEA and their radars, Saab with their 9LV combat system and other Australian innovations that have been affordable and effective and that provide a suitable base for moving forward.
That culture in Defence does need to change, and the key to it changing is this process being run by the CDIC which asks, 'What are the strategically important defence industrial capabilities we need to have?' and then allows the outcome of that assessment framework and the capability plan that will flow from it to shape the procurement decisions. So, when Defence are considering procurement and provide a brief to the government, the government can see the linkages between the proposed procurement activity and the capability plan and have the assurance that the investment decisions are going to be: firstly, good for defence and defence capability, and secondly, good for Australian industry in terms of developing those things which we want to be sustainable and where we want to develop IP and afford industry the opportunity to have a product that they can export under suitable controls to keep industry sustainable.
With this whole area of defence and its impact on the economy, it is important that we do not allow the cynicism of some in the public and the rationalist view of the Productivity Commission, who have not necessarily done their homework, to prevail. The Productivity Commission's claims about the premiums on things like shipbuilding were quite ill informed. They were talking about premiums of around 30 per cent, but the premium with ship 3 on the AWD at the moment is 13 per cent and decreasing; it is likely to be well under 10 per cent. If you take into account the fact that the human labour component of the total cost of the ship is only around 30 to 35 per cent then that premium is actually even smaller. If we commit to this continuous-build program, if we commit to getting this assessment—the CDIC process of assessing what the critical areas of industry are—we will drive more affordable defence capability looking over whole of life. We will drive more available defence capability looking over the whole of life. We will drive more effective defence capability over whole of life. The spinoff—it is a spinoff; it is not a driver—will be better jobs, better innovation and a better future for our younger people who are training, whether they be in trades or university, so that they will have a decades-long industry. This is a long-term strategic plan by the coalition, and I believe it will transform our defence and our nation.
Thank you, Acting Deputy President Bernardi. Can I take the opportunity to say we will miss you while you are away on the delegation. We will miss you more than others, I suspect!
I rise to respond to the address by His Excellency the Governor-General on Tuesday. I am going to talk on one of your favourite topics, one that I know you are a big fan of, Acting Deputy President Bernardi. In his remarks, prepared for him by the Prime Minister's office, the Governor-General said:
The rollout of the NBN is ramping up and NBN Co has continued to meet its targets.
It was the only moment when silence was broken, as people openly laughed out loud in the chamber. I cannot dob you in, Acting Deputy President Bernardi, by saying that you were one of them. I suspect you might have been though!
On this point, I regret to inform the Senate that His Excellency would appear to have been sadly misinformed by the Prime Minister's office. Under Mr Turnbull's direction, first as the communications minister and now as the Prime Minister, NBN Co, stacked with Mr Turnbull's hand-picked mates, has failed the Australian people. And what stunning failures they have achieved! While in opposition, Mr Turnbull liked to say that his second-rate copper NBN would be built for a third to a quarter of the cost of Labor's proper fibre NBN. This began unravelling in April 2013 when Mr Turnbull promised he would build his second-rate NBN for $29.5 billion in total funding and get it to all Australians by 2016. That is a mere four months away. Other than you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, could anybody else in the chamber who is on the NBN please put up their hands? There is nobody but you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi. Three months away and we are all going to have it. What a cracking pace the NBN are going to set the next three months!
But worse was to come. By December 2013 the cost had blown out to $41 billion—that is $29.5 billion to $41 billion—and the time frame had blown out from 2016 to 2020. 'It is just four small years; don't worry about that,' he told everybody. But in August 2015 Mr Turnbull conceded that his second-rate NBN was now going to cost even more, Senator Hinch. I am trying to make sure I keep you awake, Senator. Mr Turnbull had taken it from $29.5 billion to $41 billion, and do you know what the cost today is? It is $56 billion. It was $29.5 billion in 2013 and $56 billion is his cost today.
But it keeps going. When he announced this massive blowout he tried to blame the failures on the previous former government and the former management of NBN Co. But at that point inside the company something broke. People who were putting their heart and soul into building the National Broadband Network could not take the lies that were being told by NBN Co's CEO, by the chief executive, by the minister and by the Prime Minister. So from late last year documents started to emerge that put at Mr Turnbull's door responsibility for the debacle that the NBN has become. Senator Hinch, I know that these are issues which you will have to discuss and debate in the future. In November 2015 a document emerged about Mr Turnbull's acquisition of the old Optus pay TV network—a network Optus agreed to shut down, that they had not invested in, that they tried to sell to me when I was the minister. I said, 'No, thanks,' because I had a report on it and I knew, based on the best advice going, that the Optus network was not fit for use.
This document—this 'official secret', this 'commercial-in-confidence' issue, this 'national security issue', which are all reasons being quoted at the moment by that side of the chamber about why the police should be investigating my staff and people at the NBN—said that the HFC network that Mr Turnbull bought from Optus was not 'fit for purpose'. This is advice from inside the company itself. This is an internal document from NBN Co which completely contradicts the stories being told by the Prime Minister and the minister and told by the CEO and the chief executive when they appeared before Senate estimates. You will expect these people to tell you the truth when they turn up and you question them, Senator Hinch, because the understanding is that if you ask the right question they have to tell you the truth.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Please address your comments through the chair, Senator Conroy.
My apologies, Mr Acting Deputy President. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Hinch—
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT
To me, Senator Conroy.
To you. When Senator Hinch asks a question of any official in front of him he will expect the truth to be told. Well, you are in for a very, very sad time—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President. When they sit there and say, 'We bought the HFC network believing that we could use it,' we know that internal documents say that they knew that it was not fit for purpose.
There is a lot of technical jargon in this particular world. You will, tragically, come to have an understanding in not too short a time. The document went on to explain that the nodes were oversubscribed—this is about the HFC network—that equipment was nearing the end of life and that NBN Co was considering overbuilding it entirely at 'significant cost'. So the internal document said, 'It is not fit for purpose, the equipment is at the end of its life and we actually have to overbuild it rather than use it.' That is what the internal working document said. That is the national security issue; that is the commercial-in confidence issue; that is the intellectual property issue—all of the defences they are using.
In 2012 Mr Turnbull himself said that this network that they bought—and we are talking hundreds of millions of dollars, not 50 bucks; we are talking $800-plus million—could be upgraded for 'a modest cost to provide NBN equivalent services'. It was rubbish then and this document proves that it is rubbish now. So little wonder that, in all of the hullaballoo and excitement that Senator Hinch has enjoyed—or endured, depending on your perspective—over the last few days, the NBN snuck out their report last week. Do you know what they did? They said that they were going to connect 1.5 million fewer premises to the HFC than they had predicted the year before. So 1.5 million Australian homes were not going to get, as they had been promised, the HFC connection, with many to be forced to use Mr Turnbull's favoured, even slower, second-rate copper network.
So 12 months ago they promised to connect about four million Australian homes using this network, and they already knew about the issues. I publicly said it was a dog. I did not buy it. I refused, because I knew that it was a dog and that it could not deliver 21st century broadband speeds. It was built in the last century and Optus had not spent a cent on it. But, no, Mr Turnbull knew better than all the experts and all of the advice. So last week the board themselves had to fess up to this 'national security' issue, this commercial-in-confidence' issue. Then, in December 2015, another document appeared which revealed two key things about Mr Turnbull's botched administration of the NBN. First, it showed that the cost of patching up the old copper network was estimated not at $55 million, as Mr Turnbull had claimed in 2013, but that it was going to cost $641 million. That is a blow-out, if you do the maths quickly, of 1,000 per cent. These clowns got it wrong by 1,000 per cent. Three years ago, when talking about his fiction of $55 million, Mr Turnbull assured the parliament:
… very conservative assumptions have been taken about the level of proactive remediation of the copper network …
Three years on—despite the best advice and despite, in an incoming government brief, being given categorical statements from people who know something about the copper network that it needed massive remediation—he told parliament that 'very conservative assumptions have been taken'. That is what happens, Senator Hinch—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi—when you hire your mate whom you own a yacht with in Sydney into the company at $800,000, and you tell him the outcome you want before you start: he comes up with a very conservative estimate of $55 million to repair the copper network. Seriously? I know you are going to sit there and go, 'No, he's making this up.' I promise you, on my daughter, that is what he did. So, he hired his mate whom he owns a yacht with, he stacked the board with his old telco-sector mates who he has worked with before, and he came up with a 'conservative assumption'.
The document shows a 1,000 per cent blow-out in the cost. Apparently this is another national security issue, another commercial-in-confidence issue and another reason why we have to send the police in. But the document went further. As I said, it showed that the cost to the taxpayer of fixing the old copper network increased by more than 10 times. But the second thing that the December leak revealed was that in 2013—when Mr Turnbull was already the minister and had his yachting mate prepare the report—the report said that the second-rate copper network would only cost $600 per home, when in actual fact the cost has nearly tripled to $1,600 per home.
Senator Hinch—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—you might think that it could not get any worse. There cannot be a set of steak knives to go with this fine meal that has been served up! Well, another document from December 2013, a document from inside the company while Mr Turnbull was the communication minister, revealed that Mr Turnbull was warned by experts in the company about the high cost of fixing up the copper network. NBN Co's input to the incoming government brief in 2013 made this clear. This is what the experts in the company told Mr Turnbull on his first day in office in that brief:
… significant network remediation will need to occur in the copper plant …
But Mr Turnbull knows best! Senator Bernardi, you have experienced it yourself. Mr Turnbull is the living expert. Mr Abbott, the then Prime Minister, described him as the man who invented the internet in Australia. I am not joking, Senator Hinch. Mr Turnbull ignored all of this advice. He hired his yachting mate, who had the cost of the NBN Co network presented to the parliament under his name. He got it wrong by nearly $30 billion and the time frame wrong by four years, and that bloke—believe it or not, Senator Hinch—has been promoted inside the company and given a bonus. Mr Turnbull's yacht-owning mate got a bonus. He did not get shown the door because he got the costing wrong by $30 billion, he did not get shown the door because he got the time of the build wrong by four years—he actually got a bonus and was promoted and given more responsibilities.
In February 2016, just this year, another document came out from inside NBN Co and it revealed that the NBN Co was running hopelessly behind on its internal targets. You might say, 'But just last Friday'—just yesterday in the parliament—'the minister claimed they had met all their targets.' This document revealed that the low-ball targets that NBN Co publishes once a year are so low, Senator Hinch and Senator Bernardi, that the three of us together could meet them if we got out there and said that we were in charge of connecting the homes. Just the three of us could meet their external targets.
But this document showed that the NBN Co were not actually meeting their own internal targets. It completely contradicted all of the claims of the Prime Minister, the minister, the CEO and the chairman of the company. Well! National security has been invoked! Official secrets have been called upon and the police have been unleashed to get to the bottom of who has dared to contradict the Prime Minister—who has dared to show that inside the company they know that they are not meeting the targets, because that contradicts what the Prime Minister and what the minister are saying. There are actual internal targets that they are failing to meet, and the documents showed that NBN Co has hit less than a third of its internal targets—less than a third for Mr Turnbull's second-rate solution—due to the poor quality designs and problems with connecting nodes to the electricity networks. You might think, 'How could you possibly not work out that you need electricity to run a node—those cabinets in the street? How could you get this so wrong?'
In April 2016, just a few months ago, another set of documents was leaked that revealed that not one single fibre-to-the-node area built by NBN Co itself under its own steam had been completed on time, not one. So in March—just go back one month—another document revealed that, under Mr Turnbull's fabulous brand-new $56 billion network to be built using the copper, up to five dropouts a day on this network were considered 'acceptable'. Fifty-six billion dollars of taxpayers' money to build a network that can drop-out five times a day is 'acceptable' to Mr Turnbull's mates on the board.
Acting Deputy President Bernardi has the NBN. He has got the real NBN. Do you get five dropouts a day, Mr Acting Deputy President? I know you are not in a position to answer from the chair. But ask Acting Deputy President Bernardi: does he get five dropouts a day on his fibre network, on the real NBN? He will tell you. He is trying not to embarrass the Prime Minister—the first time this year. There is a reason they will send you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, to New York three times in the next three years. Okay?
Mr Turnbull wants to flog off NBN Co in the future. I tell you what, Mr Turnbull is turning the NBN Co into the FAI of the telco sector. He is going to have one valuation for the public when they want to buy it and he is going to have his own private valuation where he knows it is a dog. He has destroyed the internal rate of return, and is now going to try and borrow $20 billion. You and I are all going to pay the extra tax tab on that.
I am sure you will be much relieved, Acting Deputy President Bernardi, that it is now my time. I rise to respond to the address of the Governor-General and I note that it is the third time in three years that the Governor-General has come in here and delivered the Prime Minister's speeches for the nation, which tells a story in itself. It is an unusual time in political history but an important time for each and every one of us—I am speaking for myself here and no doubt for some of my colleagues. It is an opportunity to reflect on why we are here, what we want to achieve and what our legacy is going to be for our short time in parliament.
The story of what happened in Tasmania in the last three years and in the Tasmanian election is a story that I think needs more telling. I do not do this to gloat or to rub in the face of the Liberal Party the catastrophe that the 2016 double dissolution election was for them in Tasmania; I raise it because it tells a very important story about the 45th Parliament that we are going into. It concerns me that already within the first week of being back in here it is a bit like groundhog day—I feel like history is repeating already and that none of us have learned from the mistakes of the very volatile 44th Parliament.
A week into the double-dissolution election campaign, I did an interview with Brian Carlton from , down in Tasmania. At the end of the interview, he said to me, 'Senator, what is your call, what is your bet on the three amigos—the three Liberal MPs in Northern Tasmania?' I said, 'Brian, my call is that they are all going to lose their seats in a landslide.' He said, 'Senator, you would be the only one saying that.' Most of the polls at the time and the expectation on the street was that those electorates were going to be tightly contested and held by the Liberal Party. My reasoning was simple: I do not believe any of those three Liberal MPs in my state of Tasmania ever recovered from the 2014 budget.
The impression I got from speaking to constituents and from being on the ground was that the lack of vision and the cruel harsh budget cuts deeply impacted my electorate of Bass and the other northern electorates, which are some of the most disadvantaged electorates in the country—all the statistics tell us that; it is not something to be proud of and is something we have to work hard on. I felt and the constituents felt that that cruel, ideological budget of the Abbott Liberal government at the time was going to be devastating for many Tasmanians.
We had rallies and people spoke to their local members but what did they get back from their local members, including from my local member in Bass, Mr Andrew Nikolic? What they got told was that we needed to do this because we were in a budget emergency They got told that they were going to lose, that they were going to take cuts to their pensions and that they were going to lose entitlements on social security. They were told they would have to wait 12 months before they would get payments, that there were going to be cuts to health care and education because of a budget emergency. Well, it did not cut the mustard in Tasmania then and it will not now.
Fast forward to 2016 to this address of the Governor-General and the same thing is happening. We have a new Prime Minister who delivered his speech a couple of days ago through the Governor-General, which I must say was a total fizzer. I understand why Senator Hinch fell asleep. I think we all have to be honest with ourselves: most of us were employing every trick in the book to keep our eyes open during the speech. My trick was actually focusing on the Governor-General's aide-de-camp, who stood—
Wasn't she magnificent!
to attention throughout the whole thing and did not flinch once. I have got to say, if that sets the tone for this government then I have to ask the question: where is the vision? Where is the plan? 'Jobs and growth' is a three-word slogan. Where is the plan to sail this economy through the doldrums?
Where is it? The only plan Mr Tony Abbott had was to rip up all the good work of the Greens and Labor in 2013. There was no vision, no mandate to do anything. Nothing has changed.
It pains me to read the media release from TasCOSS yesterday. They talk about the omnibus bill, the first piece of legislation that we are going to get here. They say that this bill, to be tabled in federal parliament, will 'make life for the 16,000 jobless Tasmanians even more difficult'. The CEO of TasCOSS, Kym Goodes, said:
The instability of Tasmania's labour market combined with the proposed changes to NewStart … will put even more financial pressure on the entire generation of Tasmanians currently looking for work.
Then she goes on to say:
The NewStart Energy Supplement could be paid for many times over by withdrawing proposed Government tax cuts and cutting Capital Gains Tax and negative gearing concessions.
There are so many elements already in the first piece of legislation to this Senate that are going to hurt disadvantaged Tasmanians.
But there is no other plan on how we are going to stimulate the economy or generate jobs for Tasmanians. All we are going to do is put forward the same measures to make life hard for people in my state. It is Groundhog Day. We have learnt nothing from the last couple of years and nothing from the clear political outcome of a double dissolution election. The Greens do have the courage and vision to put forward an economic plan for this country—a plan that not only looks after the environment but actually delivers ideas on how we can stimulate the economy and how we can raise revenue, because we have a revenue crisis if we have a crisis in this country. We have a government that is not prepared to raise revenue.
We are talking about the Prime Minister's key focus this week as the parliament has come back. It was very evident in his speech in response to the Governor-General's speech: the massive moral obligation that we all have is to retire debt—a massive moral obligation. We heard something similar from Kevin Rudd about climate change. Now, that is a massive moral obligation for us to tackle. But it sounds very much like Mr Joe Hockey's budget emergency. We have already heard several speeches over the last two days about what Treasurer Scott Morrison calls 'the taxed and the taxed-nots'. It is the same kind of divisive language we saw two years ago. Haven't we learnt anything? Why are we going over this old ground when there is so much that we can do as a parliament to actually make Australia a better place? Why the divisiveness?
We can act on housing affordability. We can tackle negative gearing and capital gains tax.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
You may not agree, Senator O'Sullivan. I know you have many real estate investments.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Address your comments to the chair, thank you, Senator Whish-Wilson.
To you, Acting Deputy President.
Housing affordability is a serious issue for many Australians. Senator Ruston yesterday talked about intergenerational debt—the debt that we are leaving to future generations—as being our biggest issue. It is very similar to our massive moral obligation on retiring debt. She did not actually break down what that debt was. I do not think any of us disagree that personal debt, especially when it is debt-fuelled consumption or debt on a dangerous housing market, has serious implications for the future of this economy. I do not think any of us disagree with that. But where is the discussion about good debt and bad debt? Where is the discussion about debt that we actually need to spend on future generations of Australians and on productive and transformative infrastructure? It is missing from the rhetoric and spin of the Turnbull government. It is disappointing because, going into the election, Mr Malcolm Turnbull did make several comments about the need to look at innovative infrastructure, financing and development of this country. But all we have had since the election is more three-word, or even five-word, slogans. So I will give the Prime Minister that—there has been an advance on the slogans. Nevertheless, we need a lot more than that; we actually need some substance.
The taxation system is riddled with incentives for property speculators. It is inflating house prices. We know that a lot of Australians—and I have met a lot of them—are not fortunate enough to own their own home. This comes at the expense of an entire generation who are being locked out of the housing market in this country. Capital gains discounts, negative gearing and free passes for self-managed superannuation—the money that is flowing into investment properties—has put a handicap on young people looking to own their own home, and it is forcing them to spend more and more of their income on sky-high rents. Where do we hear the discussion about a dangerous housing market from this government and how we are going to tackle that? Well, the Greens have led on policies to tackle negative gearing and capital gains tax. Labor had a variation of that during the election. I understand—there is certainly speculation—that it is being discussed in the Liberal party room. But if we can work on that together as a parliament—on ways that we can actually tackle that—and work on intergenerational equity and inequality in this country, that would be a positive thing for the Australian people. That would be showing true leadership and true vision.
Let's talk about monetary policy. We know that it has reached its limits and that it is struggling to stimulate aggregate demand. This is a theme all around the world. The world economy remains fragile. So, essentially, we are in uncharted waters. With Australian bond rates so low the government should be borrowing right now to invest in our future.
I would say the massive moral obligation of our time, Senator O'Sullivan, through you, Chair, is actually avoiding underinvesting in future generations of Australians. I went around the country, including to some areas in your state, Senator O'Sullivan, and heard about the infrastructure gap in this country. Nearly a trillion dollars is needed around this nation to invest—to create jobs and to invest in our communities. I am not just talking about roads and pouring concrete; I am talking about public transport, renewable energy, telecommunications, social infrastructure, pipelines. We came up with a massive list of asks from regional and rural communities as well as cities. There is so much we can do to actually build this nation now for future generations, if we have the courage to make the decisions and get over this obsession with the spin and rhetoric that debt is somehow bad.
I am especially talking about debt raised at historically low interest rates and invested in the right kind of infrastructure with the right process—an independent Infrastructure Australia so that we have a depoliticisation of the way money is allocated and spent in this country, working with markets for bond issuances against certain kinds of expenditure, developing new capital markets. I was pleased that new senator, Senator Hume, has some interesting ideas in this area. You will be pleased that we have something in common there, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, because this is the kind of thing we need to be talking about. While interest rates are at record lows, we can lock in issuances of things like bonds. We can make pools and finance available to state and local governments.
In Tasmania we need $900 million now to invest in water infrastructure. Senator Bushby, through you, Chair, knows all about this: 15 communities in our state do not have clean drinking water. They still have to boil water before they drink it, and they want money. They have not been able to get any money from the federal government. Why don't we have low-interest capital available for local governments and state governments? We have some. They are very targeted and very specific programs where federal government infrastructure spending is targeted at communities around this country, but it is nowhere near enough. We could play a leadership role, if we had the courage, vision and leadership. The Senate select committee that I worked on spent a lot of time looking at this.
Interestingly, Standard & Poor's—we have heard a lot of about AAA credit ratings, Senator O'Sullivan, and no doubt you will be talking about this when you get up—chief economist, Paul Sheard, is quoted in today in an article by Martin Farrer in which he talks about the AAA impact on Australia. It says:
He said the federal government had to try to reduce 'bad debt' related to recurrent expenditure but also needed to increase 'good debt' to fund capital spending.
He talks about underinvestment in infrastructure. That is from the credit rating agencies. Yesterday I quoted TD securities—a big article by Jacob Greber in the —also saying we needed to watch our AAA credit rating, but they excluded specifically investment in productive infrastructure.
There are two articles in two days supporting the Greens push to have a nation-building program to put on the table for this country. I am very pleased to say—and it is very good timing for me today—that there is an excellent article in the today by Tim Pallas, the Victorian Treasurer. So all Victorian senators, please take note—unfortunately, Senator Hinch is not here. He wrote an op-ed this morning talking about how Victoria has gone out there and spent a lot of money on productive infrastructure, how it stimulated economic growth in their state and has delivered and in fact improved their credit rating. He says:
The departing Governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens, recently called for a more 'nuanced' debate—
and by nuanced, he means a political debate—
about public-sector debt, saying 'the most powerful domestic impetus that comes from low interest rates surely comes when someone has both the balance sheet capacity and the willingness to take on more debt and spend'.
The federal government has the balance sheet capacity to do that, if that pool is taken away from recurrent expenditure and targeted specifically at infrastructure spending.
It goes on:
This is a debate the Victorian Government has been leading for some time, echoing the sentiments of S&P, which in a submission to a Senate Select committee—
which is a committee I chaired—
inquiry talked of the 'productivity effects of high quality infrastructure delivery'. That is, government investment in high quality projects has a direct and positive impact on GDP.
We have consistently maintained that public investment in infrastructure is a key piece of the jobs puzzle, which is why we re-shaped that debate by announcing a 10-year capital plan in the 2016-2017 budget – looking beyond the budget and electoral cycle.
And as the Premier made clear last week, the private sector needs a willing partner in government; one that listens and is prepared to act. Governments need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
In other words, the Australian people want to see their government taking an active role in their life, not leaving it to big corporations to make big profits in the hope that some of that is going to trickle down to the economy and to Australians at the bottom of the pile. It does not work, and that is what you are going to get from the Turnbull government—a $50 billion tax cut to big business. That is their GDP stimulating policy—that is it: give businesses a tax cut. Guess what? A lot of these businesses do not pay their fair share of tax already, so why give them another tax cut? This is a more direct way of governments getting out there and spending money where it is needed. Get money moving in this country, create jobs and invest in future generations of Australia, in the right kind of infrastructure and the right kind of projects.
Tim Pallas, the Victorian Treasurer finishes by saying:
While future generations may not have a voice in influencing today's investment decisions, our legacy for them should be a Victorian economy enjoying higher growth potential than if we'd sat on our hands.
We have been sitting on our hands in federal parliament. We have no plan, no vision, under this government for jobs, for stimulating the economy, for sailing us through the doldrums; however, the Greens do have a plan. I am pleased that Mr Shorten in his Press Club speech said that infrastructure could be the one thing in this parliament, the 45th Parliament, where all political parties could work together. This is certainly something that we have been very keen on. We have done a lot of work in this area and we have collected evidence from—Acting Deputy President, you would be quite surprised—many right-wing commentators who also support the Greens' push for an infrastructure spending boost in this country.
We also have revenue-raising, fully costed, through the PBO, policies to raise nearly $140 billion of revenue, Senator O'Sullivan. We have a revenue crisis in this country, because the government does not want to take on the hard decisions. Twenty-four billion dollars that we give to the mining companies in fossil fuel subsidies—guess what? We do not need to take any money off poor Tasmanians; let's take it off wealthy mining companies that get a direct subsidy from taxpayers, and they should.
I woke up this morning under the heavy effects of the flu and, as I sat on the side of the bed, I thought the only redeeming feature was that the day could not get any worse. Then I walked in here, smack-bang into a lecture from the Greens on matters of the economy. I tell you, that smacks of complete hypocrisy.
This is a party that is determined to shut down the black coal industry, taking away the tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of jobs in the economy—a vital part of our economy, the resources sector. They do not want us to dig another hole or scratch another bush out of the way to take the wealth out of the ground of this nation and spend it for the benefit of all; they want to shut down agricultural industries—everything. They do not want us just to change the practices in the bush and agricultural industries; they want to shut them down. This is the crowd that joined the Australian Labor Party with such blinding vision in terms of economic production with pink batts and school halls and hundred-dollar cheques for every individual in the country, leaving us with this massive, massive, massive national debt. And you are a part of it—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President.
I sit here and have had a lecture for 20 minutes on why we do not have a problem and, of course, they would never attach themselves to the problem. If you listen carefully to the contribution of Senator Whish-Wilson—and, I am sure, to all the contributions that will come from this line of vision—you will not hear one of them tie themselves to an issue or a campaign that will resolve this atrocious economic situation that we find ourselves in, that is a legacy of mismanagement from the Greens-Labor coalition all those years ago. We now have deficits running at over $40 billion annually. You want to talk about generational debt? From the Howard years, my children were left with a clean bill of health on the economy. We were in the black. Imagine that: we were in the black; and you want to compare the investment decisions that your side of politics made to ours over time. We have a $50 billion infrastructure program going on.
Let's talk about my home state. You want to talk about infrastructure? I will talk to you about the range crossing. I will talk to you about $2 billion being invested there so the commodities of Western and south-western Queensland can make their way to the markets. You want to talk about investment? I am happy to talk about Sky Muster, where we are now going to provide, for the first time, communications to people in the bush and regional Australia on a level that they have never been able to experience, which will increase their capacity to increase their productivity and ability to bring the nation's books back into account.
You ignored all the programs laid out yesterday by the Governor-General's speech about the economy. You did not talk about the impacts on national security and the investment being made by this government to make sure that we live in a safe and balanced society here in Australia—all the issues and the investment and the effort that has been made with counterterrorism, working on the digital defence and cybersecurity that this nation requires. But it is the infrastructure that I want to come back to for a few moments, because you talk about Tasmania—Tasmania needs our share of infrastructure spending than someone else's because it is an economy that has lagged for decades underneath the glove of the Greens preventing economic growth in that home state. What you need to do is to take a leaf out of our book and start to become pro-development, where you can properly exploit the natural resources of your state and start to pay your own way. That is what you need to do. You made no mention of that during your contribution in this place.
My contribution is going to be short today, and I know that that will disappoint Senator Whish-Wilson. But I want to say that the Governor-General's speech yesterday laid down a balanced program. It laid down a plan—a plan that has courage. It is a plan that has a government that is prepared to go forward and implement the measures it puts in place to ensure that our government leaves behind it, in the fullness of time, legacies for the next generation so they will not be burdened with massive levels of debt, massive deficits, structural deficits that are going to go on for decades. The government cannot do it without the support and cooperation of the other side, and it would appear that, once again, it is business as usual—they are not going to support us in this endeavour.
Yesterday morning as senators were taking their oaths of office in this chamber, the ICAC report into corruption and political donations was being tabled in the New South Wales parliament. It is unfortunate that Senator Sinodinos's name was relevant to both proceedings. The Independent Commission Against Corruption's report is the product of years of investigation into the breach of electoral donation laws by the New South Wales Liberal Party using an associated entity called the Free Enterprise Foundation. It is a report that details a deliberate, well organised and systematic undermining of electoral laws by senior officials of a major party, and it is a report that merits our attention.
I would like to take the opportunity this morning to set out in this place some of ICAC's findings about the operation of the Free Enterprise Foundation. The following quotes are extracted directly from the ICAC report, and they explain the scheme that was put in place by the New South Wales Liberal Party.
From 14 December 2009 … the Election Funding Act prohibited political donations by property developers.
… … …
Key personnel in the NSW Liberal Party recognised that the prohibition on seeking and receiving donations from property developers … could have a serious negative impact on its budget …
… … …
the chairman of the Liberal Party's fundraising arm—
suggested that donations could be made by prohibited donors through a body known as the Free Enterprise Foundation and come back from the Free Enterprise Foundation to the NSW Liberal Party. The Commission finds that Mr Nicolaou's suggestion was, in terms, implemented.
… … …
The Commission is satisfied that, during November and December 2010, the Free Enterprise Foundation was used to channel donations to the NSW Liberal Party for its 2011 NSW state election campaign so that the identity of the true donors was disguised. A substantial portion of the $693,000 provided by the Free Enterprise Foundation and used by the NSW Liberal Party in its 2011 state election campaign originated from donors who were property developers and, therefore, prohibited under the Election Funding Act from making political donations.
The report also states:
By these means, it was only the large donors whose identity would ever become publicly known, and those donors would appear on the public record as having made their donations to the Free Enterprise Foundation, not to the NSW Liberal Party.
So how is it that Senator Sinodinos was involved with this scheme? He had oversight of it. Again, I turn to the words of the ICAC report:
Specific tasks and functions of the NSW Liberal Party are delegated to committees … Under the party constitution, the Finance Committee has responsibility for the management of income and expenditure of the State Party.
… … …
Mr Sinodinos was the chair of the Finance Committee. He was actively involved in fundraising and, in this regard, had a fundraising role second only to Mr Nicolaou.
The report states:
The Commission also accepts the evidence of Mr Nicolaou that he raised the matter specifically with … Mr Sinodinos …
The report continues:
Mr Neeham said that either Mr Webster or Mr Sinodinos raised the question of whether the proposal was legal. According to both Mr Nicolaou and Mr Photios, the need for legal advice was raised. There is no evidence that relevant legal advice was obtained.
That is where the quotes end but it is not where the issue ends, because this report raises serious concerns for Senator Sinodinos to explain to this chamber.
We have been asking questions of Senator Sinodinos and the government about the Free Enterprise Foundation for quite some time. Those questions have been batted away for as long as we have been asking them. Earlier this year, for example, Senator Brandis declined to give a substantive answer to a question relating to the foundation on the basis that it related to mere allegations. In his usual way, he very helpfully explained that:
All sorts of allegations are made against people all the time, and the fact that the statements are made does not make them true. If they are not supported by a finding by the relevant court, tribunal, commission or board, they amount to nothing.
Well, the quotes I read out earlier were not allegations; they were the findings of ICAC. Thus, by Senator Brandis's metric, they amount to something.
After the report was handed down, Senator Sinodinos rushed out a statement to the effect of 'there is nothing to see here'. I intend to step this chamber through why this is not the case. This report raises serious questions of integrity. Senator Sinodinos has said that no findings were made against him, and it is true that no findings of corruption were made against him. But ICAC found that Senator Sinodinos's evidence was, in parts, not believable. As the report states:
Mr Sinodinos was the chair of the Finance Committee. He was actively involved in fundraising and, in this regard, had a fundraising role second only to Mr Nicolaou. Yet … Mr Sinodinos denied knowing that the Free Enterprise Foundation was a major donor.
The report also states:
The party received $629,000 in three days from one donor, but no one on the Finance Committee admitted to knowing anything about it in their evidence.
ICAC found this evidence:
… difficult to accept.
We now have the situation where ICAC has questioned the credibility of a senator of the Commonwealth and a minister of the Crown.
Senator Sinodinos said:
I gave my evidence and respected the process throughout.
In fact, the transcripts of ICAC proceedings reveal 101 separate instances where he claimed he could not answer a question because he could not recall. Just for reference, that is 23 more memory lapses than President Ronald Reagan had during an eight-hour deposition about the Iran-Contra affair.
The report also raises very serious questions about Senator Sinodinos's judgement. The report's findings depict someone who was uninterested in knowing the detail of a program he was responsible for. This carelessness seems at odds with the person described by others who know him—a man who Prime Minister Turnbull described as:
… a pillar of the Howard government, as he is of mine.
In 2009, a year before the proposal to use the Free Enterprise Foundation was raised with Senator Sinodinos, Fairfax published a retrospective about Senator Sinodinos's time as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Howard. Former Prime Minister Abbott was quoted as saying of him that:
He was calm, articulate, measured, thoughtful, intelligent, one of those people it's hard to fault.
Those qualities are not evident in ICAC's findings.
In fact, ICAC expressed surprise that the pattern of donations from the foundation to the Liberal Party did not raise Senator Sinodinos's suspicions. ICAC did not have enough evidence to find that he was knowingly involved in channelling prohibited donations. However, the report expresses suspicions:
The question arises as to whether anyone else in the NSW Liberal Party was aware that donations were being channelled through the Free Enterprise Foundation.
The course of events demonstrated that the expected shortfall in funding from $1.5 million to $1 million, as a result of the introduction of the prohibited donor provisions, was a matter of serious concern to the NSW Liberal Party Finance Committee and state executive. It was accepted by Mr Sinodinos that he and the Finance Committee wanted to know from Mr Nicolaou how the party was "tracking" against budget. The NSW Liberal Party was actually receiving donations at a rate exceeding the old budget. This should have raised questions as to the source of the unexpected funds, but the evidence before the Commission is that no member of the Finance Committee asked that question.
The report describes someone who was either very careless about whether the operations of the Free Enterprise Foundation were legal or was very careful to avoid finding out whether they were legal or not. ICAC found that the finance committee was cognisant of the potential illegal nature of the Free Enterprise Foundation scheme right from the beginning. The need for legal advice was raised at a meeting with Senator Sinodinos—possibly even by him. Despite this, no legal advice was ever obtained.
This carelessness stands at odds with the very strong commitment to strict legalism that has characterised Senator Sinodinos's approach to any scrutiny of his conduct. It is also curious that Senator Sinodinos did not satisfy himself of the legality of the arrangements given that he was actively involved in fundraising. ICAC found:
… some members of the Finance Committee were actively involved in soliciting donations for the party. It is not clear whether this was carried out as an official function of the Finance Committee, itself, but it is clear that committee members, including Mr Sinodinos … were given the task of approaching potential donors.
The ICAC transcripts are silent on what, if anything, Senator Sinodinos told these donors about the legality of the Free Enterprise Foundation and the process of donating to that body. They are also silent about the basis on which he might have provided that advice. How could he have known or understood or been in a position to give advice, given that no legal advice was ever obtained?
Taken together, these findings raise questions about Senator Sinodinos's integrity and judgement. These questions would be serious enough on their own; however, to make matters worse, they suggest that there may be a risk that Senator Sinodinos possibly misled parliament about this matter. On 2 May this year, Senator Wong asked the Cabinet Secretary:
… did he ever participate in, or witness, discussions about the use of the Free Enterprise Foundation to channel and disguise donations by prohibited donors?
Senator Sinodinos replied:
The answer is no.
Well, ICAC has made a finding seemingly contradicting this. The report states:
Mr Neeham said that Mr Nicolaou raised the use of the Free Enterprise Foundation at a Finance Committee meeting in the context of a discussion of how the NSW Liberal Party would deal with the ban on property developers. … The Commission also accepts the evidence of Mr Nicolaou that he raised the matter specifically with each of Mr Sinodinos, Mr Webster, Mr Photios and others.
Senator Sinodinos's statement in recent days suggests that ICAC's findings exonerate him. They do not. ICAC's report has not put the issue to bed. If anything, it has raised further questions for Senator Sinodinos to answer—the types of questions that Senator Sinodinos has repeatedly failed to answer, whether before ICAC, in this chamber or when ignoring an order to attend a Senate committee hearing to explain himself.
This chamber has options available to it to satisfy itself as to whether the conduct of its members is appropriate. We should keep these options in mind whilst we wait for the next report to be handed down by ICAC about Senator Sinodinos's conduct, and that is due in just a few months. In the meantime, I would invite Senator Sinodinos to consider offering to explain himself properly to the Senate. Last year Senator Sinodinos said:
… I'm prepared to stand in the public square and defend myself in that regard.
It is a suggestion he also made to ICAC during his testimony and a suggestion he has never followed through on, despite being ordered by the Senate to appear before an inquiry. He should explain himself. And, before he does so, he should read the Ministerial Code of Conduct and reflect on its contents.
The Australian people must be thinking to themselves: 'What was the point of the double dissolution election? One of the longest campaigns in Australian election history—all for what? To make the Senate completely unwieldy? To make Mr Turnbull vulnerable to any disgruntled backbencher in the House who decides to block government legislation just because they can?' Mr Turnbull's decision to reform Senate voting then immediately go to a double dissolution—foolishly backed by the Greens, who actually lost a senator, in a moment of political naivety that would make the Democrats laugh out loud—has delivered a chamber with 20 crossbenchers, including the Greens. It is a chamber where there is even less chance to pass legislation than the previous chamber, which the government were so keen and so eager to dismiss. We are looking at a period—however long Mr Turnbull lasts as Prime Minister—of inaction, division and desperation. It has only been a couple of months since the election, but we already have a multitude of Senate backbenchers defying the will of the Prime Minister. We are facing a period where Mr Turnbull will be too busy trying to stop himself being rolled to actually spend time governing.
When we were here last, the government used the opportunity not to pass legislation that would benefit ordinary Australians but to produce a double dissolution trigger. It has literally been months since this chamber has had anything of substance to deal with. In fact, most of this year has been spent orchestrating a double dissolution trigger for the government's political benefit. That is extremely disappointing because Australians have real problems that need to be solved. Australians face real challenges that the government has the power, although not the will, to fix. Instead of listening to the endless internal Liberal bickering and rumours about when Mr Turnbull is going to be rolled, Australians want real solutions.
For the Labor Party and me, one of the most important issues is education. It cannot be understated just how important education is for Australians and for the future of Australia. Education is the key to opportunity, innovation and the future economic and social prosperity of our nation. The Gonski review linked quality educational outcomes for students to increased national productivity. Individuals who reach their full potential in schooling are usually able to make better career and life choices, leading to successful and productive lives. Success in schooling also helps to provide the skills and capacities needed to keep a society strong into the future. It deepens a country's knowledge base and level of expertise and increases productivity and competitiveness within the global economy.
The Gonski panel found that higher educational achievement leads to significantly bigger economic returns, when they investigated the relationship between cognitive skills and economic growth in developed countries. Australia must become a clever country again. We can do that through properly funding our schools and higher education institutes. It is particularly vital for the people of Tasmania, the state that I am honoured to represent, that we get our education system right. 4On 2014 figures, Tasmania had the second-lowest year 12 retention rate, behind the Northern Territory, with a rate of around 67 per cent. While the latest NAPLAN result showed that Tasmania is not at the back of the pack, Victoria and the ACT are scoring considerably better, and there is still considerable work to be done. As a small state, we need to ensure that we give our children the best opportunity possible to allow us to innovate and take every advantage available.
Time and time again during the election campaign, I heard from parents who were angry—and they were really angry—about the government's unwillingness to support the full Gonski education-funding reforms. Parents want to make sure their children are getting the best education possible, and they know that that will not happen under the Turnbull government's policy.
On this side of the chamber, Labor understands the importance of the federal government's properly funding all Australian schools. This is why we committed to fully funding Australian schools in accordance with the Gonski funding model. Unfortunately, the unity ticket on which the Liberals claimed to be with us on education dissolved just like magic as soon as Mr Abbott became Prime Minister. This is very disappointing, because Labor argues that, as found by the Gonski review, education is not just a cost; it is an investment which will ultimately benefit Australia as a nation.
Labor's 'Your Child. Our Future' policy represented the most significant improvement in schools education in Australia for two generations. No matter what their background, no matter where they live—in a city, a suburb or the regions—and no matter what type of school they go to—government, Catholic or independent—Labor wants every child to have the same chance of succeeding at school and in life as any other child in the country. As part of 'Your Child. Our Future', the Gonski funding and reforms would have been delivered on time and in full, and the Turnbull government's cuts would have been reversed.
This $37.3 billion investment would have seen every child in every school funded on the basis of needs. 'Your Child. Our Future' would have driven reforms that improved teaching and learning, securing Australia's long-term economic future and giving students the basic skills they need for the jobs of the future. This funding was not a blank cheque. It came with strict obligations and benchmarks for systems, schools and teachers so that parents could track improvements in their children's learning. Labor's policy would have invested $3.8 billion more than Mr Turnbull in Australian schools in 2018 and 2019.
And we would have seen a $60 million increase in funding in Tasmania, including $14 million in Bass, $21 million in Braddon, $10 million in Denison, $9 million in Franklin and $9 million in Lyons in 2018 and 2019. Around 80,000 students in public, Catholic and independent schools would have benefited. Unfortunately, though, under the Liberal Party, Tasmanian children will miss out. Over a 10-year period, the Liberal Party's model sees $640 million funding ripped away from Tasmanian schools and Tasmanian students. It is extremely disappointing that this Liberal-National government chooses not to make our children a priority.
A part of the 'Your Child. Our Future' policy that I am particularly interested in is the increased investment in students with disability. Ensuring that children with disability can get the quality education they deserve is a central part of this policy. Had we won the election, Labor would have more than reversed the Turnbull government's cuts to the More Support for Students with Disabilities program, investing a further $320 million in children with disability. The government's own education department admits that the program had a positive impact on students with disability before it was cut. Students with disability, their parents and teachers have waited long enough for proper schooling support. Under Labor, the wait would have finally been over.
I call upon the government to put politics aside and adopt our 'Your Child. Our Future' policy for the sake of Australia's future. Labor's new needs-based funding model would deliver additional per-student funding for students with disability, ensuring that they receive the additional resources and support they need to achieve their potential.
We all remember that, before the 2013 election, the Liberals promised an 'absolute unity ticket' on school funding, and we all know that instead they dumped the Gonski reforms, cut $30 billion from our classrooms and cut the $100-million-a-year More Support for Students with Disabilities program. The Liberals promised to fully fund the needs of students with disability in line with the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability, but instead they will go a whole term of government without doing anything at all, leaving tens of thousands of students missing out on the support they need. Completing the Gonski reform on time and in full and reversing the Liberal cuts to students with disability would mean better training and development for teachers and more targeted support for students learning within the classroom.
Under Labor's plan, by 2020 Labor would ensure 95 per cent year 12 or equivalent completion, and by 2025 Labor would return Australia to the top five countries in reading, maths and science. For Mr Turnbull's Liberals to talk about innovation while they are cutting funding to education is just that—all talk. That is because, as well as failing our school students, Mr Turnbull and his government are failing the vocational and higher education sectors.
This government just does not realise the value of the higher education and VET sectors. We can see this by its continued assaults on the higher education sector. This is a government that wants to bring in $100,000 degrees while slashing funding to universities. We have with our current HECS-HELP scheme one of the best and fairest higher education systems in the world, and the government just wants to destroy that. Our nation's future prosperity and social cohesion require public investment in quality higher education that is available to all who merit a place, as our major competitor nations already realise.
The pathetic attempt by those opposite at higher education policy is a discussion paper released on budget night which still promotes deregulation, with $100,000 degrees and a lifetime of debt a real prospect for Australian students. And the budget still incorporates the 20 per cent cut to university teaching. In fact, higher education expert Mark Warburton estimates that the cut to university budgets could be a ruinous $3.75 billion. The Liberals' assault on universities and students from the 2014 budget has already been rejected twice by parliament, despite the government trying every trick in the book to get it passed. Even though the Senate and the public have comprehensively rejected the unfair and unnecessary $100,000 degrees and savage cuts to university teaching, the Liberals continue to cling to those measures.
I call upon the new senators in this place to put education first and reject the government's deregulation and defunding plans for Australian universities. Universities and students have a right to know if the minister has learnt the lesson of the past two years and whether he will push the delete button on damaging changes to higher education policy.
Mr Turnbull likes to talk about innovation, jobs and economic security; yet the measures he has supported so far undermine each of those objectives. Students and their families, businesses and communities all benefit from a strong higher education sector. If Australia wants to be a clever country that really does hold innovation as a central tenet, we have to properly support the higher education sector and the students who want to gain higher education qualifications.
The previous Labor government opened access to university; 190,000 more students are at a university today as a result of our reforms. Access will always matter to Labor, and we will continue to support the demand-driven system. But our next wave of university reform will focus on completion and quality. We want Australian students who start university to finish university with a degree. Department of education figures show that 23 per cent of people who started a degree as full-time students in 2006 had not completed it after eight years. So there is evidence that attrition rates have been getting worse in recent years, meaning that even more students are likely to leave university with a debt but no degree. And, with the Commonwealth investing $14 billion of taxpayers' money in universities every year, Australians are right to expect outcomes that benefit the entire community: young Australians graduating as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists, enhancing our society and our economy.
Labor want to see an ambitious goal to increase the number of students completing their study by 20,000 graduates per year from 2020. A future Labor government will work with the university sector to ensure that incentives within the demand-driven system are introduced to achieve this goal. And, because students need to graduate with skills, knowledge and resilience for their working life, not just mark their name off at a class, we committed, prior to the election, to invest an additional $31 million in the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency or TEQSA. The boost to TEQSA would have lifted the quality of teaching and resources to ensure that students graduated with a high-quality education that would win them the jobs of the future. This additional investment would have provided the assurance that our investment in higher education was achieving the right outcomes for students as well as for our economy—highly skilled, highly adaptable, technology-literate graduates who are ready to compete in the world.
Investing in education is the single most important thing we can do to maintain Australia's prosperity and secure the jobs of the future. Labor has always been committed to opening access to higher education to more Australians and supporting universities as critical drivers of innovation across the economy. Labor stands ready to work with Mr Turnbull and Senator Birmingham to find a better way to fund universities sustainably over the long term. But they have to genuinely want to put the needs of the sector and their students first.
The three Tasmanian members who were opposed to Gonski funding, Andrew Nikolic, Brett Whiteley and Eric Hutchinson, are now the ex-members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons, and, in large part, that is due to their opposition to an education policy their government overwhelmingly supported. The self-described 'three amigos'—and my colleague Senator Polley did a wonderful speech on it yesterday—failed to listen to their constituents who called for action on education funding reform, amongst a host of other issues, and they have paid the price. I call upon the remaining Liberal senators in Tasmania to take heed of the fate of the former members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons, and call upon them to advocate for a full return to the Gonski funding model, because that is what Tasmanian students and schools need and want.
I am extremely pleased to see the election of three new Tasmanian Labor members in the other place: Ross Hart in Bass, Justine Keay in Braddon and Brian Mitchell in Lyons. They have worked extremely hard in the months and, indeed, the years leading up to the election, engaging with their communities—something that the three amigos failed to do. They did the work, as I said, that the previous Liberal members failed to do and actually talked to their constituents, listened to their concerns and supported policies that would make the lives of everyday Tasmanians better. It was a wonderful achievement by the Tasmanian Labor team. I know that the new Labor members for Bass, Braddon and Lyons will work extremely hard and will continue to stand up for the people of Tasmania, particularly for better education funding. The new members, along with the re-elected Julie Collins, member for Franklin, and the Tasmanian Labor senators, are all fully committed to the Gonski funding model, through our 'Your Child. Our Future' policy.
Unfortunately, despite my hopes, we are unlikely to see the Liberal-Nationals government prioritise education. They only want to cut services, not fund them. They want to cut services to cover up their failure to manage the budget. And, after three years in power, the Treasurer and those on the other side continue to try and blame Labor for the coalition legacy of debt and deficit blow-outs and their run of reform failures. This is a government, we need to remember, that has tripled the deficit since 2014—tripled the deficit since 2014—and has blown out net debt by $100 billion.
The government could fund education properly, but the Treasurer would need to reach out across the chambers and make sensible and fair budget savings. Labor has put on the table over $80 billion in savings that the government could support and move swiftly through the parliament. But, unfortunately, Mr Turnbull quickly turned his back on that offer. Instead, Mr Turnbull will give a $50 billion tax break to business, including over $7 billion to the big four banks. The banks need a royal commission, not a massive tax cut. It is clear where the priorities of Mr Turnbull and his Liberal and Nationals colleagues lie, and it is not with the children of Australia. Those opposite should go back to school and learn something about fairness and building a clever nation, because they are currently receiving an F for fail.
Two days ago my colleague Senator Bernardi raised serious allegations concerning the payment to Senator Dastyari revealed in the Register of Senators' Interests of a financial benefit described as 'Support for settlement of electorate staff travel budget overspend paid by Top Education Institute'. That entry, which seems to have been written in deliberately opaque language, refers to the apparent payment to Senator Dastyari of an undisclosed sum of money to meet a personal debt. Yesterday in a brief statement to the Senate Senator Dastyari said that the amount of the payment was $1,670.82. However, he provided no further information. He did, however, acknowledge that he should not have accepted the payment and offered to donate the equivalent sum to charity.
Senator Dastyari's explanation, which ran to a mere 66 words, was woefully inadequate. It raised more questions than it answered. We now know that Senator Dastyari's benefactor, the Top Education Institute, is a Chinese company with links to the Chinese government, in particular through its principal, Minshen Zhu. Senator Dastyari must provide more information about this payment. He must explain to the Senate, as he significantly failed to do yesterday, why it is that this company paid a personal debt of his. What is the nature of his relationship with this company? Why has it chosen to act as Senator Dastyari's financial benefactor?
It is very important to emphasise that we are not talking about a political donation. This is the payment of a personal debt. Whether the Top Education Institute has made donations to political parties is not the issue here. Indeed, many of us have met Mr Minshen Zhu and had dealings with the Top Education Institute, but it appears that only Senator Sam Dastyari has accepted money from him in settlement of a personal debt. The issue is why this company is paying Senator Dastyari's personal debts.
In relation to the payment of a debt by Top Education Institute, I call upon Senator Dastyari to answer the following questions. What travel did the electorate staff overspend relate to? Which of his staff undertook the travel and for what purpose? What was the specific debt in relation to the electorate staff overspend; in other words, was it the sum, disclosed by Senator Dastyari, of $1,670.82 or was it a larger sum? On what date was—
I call a point of order on relevance. So far Senator Brandis has not at any stage mentioned Julie Bishop's $600,000 receipt of money to the Western Australian branch from a Chinese company that doesn't do business in Western Australia. So, unless Senator Brandis is prepared to address that, I ask you to call him to order on a relevance point.
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT
This is the address-in-reply. There is no reference of relevance, so there is no point of order. Before you go on, Senator Brandis, there is argy-bargy going across both sides of the chamber. Could I just ask for senators to control yourselves as much as you can for a little while longer.
Thank you very much, and let me emphasise once more, lest it be lost on Senator Conroy or others: our concern is that this was the payment of a personal debt. We make no criticism of the payment of a properly disclosed political donation. In fact, the very reason we have a regime that regulates and obliges the disclosure of political donations is to protect against the appearance of influence. But this is the payment of a personal debt, not a political donation, and what the parliament is entitled to know is: what was the specific nature of the debt? Was an invoice issued and on what date was the invoice issued? If an invoice was issued, Senator Dastyari should table it.
What were the available payment methods and what method did the senator elect to use to receive the payment? Was the payment of the debt made directly to the Department of Finance by the Top Education Institute or was it paid to Senator Dastyari or was it paid to some other person or entity? If it was paid to another person or entity, what was the name of that person or entity?
Was there only one payment or were there multiple payments? When was the debt discharged? Was the payment receipted and, if the payment was receipted, will Senator Dastyari table a copy of the receipt? Assuming the Top Education Institute made the payment directly to Senator Dastyari rather than to the Department of Finance, again we are entitled to know what the method of the payment was, whether there was only one payment or whether there were multiple payments and in what amount. If the payment was made into a bank account, what was the identity of the bank account to which the payment was made and who controls that bank account? If the person who controls the bank account is someone other than Senator Dastyari, who is that person or entity and what are Senator Dastyari's links to that person or entity? And, if such a payment was made to a bank account, what was the date of the payment or payments and the amount of the payment or payments? If the payment was made directly to the Department of Finance by Top Education Institute, how was the invoice brought to the attention of Top Education?
What conversations or correspondence were entered into between Senator Dastyari, his staff, the Department of Finance and the Top Education Institute? When and how did Senator Dastyari become aware that the payment had been made?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Senator Conroy and Senator O'Sullivan.
In his statement in the Register of Senators' Interests, Senator Dastyari said that there was 'support'. Why did the Top Education Institute agree to pay what appears to have been a personal debt? By whom was Top Education Institute approached? Senator Dastyari needs to come back into the chamber to explain the details of all conversations to which he was a party which made the arrangement for the payment by the Top Education Institute.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Senator Brandis, please resume your seat.
Under standing order 197, a member has the right to be heard in silence. Senator Conroy is continuously and deliberately disobeying standing order 197.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Senator Brandis has the right to be heard in silence. I would ask all senators to listen respectfully.
Let me return to where I was. Why did Top Education Institute agree to pay what appears to have been a personal debt? By whom was Top Education Institute approached? Senator Dastyari must provide information to the Senate of all conversations and table in the Senate all documents that evidence the agreement whereby this debt was paid by Top Education Institute. He must also tell the Senate who at Top Education Institute was involved in arranging the payment of his personal debt. What was the nature of Senator Dastyari's relationship with Top Education Institute and with Mr Minshen Zhu? Was Mr Minshen Zhu involved in the making of the payment? Was Senator Dastyari or were any members of his staff aware of Mr Zhu's involvement?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Once again, Senator Brandis has the right to be heard in silence. Please observe that standing order.
Was Senator Dastyari aware of Mr Zhu's links with the Chinese government? At a press conference on 17 June 2016, Senator Dastyari stood alongside Huang Xiangmo, Chairman of the Yuhu Group, which is a substantial political donor with a history with Senator Dastyari. This Tuesday, 30 August, Mr Huang was reported in as having been quoted in Chinese media complaining that Australian MPs were 'not delivering' on donations from the Chinese community. Given the support for China's position on the South China Sea, delivered alongside Mr Huang in Sydney only this June, Senator Dastyari needs to answer whether he is in fact 'delivering' on the extensive support provided to him.
On 20 November 2014 Senator Dastyari disclosed on the Register of Senators' Interests 'support for settlement of outstanding legal matter provided by Yuhu Group Pty Ltd'. Once again, this is not a political donation but appears to be the provision of a personal financial benefit. In that regard, I bring to the attention of the Senate Senator Dastyari's declaration of the payment from Yuhu Group and ask Senator Dastyari to answer the following questions in relation to that financial benefit. What was the specific nature of the debt? What was the method of payment of the settlement amount? Was there only one payment or were there multiple payments? When was the settlement amount paid? How was it receipted? What was the method of payment? Was there only one payment or were there multiple payments?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Madam Deputy President, Senator Conroy is showing complete contempt for your authority in this chamber. You have asked three times for Senator Brandis to be heard in silence. We ask you to direct him now—
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Once again, I will ask people to respectfully listen to Senator Brandis. Senator Brandis, please resume.
Was the payment from Yuhu Group receipted and will Senator Dastyari table all relevant receipts? What was the method of that payment? Was there only one payment or were there multiple payments? If the payment was made into a bank account, to what bank account was the payment made and by whom is the bank account controlled? If the bank account is controlled by a person or entity other than Senator Dastyari, what is Senator Dastyari's link with that person or entity? On what date was the payment made? How was the matter brought to the attention of the Yuhu Group? What conversations or correspondence took place between Senator Dastyari or his staff and members of the Yuhu Group? And why was the Yuhu Group paying Senator Dastyari's personal debts in relation to a legal matter in any event?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator Bernardi interjecting—
Senator Polley interjecting—
Senator Sinodinos interjecting—
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT
Senator Conroy, I would ask that you respectfully listen to Senator Brandis and for other senators also to listen. Some interjections are okay but this is becoming disorderly, so I would ask all of you to bear that in mind.
What was the nature of Senator Dastyari's relationship with the Yuhu Group? Why was it that they were paying his debts?
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Madam Deputy President, a point of order: under standing order 203, Senator Conroy has now committed an offence because he is persistently and wilfully disregarding both the standing orders and your direction to him. Under standing order 184, you have an obligation to retain order in the Senate.
The DEPUTY PRESIDENT
That is a call that I make. I have asked for people to respond in a calm and orderly way and I will continue to do that. I ask, once again, that senators respect that and I ask that Senator Brandis continue.
I have referred the Senate to two disclosures on the Register of Senators' Interests in relation to Chinese or Chinese-linked entities, which both appear to be the payment of personal debts of Senator Dastyari. I stress again that we have no criticism to make of properly and regularly disclosed political donations by those entities—but it is one thing to make a political donation which is subject to a rigorous disclosure regime and to the integrity provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act; it is another thing for a senator to receive personal financial benefits and then to meet his disclosure obligations to the Senate in the most opaque imaginable fashion. It is, of course, a notorious fact that Senator Dastyari has recently taken some foreign policy positions in relation to China which are starkly at variance with the official positions of the Australian Labor Party. On 17 June, at a press conference for the Chinese media, to which I referred earlier, Senator Dastyari is reported as stating his support for China's position on the South China Sea:
The South China Sea is China's own affair. On this issue, Australia should remain neutral and respect China's decision.
This is a position that could not be more starkly at variance from the Labor Party position articulated by its then shadow minister for defence, Senator Conroy. Senator Dastyari is also quoted as urging Australia to drop its opposition to China's air defence zone in the South China Sea. On 2 June 2014 Senator Dastyari was cautioned by the chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee and the then defence minister, Senator Johnston, about the sensitive nature of questions he was asking the Secretary of the Department of Defence about Australia's position on the South China Sea—in particular, accusations of taking sides. The defence minister noted that the discussions were 'not in our national interest'. In a speech in the Senate on 17 March 2015 on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Senator Dastyari presented what he himself described as, in his words, 'the Chinese view'. Did Senator Dastyari's links with China influence him in presenting what he himself called 'the Chinese view' in a speech in the Senate?
Senator Dastyari's acceptance of personal benefits from an entity or entities with links to the Chinese state and the carefully opaque way in which the payments have been described in the Register of Senators' Interests raise the inevitable question of whether Senator Dastyari, whether advertently or unwittingly, has allowed himself to be compromised. This is a very serious matter. It is much more serious than, for instance, the allegations which were made against the member for Fadden, Mr Robert, which caused him to lose his position in the ministry. Senator Dastyari is an extremely influential figure in the alternative government of Australia. If he has been compromised, that is a very grave matter. It is incumbent upon Senator Dastyari now to provide to the Senate a full explanation of the affair, a full account of the nature of his dealings with these two Chinese companies, and, in particular, a full explanation as to why it was that they were paying personal debts of Senator Dastyari. It is for Mr Shorten to insist that Senator Dastyari do so.
I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land and all the lands of this nation, and acknowledge that it is high time that we made progress on the constitutional recognition of our first people. We need to make genuine efforts to close the gap, and then we need to progress to discussing genuine sovereignty over this nation and treaties with our first people.
I am thrilled to be back here in the Senate as the first Green re-elected in the state of Queensland. I thank the many people who helped return me to this sometimes insane and diabolical place. Perhaps I have lost my mind, but I am very grateful to be here to represent the values of Queenslanders who want a fairer society, a healthy environment and an economy that thinks more than five seconds ahead. I will continue my work in this place to protect the reef from dangerous climate change, to work for equality for women, to work towards a planned transition away from fossil fuels and an embracement of clean energy that sees workers looked after rather than abandoned by those dirty industries, and of course I will work to address the growing financial inequality that is wracking many families not just in Queensland but right around the country. Now, more than ever, I will proudly be a voice against racism and divisiveness against members of our community and potential members of our community. I am perplexed by the apparent electoral attractiveness of blaming brown people for the problems of the changing economy, and I undertake to understand better and articulate better the genuine solutions needed in our changing economy and how we should look after people not just in Queensland but throughout Australia. We should always speak out against prejudice and unfounded divisiveness against other human beings.
Today I have the pleasure of speaking in response to the Governor-General's address. You have to feel for the guy—he is reading out a speech that clearly somebody else has written. It is the apparent agenda of the government, although it is pretty hard to discern an agenda amidst all of the kowtowing to big corporates. Indeed, many of the folk in this place either fell asleep or struggled to stay awake—it was narcolepsy as a service delivered by this new Turnbull government. I took particular umbrage at the many instances of hypocrisy in the speech and the many instances where the rhetoric and the buzzwords simply did not match the actions of this government. I want to go through some of those in the brief time that I have today.
The first statement, which I thought was quite outlandish, was that innovation and science are critical as Australia transitions from the mining-led boom to one driven by services, exports, innovations and technology. Yes, innovations and science are critical. So why have you cut so many scientists out of CSIRO? Why have you reduced funding for research in our university sector? Why have you cut research and development funding to the lowest level in 30 years? If innovation and science are so critical, why are you cutting $1 billion out of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency—that fantastic powerhouse of innovation that will see us usher in the next generation of clean energy technology, that will help safeguard us from the ravages of climate change, generate jobs and protect our reef? So much for innovation and science being critical.
The next point was that the government say they would like to strengthen our farming industries and they would like to deliver a fair go to farm businesses. I would love to see a fair go for farm businesses and farmers, but instead coal and coal seam gas companies are allowed to ride roughshod over their land. Farmers have no right to say no to their farmland being turned into an open-cut coalmine or being pockmarked with coal seam gas wells to poison their water, destroy their land and ruin their farm productivity and their ability to hand over that farm to future generations. I would like to put on record my immense pleasure at the moves by the Victorian state government to ban fracking, and I signalled that just yesterday when I introduced my bill again—I think it is the fourth time now—to give landholders the right to say no to coal seam gas and coal and to ban fracking. We have clean energy options which do not threaten our land and water or divide committees or threaten their health, and that is where this government should be investing. They say they want to strengthen our farming industries and support farm businesses—they should start by giving farmers some rights to protect their land against this unnecessary fossil fuel ravage.
There was also talk in the speech about being mindful of what sort of society we bequeath to future generations and about policies that improve the wellbeing and secure the future of all Australians. You would think that climate change and acting on it had quite a bit to do with the sort of world that we will leave future generations, but this government's record has been utterly woeful. They axed the carbon price and they got rid of the Climate Change Commission, which was reformed with the support of members of the public and continues to do excellent work. Instead, they have a policy called 'direct action'—if you can call it that; it is an absolute bastardisation of that term, if you ask me—which pays polluters. Rather than making polluters pay to pollute, they now get paid, and it is often to do projects that they were intending to do anyway and which were already in the pipeline. We have a target for greenhouse gas reduction that will see Australia still be the largest polluter per capita, even if we were on track to meet that weak target. So the government have utterly no credibility when it talks about safeguarding future generations.
This brings me to the Adani coalmine. So much for support for science and innovation and looking after the future generations when we have 10 projects that could be funded by the Renewable Energy Agency slated for Queensland, which would generate 2,700 jobs for Queenslanders—lasting jobs that will not kill them with black lung disease—but, instead, we have this government attempting to cut that $1 billion from ARENA. Instead, they want to prop up a coalmine—in this day and age when the global coal market has completely tanked and when the coal sector has already sacked a third of its workforce, because, clearly, the companies can see that that global trend and transition is underway.
Sadly, our government is blinded by the multimillion dollar donations that the fossil fuel companies make to it—and to the Labor Party and the National Party. Since the last election, $2.4 million flowed into the coffers of those three parties. Is it any wonder that the fossil fuel sector gets such weak laws and every single coalmine or coal seam gas proposal is ticked off on? And not only that, they get $24 billion in free public money for cheap petrol and accelerated depreciation. It is a nice, cosy, little arrangement they have going on there.
The was a brief mention of the environment in the speech. It was all about the use value of the natural world—'we will use Australia's natural resources to our best advantage'. That really spells out this government's approach to the environment. They do not understand that it is the life-support system for the planet, including for us. They have spent the entire term of their government attacking the environment and the people who stand up for it. They have attacked environment groups, launched witch-hunts into tax deductibility status and have even sought for a while to remove the rights of people to enforce environmental laws. What is the point of having a law if you do not then allow people to hold the government and big companies to that law. That was a flagrant attack on democracy and I hope we have seen the end of it. We will certainly continue to resist it in the parliament.
There is talk of improving the wellbeing of all Australians. How are they going to do that by cutting $7 a week out of the pay packets of the poorest Australians while simultaneously giving tax cuts to the biggest companies and giving tax relief to people who earn over $80,000? That is a really clear statement of whose values and whose interests are being looked after by this government. There was talk of women's participation in the workforce. I found the irony of that one quite pointed, given that, sadly, we have the lowest numbers of women in the Liberal Party in neigh on 30 years. There was also talk of domestic violence continuing to be a national priority. If this government are indeed supposed to be continuing to address domestic violence as a national priority, I look forward to the funding cuts they have wrought on legal centres, on housing shelters, on women's support services and on long-term affordable housing being overturned.
I have to say it was rather difficult to sit through the Governor-General's speech—to hear the buzzwords and the rhetoric and the talk of jobs and growth, while at the same time there are attempts to sabotage the clean energy sector, to prop up the old dirty-energy sectors, and to take money away from the poorest Australians and give tax cuts to the big corporates and those who do not need the support. It will be very interesting to see if this government discovers an actual agenda in this term of parliament—if the Prime Minister even lasts longer than five seconds. We Greens remain committed to standing up to protect the planet and to protect the interests of all Australians, now and in the future, from the wanton attacks that this government has wrought in the past few years and apparently intends to continue to wreak for the next few years.