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Wednesday, 5 October 1983
Page: 1401


Mr HOWARD(8.34) —I say through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards), whose sincerity has impressed me and, I think, many honourable members of this House since he came here, that I agree that many people on his side of the House genuinely believe that the status and the dignity of Parliament will be improved if we have some kind of public disclosure. I invite him in the same charitable sense to accept that many people on this side of the House believe that such an approach is fundamentally wrong, not because they have anything to cover up, not because they are parties to corruption and not because they are in any way associated with people who are trying to take advantage of their position, but because they believe very genuinely that one cannot legislate to make people honest. If people do not have an instinct for honest and for decency, all the disclosure provisions in the world will not make them honest and decent. I happen to believe that if anybody imagines that these disclosure provisions will usher in some kind of new, squeakey-clean era of politics in Australia, he is very sadly mistaken.

I also believe that the mere fact of disclosure provisions being proposed and arguments being used in support of them does a very great disservice to the reputation of the Federal Parliament-I underline the word 'Federal'-in the eyes of the Australian public. I believe that the standards of integrity of members on both sides of Federal Parliament over the years have been of a very high order. It has not been my experience in the time that I have been in this Parliament to have encountered any significant evidence of corruption on the part of anybody on either side of the Parliament. I think we have a lot to be thankful for and we have a lot to be satisfied about so far as our parliamentary institution is concerned.

I think that one of the sad things about these disclosure provisions is that they tend to ratify the cynical view that many in the community have. The arguments used in favour of having elaborate disclosure provisions, in my view, tend to underwrite the criticism that is made of the parliamentary institution. I remind the Parliament that all the disclosure provisions in the world did not prevent somebody reaching the highest office of Vice-President of the United States and then being hounded from office because he was taking bribes in the executive suite of the largest democracy in the world.

Let not anybody in this Parliament imagine that when we pass all the terms of this motion-inevitably the steamroller of the Government's numbers will achieve this-we have ushered in some completely new dawn and that we are to have done forever with any claim or any suggestion of corruption. I have heard many arguments about what should and should not be disclosed. I have heard people argue that if one has everything on the table there are no grounds for any further concern or argument. The great problem with that is that one can never anticipate in advance what the conflict of interest of a person in an executive position will be. It is beyond the wit of any Parliament and of any legislator to divine in advance the conflicts of interest that may confront a person- particularly a senior Minister of the Crown-in our system of government.

The proposition often advanced that I find the most ludicrous-it was advanced by the honourable member for Lowe (Mr Maher) during the debate-is that the only thing for people to do is to put their money into government bonds; that somehow or other having one's money in government bonds is safe. As Treasurer of this country for five years and as a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the former Government, the one interest rate that I could control was the government bond rate. Yet according to the proponents of disclosure I should have put all of my money into government bonds. I had better declare the fact that I did not ever buy any Australian savings bonds while I was Treasurer and I was roundly criticised by many people such as Bruce Bond for not having bought any.

The argument that somehow or other if one puts one's money into government bonds it is all ultimately safe and it is all absolutely squeaky-clean and absolutely above reproach is ludicrous. I also say to the honourable member for Stirling that in fairness to the former right honourable member for Flinders, who of course is the person he was referring to as a former member of the Fraser Government, that particular gentleman stood down while the allegations against him were ventilated and established to have no substance at all. That ought to be put on the record, as should the fact that honourable members on the other side of the House stood down when allegations were made against them and while those allegations were being dealt with.

One thing emerges very clearly from tonight's debate and most particularly from some of the revelations that have been made while the debate has progressed. We have heard all the incantations from the other side that we need these disclosure provisions so that people can sleep easily at night and know that their legislators are honest and have no conflict of interests, that the whole thing is a deadly serious exercise so far as the Government is concerned. In true McCarthy tactics anybody who opposes the motion is ipso facto somebody who has something to cover up. There is no more McCarthy tactic than that-that if one is against something one automatically stands condemned of the object of that particular measure or legislation.

One thing really emerges very clearly. For all its talk the Government does not take this whole exercise very seriously, because no less than nine of the 27 members of the Hawke Ministry have indicated during this debate that they got their declarations of interest wrong. In other words, one third of the Ministry of this country is so serious about this new proposal that is going to make politics cleaner than it has ever been before in Australia that they have got their declarations wrong. I can understand how somebody might have overlooked the fact that his wife is a member of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union of Australia, but it is a bit hard to concede, as the honourable member for Prospect (Dr Klugman) has said, that the Minister for Defence Support (Mr Howe) could overlook the fact that his wife was employed as a member of the Town Planning Appeals Tribunal of the State of Victoria at a salary of no less than $ 53,000. That is a pretty good piece of selective amnesia. I think even the Minister for Defence Support ought to blush with some embarrassment.

The Government cannot have it both ways. Perhaps it does not really care about this whole procedure and therefore one third of the Ministers in the Hawke Government have been so indifferent about this procedure which they say is so important and so necessary to put integrity back into government that they have literally submitted their returns without any care as to their accuracy and with reckless indifference to that accuracy. One third of the 27 Ministers have their returns wrong and in many cases fundamentally and very importantly wrong. That of course is a charitable interpretation. I am prepared to be charitable and say that maybe honourable members opposite do not care about it, which of course is a condemnation. It is an illustration of the hyprocrisy of the Government and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in particular to come into this House and say: ' This is necessary in order to establish integrity in the Government of this country'. The less charitable interpretation is that these people have been guilty of deliberatly misleading the Parliament.

Honourable members on this side of the House who recall what was said last year when members of the former Government were accused of misleading the Parliament will remember very well the attacks that were made. One of the prime architects of those attacks was that very humble apologetic member of the Opposition, now the Minister for Finance (Mr Dawkins). He is a very apologetic, humble gentleman who is a symbol of humility. He of course was one of the leaders of the attack upon the former members of the Government. All I can say is that Jim Cairns must now be wishing that he had been a member of the Hawke Ministry and not a member of the Whitlam Ministry because the offence for which he was dismissed by the former Prime Minister Whitlam was somewhat less serious than some of the offences that, if one is uncharitable, are constituted by the admissions that have been tabled in this Parliament tonight. After all, he forgot he signed a letter. Some honourable members here have forgotten half their annual household income.

I think the Australian public is entitled to have an explanation from the Minister for Defence Support. A person whose household income is over $120,000 a year is some model socialist, is he not? He is a symbol of the representative character of the Australian Labor Party at present. I do not mind the fact that he has a household income of $120,000 a year, but what I do mind is that he and his like on the other side of the House berate people on this side of the House because perhaps some of them have a household income of that order. The fact that he has been revealed as a person with selective amnesia, to be the most charitable, but at the worst somebody who is prepared to be careless and openly careless with the truth is, I believe, a very serious condemnation of that person.

But of course the matter does not end there. We have other Ministers who have forgotten the fact that their wife owns a house in Canberra. I suppose if one is used to very large accumulations a house in Canberra is not all that much. The Minister for Finance has overlooked the fact that his wife has income from investments. All of this has been done not just by some rank and file members of the Labor Party; this has been done by nine of the 27 members of the Hawke Government. We all know that our Prime Minister is very sensitive about probity in public life. He really gets very irritated when anybody suggests that anything associated with him or anything associated with his Ministers is in any way shonky, in any way suspect or in any way lacking in anything but total probity.

I would like to know what explanation the Prime Minister has demanded from his nine members-maybe it is more-of the Ministry who have been guilty on the most charitable interpretation of being totally indifferent to a procedure which their own leader says is absolutely necessary to the integrity of government in this country; but on a less charitable interpretation these people have been guilty of misleading this Parliament. There is no more serious ministerial delinquency than to mislead this Parliament. Honourable members opposite cannot convince me-I do not think they can convince any other member of the Australian community-that a Minister can possibly overlook the fact that his wife earns $53 ,000 a year. One only has to state it to realise how absolutely absurd it is.

Yet here we have this person who parades around the country saying that, above everything else, his Government is going to be a model of probity. He was a member of an Opposition who was prepared to pursue, to malign, to berate and to criticise any transgressions of ministerial proprietory by members of the former Government. He was willing, at the drop of a hat, to demand resignations; he was willing to ask people to stand down at the drop of a hat. I think honourable members on this side of the House and people out in the Australian community will want to know what explanation this Prime Minister has demanded from those Ministers, none of whom are in the House tonight. One third of his Ministry has been badly caught out. One third of his Ministry has either been recklessly indifferent to a very important government policy or has been recklessly indifferent to the truth. I think this Parliament and the nation, as represented by this Parliament, are entitled at the very least to a full explanation from the Prime Minister.