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Thursday, 26 June 1997
Page: 6453


Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Science and Technology)(4.01 p.m.) —Over my parliamentary career, I have sat through more than 100 censure motions in this place, and this does not even rank with the worst of them. This is not even in the ballpark of a serious conviction of a censure of a minister.

There has been no forensic examination of the issues. There has been no citing of the Hansard to compare words of some days ago with words current. There has been no proper examination by the opposition of the words of the Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs (Mr Prosser) either in here or outside the parliament. All they have done for the entire censure motion is simply and repeatedly assert that the minister has misled the parliament, that there is a conflict of interest and that the minister has breached the ministerial guidelines. You have not made out your case—for the simple reason that you cannot make out your case.

We have the full statement of the minister, as made in this parliament at 1.30 p.m. It threw you off, didn't it? You were not expecting it, and your questions in question time revealed that because your questions in question time were answered in the statement. You had no new questions in question time. All you do is keep repeating it by slur. There has been no examination of the issues as you would normally get in a censure motion. This is quite pathetic. The minister made full and proper disclosure to this parliament earlier on, at 1.30 p.m. today, and continually over the period the opposition, for their own internal political reasons, have targeted him.

Where are your questions on youth allowance? Where are your questions on work for the dole? Where are your questions on the constitutional convention? You do not ask any questions on the issues of the day of immediate relevance to the Australian people because you are divided amongst yourselves, for a start. There are backflips on work for the dole, and humiliating defeats for the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley). It is the same with the constitutional convention.

You cannot muster enough consistency to ask us any of the immediate, pressing questions of the day. So, day after day, we have had questions wasted on the Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs. We have had matters of public importance abandoned so we could have these senseless, worthless censures day after day—taxpayers' funds wasted. The issue of jobs has been put to one side by the opposition—but not by the government, for our questions in question time reflect our priorities, which are the priorities of the Australian people.

The Leader of the Opposition employed all of the legendary bluff and bluster, hyperbole and exaggeration for which he is known—in startling contrast to the member for Cunningham (Mr Martin), who decided to take the high moral road, it seemed. He lowered his voice a few octaves and cloaked himself in sanctimonious hypocrisy. As best that I understand it—and I might be mistaken—I think they are making two allegations here. The first is that the minister is engaged in daily activity with his business interests and is, therefore, in breach of the ministerial code. The second is that he sought private gain by way of public office in relation to his phone call to Nick Greiner. Let us look at both of them and just see how baseless and cowardly these charges are.

The first one is in relation to daily activities. The ministerial guidelines allow for directorships in private companies. Once you take on a directorship, you are required under corporate law to take on certain obligations. You must protect the interests of the shareholders. It is quite impossible, legally and morally, for anyone to take on a private directorship without some oversight of that business. You cannot do that totally. The ministerial guidelines, as I read them—


Mr Lee —Make sure you read them carefully.


Mr SPEAKER —Order! The member for Dobell!


Mr McGAURAN —They do not require a total abandonment of your interests, but simply that you do not involve yourself in the daily activities. That is what we have seen from this minister.

Of course, he wants to protect the interests of shareholders. He wants proper inquiry. He wants due diligence, and that will require a knowledge of, a degree of familiarity with, the businesses for which he is a director, as allowed for under the ministerial guidelines. What are you suggesting? Are you suggesting that he become a director of a private company and walk away and never ask the other directors or the company officers occasionally what is happening or never make some inquiries on his own part?


Dr Nelson —They want him to break the law.


Mr McGAURAN —Do you want him to break the law, to totally abandon the interests of shareholders that have been entrusted to him? The simple point is that the relatively small number of meetings with relevant company officers, as shown in the minister's statement, prove that he is only meeting his obligations under the law.

Let us look at the second charge—that is, that he rang the Deputy Chairman of Coles Myer to secure a private gain. The problem here is that Nick Greiner has said he was under no pressure and in his view the Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs did not attempt to influence him.


Mr Lee —When did he say that?


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! Member for Dobell, take care!


Mr McGAURAN —The proof of that is, of course, the minister has no connection whatever with Coles Myer. There is no Target store on any of his landholdings. So this conspiratorial gathering between Nick Greiner and the minister, as alleged by the opposition, is utterly false. But that is the whole problem. What they have done day after day, as the Leader of the House (Mr Reith) has made abundantly clear for us, is just paint a picture built on slurs and false charges. The fact is you simply do not have the substance for a censure motion.

All you are doing is distracting from your own internal problems. You are an absolute rabble. You are not even a credible or half-credible opposition. The simple fact is that the Australian people know it. They know you are a bunch of opportunists. It does not matter whether it is on economic policy, whether it is on parliamentary tactics—


Mr Lee —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: when the honourable member says `you are a bunch of opportunists' and he is not directing his remarks through the chair, I think it is a reflection on you, and he should be asked to direct his remarks through the chair.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I thank the honourable member for Dobell. Of course, the minister will address his remarks through the chair. I am confident he was not reflecting on the chair.


Mr McGAURAN —As soon as the charges are tested against the minister for small business, those opposite collapse. Their first star witness was Nick Greiner. Of course, he said that the minister did not seek to influence him and, in actual fact, did not influence him. We have Nick Greiner's letter to attest to that.

The second star witness is John McCourt, who is one of yours; he is a Labor orientated councillor. There is nothing wrong with that; it is perfectly his choice. But just remember this: he is yours. On Channel 9 yesterday, he was asked:

J: Do you think that Mr Prosser should resign, do you think the Minister should resign?

McCourt: No I don't think he should resign.

I think that the question of Ministerial conduct is between the Prime Minister and Geoff. I think that it's a rather harsh code to adhere to in the context of all Geoff was doing was actually canvassing ideas as to whether I thought as a councillor that this proposal would get up or it wouldn't. And I mean he didn't pressure me—

let me repeat that: `I mean he didn't pressure me'—

he was just asking a general planning question.

So your second star witness has repudiated your charges. He says that the Minister for Small Business and Consumer Affairs was not seeking to influence him and was not pressuring him. John McCourt attested to that.

The two people who the opposition says the minister tried to influence say that he did not do that. They say categorically, unambiguously and without reservation that he did not seek to influence them. So how strong is your charge that the minister for small business used his public office for private gain? It is utterly baseless. It is non-existent.

There is no perception of influence, and there was no attempt to influence—real or otherwise. So what is the minister for small business guilty of? Using the phone and discharging his responsibilities legally as a director of a company—that is the charge that the Labor Party has made against him. In doing so, its case collapses around its ears.

The simple fact is that all Labor has shown so far—after hours, days and dozens of questions in this parliament—is that the minister for small business does not use his ministerial position for his own gain and that he does not have day-to-day involvement in his business. So what is he being censured for? You have made out the case for him.


Mr Lee —He's been misleading the parliament.


Mr McGAURAN —Oh! The member for Dobell raises it again: he alleges, by way of interjection, that the minister for small business is guilty of misleading the parliament. I have already dealt with that. But, if members on my side will be tolerant and bear with me, I will repeat it: where is your production of the Hansard to show his misleading of this House? You have no evidence to show it. In typical Labor fashion, if you repeat the lie often enough, it will take on an order of legitimacy.


Mr Martin —Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: if the minister is, in fact, issuing a genuine challenge to produce that information, I am quite happy to do that right now for him and to seek leave to table it.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I think the honourable minister was speaking rhetorically.


Mr McGAURAN —They had 40 minutes in the speeches of the Leader of the Opposition and the member for Cunningham to produce some evidence against the minister for small business. The simple fact is that the Labor Party are going through the motions. Their questions in question time were written yesterday and were just bowled up again in a very obvious fashion. Of course, the minister's statement had answered them before.

We know what this is all about. It is a diversion. It is a lame attempt to explain your own backflips on policy and your own internal divisions. We on our side have canvassed those, but I suspect too briefly. We have been too soft on them. We really should have highlighted more.


Mr Ronaldson —Tearing themselves apart.


Mr McGAURAN —They are tearing themselves apart, as the member for Ballarat says. Whilst you carry on and allow yourselves to play these silly political games of no interest and no importance to the Australian public, we are getting on with the job for small business.

One of the things I would like to address is the incident involving Lisa Michael, whom the member for Cunningham spoke of earlier on. The slur continues; it just goes down another path. The member for Cunningham alleged that the staff of the minister for small business had ejected—there were overtones or connotations of forcible ejection—Lisa Michael, a representative of small business, earlier this morning.

Here is the story: Lisa Michael and the United Retailers Association had no appointment with Minister Prosser this morning. They turned up to the office unannounced, without warning, and demanded a meeting. They were politely told that the minister was not available.

I know what; I will test this. I will roll up to the Leader of the Opposition's office one day with a group of my constituents—whether from the science portfolio or from Gippsland—and see how long we have to cool our heals in the waiting room or whether we will be asked to come back another time and make an appointment. If there is one thing you cannot accuse the minister for small business of it is not being available and accessible to small business. He has worked hard in the portfolio and with success.

Let us look at some of the tangible benefits. What about the capital gains tax that has been so substantially dropped for small business. What about the reduction in the provisional tax uplift factor? What about industrial relations—reforming the unfair dismissal laws?

Mr Kerr interjecting


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Denison has already been warned this afternoon.


Mr McGAURAN —What about red tape, with the report of the task force having been presented to the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) on 1 November last year? There were 62 recommendations in that report, and in our first term there was a 50 per cent cut in paperwork in respect of the compliance burden. We are setting the future agenda for small business under the leadership of the minister for small business.

The minister for small business, on behalf of the coalition parties—the government—wishes to reduce the taxation burden on small business. We want to clarify the tax system and make it more simple, less compliant. We have already reformed areas of fringe benefits tax. The list goes on and on. These are trumped up charges against the minister and are without substantiation. Your censure motion today has been a complete farce.

   Question put:

   That the motion (Mr Beazley's ) be agreed to.