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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 797

Mr LEO McLEAY (12:08 PM) —We are here today discussing the address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech, which was made at the opening of the parliament in the Senate chamber a week and a half ago. I guess in a little while we will be taking the address-in-reply out to the Governor-General. I suppose the question that all of us are asking at present is: will anybody be at home? I suppose we will hear about that some time later today, when the Prime Minister makes a statement about this matter. I am glad to be here to speak in this address-in-reply debate. I will be very interested to go out with the address-in-reply committee, if it ever gets the chance to attend, and find out who is going to be at Government House to receive us.

I am glad that my electorate of Watson returned me to parliament at the last election. I was very pleased with the result that I achieved. I think that in New South Wales I received the best two-party preferred vote of any Labor member. Seeing as that was the last election I intend contesting, that is not a bad note to go out on. That made me feel especially honoured.

Mr Baird —Didn't want to go earlier.

Mr LEO McLEAY —I know the member for Cook never got preferment in the ministerial stakes, and he has now joined the hunting party on the Prime Minister. He, of course, would like the Prime Minister to go a bit earlier. We might find that, with all these cover-ups that have been occurring this week from the Governor-General's office down, to be the head of state or the head of government in this country at present seems to be a bit of a job that is getting hard to hold. All I would say to the member for Cook is: good luck to you. I hope the hunting party succeeds and I hope, when it succeeds, you will get into the ministry. You would certainly do a better job than—

Miss Jackie Kelly —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The member for Watson is hardly being relevant in the address-in-reply debate. The address dealt with things like unfair dismissal laws, or our fair dismissal laws, didn't it? It dealt with welfare reform. It dealt with—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The parliamentary secretary will resume her seat. The honourable member for Watson has the call.

Mr LEO McLEAY —It is nice to flush them out a bit. The member for Lindsay is not in the hunting party. She has been dismissed as irrelevant, given a little job and a car to keep her going, to keep her quiet. But I have to tell the parliamentary secretary that the member for Cook and his faction will be successful. When we come back here for the next address-in-reply debate, I will not be here. The member for Cook will probably be standing up here representing the opposition, but he might get a chance in that ensuing period, when the hunting party catches up with the Prime Minister, to get into the ministry. He would do a far better job than a lot of the people who are there now, and he would not have to do much of a job to do it better than the honourable member for Lindsay ever did.

I would like to, once again, thank the members of my electorate for the work that they did in getting me elected. I would like to thank the people in my party organisation for the help they have given me over the years, and I would like to thank my family and my staff and all those who assisted my return to parliament.

When I heard the Governor-General delivering the address-in-reply, I had to confess that I was a bit disappointed. I certainly did not expect much, but I was still disappointed. It was just more of the same: predictable, small picture, non-visionary, dull and unexciting stuff. The parliamentary secretary said we should be discussing unfair dismissals, that that is really the big-ticket item. Even small businesses do not think that is the big-ticket item. The government has been trying to get unfair dismissal laws passed in this parliament since 1997. The government has not succeeded in the last five years, and it will not succeed with this current attempt to add more difficulty for small businesses and attack workers who work in small businesses, particularly in rural and regional areas. It was dull and unexciting stuff. `Stuff' is not a very flattering word, but it is about the only word you can use. It certainly was not inspiring or even interesting; it was just very pedestrian.

Then I remembered that this time last year the government did not believe it would get back into power. It had run out of ideas and policies some time before, and most of what it wanted to do, it did during its first term. The government did a bit more in its second term. It did not manage to achieve all that much—except to get the Prime Minister's great landmark change of the GST in, and then it sat back and fiddled around the edges. Now, unfortunately, the government is back and it will have to get its thinking cap on. In the months since the election the government seems to have taken a long nice holiday: ministers were not seen, the Prime Minister went to the cricket and the government tried to get back to those dull old Menzian days.

We will just have to see what comes up and what the government intend to do to fill their time in until the next election. They do not seem to have much of a legislation program. Looking at the sitting pattern for the parliament for this year, I have never seen the parliament sit initially for so short a time as on the government's current agenda. But then, again, maybe that is smart from the Prime Minister's point of view because, as the member for Cook and the group and the hunting party are out there after him, probably the less that members get together down here in Canberra to plot against him the better for him—not better for Australia but probably better for him.

There are two issues I would like to raise in this debate today. Both are exemplified by the alleged `children overboard' incident, this notorious attempt by the government to pervert public opinion. The first relates to the decline in ministerial standards and the second to the growing politicisation of the Public Service. I am sure all of us can recall our reaction when we heard the news last October that babies had been thrown overboard from a vessel carrying refugees that was trying to reach Australia. We were horrified. The defence minister was out there. The Prime Minister was out there. The minister for immigration was out there. They were belting this for all it was worth. It seemed unbelievable to me that this could be happening, but we were told that it was by people who one would have thought would have had at least a little honour. There were of course some who were quick to demonise the people who were allegedly doing this: `How could human beings do this to their children? They cannot be people like us.' There were others who were appalled at the apparent desperation of those people. It seemed truly awful that there were people who were so desperate to get to Australia that they would sacrifice their children to make the point, and it seemed even more awful that some of our key politicians could still remain totally unsympathetic to the desperate plight of these people. It polarised the nation and it split us into those who saw these people as potential murderers and those who keenly felt the almost unbelievable desperation of these people. This government chose to exploit the story. Four ministers, from memory, spoke out publicly about the incident—the minister for immigration, the Minister for Defence, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Prime Minister.

Photographs were published on the front page of newspapers and relayed via television to tell us what a disgusting, terrible thing had happened and how we should not have any truck with these people. If my memory serves me correctly, there was at least one newspaper report early on which did question the authenticity of the story, but mostly the story was peddled that young children had been thrown overboard by their parents, and disparaging comments were made by people in this place who should have known better, about the sort of people who would do this sort of thing. Then, just on the eve of the election, we learned again from the media reporting the Prime Minister's address to the Press Club that there was some doubt about the accuracy of the story. The photographs were of another incident. The so-called evidence was not what it had been purported to be. Then last week, over two months later, we had two reports tabled in parliament that gave some account of the whole sorry affair.

But as events of the last few days have revealed, through intensive questioning at Senate estimates hearings, we still do not have the whole story. Bits and pieces are gradually emerging but there are still people, such as the Secretary of the Prime Minister's department, who are confusing the issue. It seems that no-one in that portfolio, and I include the Prime Minister, as the minister in charge, will say that a mistake was made and that children were not thrown overboard. In fact, I saw Mr Max Moore-Wilton in a Senate estimates hearing try to construct a double negative: that no-one had proved that children were not thrown overboard so therefore they probably were. It is just amazing the convolutions of mind that these people get up to. We have even heard this preposterous suggestion relayed by others as well. It is a bit like saying that I might have killed someone, but no-one knows I have not so therefore I am guilty until proven innocent. I can hardly believe that public servants of this stature could twist their minds to such an artifice.

And will the ministers concerned take responsibility for any of this sorry affair? No, of course they will not. I remember when this current government came into power in 1996. I remember the Prime Minister talking about ministerial standards. He was going to have a new code. Nirvana had been reached. It was going to be pretty good and proper from then on. Well, we all know what happened to those standards. After he threw a few ministers overboard, they all decided that the code had better go overboard. That was the problem. Down the gurgler went the ministerial code of conduct. This government does not have standards. Its arrogance and flouting of the truth is breathtaking. We have the Prime Minister now relying on another artifice where he says that, unless he actually got written confirmation from someone in the bureaucracy that something had happened, it had not happened. It has now got to the extent that you had better not ring him up or talk to him in the street because, unless you write him a letter, it never occurred. It is just bizarre.

The Prime Minister used to be known in some quarters as `honest John'. How can he be considered honest when he has been less than honest about asylum seekers and, as question time will show today, has been outright dishonest? As far as I am aware, no-one in the government has sought to apologise to these people for what the government has done to them. No-one even appears to have any regrets about the way the minister has described these people and about what the government has done. I cannot believe the government's arrogance and its total lack of compassion.

One of the ministers has left, and I bet he is happy he has left because, if he had been watching Senate estimates last night, he would have realised that the balloon has gone up. Maybe it was thought that he could not bear the horror of this incident and what he has caused and, with him gone, the rest of them can get away with it. That is not good enough and I do not think anyone in the Australian community thinks it is good enough. It is a disgrace that none of these ministers will take any responsibility, that they blame others or deny that they individually have done or said anything inappropriate. Their behaviour is totally dishonourable and they should either come clean or go.

At Senate estimates last night, we saw just how dishonest the government has been in this campaign. At Senate estimates last night, we heard that the Acting Chief of the Defence Force at the time, Air Marshal Houston, and Brigadier Bornholt on 7 November rang the defence minister and told him that the `children overboard' pictures were taken the day of the rescue, not the day of the incident, and they told him that there was no proof that children had been thrown overboard at all. They told him that, and that night the minister had a conversation with the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister tells us that the minister told him nothing. It does not matter which version of the story is right or wrong. One of those people—either the defence minister or the Prime Minister—or both, have failed dramatically in their duty.

If the defence minister knew that the government had been out there peddling a lie for a month, he had an obligation to tell the Prime Minister. If he told the Prime Minister, one would have thought that in the address that he gave to the National Press Club the next day he had an obligation to advise the Australian people. Whoever's version of the story is right, both of them are covered in dishonour. If this Prime Minister has conditioned his ministers and senior public servants to the extent that when you have a very, very important piece of information that is germane to the public debate it is a case of, `If it hurts my political position, don't talk to me about the war, baby,' then we have really polluted the standards of this country. Shamefully, we have also polluted the standards of the Australian Public Service.

One of the terrible things that has happened in this country at present is that this `Washminster' mutation, which is our political system, has none of the checks and balances of the Washington system and none of the honour of the Westminster system—none at all. We heard at the Senate estimates committee last night that the Acting CDF, the secretary of the defence department, Air Marshal Houston and Brigadier Bornholt advised the Prime Minister's department head, Mr Moore-Wilton, last week. The four of them advised Mr Moore-Wilton last Friday that the story the government had been peddling for two months was a sham and that all the story that the government has been running in the parliament about how no-one knew was a sham. Mr Moore-Wilton, the most senior public servant in this country, if you believe the Prime Minister, never told the Prime Minister. At Senate estimates, Mr Moore-Wilton said that no-one had told him.

How can genuine people in the Public Service who believe in honour be encouraged if the most senior public servant in the country has no honour? How can military people be expected to go out and die for our country—and we saw that tragic case last week of a young man who died in Afghanistan—when they know that their senior officers are bringing these things to the attention of the government and the Minister for Defence, their ministerial head, is saying that it did not happen when the Acting Chief of the Defence Force told him that it had happened? Honour and responsibility under this government have gone out the window. The politicisation of the Australian Public Service has been completed. The message to the Public Service from this government is: `The only role you have is to get the government elected. You do not have a role if you want to be successful as a proper administrator and a person who has the national interest at heart.' The government is saying to public servants, `You have to be a player, and being a player means looking after the government of the day.'

Unfortunately, what the government is saying to the military is that you can advise the Minister for Defence that he is out there perpetrating an untruth and misleading the Australian people—you can advise him of that—but, if you believe the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence does not have the honour to advise the Prime Minister of this. What confidence can these military people have that, if they do their job properly and provide advice to government about a significant matter, it will go anywhere? No, the politics take over, and the politics are: `Don't tell me about it if it is politically unpalatable.'

I hope the member for Cook and the hunting party win, because what we have seen in this parliament this week has been something that will be a smear on politics in Australia for a long while. We had the government saying to us, when we raised a question of parliamentary standards earlier last week, that it wanted to do something to raise the reputation of politicians in the eyes of the public. We were talking to the government about how we might do that at that micro level. But the public now know from the evidence that was given at the Senate estimates committee last night that politicians will tell them direct lies about what is going on in an important national issue. The public now know what can happen when ministers have brought to their attention issues that are very significant to the issue of the day. When the Chief of the Defence Force brought issues like that to the attention of the Minister for Defence, if you are to believe the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence did not tell the Prime Minister.

Where are we going here? We are going down the slippery track to a South American republic where governments do not care about what happens in between elections, where all that matters is the next election. Unless we can restore some honour to the system here, unless we can put back into our political life either the honour of the Westminster system or the checks and balances of the Washington system, no-one will take us seriously at all.

Debate interrupted; adjournment proposed and negatived.