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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18414

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (3:46 PM) —Those of us who have been in this place a while know that an opposition leader who moves two censure motions in a week and commences his censure motion using the suffix `gate' has a pretty weak argument. When I heard the Leader of the Opposition stand up and say this was `Ethanolgate', I knew that there was going to be nothing new in the speech that the Leader of the Opposition made. Over the past few days, I have listened to the Leader of the Opposition give me a few free character references. In the process, he verballed me in relation to a large number of things, traduced the reputation of the government and alleged that we have behaved in a way that is deliberately designed to commercially advantage somebody who is described as a close friend of mine.

I am delighted to have the opportunity in this censure motion to reply to the claims that have been made by the Leader of the Opposition. In relation to the question that he asked me at the end of question time about the FOI request, I remind the Leader of the Opposition that when you ask for freedom of information documents from a department, the decision maker in relation to that request is a departmental official. It is not the minister; it is a departmental official. As far as the requests of the Leader of the Opposition are concerned for the tabling of documents, I will give consideration to those requests in the appropriate time and, as has been my custom in the past, I will not respond to time limits imposed by the Leader of the Opposition.

The central charge against me by the Leader of the Opposition is that I misled the House in answering questions in September of last year in relation to the shipment of ethanol by Trafigura from Brazil. I repeat now, as I have previously, that I do not believe I misled the House, because what triggered that series of questions was in fact an announcement that I made on 12 September 2002 concerning the withdrawal of the excise exemption and the introduction of a production subsidy for domestic producers of ethanol. It is true that Manildra is the dominant domestic producer of ethanol. We have always known that. It is also true that CSR is a domestic producer of ethanol. It is also the case that, if the policy that we announced at the time of the last election was allowed to be implemented, over a period of time through the payment of capital subsidies other domestic producers would come into the market. The Leader of the Opposition pokes fun at my use of the expression `context of', but I am delighted to repeat it because the context of the decision making that went on last year was in fact the policy that was outlined at the last election. That is:

The coalition will set an objective that fuel ethanol and biodiesel produced in Australia from renewable sources will contribute at least 350 million litres to the total fuel supply by 2010.

Note those words `produced in Australia'. That is why, when we heard about the shipment from Brazil, we naturally looked at that against the prospects of implementing the policy.

Of course Dick Honan was lobbying. Dick Honan is a very active lobbyist, but he is not the first person who has been an active lobbyist around this building, no matter who has been in power. I have to say that the Leader of the Opposition really plumbed the depths when he sneered at the fact that Bob Gordon was for a brief period of time some years ago my chief of staff. What is wrong with that? There are many people who hold industry positions now. Do we sneer at the fact that a man called Dick Wells once ran the Mining Industry Council, and I believe he also worked on the staff of ministers? Does that mean that we traduce his reputation? Does that mean that he does not have the capacity for putting a decent argument on behalf of an industry association? Do we say that when Graham Evans, who works for BHP, comes into this building and makes representations on behalf of that company, that we do not talk to him, that he is disreputable and dishonest because he was once Bob Hawke's chief of staff? I might also remind the Leader of the Opposition that Bob Gordon was a person of repute, respect and integrity when he worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and he was at one stage a highly respected official in our embassy in Washington. That kind of character assassination is unworthy even from the Leader of the Opposition, and it is the sort of thing that should be rejected. Of course, Bob Gordon is known to me. So are most of the people who run industry associations. It is my job, it is my business, and I make no secret about it. I will judge these things on the facts in the circumstances.

But what `new' have we had today? We have had absolutely nothing. Once again, the tactics committee is driven by the front pages of the newspaper. Unfortunately, on this occasion they have chosen a newspaper that was demonstrated to have been deliberately deceptive on this issue by one of its own columnists. Paul Sheehan revealed just how dishonest one of the journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald had really been on this issue when he, quite correctly, pointed out that allegations attributed to mechanics at a certain service station in Sydney were in fact completely wrong and completely distorted. But the most extraordinary argument that has been advanced by the Leader of the Opposition today is that there is something wrong with the government instructing its embassy to verify the facts that had been alleged to it by somebody seeking a change in government policy. If I remember the chain of the Leader of the Opposition's argument correctly, what he said was this. He said that the government was informed by Bob Gordon—and then made the sneering reference to him having been my former chief of staff. He said we were informed by the Biofuels Association, led by Mr Gordon, of this pending shipment from Trafigura. What the Leader of the Opposition asked the House to accept was that we should then not have checked anything that we were told by Mr Gordon. That is what he was arguing. He was in fact criticising us for checking what was put to us by an industry association that he claims is dominated by Dick Honan. I can just imagine what would have happened if we had taken as gospel what we were told by the Biofuels Association. If we had based a policy decision on that, we would have rightly been criticised by the opposition of doing the bidding of the Biofuels Association. Of course we used the embassy in Brazil, and so we should and so we will in the future if it is necessary to assemble the facts before the government takes decisions. There is absolutely nothing strange, there is nothing exceptional and there is nothing extraordinary about that.

The Leader of the Opposition stands up and, on the basis of the letter written to me by Mr Honan on 28 August, he asserts that Mr Honan already knew that the government had taken a decision to bring in the production subsidy and remove the fuel excise exemption. The truth is we did not take that decision until the Cabinet met, I think, on 10 September, and the announcement was made by me two days later. It is certainly true that Mr Honan, when he wrote to me on 28 August, asked that we take that decision. It is certainly true that many other people were lobbying for that decision and it is certainly true that we were seeking advice from the department. We were seeking advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about whether any decision of this kind would be WTO compliant. We were getting advice from other departments. We were assembling all the material as any government normally does to take a decision. To suggest without any evidence, without any support, without any documentary proof, that Mr Honan knew on 28 August that this decision was going to be taken is palpably absurd. The reality is that the government followed correct procedures. We decided to make a change of policy. We decided to change that policy in order to fulfil the commitment we had given to ourselves and the Australian public when we went to the election in 2001.

The policy that we committed ourselves to is based upon supporting the production of renewable energy and biofuels by Australian companies. Self-evidently, imports of ethanol from Brazil would not be consistent with that policy. That is why we took the decision. Now people can criticise that decision on competition grounds if they want to and they can criticise it on all sorts of other grounds, but don't criticise it on the basis that in some way it has been done to provide an improper fix to somebody who is meant to be particularly close to me! I do know Mr Honan and so do many people in this parliament, including the Leader of the Opposition. I respect his business acumen. I respect the fact that he has invested an enormous amount of money and been very successful. I happen to admire people who are prepared to put their own money on the line in order to generate employment. I happen to believe that that is a very valuable thing and, just as some other former prime ministers of this country have never denied their association with businessmen, I do not deny that I know him. But to suggest that he is one of my closest friends, to suggest that I play golf with him, to suggest that we are talking to each other every day and he is one of the closest mates I have in corporate Australia is absolutely absurd. The reality is that Mr Honan has been a very generous supporter of both sides of politics over the years—and doesn't the Leader of the Opposition know it! I think I have said to this House before that the very first time I met Mr Honan he told me how much he admired my predecessor, Mr Keating, and he told me how very clever Mr Keating was and how very hard it would be for me to defeat Mr Keating. I remember that conversation very well: you have a tendency to remember those sorts of conversations. But to suggest that we are on the phone every day to each other is just a little bit too rich and a little bit too extraordinary.

The other point I want to make is in relation to this alleged favouritism and the whole basis of the Leader of the Opposition's speech this afternoon. He has gone off the question time in September of last year and he is now saying that we have in some way provided an improper fix for Mr Honan. I have got to say that if you asked Mr Honan about that he would scratch his head and he would say, `Gee, I wish in my dreams that you had provided me with such a fix'. Of the two things that Mr Honan `wanted' most out of this government, there was a mandated level of ethanol use in petrol—that was the first thing he wanted—and he has not got that, and it has been made very clear to him that the government is unlikely to ever agree to such a policy change. The second thing that he desperately did not want from this government was the introduction of a 10 per cent cap on ethanol use. It is true that people were arguing at the end of last year that we should then introduce a 10 per cent cap on ethanol. The reason that we did not introduce it at the end of last year was we were not satisfied that the scientific evidence was compelling enough. Once we had received enough scientific evidence, we were willing to introduce it. In fact, and I checked the circumstances earlier today, as soon as we got that information we introduced that 10 per cent limit. It is also true that, in the lead-up to the introduction of that limit, there was an unrelenting campaign waged by the Labor Party and by—I stress—`some' sections of the media to denigrate the ethanol industry, to destroy confidence in the use of ethanol and, as a consequence, to have a deleterious effect on the operation of ethanol producers in Australia.

That is the history of the matter. If I was such a close friend of Mr Honan's and somebody who was always doing Mr Honan's bidding, I can tell you two things: one, as I speak to you today, we would have had a mandated minimum use of ethanol at two or three per cent; and, two, we would not have a 10 per cent cap, because Mr Honan's company, in certain parts of Australia, was blending petrol up to somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent. The last thing he wanted from this government was the introduction of a 10 per cent cap. He was desperate about the introduction of a 10 per cent cap, because he knew it would have a harmful effect on his industry. So the suggestion that in some way we have acted to favour Mr Honan is a charge that I reject. The Leader of the Opposition has produced no evidence today. He has added nothing to what he said earlier. I repeat what I said at the end of censure motion earlier this week: this would be dismissed with costs before the Waverley police court.

The SPEAKER —Before I recognise the member for Werriwa, I once again remind members that a general warning has been issued that applies to everyone.