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Wednesday, 16 October 1996
Page: 4277

Senator COOK(3.17 p.m.) —I want to remind the Senate what this debate really is about and not be diverted into the obfuscations and red herrings that have just been drawn across it. This debate is about the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) saying to the electors of Australia before the election that he was going to introduce a new code of integrity and probity in parliament. He waved around an election promise that he was going to do this by introducing a code of ministerial conduct. That was what he pledged to the people of Australia before the election, and after the election he did introduce a code of ministerial conduct.

What is being debated here is the standard of behaviour applied to the government by the government, and the standard of behaviour that they promised the electorate they would apply. And what was the relevant section of that standard, a copy of which I have here? It said:

When ensuring that no conflict or—

and importantly—

apparent conflict between interests and duties arises—

and it says as well—

ministers are required to divest themselves of all shares and similar interests in any company or business involved in the area of their portfolio responsibilities. The transfer of interests to a family member or to a nominee or trust is not an acceptable form of divestment.

That is the standard the government imposed on itself, and this debate is about whether or not government ministers are maintaining the standard the government set. We have seen one minister and a parliamentary secretary resign because there was, to use their words, `an apparent conflict'. They resigned, and the issue is whether other ministers in this government are in conflict, or in apparent conflict, with the standard that the government has set.

In question time there were questions from Senator Schacht and me concerning the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Fischer. It should be said that no-one on our side, and certainly not me as a former minister for trade, is complaining in the slightest that the Minister for Trade for Australia supports Australian companies overseas. That is his job. We have no complaint about that. More strength to the minister's arm for so doing.

The complaint is, however, that in this case the minister is clearly as well in breach of the code of conduct and is promoting the interests of companies in which he has shares and, therefore, stands to be a personal beneficiary of the public work and public duty he is performing. The problem is not that he promotes the companies; the problem is that he maintains shares in them, and the promotion he engages in therefore can advantage him either directly or apparently. It is the `apparent' part of this code of conduct which is what caused Senator Short to resign. No-one said he had necessarily benefited financially, but there was a substantial question as to whether there was an appearance of him benefiting. It is exactly the same position for former Parliamentary Secretary Gibson.

But that is not the same position, apparently, that this government now wants to apply to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, Mr Fischer, who, in promoting the interests of one of his major shareholdings—a company he only divested himself of shares in just the other day—obviously stood to have some advantage. Whether he did it because of that advantage or because of the apparent conflict is not the issue: the fact is he is in breach of the guidelines.

If the Prime Minister has any guts, and if the Prime Minister is determined to uphold the promise he made to electors about parliamentary conduct and parliamentary probity, then the Prime Minister will insist that the Deputy Prime Minister will now tender his resignation. The issue here is whether the Prime Minister meant it.

What we have seen on television and in the media in the last few days is the Prime Minister backtracking and running away from the undertaking he gave prior to the election. He is backtracking and reinterpreting what the code of ministerial conduct means in order now to protect ministers. He is faced with a political problem. He has found that, on his front bench, many of his ministers did not comply with the standards he set down, and some of them have gone. The government is in crisis and is haemorrhaging. In order to staunch that crisis and prevent that haemorrhage, he now reinterprets the code so that no further ones will resign.

That is not a situation that is acceptable. The Prime Minister declared these standards; it is for him to uphold them, and it is for him to ensure those ministers uphold them as well. We know that the Deputy Prime Minister has shares in BHP, Western Mining, Qantas, TNT, Jardine Fleming, Asia Pacific and a number of other companies. He divested himself of those just the other day after the expiry of the Prime Minister's deadline. (Time expired)