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Tuesday, 20 March 2007
Page: 47

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:46 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of answers given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to senators’ interests and ministerial responsibility.

It took six questions to get there but finally we got Senator Minchin interested and wound up. What did we get? We got: ‘Let’s slur everybody else because we cannot defend our own standards.’ That is fine; I am happy to debate that, but what we had is: ‘The only defence we have got against the failure of our government to have standards is to say, “Other people do it too.”’ That is the only defence he had. Earlier Senator Minchin gave a very spirited defence of his factional mate Senator Santoro. They have been close for a long time. The Prime Minister has been close to the senator for a long time. Why? Because they keep beating up on the small ‘l’ liberals, the wets, inside the party. Their factional loyalties saw Senator Santoro promoted to the ministry, and no-one claimed he was promoted on merit. No-one on that side of the chamber said it was based on merit.

Putting that to one side, we have the leader in the Senate, Senator Minchin, defending his mate—a very spirited defence—and trivialising completely the offences that Senator Santoro has confessed to. Senator Minchin dismisses it all as a minor problem of failing to declare his interests and says that we all ought to move on. He has been sacked as minister. There is no problem. There is nothing else that anyone ought to worry about. Senator Scullion said he has paid the highest price of all, when explaining that people who misrepresent their financial dealings who are social security recipients actually go to jail. I think some of them would think they paid a bit of a higher price when they got jailed. But the key questions are—

Government senators interjecting—

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Senators on the other side will want to raise all these other issues and that is fine, but the question is: why didn’t the Prime Minister become open and transparent with the public when he discovered Senator Santoro’s conflict of interest? Prime Minister Howard had the opportunity to issue a press release, mention it publicly or insist that Senator Santoro come clean. But in October, when he was told of Senator Santoro’s clear breach and clear conflict of interest, he said, ‘Just fix it up quietly, put in a return and don’t you worry about it.’ So two months later Senator Santoro updates his declaration but, interestingly, is it a full and frank declaration? No. Does it come clean on when the shares were bought? No. It deliberately set out to mislead about when the shares were purchased, and the Prime Minister was involved in that declaration. In fact, the Prime Minister’s office a couple of days later had to get him to fix it up because he confessed to share trading, which is another clear breach. So the PM’s office fixed that up as well.

But why didn’t the PM come clean when his mate came and said, ‘I’ve breached your guidelines’? He had the opportunity to make a public statement. He had the opportunity to ask Senator Santoro to come into the parliament. He had an opportunity to ask Senator Santoro to make it public but, no, he asked him to put in the fix, put in a declaration, which was not open and honest and transparent, a declaration which sought to mislead about when the shares were purchased submitted two months later. That is what John Howard says are the high standards of accountability for his ministers. What nonsense! And we have Senator Minchin trivialising what has occurred.

As with Senator Lightfoot’s previous dealings, I accept that mistakes can be made. Senator Lightfoot came in and said he had made a mistake on a previous occasion. I accepted the fact that it was an honest mistake on the basis of his declaration, but 72 failures to declare shares, 72 failures to remember that he was trading in shares, are clearly not inadvertent; clearly there was an attempt to set out to mislead. That has got to be taken seriously.

I am pleased to hear that Senator Santoro will come into this place eventually and make a personal explanation, but there is a lot of ground he is going to have to cover. The test for him is not only that of a minister; the test for him is as a senator: whether he is fit to hold the office of senator—that is, whether he has complied with the requirements of a senator or whether he has set out to deliberately mislead the Senate. It is a very serious charge and a charge that can be fairly laid against him at the moment. He has to prove why he should not be judged to have deliberately misled the Senate and then be assessed on that. (Time expired)