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Tuesday, 23 August 2011
Page: 5212

Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (16:27): It is certainly a privilege to follow on from the great warrior, Senator Faulkner, and the fine words that he added to this MPI debate this afternoon, which the opposition have brought in here, on the failure to observe the standards of ministerial accountability, a subject which the opposition have very intimate knowledge of. How quick they are to forget the appalling record of ministerial accountability in the Howard years. They have almost goldfish memories, not being able to think about anything beyond the perhaps six or 12 seconds that a goldfish can hold on to information.

I remind those opposite that, before they come into this place and put forward an MPI on the failure to observe the standards of ministerial accountability, they will have the opportunity, using their memory banks, to think a little bit more, beyond that of a goldfish's memory, to the actual extent of the ministerial accountability in the Howard years. Of course, we all remember that when John Howard came to power he noted:

The most important thing any government can do is build a sense of trust, a sense of integrity, a sense of honesty and a sense of commitment to the Australian people.

I do not think anyone in this place would argue with that. Of course, he followed on from those statements by creating A Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility as a key benchmark against which the conduct of ministers, their conflicts of interest, the use of power of office for personal gain and other things could be measured. Of course, at the very first hurdle, the guide failed in its task. Let us have a little trip down memory lane to highlight exactly the ministers in the coalition who did fail in the Howard years. First, there was Assistant Treasurer Jim Short, who approved a banking licence for a subsidiary of a company in which he owned $50,000 worth of shares—the ANZ Banking Group. But Prime Minister John Howard declared that, because Mr Short had not been deliberately dishonest, he was not culpable under his set code.

Then we had Senator Brian Gibson, who was parliamentary secretary to the Treasurer and failed to ensure he had sold his shareholdings in Boral Energy, approving an application by that company to be included in the Victorian electricity exempt futures market. The Prime Minister made the point then of indicating that Short and Gibson both still had his support. History shows, though, that both Short and Gibson did in fact resign, and with characteristic opportunism John Howard changed his tune, from Short's resignation 'certainly not being as a result of any pressure' to it later being a symbol of his own conviction that 'Gibson and Short had to go'.

Those rules were tested again when the Prime Minister's friend Senator Warwick Parer, then Minister for Resources and Energy, was the subject of serious breaches of the code. In 1998, revelations surfaced that Minister Parer held shares in Queensland coal company QCMM, even while he had portfolio responsibility for that resource industry. Not only had Parer not declared his interest on the Register of Senators' Interests—and, without excusing this, I acknowledge that members on all sides from time to time have been guilty of this offence—but then Minister Parer also failed to declare the kinds of conflicts about which one is reminded as issues arise, such as conflicts of interest related to diesel fuel rebate legislation and to the Native Title Amendment Bill, when a coal deposit in his own family trust was subject to a native title claim. There was at that time a very serious debate about Senator Parer's conduct, and I do not wish to go on too much further about that.

But what this whole thing shows is that the episode was clearly indicative of the coalition government's willingness to turn a blind eye when issues of accountability, responsibility and propriety were incon­venient to them. They have short memories, but memories have certainly come up to speed today through their bringing this MPI into the Senate chamber, which we welcome very much on this side, as an opportunity to get on the record that complete history of the Howard years.

Because I do not have enough time this afternoon, I would like to refer the members opposite to an article in a very good journal, the Australian Journal of Politics and History—senators opposite might want to write this down—in volume 54, No. 2, 2008, pages 225 to 247. It is a very good article by Luke Raffin from the University of Melbourne, titled 'Individual Ministerial Responsibility during the Howard Years: 1996-2007'. In this article, I refer members to page 228, where there is a very good table that highlights the tests of individual ministerial responsibility during the Howard era. I could list a number of ministers and parliamentary secretaries who failed those tests. Why? Because Prime Minister John Howard was happy to water down his code of conduct, instead preferring that proof of actual wrongdoing and personal profit arising from misconduct was necessary.

If this reinterpretation of the code was redundant—and it was—then there was perhaps one more potent example, when Wilson Tuckey became the 14th minister to be accused of breaching that ministerial code, by using his office and his ministerial letterhead to pressure the South Australian police minister to commute a traffic fine against his son. The coalition have short memories indeed. And it was not just that with former Minister Tuckey; twice Tuckey misled parliament about that matter. But that was not enough for former Prime Minister John Howard to act on his own code of conduct, despite admitting that Mr Tuckey had been foolish and wrong, because Mr Howard's standards had now changed to whether or not the minister had actually broken the law.

I could go on and on with more and more about coalition ministers who broke that code of conduct. What this highlights very much is that it is a bit rich for the coalition senators to come into this place with this when they are from a party willing to make exemptions, obfuscate and bend the facts to the point of breaking their—that is, the Liberal Party's and their minor coalition partner's—own code of conduct. It is a bit rich when Tony Abbott's sense of accountability and responsibility in his own job is to go around fearmongering, being negative and misleading people on grade 10 science about the weight of carbon. It is all a bit rich for the opposition to raise this MPI demanding the resignation of a member on this side, not a minister but a member, on the basis of allegations—not on charges, not on convictions but on allegations—against that member before his election to parliament.

On this side of the chamber we demand and expect standards because we believe it is important that the public have confidence in their public administration and in the decisions that their ministers take, that these decisions are always motivated by the interests of the public not the interests of the individual. That is why when Labor came into power the Prime Minister announced standards of ministerial conduct to replace the Howard government's failed, watered down, wishy-washy code of conduct. Our new code of conduct actually takes into account the legitimate concerns that the Australian public have about the prevalence of lobbyists, for example, in modern politics. When this code has been tested, Labor has responded by upholding the highest standards of ministerial accountability.