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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18418


Mr LATHAM (4:01 PM) —How low can a Prime Minister go? On Monday he wanted the House to believe that his answer on 19 September was actually in response to a question asked two days earlier, on 17 September. He wanted us to believe not that the answer on 19 September was in response to a question asked on 19 September but that he was answering something that had been asked two days earlier. He said that we needed to understand the context. What he was trying to do was turn this House into a time tunnel where the only way in which you can understand the answers of the Prime Minister is to go back two days to try to find out the question that might have been asked then to get the context to the answer that is given to the House now. It is absolutely absurd. It is ridiculous to think the Prime Minister can turn the House of Representatives into a time tunnel.

On 19 September, without reference to a boat from Brazil, without any mention of an ethanol shipment from Brazil in the question that was asked, this is what the Prime Minister had to say:

The member asked me what communication my office had with Manildra relating to the decision to change excise arrangements for the ethanol industry. As I stated earlier, I had not spoken to Dick Honan on this issue.

Down at the Waverley Police Station that is an open-and-shut case. That is an open-and-shut case of misleading the House of Representatives. But today it becomes even more fantastic and unbelievable. Today the Prime Minister wants the parliament to believe that his discussion with Dick Honan on 1 August on the subject of cheaper Brazilian product did not constitute a discussion about ethanol imported from Brazil.

This is a man who was Treasurer of the Commonwealth for six years, who has been Prime Minister of the Commonwealth for seven years—and he is trying to pretend in the people's forum that product from Brazil is not an import. You only have to state it to understand the stupidity of the comment—the absurdity of a Prime Minister trying to maintain that product that comes from Brazil is not product that is going to be imported into Australia. Where does it come from? Does it drop from space? How does it get into this country? It is just unbelievable for a Prime Minister to try and pretend that product from Brazil is not an import to the Australian economy.

So there he is, in the first instance, wanting to turn the House into a time tunnel, and now he is wanting to rewrite the economics textbook. Adam Smith must be turning in his grave at the notion of an Australian Prime Minister who thinks that product from Brazil is not in fact an import from Brazil. Every year 11 economics class in the country must be shaking their heads in absolute disbelief. They just would not believe a Prime Minister—who puffed himself up in one of his earlier answers by saying, `Please believe me. At long last, please believe me'—trying to pretend that product from Brazil is in fact not an import.

This is Howardomics—Howard economics—where Brazilian product is no longer an import from Brazil. How low can the Prime Minister go? The Prime Minister is debasing the key resource of this parliament. The key resource of any parliamentary democracy is the truth. Without the truth, the Australian people cannot trust anything out of this parliament. Without the truth from their Prime Minister, what can they believe about the future? If they cannot believe in a Prime Minister giving an answer on 19 September in response to the question that was asked, if they cannot believe in a Prime Minister who does not acknowledge that product from Brazil is in fact an import from Brazil, what can they believe in? If you cannot believe in a Prime Minister who says that product from Brazil is not an imported item, what can you believe in when it comes to the future of bulk-billing and Medicare?

All that rhetoric of his about bulk-billing and Medicare—can you believe a single ounce of it? All that rhetoric of his about the higher education system—what could you believe in the words and statements of this Prime Minister? All that rhetoric of his and his desire to want to fight the next election campaign on national security—if he cannot own up to product from Brazil being an import, how can the Australian people trust him on national security? How can the Australian people trust him on the big issues of national concern? How can the parents of this nation trust him about the future of their children, bulk-billing, Medicare, the higher education system? How can any Australian citizen trust the Prime Minister on the security and safety of our nation if he has not got the honesty and integrity to come into the House of Representatives and tell the truth?

You do not just have to take my word about the importance of the truth in public life. Go back to the Prime Minister's own words in opposition on 25 August 1995. He said that he wanted to assert the very simple principle:

Truth is absolute, truth is supreme, truth is never disposable in national political life.

I agree with those things, and, if this House agrees with those things, it will conclude today that, because truth is absolute, truth is supreme and truth is never disposable in national political life, this censure motion against the Prime Minister must be carried. Anyone who votes against this is voting against the principle of truth in public life—that truth is supreme, truth is absolute and truth is never disposable in any of our work as elected representatives. This is a Prime Minister in a state of delusion, a Prime Minister defying reality, a Prime Minister avoiding the truth, denying the truth and failing to recognise the truth.

I have to say that, on this side of the House, it has been quite a weird experience. It is almost surreal. For me it was a bit of deja vu because I have been through this once before. I was on Lateline on Monday night, debating the Leader of the House, Andre Escobar—the own-goal merchant Tony Abbott—who has disappeared from the chamber. I sat up there in the ABC studio with Minister Abbott, who was trying to pretend that the Prime Minister had answered the question on 19 September in a straightforward way—that he had given an honest answer—and trying to convince ABC viewers and me that this was an honest Prime Minister, when every single indication was and every single fact showed that on 19 September the Prime Minister misled the parliament. There is a record in his own department that shows that when he had that meeting with Dick Honan they discussed the excise policy. He told this House that that issue had not been discussed. It is just unbelievable. You get this surreal feeling about the government.

Minister Abbott's excuse on Monday night was that you needed to look at this in the `totality of the context'. It was the ultimate in pollie waffle, the ultimate in gobbledygook—that this could only be understood in the `totality of the context'. Of course, he is going to be the last Mohican here today. The chief acolyte is going to be the last one left. He is going to stand up next and try to defend the Prime Minister. The mad monk has become the last Mohican, the last one to stand up and defend the Prime Minister. Two days ago, it was the so-called loyal deputy, the Treasurer, who was up here with a minimalist defence of the Prime Minister—there was one positive thing in a 15-minute speech. The Treasurer has now fled to the doghouse. He was talking about a split personality earlier in question time. It was the Treasurer who was defending the Prime Minister on Monday, but he has disappeared now it is Wednesday. Where is the Treasurer? Where is Peter Costello? In the two-day gap, he has probably disappeared into the Prime Minister's time tunnel. He talked about a split personality: he defended the Prime Minister on Monday but he has disappeared on Wednesday. This is the Labor Baptist who became a Liberal Anglican. No wonder he is an expert on split personalities.

The Treasurer, Mr Costello, knows that the Prime Minister is a serial offender. After all, the Treasurer was strung out for two years, month after month, day after day, believing that the Prime Minister would live up to his promise to retire on his 64th birthday last month. The Treasurer knows the Prime Minister's pattern of deceit, the Prime Minister's pattern of misleading even his own deputy—so much so that the Treasurer had to go on national TV, on the Sunday program, to own up to the fact that he had advised the Prime Minister to resign from office and retire. That is what the Treasurer thought about the Prime Minister's honesty and truthfulness in public life; he said the Prime Minister should resign from office and retire. That is how badly the Treasurer felt about it. No wonder he is not here today. No wonder, having been so badly misled himself, he will not come into the House and say anything positive about the Prime Minister who has deceived him so badly.

Of course, it is not only the Treasurer who has disappeared; as the Leader of the Opposition pointed out earlier in question time, the Treasury itself has disappeared. In the note to the Prime Minister on 29 August, all the departments are there. There is the Minister for Trade's department, there is the Prime Minister's department and there is the industry department. But on the advice to the Prime Minister on 29 August, two departments have disappeared: Treasury and Finance. Why? Because they know this is crony capitalism. They know this is an appalling piece of public policy that cannot be defended by anyone who has an ounce of integrity or economic nous in their body. They know this is crony capitalism. I will quote from what the department of finance said about this decision. No wonder Finance is not on the document that gave advice to the Prime Minister. This is what Finance said about these particular policy decisions:

Finance considers that the measures raised for ministers' consideration will do nothing for the sugar industry, duplicate the objectives of the Energy Grants Credits Scheme, offer no quantifiable environmental benefits, appear poorly targeted, impose significant costs on other Australian industries, especially rural and regional industries, and will potentially result in significant costs to the budget.

That is what the finance department think about this proposal. Whack, whack, whack, whack! They are not going to have a bar of this crony capitalism, this insider's deal, this disgusting piece of public policy that has been whipped up between the Prime Minister and his little mate Dick Honan. Finance are not going to have a bar of it, and Treasury said the same thing when they refused to go on the document of advice to the Prime Minister on 29 August.

The Leader of the Opposition outlined the nature of the crony capitalism: the involvement of Bob Gordon, the former chief of staff to Mr Howard, and Max Moore-Wilton's links with Dick Honan—they were on the Australian Wheat Board together. You only have to look at the chronology. Let us go down the Prime Minister's time tunnel and see what happened in this example of crony capitalism. On 24 July Trafigura, represented by Barrie Jacobson, met with Manildra, frustrated by their inability to get product for themselves—to get Manildra to supply them with ethanol. They were also there on behalf of Neumann Petroleum, a little Aussie battler firm—a small business, wholly Australian owned and run, with 59 Australian employees—hoping that this government might give them an ounce of fair go. They were frustrated, along with Barrie Jacobson, on 24 July. They could not get the product out of Manildra.

At this point, Manildra knew something very important. You did not need to be Einstein to work this one out. Manildra knew that if Trafigura and Neumann could not get the product from Manildra, there was only one place it could come from: overseas. And that is called an import. Of course, what happened just a week later, on 1 August? Dick Honan was off to see the Prime Minister. What do you reckon he had to say, loaded up with this knowledge? If his two main competitors could not get the product from him and he could stop the imports coming in from overseas, what sort of advantage would he have? So Honan went off to see the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister told us today that what Honan had to say had nothing to do with ethanol from Brazil, nothing to do with imports, nothing to do with shipments from overseas—all of those things that just disappeared off the meeting agenda. They were not discussed for a single moment.

So what was Dick Honan doing there on 1 August, knowing that he was not going to supply ethanol to his main domestic compet-itors, knowing that if he stopped the goods coming from overseas he would maintain his monopoly position? And the Prime Minister is trying to tell us that these matters of importing ethanol from Brazil were not raised at the meeting? Next he will be trying to sell me the Sydney Harbour Bridge! He is the only one who is buying this nonsense. It is crony capitalism at its worst. Then there is the in-principle cabinet decision on 26 August, activating the thing that Honan wanted —to make it unfinancial to bring imported ethanol in from Brazil. Manildra was in the loop throughout this process. The Minister for Trade was over here; he sent the word through to the embassy in Brazil, `Get your informants out; get your people on the phone. Do the best you can to work out when this shipment of ethanol is going to leave. Do everything you can to find out what's happening with the shipment of ethanol out of Brazil.'

Manildra were in the loop but do you think they would let Trafigura and Neumann know that they had bought a pup? Do you think for a moment that this minister over here, who lectures us about small business, would let Neumann, a small business firm, know that they had bought a pup? No: he let them load up with $400,000 worth of ethanol losses and sail across the Pacific Ocean—this was another Pacific solution—to get to Australia knowing full well that they had bought a pup. But they did not realise it for a moment. Only when they got here, only when it was too late did Neumann know that they had lost $400,000, and the jobs of their 59 Australian staff were put in jeopardy. That is an absolute disgrace, Minister. The next time you try and lecture this House about small business we are going to ram that right down your throat and out the other side, Minister. This is an absolute disgrace.


The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Werriwa will address his remarks through the chair.


Mr LATHAM —Don't just take my word for it. Look at the words of Paul Morton from Neumann, who said:

This lack of direction and leadership demonstrated by the federal government has deprived Australia of what could have been a real scale-and-scope industry. I find it odd that the Prime Minister could have resources chasing around shippers in Brazil and not contact us. The shipment represented a very small amount of ethanol that was coming into Australia. The government should get on with some real work.

I say this House should censure the Prime Minister.


The SPEAKER —Before I recognise the Minister for Trade I once again remind all members, including the member for Capricornia, that a general warning has been issued. I presume the Leader of the Opposition would like to stay for the vote?