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Tuesday, 10 May 1994
Page: 508

Senator CAMPBELL (4.03 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate—

  (a)censures the Minister representing the Minister for Administrative Services (Senator McMullan) and the Minister for Administrative Services (Mr Walker), for their joint contempt of the Senate in failing to comply with an order made on 5 May 1994 that documents be tabled containing information about the rental and the outgoings of leases between Commonwealth agencies;

  (b)rejects as absurd the Ministers' claims that such information involving Commonwealth agencies can be withheld from the Commonwealth Parliament because it is so confidential that parliamentarians may not have access to it;

  (c)reasserts its right to information and documents relevant to public expenditure as propounded in the spirit and tenor of numerous past resolutions of the Senate, in particular, information about leases where only Commonwealth agencies are involved and which the Government has no right to conceal from the Australian community or its representatives; and

  (d)resolves that the Ministers purge the contempt in which they have held the Senate by tabling, on or before 6 p.m. on 10 May 1994, the documents ordered to be tabled, namely:

    (i)the effective net rental rates, and

    (ii)the outgoing payable per square metre,

  in the Casselden Place building in Melbourne under the leases of the Commonwealth agencies called Projects, Interiors and Assets Services.

Effectively, this motion censures both Senator McMullan—the minister representing Mr Walker—and Mr Walker for failing to comply with an order of the Senate which was, quite simply, to have tabled by five o'clock, I think it was, last Thursday some relatively small details in relation to some leases of some Commonwealth agencies in a building owned by the Commonwealth government—namely, Casselden Place, which is in Melbourne. That order was not complied with. The second important part of the motion is that the Senate would resolve that the ministers purged the contempt of the Senate by, indeed, tabling that information by six o'clock this evening.

  I do not want to delay the Senate by re-running the argument that we held here last week in relation to the reasons for wanting to see these documents tabled, but I want to go to the principles involved in that order being breached. I might do that firstly by bringing to the Senate's attention a letter I received from Mr Walker, the Minister for Administrative Services, after, I think, the time that order expired. In that letter, which is addressed to me, Mr Walker said:

I understand that you moved a motion in the Senate this morning seeking information about lease arrangements for three DAS businesses at Casselden Place in Melbourne.

He went on to say:

As you know I provided to Senator McMullan a letter outlining my reasons for not agreeing to provide the information you requested.

He then reiterates his reasons in brief. He went on to say:

I gather that you may not have had adequate time to appreciate the points made in my letter before you moved your motion. I should therefore like to reaffirm the offer—

and so forth. The offer was to provide some general details about rent levels in these buildings and to provide them on a confidential basis. I wrote back to Mr Walker basically saying that the Senate had been made aware of the contents of the letter to Senator McMullan. Indeed, Senator McMullan I think read the letter to the chamber during that debate and tabled the letter. I know that, from speaking to, particularly, Senator Spindler from the Australian Democrats, he was well aware of the contents of the letter.

  I quite politely informed Mr Walker, with a copy to Senator McMullan, that the contents of his letter were well and truly understood by the Senate and that the Senate had passed that motion requiring the documents to be tabled in full knowledge of the offer that had been made. I also reminded the minister that the Senate's resolution had been breached. One of the sad facts of this is that there has been absolutely no communication from either Senator McMullan or Mr Walker in all of that time that has passed since then. I actually went through the process of giving notice of this censure motion yesterday to allow some fundamental courtesies or sensible discussion to take place between the giving of notice yesterday and the actual moving of the censure today. However, none of that has occurred, and I suppose there may be reasons for that which I do not understand.

  I want to quickly touch on the principles that I think are important here. We have, with the commercialisation of DAAS businesses and other entities of the Commonwealth government, created a conflict of principle—I think as Senator McMullan calls it—in allowing these government owned and operated service entities to compete in the marketplace fairly.

  There is a genuine concern where we find the parliament having the power to ask those enterprises to table information, which may be of a commercial nature, that may or may not prejudice their operations in the marketplace. We then have the competing principle of the parliament having the right to know about—indeed, the responsibility to oversee—these operations to ensure that the taxpayers' money is being spent wisely and to ensure that they are properly accountable. It is quite an important responsibility, and one that cannot just be thrown away because these enterprises have moved into a commercial sphere of operation.

  I have had the need to move return to order processes here in the last few months. The first was in relation to a question about Centenary House where I had a similar answer from Senator McMullan saying that some information that I had requested was commercial-in-confidence. I had to use the return to order process because I could not get the information out of the minister. We heard the very same arguments that Senator McMullan put up last week in relation to that return to order—that it would be commercially in confidence and would prejudice things and so forth.

  When Senator McMullan actually complied with the order of the Senate on that occasion, the information that was provided totally supported all of the doubts I had about it. I will remind the Senate that that was to seek information to prove that the Australian National Audit Office was actually paying to the Australian Labor Party at Centenary House the highest net effective rental negotiated anywhere in Australia at the time. Senator Murphy will remember this vaguely. I actually put it to the Australian Property Group at an estimates committee that it should find me evidence of any lease negotiated anywhere in Australia in the last two years that was higher than Centenary House. I said, `If you say that Centenary House isn't the highest rental—'

Senator McMullan —At least you are proving this is a political stunt.

Senator CAMPBELL —No, it is not. When the information was finally provided to me using a return to order it showed that the rentals that had been provided which, prima facie, looked higher than Centenary House were rentals for properties negotiated for a 10-year period with absolutely fixed rents—no increases, no nothing. In other words, rents negotiated in 1993, 1994 or whenever it was, fixed for the next 10 years. Basically, we had been misled by both the minister and the Australian Property Group. That made me extremely cynical about any assurance given to me by this minister and this government in relation to commercial confidentiality.

  The next occasion was in relation to the Dasfleet car leases to the Transport Workers Union. On that occasion I had an offer to go to the minister's office, look at the agreement and get certain details. I accepted that offer very reluctantly on the basis that if I discovered that something was wrong, or that there had been a commercial subsidy or that the leases were not commercial, then I would have the opportunity to make those things public. I found some leases—Senator McMullan and I could have a debate about this for hours, but I do not seek to re-run that debate—that were grossly uncommercial, even to the extent that after assurances that commercial people leasing cars from Dasfleet paid sales tax, we uncovered the fact that they did not pay sales tax and would have to repay a quarter of a million dollars worth of sales tax.

Senator McMullan —You are deliberately misrepresenting the situation—and you know it!

Senator CAMPBELL —I am seeking to make a point and if I am being too political about it, then I am a politician and this is a parliament, and it is probably a good place to be political.

  The point I want to make is that one of the offers we have had in relation to this is for me to go and have a confidential look at some documents again. The problem with that is that if I take up the offer, have a confidential look and am not satisfied by what I see, what do I do? If I come back here and say, `I have just discovered some major fraud,' or, `I have discovered a major maladministration,' Senator McMullan would put out press releases saying, `Senator Campbell has rorted the truth again.' I would be putting myself in an invidious position.

  It is an important principle that we are discussing and having confidential briefings in the minister's office is not the way to solve it. In the end, the Senate has got to make a sensible decision about the balance between accountability and the commercial interests of these commercialised bodies. If one is forced to make a decision as to where commercial interest or accountability lies, then any doubt should fall on the side of the accountability.

  We are dealing here specifically with Casselden Place. The Commonwealth government built a building and leased it to a number of its agencies. I have severe doubts about how the government is using its money and managing its property in relation to leases to three of the agencies involved. Those three Commonwealth entities are: Interiors Australia; Australian Construction Services, which at the time the agreements were entered into was known as Projects; and Asset Services. All of them have entered into agreements. I believe that those agreements were initially entered into in about 1988 but, according to the minister's answer, the tenancies did not start until 1 December 1992. We found out subsequently that these new tenancy agreements commencing in 1992 received from the property adjustment scheme upwards of $1.5 million in rental subsidies. We need to know all the information about these leases because, effectively, the property adjustment program was designed to help the transition of departmental agencies into their new commercialised environment.

  I understand now, because I have had leaked to me the second part of a draft. I received an anonymous letter yesterday, obviously from someone in DAS, telling me some of the background. It would have been quite helpful if it had been provided to the Senate, because it actually goes to the reasons why the property adjustment program came into place. The government, at least in this answer from the minister—which he did not agree with because he obviously crossed it out and did not want it given to me, but someone else did—basically says that the tenancy agreements were entered into in 1988. I presume they were agreements entered into prior to the construction of the building. That is possibly a reasonable explanation as to why the property adjustment program is being used in this circumstance.

  The Senate needs to know all this information. We need to know whether the rents are fair; we need to know why the property adjustment program was used; we need to know what rents are being paid; we need to know how the outgoings in the building are being charged to the various bodies; and we need to know the details about any incentives or additional assistance that these bodies were given in moving into the building.

  It does not reflect only on the entities that have moved into the building, it reflects also on the ownership of the building and the way that government property is being managed. If everything that I know is true, then the government is using all sorts of double accounting to make it look as though it is running its properties efficiently when it is not.

  Again, I am falling into my own trap of arguing the case about the building and why I need to know the information. That, of course, is not the subject of this censure motion. The subject of the censure motion is that the minister has breached an order of the Senate. That is a serious offence. The Senate considered the points I put to it last week and made the decision to order the minister to table documents. The minister has breached that without any apology or explanation and without even seeking to have discussions, and that requires censure.

  If the Senate loses its power to compel the executive to table these sorts of documents then we may as well go home. The Senate should consider this breach by the minister representing Mr Walker and Mr Walker himself and, equally compelling in considering whether to censure these ministers, is Mr Walker's most arrogant assumption that the Senate misunderstood him and therefore passed the motion without properly considering his information.