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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 6993

Senator LUDWIG (2:27 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Revenue. Is the minister aware of the Prime Minister's statement yesterday in which he said:

If there were any arrangement to avoid tax, and I was satisfied of that, I would take appropriate action.

Can the minister also confirm that the Prime Minister did not limit this arrangement to avoidance of Commonwealth tax? When did the minister first become aware of the weekend claim by her husband, made public in the media today, that he personally acquired the Clareville property in 1993? Is she now aware that, by apparently failing to properly register the 1993 acquisition of the Clareville property, the new owner has avoided the payment of many thousands of dollars in stamp duty? What action did the minister herself take when she first became aware of this tax arrangement?

Senator Hill —Mr President, I raise a point of order. It is the same as the point of order that I made yesterday: that what is being asked is for the minister to speak of the state of mind of her husband, her husband's intentions and why he did certain things. That is clearly outside of her ministerial responsibility. That is a matter that the honourable senator might like to take up with her husband, but it certainly is not an issue that he is entitled to take up with the minister in this place.

Senator LUDWIG —Mr President, in relation to that point of order, what I asked was when the minister first became aware, which is in her personal knowledge and, secondly, what action the minister has taken. I did not ask in relation to what might be in the mind of her husband but when she became aware and what action she has taken now that she has become aware from the newspaper report. I think that it is within the rules of this house, and it is within the knowledge of the minister, to answer that question.

The PRESIDENT —That may well be, but the fact of the matter is, as you would know, Senator, successive presidents have consistently ruled that matters outside the ministerial responsibilities of a minister— matters regarding family—are out of order. I ask the minister to answer the questions that she sees as being within her portfolio responsibilities.

Senator COONAN (Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer) —Thank you, Mr President. I do not think any of the matters go to my portfolio interests; however, what I would wish to correct is Senator Ludwig's unfounded assertions that the transfer of this property was in 1993. That is false. The statement that has been tabled by my husband says:

Subsequently, and well prior to the introduction of capital gains tax in 1985, the beneficial interest was transferred to me—

with that `me' being my husband, not me. Clearly, if it is well before 1985, it cannot be in 1993. Senator Ludwig is obviously falling into the trap of believing something he has read or some comment attributed, perhaps incorrectly, to somebody else. Senator Ludwig should know better than to be making these kinds of allegations and framing a question in which assumptions are all rolled up as though they are fact; they are not. Senator Ludwig really needs to try to lay his groundwork a bit more carefully before he makes unfounded assertions in a question, because the allegations that are flying around this place—and outside this place, for that matter—are so wildly reckless about the truth that it is really quite worrying that parliamentary privilege can be abused in such a way.

I must say that it is of some considerable alarm that parliamentary privilege, which is here for a very good reason and for proper purposes, can be so abused to vilify a third party who is not a party to anything that I am responsible for in this place. We do not have a joint interest in the property that is in question. It does not go to my ministerial responsibilities. The opposition have so far, over the course of about two weeks, not come up with one shred of evidence that there is any conflict with my ministerial duties, which is clearly a matter before the Senate and quite rightly so. One could not object to any proper investigation of ministerial conflict, but to be subject to questions on the basis of something that goes way beyond any conflict of duties and attributes to me some part in some activity about which allegations are then made, without any foundation, is surely not what parliamentary privilege is all about. I just remind the senators opposite of the standing orders and of the injunction in the standing orders to be very sure of what you say before you fling this mud about.

Senator LUDWIG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I did hear that answer in respect of the beneficial ownership. The question of the legal ownership as reflected in the legal titles to the property might be a different matter, as Senator Coonan would know. Did the minister inform the Prime Minister of this arrangement to avoid tax before his statements to the House yesterday, and has the minister now informed the Prime Minister of the inaccuracy of his statements to the House yesterday in relation to the ownership history of the Clareville property?

Senator Abetz —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. That question clearly has an imputation in it. Under standing order 73(1)(d) imputations are not allowed, and the imputation in Senator Ludwig's question is that certain arrangements were entered into to avoid tax. Nobody knows that. It is a bland assertion with no support for it being made by Senator Ludwig and, as a result, it is an imputation and the question should not be allowed.

Senator Hill —Mr President, further to the point of order: what Senator Coonan says to the Prime Minister is her business and certainly nothing to do with Senator Ludwig.

Senator Faulkner —Mr President, I rise on the point of order. I would have thought it was up to Senator Coonan to answer these questions. Mr President, you have already deemed fit to effectively rule out questions asked by Senator Ludwig in his primary question when he asked whether the minister was aware of a prime ministerial statement and two separate questions about her knowledge of the Prime Minister's statements. Such questions have been consistently ruled in order by every president in every question time prior to this question time in the Senate today. They were ruled out of order by you today. You ruled out of order part of Senator Ludwig's primary question in relation to what action the minister herself took. That is absolutely unprecedented in this chamber. I would ask you to reflect on that. If you wanted to rule part of Senator Ludwig's question out of order, no doubt Senator Ludwig could frame his supplementary question in accordance with such a ruling. Mr President, you effectively ruled the whole question out of order. Senator Coonan ought to be obliged to answer those sorts of questions. Every other minister in this parliament, in this chamber, up until today has been expected to answer such questions, and I think that should apply to Senator Coonan.

The PRESIDENT —Senator, I did not rule all of Senator Ludwig's question out of order. I asked the minister to answer those parts that were relevant to her ministry, and in this particular case I will repeat that statement. I will ask the minister to answer those parts that are relevant to her ministry and her ministerial conduct.

Senator COONAN (Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer) —I have not been a party to any arrangement to avoid tax, and so the conversation does not arise.