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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 6996

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:44 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer. I refer to the minister's statement to the Senate on 19 November, when she twice described her family company, Endispute Pty Ltd, as a shelf company—that is, a non-active, non-trading company. Is it not the case that Endispute Pty Ltd is in fact a trading company—that it does operate with a cash flow, that it does issue invoices for services it provides and that it receives payment for those services rendered? Why did the minister mislead the Senate on this matter? Will she again correct the record?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer) —The only question here is whether there is any conflict of interest with my portfolio areas by reason of the company's activities, and there was not. The ministerial guidelines make no distinction, it is true, between a shelf company and any other for the purposes of establishing whether a company's operations are capable of creating a conflict with portfolio responsibilities. But where a company had received no moneys other than shareholder loans, had no unmet liabilities and had not declared a dividend by reason of those activities, it is highly unlikely, you would have to say, that a conflict of interest existed with my portfolio area—and certainly no conflict existed with mine.

This is what I had in mind when I referred to a shelf company. When I was asked a year later by Senator Faulkner about the company, I answered honestly that I believed it was a shelf company but that it might have a bank account. That was on 19 November. Since Senator Faulkner's questions, I have checked the position of the company up to the time of my resignation on 3 January 2002, which is when I transferred my share. I have also asked about any bank records up to the time of acceptance of my resignation at the meeting on 3 January. At the time, the only moneys the company had received were small shareholder loans to a grand total of $7,500. It had no unpaid liabilities and it had not declared a dividend. These inquiries have confirmed my recollection—as to my knowledge, anyway—of the state of the company's activities at the time of my resignation. There was no conflict or possible conflict with my portfolio areas at the time I resigned and none was planned.

The company has no technical capacity to provide advice in my areas of tax, super and prudential regulation, so it certainly was not going to be doing anything that could even conceivably conflict with my portfolio responsibilities. But, in any event, I did decide to resign, because I wished to have no interest in any companies at all, either private or public, and I wished to simplify my financial arrangements for the precise reason that I anticipated that this sort of slur could be made if I continued to have any interest in the company. So I did transfer my interest. The only issue for the Senate is whether there was any conflict of interest with my portfolio areas by reason of the company's activities. There was not. Senator Faulkner has not provided one scintilla of evidence that there was any conflict of interest with any of my portfolio areas.

Senator Abetz —Up another dry gully!

Senator COONAN —Another dry gully; that is right. In the circumstances, while I am happy to answer questions for as long as the opposition want to ask them, it is clear that they have given up on ever trying to do anything relevant to the Australian people. They have given up on trying to do anything that is actually going to advance the interests of Australians. They are like Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens's book—they are waiting for something to turn up. Mr Micawber was entitled to wait for something to turn up, but he was not holding up the Australian people and the Australian Senate while he did so.

Senator FAULKNER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. As the minister does recall the claim in the Senate on 19 November that she was no longer actively involved in the administration of her family company, Endispute, and she has checked the records, I ask the minister if today was the first available opportunity to correct the record about her misleading statement on 19 November. Can the minister confirm that the registered company address and the principal place of business for Endispute Pty Ltd is the minister's home address in Woollahra? If Mr Rogers, the company secretary of Endispute, lived at Clareville, as he claimed to the AEC, why was Endispute being run from the minister's home in Woollahra? Is this another case of the minister misleading the parliament?

Senator Alston —Mr President, I raise a point of order. Once again, all of these matters relate to the affairs, behaviour and attitudes of the spouse of the minister. I thought Labor had previously ruled spouses off-line, but it seems that, when it suits their purposes, nothing is off-line. There can be no possible basis for this being relevant. Whatever arrangements someone else might make about where they live, how they conduct their affairs and what level of business activity might occur there—even though that might or might not be within the knowledge of the minister—they simply have nothing to do with her responsibilities or any possible conflict of interest, so the whole question, in my submission, should be ruled out of order.

The PRESIDENT —I will not rule it out of order, because the part that was raised was relating to Senator Coonan's ministerial conduct and the question was asked whether she had misled the Senate.

Senator COONAN (Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer) —I am not sure whether it was put quite like that. Certainly I did not mislead the Senate. That is just an absolute nonsense. I have explained what I meant by a shelf company, and that seems to be perfectly consistent with what I have told the Senate. I have given a very full and complete answer about why I said that. In those circumstances, when I asked about the records, it seemed that I was pretty close to the mark. There had not been any activity that would otherwise have impacted on my portfolio responsibilities. As I said, the company only had two small shareholder loans. It had not received any moneys other than those shareholder loans. On the other issue, I really do not know how it is said— (Time expired)