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Wednesday, 4 December 2002
Page: 7156

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (3:10 PM) —I wish to speak on the motion moved by Senator Conroy in taking note of answers to questions on matters affecting Senator Coonan. In particular, I wish to speak about the constant barrage of slurs and defamatory statements about Senator Coonan and about conflicts of interest that arise. In that context, I think it is very important that the Senate be aware of a classic example of misuse of parliamentary position for personal gain. This relates to Senator Faulkner's ongoing battle with Sydney Water. I referred this matter to ICAC because it did raise some matters of very serious concern to the public interest and I was advised as follows. If Senator Faulkner's property involved a sewer lead-out being constructed for a customer where the adjoining property was in different ownership, construction of the extension to the border of the property would be at Sydney Water's cost. However, the practice at that time was that Sydney Water sought payment from the customer. Where the customer rejected this and made a reasonable case, Sydney Water would then comply with the policy and assume responsibility.

It appears from interviews with Sydney Water officers that when asked to pay for the extension in this instance Senator Faulkner complained vigorously to a number of people in Sydney Water but did so in a personal capacity. Can anyone in this Senate believe that—that Senator Faulkner rang up a number of people and said: `I'm just ringing in a personal capacity. My name is Senator John Faulkner, just in case you did not know, but I am ringing in a personal capacity. That, presumably, means that I shouldn't be regarded as trying to lean on you'? What then happened was Sydney Water, of course, accommodated him, and the answer I was given— after preliminary inquiries were made but not an investigation held—was that Senator Faulkner was treated in the same manner as any customer that complained vigorously. In other words, Sydney Water has a policy of treating some pigs in a different manner to others, which is classic—

Senator Cook —What?

Senator ALSTON —That is George Orwell, if you do not know Animal Farm— some pigs are more equal than others. In other words, ordinary, decent citizens who were asked to pay money cough up without realising—

Senator Ludwig —Have you read it?

Senator ALSTON —Yes, many years ago. They cough up without realising that if they kicked up enough of a fuss they could avoid paying—as in Senator Faulkner's case; from memory, in excess of $25,000—many thousands of dollars. Senator Faulkner managed to put himself in a position where he did not have to pay an amount asked of him because he jumped up and down—as they say, `complained vigorously'—to a number of people and he did so in a personal capacity. If that is not a classic example of a conflict of interest where a member of parliament is using his position to avoid a payment of a sum of money—a privilege that is not accorded to ordinary citizens, who get an account rendered and pay up without realising that they can carry on a treat and avoid paying—then I do not know what is. If the Labor Party are serious about these sorts of issues, they ought to ask Senator Faulkner to take a good hard look at himself and to explain on what possible basis he can make vigorous representations which one of the officers actually noted on the file as `As a matter of urgency, i.e. political influence, work has been started today'. The officer said in explanation that he was aware that the works were being carried out for a senator who had made complaints and he made his own assumption that political influence was behind the expedition of the works.

Senator Cook —Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. This is a scurrilous attack upon a senator who is not present— not to his face but behind his back when he is absent from the chamber. There is a convention in this place that if senators are going to mention in unfavourable terms another senator and he is not likely to be present they should notify him directly so that he can defend himself. That convention appears not to have been observed in this particular case. On the point of order further, the attack is unjustified and unwarranted, because in the minister's own submission he says that he referred the matter to ICAC and ICAC cleared Senator Faulkner.

Senator ALSTON —Mr Deputy President, on the point of order: I think the Senate ought to be aware that Senator Cook has been in this chamber from the beginning of my contribution. He sat there and listened and deliberately chose not to intervene. If he were really acting in Senator Faulkner's best interest, he would have been on his feet at the outset. He was not. I think Senator Faulkner will be very grateful to you for allowing all that matter to be put on the record. It is very plain that Senator Cook is simply going through the motions on this, and he is not making a serious point of order.

Senator Cook —I waited for anything of relevance to come forward from Senator Alston. Of course, nothing did. I waited for anything improper to be highlighted by Senator Alston. Of course, nothing was. I waited for Senator Alston to rise out of the sewer that he was talking about, but he never did. It then became appropriate to make a point of order.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order. I remind Senator Alston that the issue before the chair is the motion moved by Senator Conroy, and I ask you to address your remarks to that, please.

Senator ALSTON —I am delighted to do that in the short time available, Mr Deputy President. Senator Faulkner is here. He understands the line of questioning, because he has presumably been responsible for it all week. It is all to do with the propriety of the actions of a senator and the conflict of interest that he and others in this place and in the House of Representatives have been carrying on about ad nauseam all week—making no progress, I might say, but nonetheless absolutely determined to make these sorts of allegations. I am simply putting on the record a classic example of someone in a position of influence as a very senior parliamentarian being able to wriggle out of a very substantial debt by making enough complaints to enough people and then pretending that he did it in a personal capacity. I would like to know if it is Labor's official policy that members of parliament can do whatever they like; as long as they say it is in a personal capacity, then we should not be critical of them. I am delighted to hear it and I would like Senator Faulkner to confirm that that is the view Labor takes.