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Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 19


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10:16 AM) —I know that the National Party is a little bit sensitive about this issue but that has got to be the most feeble defence or feeble attack—I am not quite sure what it was—that I have heard in a long time. Senator Murray can speak for himself but I am sure that the only fight we had in the party room was who got to put their name on the motion. I know that I am not leader for much longer but while I am leader my name goes on the motion, though as a certain fact Senator Murray had a lot more to do with shaping the content of it than I did.

I can just see it now. To all people in regional Australia the word will go out: Senate to inquire into government funding of Regional Partnerships program. There goes Christmas, they will all say. Our life is ruined. What a farce! To portray an attempt to inquire into whether or not taxpayers' money to rural Australia is being properly spent and allocated as an attack on the bush is just ridiculous. If anything, a party that pretends to defend the bush should be happy to make sure that every last cent of money that is supposed to go to the Regional Partnerships program is spent as effectively and as transparently as possible. Whether you live in the city or the country, I have no doubt that, if you are aware of a program that is meant to spend money to help you, you want to be as confident as possible that the money is allocated in the most effective way and that it is not affected by political calculations, by pork-barrelling or by all of the other sorts of things that everybody in the Australian community continually suspects are behind public or government grants. We all know that every time a grant is given the entire community wonders about whether there has been a wink or a nod or a nudge involved in somebody getting it and somebody else not getting it.

That does not help any of us. It does not help democracy when that public suspicion is there. It is human nature to suspect that and it is human nature sometimes for that to happen. The general community suspects that that is involved some of the time and all of us here know that it is involved some of the time. But we should be trying to eliminate it as much as possible. When you have clear-cut public allegations on the public record that this has clearly been a factor in the significant allocations of public money in an important program then of course you should investigate it. To suggest that investigating it is somehow an attack on rural Australia and on their self-determination is just sophistry at its worst. As for trying to portray it as some sort of attempt to out-flank the Greens to the left, what is left wing or right wing about trying to ensure public money is properly spent? All of us support that. These are the most ridiculous comparisons I have ever heard.

I know that the Democrats cannot talk about whose votes went down in the last election but, for all of their trumpeting in Queensland about winning a seat, the National Party's vote in Queensland in the Senate went down—again. Much as it might gall them to acknowledge it, they got in on the tail of a huge increase in the Liberal Party vote in Queensland. I know that Senator Brandis and Senator Boswell are best of friends again these days, but the fact is that they managed to get that extra seat because of the Liberal Party surplus, and the National Party vote went down again.

But I do not care about all that. I do not care about The Nationals and Liberals fighting for the rural vote. I do not care about the obvious tension between The Nationals and some of the rural Independents, like Mr Windsor or Mr Katter or Mr Andren. I am not interested. There is obviously a long history there and it is obviously bitter and personal. That is why having an independent inquiry in the Senate that looks at the facts and the details as outlined in these terms of reference is the way to go. This inquiry is not going to second-guess what the Federal Police did or what the public prosecutor's decision was in relation to the allegations that Mr Windsor, the member for New England, made. The Senate is important and it can do lots of very valuable things but it should not replace a court, particularly in matters that are clearly political and party political or that impact on members of parliament and their political arguments. We can investigate the process of that inquiry by the Federal Police through estimates or other committees if we choose, and I suspect that people will do that. This inquiry is not about that and the terms of reference clearly distinguish it from that.

This is about expenditure of taxpayers' funds and it is also, I might say, about how members of parliament are able to conduct themselves. I am sure that all of us—government, opposition, smaller parties and Independents—are regularly approached by constituents asking for support to get government assistance. That is part of our role; people expect us to help them to do that. And obviously if you are in government or if you are a minister you would naturally expect to have a better idea about how that support can bear fruit. Independents too, like Mr Windsor and Senator Harradine, must have been approached for help many times. Senator Harradine has survived here as an Independent in the Senate longer than anyone else in our history. I am sure he has been approached many times, and I am sure he has been successful many times and many other times not. But if you get to a stage where a group in the community is told that potentially they are not going to get funding if they have the support of a member of parliament from another party or of an Independent, that is getting far beyond anything that is acceptable.

I do not know if that has happened. But if it has happened, if it might happen, if there becomes a general expectation amongst the community that it is a reality, then it will affect the ability of members of parliament across the political spectrum to do their job and it will affect the ability of community organisations to be able to work with members of parliament. In my view—and it is not one that is shared by everybody—the key role of political representatives is not just to get in and try to whack through the policies that you put forward at election time; the key role is to facilitate the ability of the entire community, people who voted for you and people who did not, to be able to connect effectively with the political process. That should be the approach we take regardless of our ideological views on any particular issue.

If people in the community get a perception that being seen to be associated with particular members of parliament, with their own local member, will be detrimental to their being able to get taxpayers' support that they would otherwise be entitled to, that their community will lose out on support because they associate with their elected member of parliament, then that becomes a serious perversion of the democratic process. Even forgetting about whether it is wasting taxpayers' money, it corrupts the democratic process and some would argue it contravenes parliamentary privilege and breaches the law. That is where it gets beyond the day-to-day spats of competing political candidates and where it gets to a situation where the public can believe that they will lose out on support for their community in areas that they believe are important purely because they associate with their elected representatives—and that does get serious, and that is why I am concerned about it.

The Democrats have said all along that we did not believe the specifics of the allegations, the so-called bribery suggestions, were appropriate for a Senate committee, because we are not a court, we are not a police force and it is too politicised. But there are aspects of the process that we can look at. The broader allegations that have come to light about allocations of funding, not just in one particular case but in some other issues that have now come to the fore, are such that they are appropriate to examine. They could be looked at through the estimates process. Given the continuing growth of allegations, it is appropriate to look at them in a focused way with a focused committee over quite a period of time—and let us note that this committee would have a reporting date right through to 15 August next year, so that would enable a proper examination of the whole program.

We are all aware that the whiteboard saga has gone down in political folklore. Peter Costello, the current Treasurer, partly built his political reputation on being the incisive Liberal Party interrogator in that particular inquiry. Nobody suggested at that time—perhaps the Labor Party, as the government at the time, might have suggested it was an inappropriate inquiry; I do not know, but they certainly would not have wanted it—that it was inappropriate and an assault on the self-determination of the community to inquire into whether or not Ros Kelly was properly giving out grants into whatever area it was—I think it was sports. That inquiry was not seen to be an attack on the self-determination of sporting clubs around the nation. They were not all saying, `Our Christmas is ruined because the parliament is going to inquire into this area.' It is just ridiculous. It was not a left-wing conspiracy; it was not part of an attempt by the Liberals to outflank the Democrats on the left back in those days. How absurd!

Any time you get significant allegations on the public record of major distortions in the way public funding is distributed, particularly when it gets to the extent of elected members of parliament being seen as a detriment to getting support for grants, of course you should be examining it. It is not just a sophistry. I think it is absurd, it is an insult, to suggest otherwise. If that is a sign of the sort of attitude we are going to get from this government when they do have the numbers in the Senate from July next year then I think we should all be worried. For a government that got elected way back in 1996 on this laughable slogan `For all of us', more and more there is the in crowd and the out crowd: if you are in the know, if you are with the elites in the government, then you are right: you will get your appointments, you will get your ambassadorships, you will get your grants; but if you are seen as on the outer, part of the mob that will just be continually smeared by this government, then you can forget about it, you will be left out in the cold. We are getting more and more of that over time. Perhaps that is just inevitably what happens whenever a government is in power for a long time. But if that attitude gets to be entrenched once the government gets control of the Senate then I think it will be a very dangerous development.

Of course there are political undertones to this inquiry but, as the terms of reference show, the inquiry is clearly about the allocation of funding and it also deals with the concerns that have been raised about whether or not practices are influencing the ability of members of parliament to do their job of supporting and facilitating the engagement of our community in the political process and in community life. We all repeatedly bemoan the growing community cynicism about parliamentary politics and about party politics. We all bemoan the fact that people feel that they cannot make a difference. There is nothing that is more guaranteed to make them cynical and make them feel like there is no point than if they get a belief that even being seen to be associating with their local member of parliament is going to ruin their chances of getting support. And I am not saying that that allegation is true. What I am saying is that unless that allegation and those broader allegations are properly investigated, people will assume they are true. In many ways I hope this is able to demonstrate that those allegations and those concerns are not true, because I would prefer the public to be able to be confident that there is not that degree of distortion in these sorts of funding decisions. I would prefer people's cynicism to be proven wrong. I would prefer people to be able to feel more confident in the way they go about things.

As Mr Anderson said—and I have no reason to doubt him—he has nothing to fear from this. If the Senate wants to do it, it should do it. Frankly, I hope that in doing this the Senate can demonstrate that there is no significant political corruption of this particular program—I do not know about others but, from my point of view, it would certainly make me feel better—but if there is then we need to fix it up. Either way, to say that investigating it is inappropriate is just ridiculous. I fully understand why Mr Anderson, the member for Gwydir—and I have heard him speak a number of times on this—and Senator Macdonald are affected by this personally. I understand that they do not like the focus on this. I understand it can have an impact on their families—that is one of the unfortunate side effects. I do not like that side of these sorts of issues. I think the ability to look specifically at the funding program and the way the program operates, to look at that side of things rather than just targeting fights between individual members of parliament, is a better way to go. I recognise the impact it can have on them, particularly on their families, and that is unfortunate.

But if the Senate does not do this inquiry the issue is not going to go away. I think it is actually better for issues to be looked at in a proper and well thought through way and to be examined in detail, rather than just having allegations being made that become headlines the next day and are seen through the distorting prism of the media. That can often be a lot worse than a Senate inquiry. When a Senate inquiry gets into detail, into facts and into substance, it usually means the media are not interested anymore because substance is too hard, and I think that would actually make life a bit better.

I also have to say—not in relation to Mr Anderson personally—that this is a government this has given free rein to smearing people and groups across all parts of the community. A specific example I can think of is this government being openly told that making a range of allegations would cause tremendous suffering to somebody's family but it went ahead with the smears anyway, despite knowing that it would cause a lot of distress to the person's family. So it is a bit hard. The Deputy Prime Minister has been Deputy Prime Minister for quite some time and a senior member for a long time in a government that has smeared a lot of people in this country—individuals and groups—without having any concern about what it might mean to them or to their families. It is a government that has not concerned itself with natural justice—another concern that Mr Anderson expressed. It is a government that has actually supported removing natural justice from a number of our laws, not least of which is the Migration Act. So you have to recognise that this government is far from clean when it comes to smearing people left, right and centre without any concern for the distortions in how that is portrayed through the inevitable media coverage and debate, and it has facilitated, encouraged and participated in that repeatedly in a whole range of areas. That does not detract from my understanding and sympathy for some of the distress that individual members might be feeling now, but it does temper it somewhat to recall the very many incidents in which various people within this government have been involved. I do not say that of Mr Anderson or Senator Macdonald as individuals but of the government they are part of.

But let us accept all that and pull it all back to what the motion is about. It is about looking at the administration of the Regional Partnerships program and the Sustainable Regions program, with particular reference to the process by which projects are proposed, considered and approved for funding. That is what it is about. It is something that could be done through estimates anyway, but putting it as a specific stand-alone inquiry will enable there to be the sort of focus that I believe is now needed, given the range of allegations that have now been made and are likely to continue to be made. It is the best way to clear it up once and for all, for better or for worse, in a process that will deliver some natural justice, give people a chance to respond to allegations on the public record and get things corrected.

People can make all the allegations they like in the House of Representatives without any scope for people to correct the record in the parliament. We have a process in the Senate that at least goes part way to addressing that. So I think the best way forward is to try to clear the air one way or the other and try to determine whether or not things have been done appropriately, whether or not members of parliament are being impeded in the way they do their job and the community is being short-changed by the ability to use their elected members of parliament and, above all else, whether or not taxpayers' money is being used as effectively as possible to deliver the aims it is supposed to achieve or it is being used to buy votes. This is a government that has quite openly been willing to spend millions and millions of dollars of taxpayers' money on advertising to buy votes—everybody knows that—so it is not surprising that there is a suspicion that perhaps they are willing to use other taxpayers' money in the same way. Let us find out. Let us look at it. Let us put it all on the public record and let everybody choose for themselves on the basis of the evidence. How that is an assault on regional Australia is beyond me.