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Wednesday, 4 November 1992
Page: 2557

Mr HOWARD (2.56 p.m.) —I move:

  That this House censures the Treasurer for refusing to resign his office despite clear evidence that he misled the Parliament and the people of Australia over the Victorian loans affair.

Mr Speaker, there are a number—

  Honourable members interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —Order! The House will come to order. A censure motion is an important motion. The honourable member for Bennelong will be heard in silence.

Mr HOWARD —Mr Speaker, there are a number of people—

  Honourable members interjecting

Mr SPEAKER —Order! Members on both sides will cease interjecting.

Mr HOWARD —There are a number of people on both sides of the House, including the Prime Minister (Mr Keating)—who now once again shows his contempt for the forms of the Parliament by leaving it whilst the most high profile member of his Government is under censure—who see a number of very significant parallels between the last days of the Whitlam Government and the last days of the Keating Government.

  One of those parallels—as many people, including my colleague the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair), will remember—is that in the dying days of the Whitlam Government there was a loans affair; in the dying days of the Keating Government there is a loans affair. Although, as was observed yesterday, there is absent from this particular loans affair the presence of a Pakistani commodities dealer, there is nonetheless not absent from this particular loans affair the spectacle of a Treasurer and the spectacle of senior members of the Government under very heavy pressure not only from the Opposition but, more importantly, at the bar of the public opinion of the Australian population.

  As I look back over the events of the last days of the Whitlam Government and that particular loans fiasco, I find one salient difference. That is a difference, I have to say, that rebounds not to the credit of the Keating Government but to the credit of the Whitlam Government. That is a very extraordinary thing to say—to actually make a comparison between any government and the Whitlam Government and say that the Whitlam Government came out ahead. But it happens to be true.

  Mr Deputy Speaker, do you know what it relates to? It relates to a very central issue: the question of prime ministerial strength and the question of accountability to the Parliament which is the cornerstone of the Westminster system. The fact is that despite his electoral travail, despite all of the political pressure to which he was subjected in the dying days of 1975, despite all the pressure he was under, Gough Whitlam had enough respect for this institution and for the Parliament of this country to sack Ministers who lied to the Parliament.

  He had the courage, he had the tenacity, he had the decency and he had the respect for the parliamentary institution that he loved. He honoured it enough to have the courage to sack not only a just former Treasurer, in the case of Dr Cairns, the former member for Lalor, but also the late Minister for Minerals and Energy, the political godfather in many respects of the current Prime Minister and a man the current Prime Minister adored. It is a very strange irony that the current Prime Minister is refusing to apply the standard applied by one of his predecessors to a man that he adored in politics.

  But that is what is happening, because on two occasions in the dying days of the Whitlam Government Ministers were found on clear, unmistakable evidence to have misled the Parliament. The late Rex Connor was found to have misled the Parliament when he told that the communications of substance between himself and Tirath Khemlani had ceased, when in reality they had not. Dr Cairns was found to have misled the Parliament because he forgot that he had signed a letter authorising somebody to raise money on behalf of the Commonwealth Government—George Harris, a football mate of the former Treasurer of Australia. They were clear, unmistakable examples of a Minister committing the most serious parliamentary offence of all; that is, to mislead the Parliament.

  Let us forget about other things that are peripheral to this issue. There is one central unavoidable issue that the Treasurer (Mr Dawkins) must answer to, and nothing else as far as this motion is concerned. That is, how can you explain lying to Parliament in the Budget documentation? How can you explain to the Australian people that you misled them when you brought down the last Budget? That is what you did. You may squirm, interject, sneer and snigger but you cannot get away from the fact that you got up here on Budget night and knowingly lied to the Australian people about what was in the document. That is your crime.

  Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Ronald Edwards)—Order! I suggest to the honourable member for Bennelong that in the terms of his motion he uses the term `mislead', and I suggest he stay—

Mr HOWARD —I do not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker. He wilfully failed to tell the truth to the Australian people.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! I have not finished talking. The other language is unparliamentary and you should stay within the terms of the motion.

Mr HOWARD —Mr Deputy Speaker, I will not waste my time by arguing with you. This is a censure motion and I am accusing the Treasurer of Australia of wilfully misleading the Australian people in his Budget documentation. I am saying to the Prime Minister of Australia—this rambo, hairy-chested Prime Minister of Australia who parades his political and parliamentary toughness as some kind of blatant trademark—that he does not have a tenth of the political courage of Gough Whitlam. If he had a tenth of the political courage of Gough Whitlam, he would have done to the present Treasurer what Gough Whitlam was prepared to do to Rex Connor and to Jim Cairns. Yet the Prime Minister sits there totally ignoring it and talks about front. He talks about people on this side of the Parliament having more front than Mark Foys.

  The present Prime Minister has presided over the total collapse of any concept of ministerial accountability to this Parliament by his refusal to remove the Treasurer from his present position. Not only is the Treasurer's crime stark, naked and unexplained, but the Prime Minister's wilful failure to usurp the authority of his office is made even worse by the fact that this Prime Minister has on many occasions boasted to this Parliament about the quality of his Budget documentation. He boasts about a lot of things but he does not boast about the one million unemployed; he does not boast about $160 billion of overseas debt; and he does not boast about the fact that he is one of the unindicted co-conspirators in the last months of the Victorian Labor Government. Nobody did more to make Paul Keating the Prime Minister of Australia than Joan Kirner, Wally Curran and all those others in that Socialist Left mob down in Victoria, but he does not boast about that. But one thing he does boast about is the quality of his Budget documentation. There is an exquisite irony in this. He has got up time after time and said, `We have had the greatest Budget documentation, the most accurate, the most pristine in their minute accuracy—

Dr Hewson —Rolls Royce.

Mr HOWARD —The Rolls Royce of Budget documents, as my colleague the Leader of the Opposition reminds me. On 2 March, the Prime Minister had this to say:

The Government has always provided—

listen to this—

most forthright documentation in its Budget statements.

He is not just confining that boast to the actual Budget Speech. He is not confining that boast to Statement No. 2. He is making the all-embracing claim that all of the documentation contained in the Budgets that he has brought down has been absolutely forthright and absolutely pristine in its accuracy. Yet the truth is that this man, the present Treasurer of Australia—the should-be removed Treasurer of Australia—knowingly misled this Parliament in the last Budget that he brought down.

  What is the excuse of the Prime Minister? The excuse of those opposite is—and this should be listened to very carefully—`Well, look, we really had no alternative and we were really advised that what we ought to do was just put in what the States told us. In other words, we really had to follow the advice that we were given. We really were not free agents in this matter. We had no capacity to make any individual judgment'.

  That defence has two problems. The first problem is that they did not follow what they said they had done in relation to the Budget documentation. The truth is that they did not reproduce what the Victorians had sent them—they fudged the footnote. So you cannot in the one breath say, `Look, we really had no alternative. Our hands were tied. We had to just accept sight unseen what the Victorians gave us and put it in the Budget. If it turned out to be wrong, well, you cannot really blame us'. The truth is that they applied their minds to it and, because it was embarrassing, they altered it.

  The Treasurer says that he has explained it all and that he has nothing to answer for; and his Prime Minister stands beside him and says he will not sack him. The truth and the reality are that they deliberately altered the information that had been given to them. They fudged the information.

Mr Filing —Forgery.

Mr HOWARD —Parliamentary forgery. That is the end of that particular excuse. I will make another comment which totally demolishes the argument put by the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. One of the other boasts that have been made by the Prime Minister about documentation is that under his Government his Ministers do not uncritically accept what they are told by bureaucrats; they do not uncritically accept what they are given; they assert quite properly the right to apply an independent judgment to it, based on political considerations and knowledge of their own which might not be in the possession of the bureaucrats or those who provide the information.

  On this occasion, the Treasurer knew the situation. Before the Budget was presented, he had written back and told the Victorians that he was not prepared to agree to certain proposals that they put. When the Budget was brought down, he could hardly say, `Look, I did not really know. It was sight unseen. I had to pick up what they gave me and I had to plonk it in the documentation'. He could not do that either. He was absolutely stonkered on that.

  The Treasurer is gone on two scores. The first score relates to the Prime Minister's own declaration that, under him, Ministers exercise their own independent judgment. It is perfectly clear that the Treasurer was applying his own judgment, because he boasted about having rejected a Victorian proposal. He could hardly then be heard to say, `Well, I did not know the full story'. He knew enough of the full story to say no. So he cannot turn around and say, `I did not know the full story'. He is gone on that count.

  He is also gone on the question, clearly and starkly, of why he altered the footnote. What possible explanation can you have if you were pleading the defence of the automaton—in other words, you had to put it in no matter what it was because it came from the Victorians and you had no discretion. The fact is that you had loads of discretion, and you exercised it in favour of your political convenience and your political advantage. That is your political crime in relation to this particular matter. By doing that, what you allowed yourself to do—what you did deliberately—was to mislead the people of Australia through the presentation of that Budget documentation. That is the central issue.

  You can talk as much as you like about the result of the American elections and previous Loan Council arrangements. What is at issue here is your accountability, your credibility, your truthfulness and your candour to the people of Australia through their elected representatives. That is what is at stake here. Nothing erodes the standing of a government more than when its Ministers get away with telling untruths to the Parliament. That is what is undermining your Government. That is what will eat away at what is left of the vitals of the Keating Government—the fact that its most senior and prominent member after the Prime Minister himself should be allowed to get away with misleading the Parliament.

Mr Campbell —Fatuous nonsense!

  Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Ronald Edwards)—Order!

Mr HOWARD —I say to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there are many things that will be investigated by the Senate inquiry. The Prime Minister used truculent, arrogant, insensitive and undemocratic language in the Parliament today about the other place. The other place is a part of the Constitution of this country. Until the people of Australia change its role, the Prime Minister owes it an obligation of respect, like any other member of this Parliament. It has never been the wont of Labor Prime Ministers to show respect for the supported institutions of this country. We see on this occasion the dishonouring of the thing that underpins respect for the political process, and that is, truthfulness and accountability. All of us who worry about the erosion of public respect for the political process must worry when an individual can get away with misleading the Parliament the way the present Treasurer has.

Mr Campbell —You got away with $9m.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member for Kalgoorlie!

Mr HOWARD —I can remember moving a censure motion against the former Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, on the question of ministerial propriety. I can remember being critical of him regarding the former member for Port Adelaide and Leader of the House over the Paddington Bear affair. I can remember saying that his behaviour then compared very unfavourably with Whitlam's behaviour over Connor and Cairns, but at least when Richardson or somebody else created the situation where John Brown was shown to have misled the Parliament in 1987, the former Prime Minister accepted his resignation. I never thought that we would have another Prime Minister who is as slack as Bob Hawke was in upholding standards of ministerial propriety. But we have one now.

Mr Campbell —Do you remember Malcolm Fraser?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member for Kalgoorlie should not interject.

Mr HOWARD —We have before us a man who knowingly allowed Budget Papers under his authority, with his imprimatur—as the honourable member for Flinders (Mr Reith) said yesterday, his fingerprints were all over the documentation—to be presented. He can table as many documents as he likes, he can get as indignant as he likes, he can fulminate as much as he likes, but what explanation—and it is the issue that he has to address when he stands up in this Parliament—does he have for knowingly misleading the people of Australia? That is what we want to know.

Mr Campbell —Utter nonsense!

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The honourable member for Kalgoorlie!

Mr HOWARD —This whole issue is replete with double standards. The Leader of the National Party of Australia (Mr Tim Fischer) reminded me of the treatment of the Queensland National Party Government a couple of years ago. The heavy and high-handed reprimand was backed up by legislation. But when it comes to Victoria there is a cosy, quiet conspiracy to conceal a breach of the Loan Council guidelines. The Prime Minister's attempt to drag up previous Loan Council arrangements is not the issue. The issue is whether the rules for the time being are being observed or not—not the question of whether the rules are tough enough, too tough or too weak. Rules are changed from time to time. What happened on this occasion was that the rules that existed at the time were breached. The Treasurer knew they had been breached and he participated in a cover-up to keep that knowledge from the people of Australia. That is his offence, that is where he is wrong and that is why he deserves to be censured in this Parliament. And that is why he should have resigned yesterday.

Mr Campbell —You are losing your credibility.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —I warn the honourable member for Kalgoorlie.

Mr HOWARD —Until he can account to the Australian people, until he can tell the Australian people why he knowingly misled the Australian people, he will stand before this Parliament as a broken and discredited Treasurer. Not only will he stand before this Parliament as a man who has participated in ruining the economy of Australia, and a man who has helped to give us one million unemployed, a $150 billion overseas debt and the worst recession in 60 years; he will stand before this Parliament as a man whose personal credibility and truthfulness at the bar of public opinion in Australia are absolutely discredited. That is the case on the stark, simple facts as presented.

  He has no excuse. He has no explanation. He knew that what was in those papers was wrong. He had the capacity to come clean. He deliberately altered the information that had been provided by the Victorians. He cannot plead that he had to reprint what they gave him. He did all of that against the background of a Prime Minister asserting that these were the Rolls Royce of Budget documents when it came to forthrightness and accountability. The Treasurer has misled the Parliament. He should have resigned yesterday, and we will pursue him until he resigns.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mr Downer —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.