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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7190

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (16:39): Senator Collins, thank you for making my speech easier. You have spent the last seven or eight minutes outlining the history of the Greens' very important engagement on this issue here in this chamber. Actually, we have raised this issue prior to 2010. Senator Bob Brown, my predecessor, has raised this previously. It has been a long crusade for us to try and get a federal ICAC and better scrutiny of parliamentary processes—and I will get to those processes in a minute. I am encouraged to hear Senator Collins say that this is potentially a fork in the road for this chamber and we may get some support from the Labor Party to put in place a process now. It is really about priorities. As Senator Collins has highlighted, this matter has been brought to this chamber twice in the form of legislation and it has been referred to a committee. And yet, nearly five years later, there has not been any significant movement at all on the establishment of a federal body. Of course, it has to be done in the right way. All of the concerns raised by Senator Collins are justified and valid. But we have been debating this for a long time and it is time that we actually did set up this body, along with a suite of other measures which I also agree with—and I will touch on those in a minute.

One of my favourite Australian authors, David Gregory Roberts, said: 'The only thing more ruthless and cynical than the business of big politics is the politics of big business, and when the two come together you have the perfect storm.' What he means by the business of big politics is quite simple: it is about getting political parties elected; it is about putting your interests and those of your party first and making sure that, at polling day, you hold onto power or seize power. The politics of big businesses is also pretty simple: it is about getting what they want and getting deliverables and outcomes for their shareholders. Nobody would dispute that. We are visited by lobbyists in this building all day every day. They are unashamedly here to look after the interests of their shareholders, their stakeholders. And it is not just business lobbyists. There are also unions and environment groups. In pretty well established theory these groups are often referred to as special interests—and sometimes they are also called vested interests.

I have spoken on this at least four or five times in speeches since I have been in the Senate, which has only been two years. I was quite chuffed when I got an email from an American couple who had been travelling in Australia. They were driving their RV and they must have had parliament on the radio—probably for want of knowing what a better station might be! Nevertheless, they heard the speech I was giving on this matter and they contacted me when they got back to Florida. This gentleman said that their local church had been talking about this issue recently. He pointed me to a couple of reports which I have since read with great interest.

One of those reports talked about the illusion of participatory democracy. It said individual voters who turn up to vote in elections—which of course they should do in this country, unlike in the USA—are assumed to be the best informed they can possibly be on critical issues. Of course, most voters go to elections with a huge array of issues in their minds—some of which may stick out more than others. Sadly, many also go to polling booths with very little understanding of or real interest in what is going on around them and how they are going vote. However, within that same democracy we have special interest groups that are highly organised, highly resourced and highly motivated, and they have a whole set of tools in their tool kit that they can employ to get the outcomes that they want. The illusion of participatory democracy is that we think we run this country when we vote governments in. But what goes on behind the scenes in terms of lobbying—whether it be the lobbying of ministers, senators or individual MPs—is actually what determines parliamentary outcomes, legislation and government decisions.

This gentleman—I will not name him because I have not asked for his permission—referred me to a report published just last year by Harvard University. The report—and it is now a book—was written by Professor William English. The title is Institutional Corruption and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy. The author has two key recommendations. He basically says democracy is the best system we have got but, unfortunately, it is subject to corrupting influences, the key one being that is easily corrupted by rent-seeking interests. Rent-seeking interests, just for the record, are the same thing as special interests and vested interests, but in the case specifically of rent seeking we are dealing with businesses who are looking to protect their profits or grow their businesses. He comes to two conclusions: in a liberal democracy like ours, there are only two ways that we can prevent this corruption of our democracy, and the first and foremost is to put in place substantial investigative efforts that uncover and communicate abuses of democracy. Of course, he goes on to talk a lot more about these special interests and the fact that really our democracies are easily hijacked by rent-seeking interests.

When you look at corporate donations—I am talking specifically here of rent-seeking interests and businesses—it raises a question. It would be questionable for any corporation to act against the interests of shareholders and put out money in political donations if it did not think it was going to get a good return on that investment. So it is a simple question: why do corporations give money to political parties? Sometimes they give money to both the major parties; it is not just the current government, the Liberal Party, here. Why do they give money to governments and to political parties? You have to draw the fairly obvious conclusion that they want something in return: they want influence in return.

This issue has been very near and dear to my heart, because in Tasmania my path to standing here in the Senate today has come through a very large decade-long campaign against a polluting pulp mill in my backyard in the Tamar Valley, near the ocean where I surf and recreate. It is way too much to fit into 20 minutes, and I talked a lot about it in my opening speech to the Senate, but the issue of political donations to the federal government during this campaign was a very hot topic in Tasmania. It was covered extensively by the media. There has been a lot of literature written on it. There have been entire books written about the corruption, or perceived corruption, around the Gunns pulp mill, which took years to assess; went through all sorts of processes, including a corrupted process; was pulled out of the state government assessment; was rammed through parliament, with parliament becoming the planning body; and then, of course, went to federal parliament for approval.

I just want to go through some information here on an example of what a federal ICAC could look at. It is a very real example. Senator Canavan talked earlier about how there is no evidence that he can see that we need a federal ICAC. I would ask him to have a look at the history and the background in the last decade surrounding the Gunns Limited pulp mill and the processes around that. This is an article from The Australian dated 10 October 2007 by Matthew Denholm, who is a very good journalist:

Gunns's donations to the major parties have long been contentious in Tasmania. The company gave $70,000 to the state division of the Liberal Party and the Liberal-linked Free Enterprise Foundation between November 2004 and April 2005.

I just note that I have read today that the Free Enterprise Foundation—and Senator Brandis, one of the greatest legal minds in the country, would be able to point out to me if this is incorrect—is currently the subject of an investigation by the New South Wales ICAC over payments to the New South Wales Liberal Party relating to property developments. It is the same foundation that received funds from Gunns federally in 2004-05. This followed the 2004 federal election, in which Mr Howard announced the continuation of old-growth logging and a far more modest forest protection policy than was put forward by the then Labor leader, Mark Latham. It was a fascinating time in history; once again, there is no time to cover it today, but for anyone who is interested I would thoroughly recommend reading about Mr Latham's lightning trip down to Tasmania, his visit with Bob Brown to the old-growth forests and what followed afterwards.

Former state Liberal leader Bob Cheek outlines this accusation in his book Cheeky: Confessions of a Ferret Salesman, which Senator Bushby has very possibly read. In the lead-up to the 2002 state election, he was the leader of the Liberal Party in Tasmania. Do not ask me about the ferrets, but he actually was a ferret salesman before he went into politics.

Senator Brandis: You're making this up.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is the truth. He claims, Senator Brandis, that Gunns executive John Gay showed him two cheques, one a guaranteed donation of $10,000 and another for $20,000, 'to come if I locked in the right answer to the question'. The question was, 'Will you continue to support the existing forestry policy?' which of course was about access to old-growth forests.

It has gone down in infamy that Mark Latham wanted to shut down old-growth logging and in the end John Howard was quite happy to keep open the idea that potentially—and certainly at the time—a world-class pulp mill would be built in the Tamar Valley and four million to five million tonnes of native forest per annum would be fed into that pulp mill. Over the life of the project, 20 to 30 years, we are talking about most of the old-growth forests left in the state being fed into this monster if it had gone ahead.

Further down the track, where we had the federal approval of this project—the Liberal Party were in government at that time as well—The Australian reported:

TIMBER company Gunns donated $56,000 to the Liberal Party in the weeks after the Howard government gave conditional approval for the company's $2.2billion Tasmanian pulp mill.

Annual political donation returns released by the Australian Electoral Commission yesterday reveal Gunns donated $64,750 to the national and Tasmanian divisions of the Liberal Party in the 2007-08 financial year.

Of this, $56,700 was donated to the Liberals in the time between then-environment minister Malcolm Turnbull's conditional approval for the mill on October 4, 2007, and the federal election on November 24 of that year.

This is the interesting part:

The donations were made in six payments ranging, from $900 on October 12—

prior to the approval—

to $25,000 on November 13.

So these payments were staged, they trickled in and they increased in value after the approval going into the election. My predecessor Senator Brown raised this in the chamber. The Australian reported:

… Bob Brown said the funds raised serious concerns and questions about "the influence of political donations". "You have to wonder why Gunns gave not just one lump-sum donation to the federal Liberal Party between the announcement of the go-ahead for the pulp mill and the election, but a series of donations … Couldn't Gunns make up their minds? Or was there some flow of information between the party and the company?"

Anyway, that year—you may also be interested to know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle—Labor received only $1,986 from Gunns, and that was donated on 8 August 2007.

So this issue is an example of the type of transparency that people would like to see. They would like to see these types of things investigated. It may be that there are no findings of corruption made in instances like this—

Senator Brandis interjecting

Senator WHISH-WILSON: But my point is an important one, Senator Brandis, through you, Chair: this is what the public expect from us. They want to see increased transparency, and they do not understand why a chamber full of politicians, who could potentially all be investigated in the future, are dragging their heels on trying to institute a body like a federal ICAC. They see that as a conflict of interest. It is quite an irony that we are not happy to be put under further scrutiny ourselves and to have the actions of our parties scrutinised. And that is not acceptable. Remember this illusion of participatory democracy? A lot of people in this country and around the world are talking about the problems with our democracy, in the sense that it is so easily hijacked.

I do want to talk a little about Tasmania. All states have a version of an ICAC. In Tasmania, unfortunately, we have an integrity commission which has very limited powers. One of the first things our new Integrity Commission did—and it was only established in 2010—was to investigate corruption around the Gunns pulp mill. In a 2012 leaked report, the commission reported—and this is about the construction of the Tamar Valley pulp mill—that: 'The Commission presently lacks the legislative capacity to adequately investigate whether the government's support for the proposed pulp mill was improper.' It received confidential submissions—hundreds of confidential submissions, and I do not know the detail of those submissions—but it lacked the ability to actually do this investigation. There is a whole series of recommendations that the Tasmanian Greens, currently led by Kim Booth, have made, to try to get much stronger teeth for this Tasmanian Integrity Commission. But it really raises these questions about whether we have a role for a federal body that could also look at instances like the ones I have just discussed.

Such a body has been mentioned in the chamber already today by Senator Collins, around FoFA. And there is a difference between personal corruption and institutional corruption. Sometimes the line is blurred. The ICAC in New South Wales is looking at examples of personal corruption where individual politicians or public servants may have received inducements for favours. Institutional corruption is a lot harder to define. It is about these things like special interest theory. How beholden are governments and politicians to the big end of town or to special interests? But I am convinced from the FoFA inquiry—which I was on with Senator Bushby, who is here in the chamber—that the Australian Bankers' Association made a very clear statement that they had expected the government to deliver a watering down—and 'watering down' are my words; that is not what they said, but they had expected it to deliver changes to the FoFA regulations. It is all in Hansard. Ms Tate gave that evidence at the Senate inquiry. I asked why they had not changed their compliance systems in time for 30 June, and she said:

We do have an expectation, because we had bipartisan support prior to the last election that these things would happen.

They are the exact words she used. What sort of deal was done between the government and the Australian Bankers' Association—the big banks—I do not know. But when I look at—

Senator Bushby interjecting

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Senator Bushby, through you, Chair: this is all about perception. This is about what the public think when they look at this. Following that, you rammed through, tried to get through, legislation. When that failed, you changed, and you brought in regulations before 30 June. You rushed them through on a Sunday afternoon so that they could not be scrutinised. You did a dirty deal with the Palmer party to get your regulations up. Now you are trying to get your legislation through the parliament, prior to the release of the financial services inquiry report, and prior to the release of a sensitive report by ASIC very shortly on the same issues that FoFA was trying to address. It is clear to me that there is a rush on to get these changes to FoFA done, and I understand, from my time on the inquiry, that it is because not only does it impact the sales-driven business models of the big financial services companies but also it is going to cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in compliance to meet the FoFA regulations by 30 June. To me, that is a very clear example of where your government has chosen to side with big business, with the big end of town, over Seniors Australia, over Choice, and over other groups, because—let us call it a deal—that is a deal that you did with the banks, to get that done. And, coincidentally, you were the beneficiaries of large donations from the banks, going into the federal election, which occurred after these discussions with the Australian Bankers' Association about delivering these outcomes on FoFA. You could say that was a coincidence, but most average Australians, who expect higher levels of transparency from their government, would look at it and go: 'You delivered for the banks.' That is a choice you have made. That is rent-seeking, by anyone's books, if it is true, and I think it is. And it could also be viewed as institutional corruption.

So these are the types of things that I think Australian voters, Australian citizens, expect to be addressed by such a body. I will not go into the details, but Senator Rhiannon has talked about the Canadian model. And I agree with Senator Collins on what was said earlier: these things need to be done properly; they need to be thoroughly investigated. But let us get on with it. We seem to have agreement from the Labor Party that we should now enter into this process to have a federal body. There are other things we can do around lobbyists' registers and a whole suite of other things we could do to tighten this up. Let us not do it for ourselves; let us do it for the Australian people. It is what they expect, and it will certainly increase the confidence that they have in us as decision-makers in this parliament which they voted us into. (Time expired)

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Sterle ): I had Senator Macdonald down to speak next; have you mob changed the batting order?

Senator McGrath: Yes.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I wasn't informed! I call Senator McGrath.