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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2354

Mr GEORGIOU (3:26 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker—

Mr Martin Ferguson —Tell us about Greenfields, Petro.

Mr GEORGIOU —Do you really want to hear about Greenfields? Okay, you have got it. I understand that yesterday the opposition pulled a series of quorums during the MPI and throughout the day because they were miffed that the government had put up my distinguished colleague to reply to them. I am afraid that today you have another backbencher—in fact two of them—and you are just going to have to wear it.

The approach of the Leader of the Opposition at question time and in interjections went far and wide across the so-called lack of accountability of the government. I would just like to take some of the elements of the allegations that have been made and deal with them fairly quickly. In terms of the Guide on key elements of ministerial responsibility that the Leader of the Opposition and several of his colleagues were so exercised about, the situation is quite straightforward. The guide has been updated to include the option of ministers and parliamentary secretaries relinquishing control of shares and similar interests to any outside professional nominee or trust, provided the minister or immediate family has no control over the operation of the nominee or trust. The change takes into account the findings of the blind trust report that divestment need only be one option. The prohibition on divestment of shares to family measures relates only to a spouse or dependent family member; it was never intended to apply to an independent adult family member. (Quorum formed)

The guide also specifically provides for ministers and parliamentary secretaries to indicate that they are unaware of the financial interests of their spouses and that their spouses have no intention of informing them of interests held. It includes longstanding arrangements for the declaration of interests in the context of cabinet discussions, and it reflects the adoption by the Senate last year of new rules for the registration of gifts.

The fundamental fact is that the changes to the guide in no way diminish the requirement that ministers adhere to high standards of honesty and propriety. The changes reflect the original intention that, while ministers must avoid conflicts of interest, they should not be barred from ministerial office on the basis of their assets. Government would be diminished if people who achieved success in other occupations were discouraged from entering the parliament—on whatever side—because of their assets. I vividly remember the former Prime Minister, Mr Keating, pointing across the chamber at us and saying that some of them were richer than some of us. He was most certainly richer than I was.

By recognising that shareholdings are an accepted and common form of asset and not a bar to the holding of public office, the guidelines have been made more realistic. The ministerial guidelines were never meant to be an immutable and total ban on shareholdings. That would be out of kilter with Australian society, which is becoming increasingly a shareholding society. The burden and the responsibility of the government is to be transparent, and this government has been transparent.

In the past, this transparency has been at a cost to the government, and that has been a cost that we have borne. I do not intend to rehearse those details, but the fact is that the guidelines have been revised publicly and are there for the Australian public to see. This transparency should maintain the trust of the public.

Since I am unsure about quorums, I will make another couple of points. The Leader of the Opposition spoke about expenditure on advertising. Over the five-year period from 1991 to 1996, the Keating government spent $315.5 million on advertising and market research. Altogether, over the 13-year period, the Hawke and Keating governments spent over $675 million on advertising, so I was not deeply moved by the Leader of the Opposition's observations about our expenditure on advertising campaigns.

I will move on to an issue that was touched upon in question time. Although it was not totally taken up by the Leader of the Opposition during his speech, I have been asked to make some sort of response to it. That issue is the matter of Greenfields.

First, I must say where I am coming from. As a former state director of the Victorian division of my party—a division which, I should say very modestly, has been quite successful in maintaining its financial viability—I used to have a little bit to do with fundraising. It was never of the exciting nature of Senator Richardson's but it had its moments. Now, as a backbencher, I have, alas, lost contact with such matters but, like my colleagues on both sides of the House, I do enjoy a good yarn about fundraising. I have particularly enjoyed stories about fundraising on the Labor side. The honourable member will know some of these, because they are much more bold, daring, colourful and exciting than anything we have ever been able to manage.

However, I also have to admit that occasionally, like most people active in politics, I have thought that I have hit on a golden vein, a disclosure nirvana that will devastate the other side. Usually it has not been the case, and the problem with all fantasies is that occasionally you have to wake up, pinch yourself and bring yourself back to reality with the realisation that something is a pipedream.

It is about time Labor did that about Greenfields. It really is time that they woke up to themselves. The little Greenfields campaign mounted by Labor has been shown time and again to be an exercise in farce. Last year it was all explained at great length, and yet here we are back at it again.

What has Labor actually done on Greenfields? They have hounded staff from the Australian Electoral Commission during hours of Senate estimates questioning. They have spent a year issuing press releases as if they were confetti. They have wheeled out their heavy hitters in the Senate, to give the issue a bit of a push along. They even set up a special web site on Greenfields during their election campaign! That web site is a truly remarkable exercise in conspiracy politics in Australia. What is amazing about it is that it is so boring. I thought of this site just as I was listening to the Leader of the Opposition—

Mr McMullan —What about hackers?

Mr GEORGIOU —Don't worry, I'll come to hackers in just a moment. I went to the site in great anticipation. I thought this was going to be the Matt Drudge site of Australian politics, full of scandal, detail and facts. But there is nothing there of any substance. There are plenty of mind-deadeningly boring pages of press releases by Labor members, but the site shows nothing. Essentially, it is made up of a series of bizarre press clippings together with speech after speech by Senator Faulkner. I like Senator Faulkner, but they should not call this the Greenfields Foundation Site; they should call it the Senator Faulkner Promotion Site.

But, coming to your point, the Labor Party does have a particular liking for the Internet. There is the now famous case of the young staff member from the Leader of the Opposition's office who adventurously hacked his way into the Liberal Party's Internet site. In fairness to the Labor Party, I have to say that they did apologise for that.

Apparently, this young man was hired by the Leader of the Opposition to conduct Internet research. And while I was looking through the Greenfields Internet site I could not held but wonder whether the poor young man had to work on the Greenfields site. If that was the case and he had to put up with all that mind-deadening material, you can sympathise with but not excuse his desperate desire to go away and do something a little more interesting, like hacking into our web site. The Greenfield Internet site is exactly what the Labor Party campaign on Greenfields is about. Once again, given the character of question time, given the character of the interjections, I really was waiting for the Leader of the Opposition to launch into it in a full-scale way.

Mr Latham —What is Greenfields?

Mr GEORGIOU —I will tell you. Every allegation that could possibly be made about it has been made by the Labor Party, and what have they come up with? After a year of estimates committee hearings, national media coverage and probing, what has emerged? There has been a whole series of statements by the AEC. Let me go through them:

On the evidence available the AEC does not believe at this stage that the Greenfields Foundation has any further disclosure obligations.

We believe that there are no disclosure obligations by Greenfields at this stage.

Mr Latham —This is like the X-Files . What is it?

Mr GEORGIOU —Maybe I have been impacted on by your web site. Another statement by the AEC said:

A routine audit of the Liberal Party's returns and the Greenfields Foundation had not uncovered any breach of the law.

After all this, what has been the outcome? At Senate estimates last night Mr Edgman of the AEC said that they had served a notice on the Greenfields Foundation in mid-January to ascertain whether it is an associated entity with requisite disclosure obligations.

The fact is that the ability of the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct such inquiries has in the past been hampered by the requirement that, before the AEC could conduct an investigation, it had to have strong evidence on the public record or strong grounds for believing that there was a breach by an organisation in relation to associated entities. This has now changed, and why? Last year the government introduced and passed the Electoral and Referendum Amendment Act, which has considerably broadened the ability of the AEC to conduct such investigations about whether or not an organisation is an associated entity. Indeed, my esteemed colleague Senator Minchin last year commended this bill and the granting of broader investigation provisions by the AEC.

So it was this government that provided the AEC with broader powers with which to conduct their inquiries because, unlike this opposition, we have nothing to hide. The fact is that on Greenfields, on the issue of the code of conduct, you strip everything back and it is quite straightforward. And that unfortunately is what the Labor Party cannot appreciate. Labor has this capacity to project. There is a psychological term called projection—you project onto some other entity the sort of behaviour that you think your own organisation engages in.