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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20507

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (2:28 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, representing the Special Minister of State. Would the minister inform the House of attempts to renegotiate a Commonwealth agency lease in Barton? What is preventing the federal government from renegotiating a lease which, as it currently stands, is unfair to Australian taxpayers?

Mr Latham —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This is a question that has already been asked in question time this week. Clearly, a question that has already been answered cannot be revived and asked a second time. For that reason, it is out of order.

The SPEAKER —As the member for Werriwa is aware, I attempt to note each question in question time. I am aware that this question was asked—I think it was yesterday. What was not asked yesterday was: what is preventing the signing of the various leases? In that context, it is in order.

Mr Latham —Mr Speaker, on a point of order: if part of the question was asked yesterday, shouldn't it be ruled out of order and doesn't only that part which is an original question before the House stand in order according to your ruling?

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Mr Speaker—

The SPEAKER —I will deal with the point of order, and if the member for Mackellar is unhappy with my ruling I will then recognise her. I point out to the member for Werriwa that there are numerous instances in which a question has been asked that bears resemblance to a question asked and answered earlier in the week but has a different emphasis and is therefore allowed to stand.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Mr Speaker—

The SPEAKER —In fairness to the member for Mackellar, I should not recognise the member for Hunter before recognising the member for Mackellar if she wants to raise something on the same point of order. I thought the matter had been dealt with.

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop —Mr Speaker, I was content with your ruling. I was merely going to point out that standing order 146 refers to a question fully answered. This is a different question and requires a different answer.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The question asked by the member for Mackellar clearly seeks a legal opinion and, on that basis, should be ruled out of order.

The SPEAKER —I can reassure the member for Hunter and all other members of the House that, if the question had been seeking a legal opinion, I would have already had at least a glance from the Clerk.

Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) —I thank the member for Mackellar for her question and I acknowledge the tenacity she has shown in nailing this long-running scam. As the House knows, taxpayers are paying more to rent an office in Barton than they would pay to rent an office in midtown New York, thanks to the dodgy deal negotiated between the Keating Labor government and the Australian Labor Party. This is a rolled gold rip-off and is costing taxpayers $3.5 million a year.

I have some new information which I would like to share with the House about the so-called obstacles to renegotiating this lease. In March 2002, the Australian Audit Office wrote to John Curtin House asking for a review of the terms of the Centenary House lease. On 28 August last year, Mr Paul Wilkinson, the Secretary of John Curtin House, responded:

The directors are, of course, willing to give consideration to your request.

However, I must advise that the view we provided in April of last year to a similar request is likely to remain.

As you would be aware, the company's mortgagee, Macquarie Bank Limited, was heavily involved in the original lease negotiations and the structure of the borrowing was based on the certainty of the future cash flow generated by the agreed fixed rental increases.

Any variation to the rentals would create difficulties for the company in meeting its obligations to the mortgagee.

There are three facts alleged by the Australian Labor Party: first, that they got the lease deal and then borrowed the money; second, that they needed the lease deal to repay the money; and, third, that they could not possibly renegotiate the lease because then they could not afford to meet their debt.

I am now in a position to let the House know the true situation. Information revealed through the Senate estimates process shows that the mortgage was in fact taken out 18 months before the lease deal. That is lie No. 1. The Keating government signed this deal to bail the Labor Party out of serious financial trouble. The escalation clause is nine per cent and the mortgage interest is just 7.74 per cent. That is lie No. 2. They do not need the nine per cent escalation clause to survive. John Curtin House made an after-tax profit last year of nearly $3 million. It gave $2.4 million to the Australian Labor Party. That is lie No. 3. They do not need the lease deal to survive.

This functionary of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Paul Wilkinson, has made the directors of John Curtin House party to a series of lies. Who are the directors of John Curtin House? They are Michael Field, the former Labor Premier of Tasmania; Gerry Hand, the former Labor federal minister; Robert Pearce, a former state Labor cabinet minister; and Geoff Walsh, a former ALP national secretary. I call on the Leader of the Opposition to make honest men of the directors of Centenary House by renegotiating this lease. If the Leader of the Opposition had the slightest shred, the merest skerrick, of respect for the taxpayers of Australia, he would be content with a commercial rent. I call on the Leader of the Opposition to give back the money. Give back the $3.5 million you are ripping off every year from the honest taxpayers of Australia!

Mr Martin Ferguson —Why don't you give Kisrwani's money back?

The SPEAKER —The member for Batman!

The SPEAKER —The member for Batman is defying the chair.