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Thursday, 19 August 1993
Page: 279

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) (10.50 a.m.) —Madam Deputy President, this matter has been around for a long time. There is no doubt about that, and the opposition agrees with Senator Evans to that extent. The fact is, however, that it has been around for a long time because the government has never shown any determination to bring it to a conclusion. From time to time it has been politically opportune for the government to raise this issue. It has received the appropriate publicity for doing so, and has then failed to pursue the matter.

  To say that it has not been resolved in the last 10 years because of a filibuster of the opposition could be recorded as an incredible credit to the power of an opposition which does not have the numbers in this place. At any time in the last 10 years the government could have brought this matter to resolution if that was its purpose and it had any real determination to do so; but it did not do so on any occasion because it was not really interested in the issue.

  Last year it started the run again, when the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) sought to place some pressure on the Leader of the Opposition. That got Senator Button to come in here and move his motion again—a motion which, as I said, has been moved every few years for the last decade—but the government showed no interest in pursuing it. It had achieved its political objective of the day and it had no interest in then bringing this matter to a conclusion.

  The government does not see that this exercise as genuinely beneficial. Why does it not see it as beneficial? Because the Prime Minister himself—no less than the Prime Minister, the highest elected officer holder in this land—has demonstrated by his own pecuniary interest statement that the process this government has adopted is ineffective. The Prime Minister's interest statement does not demonstrate to the Australian people that he is a half-owner of a massive piggery business or that, as I gather is the case, it is considerably indebted to the Commonwealth Bank. It gives no indication at all of the extent of his investment. It gives no indication as to the fact that apparently he has, through a nominee, the interest of a director in that body. It gives no indication as to the liabilities of that company and a series of subsidiary companies.

  It therefore gives no indication to the Australian people whether he may gain as a result of legislation he is dealing with, whether it be banking legislation, legislation concerning AQIS—and the importation of semen was an issue last year for piggeries—or legislation on other rural matters. It is not possible for someone to go to his pecuniary interest statement and determine with any real certainty whether the Prime Minister has a conflict of interests. If it will not work in relation to the Prime Minister, why should this government seek to impose an unworkable system on the whole of the parliament? That has been our concern.

  We thought that over the last few months this government would have gone away and redrawn this proposal and put it into a workable form, so that there could be some assurance that pecuniary interest statements are in fact transparent and do demonstrate real interest. But the government did not do it. Why did it not do it? Because it has no interest in the outcome in terms of ensuring that detail of pecuniary interests is on the record. It is simply pursuing a political objective.

  Madam Deputy President, Senator Evans has got a nerve to come in here again today, after months in which this Senate has not been sitting, and with a history of lack of interest in the issue, and claim that it is as a result of our opposition that in 10 years this government has not put a pecuniary interests objective into effect in this place. Over the last few months coalition senators have again looked at this matter carefully and seriously, and they still find this proposal objectionable on a number of grounds. The main one is, as I have just said, that it demonstrably does not work. We do not dispute the worthiness of the motive behind establishing a register of interests, which presumably is to increase the confidence of the public in the integrity of its elected representatives.

  The parliament cannot prescribe propriety and that is what Senator Evans does not seem to understand. This form of register, even if it were considerably strengthened, would not have the effect of avoiding dishonesty. However, an interesting aspect is that this parliament, generally speaking, can hold its head high in relation to propriety. In the main, the evidence is before us that parliamentarians in this and the other chamber have maintained high standards through the history of this parliament. It is interesting that the government has not come into this place alleging the contrary and therefore saying there is a need.

  Firstly, it does not say that there is a need as a result of misbehaviour by parliamentarians and, secondly, it does not put to us a form that could in any way overcome dishonesty if that were to occur. Even if that was its objective, which it does not seem to be and it certainly has not been advanced in those terms by Senator Evans, it does not bring us a form that would be effective in any event. If we go back to the report known as the Riordan report of 1975 of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, we find that it advocated the establishment of a register but it also noted that a register would not be effective in exposing fraud by members of parliament.

  In 1978, the Fraser government formed a committee of inquiry concerning public duty and private interests which was chaired by Sir Nigel Bowen. That committee reported the following year and the report expressed grave doubts about whether it would be possible to devise a register so as to eliminate lawful avoidance. The committee considered in detail the arguments for and against compulsory registration of interests and concluded that a register ought not to be introduced.

  This decision was influenced by two major considerations. Firstly, however tightly the specifications for a register might be drawn, it would be impossible to list all private interests which would give rise to conflict situations. Secondly, the committee considered that the longer term consequences for office holders' privacy were undesirable. Public registration of interest denies each senator his or her right to privacy. To a great extent, parliamentarians' lives are already open to public scrutiny and, as was noted in the Bowen report, to require the registration of interests is to take the first step down a slippery slope that is likely to lead to a much wider system of disclosure and unjustified invasion of privacy than its first proponents contemplated.

  Despite that report, despite the advice of that committee, in 1983 Mr Hawke saw it as politically opportune to urge that a system of public registration of members and senators be introduced. The House of Representatives passed a resolution requiring the registration of members' and ministers' interests. The coalition accepted that ministers' interests ought to be registered. They ought to be because ministers are making executive decisions day by day that concern taxpayers' funds, but the coalition opposed the application of the requirement to ordinary members of parliament.

  Let me briefly look at the features of the present proposal that the government puts before us. Firstly, within 14 days of the passage of the resolution each senator must provide to the registrar of senators' interests a statement of their registrable interests and those of their spouses and dependent children. So we are not simply talking about the privacy of members of parliament, we are talking about the privacy of their families. Secondly, any senator who fails to comply or knowingly provides false or misleading information `shall be guilty of a serious contempt of the Senate'.

  The statements of spouses and children are to be held in separate parts of the register and are to remain confidential to the committee of senators' interests. The committee may table a declaration where it considers a conflict of interest arises. Of course, the committee will just be a microcosm of the Senate. Registrable interests will include shareholdings in public and private companies; family and business trusts; real estate; directorships; partnerships; liabilities, bonds and debentures; savings and investment accounts; and any other assets valued at over $5,000. The nature of other substantial sources of income, whatever that might mean, is to be listed, as are gifts from official sources valued at more than $500 and gifts valued at more than $100 from other sources. Also included within the statement will be sponsored travel or hospitality received—that presumably means lunch—and any other interests where a conflict of interest could foreseeably arise.

  The President of the Senate is to appoint an officer of the Senate as a registrar of senators' interests. That person will also be the secretary of the committee of senators' interests. The chairman of the committee is to table in the Senate a copy of the completed register after the commencement of each parliament. Pursuant to a separate notice of motion, which will be a later debate this day, a committee of senators' interests is to be established at the commencement of each parliament. It will consist of three government senators, two opposition senators and an Australian Democrat or an Independent senator. The minority party in this place—the Australian Labor Party—still believes that it is entitled to have the largest membership of a committee such as this. It is to be set up as a parliamentary committee; it is not something within the province of government. The committee's duties will be to inquire into and report upon the arrangements for the register; to consider proposals about the form and the content of the register; and to consider submissions made in relation to the registering or declaring of interests.

  Let me expand upon our reservations, some of which I mentioned a little while ago. First, although this issue has been around a long time, there has been a lack of debate within this place. It really is incredible that this is one of the few occasions, over 10 years, when the government has programmed this matter for serious and full debate in this chamber. Was there consultation with the major parties and the minority parties in this place in relation to the form of the motion? What we saw from Senator Evans in the last parliamentary sittings was really a gimmick. Even though the motions contained obligations upon the Senate to set up this structure, Senator Evans tabled a form that he, or the government, presumably, thought was desirable. He sought to make political capital out of calling upon all senators to comply with his requirements, not a requirement of the parliament.

  He could have, if he had chosen to do so, had the matter debated during the last sittings of the parliament. Almost the whole of the first two weeks of that sitting was taken up with matters of procedure initiated by the government. This was not high on the governments order of priority. Yet Senator Evans comes in here today and says that it is a matter of high priority. That has not been demonstrated by the way the government has pursued this matter in the past. The government has not demonstrated good faith. It has been an exercise in political gimmickry, as Senator Evans demonstrated in the last sitting of this parliament. He is once again seeking to treat it as an opportunity for political point scoring.

  After hearing Senator Evans talking yesterday about this Senate not giving sufficient time for consideration of the government's legislative program, I find it astonishing that today the government has decided that point scoring on this issue should take priority over that program. No doubt, at the end of this sitting, the government will come in to us and say the guillotine should be applied because there is insufficient time for this chamber to consider its program. This is another demonstration of the distorted priorities of Senator Evans and his government.

  There are many other concerns that we have in relation to the form. We are amazed that, for some reason that is not explained by the minister—but subsequent speakers on the other side might fill the gap—the government has removed from this draft the provision for ad hoc declarations which it had included in previous proposals. Notwithstanding the lodgment by a senator of a statement of registrable interests, in previous drafts a senator was to be obliged to declare any relevant interest at the beginning of a speech in the Senate chamber and after a division is called, if they propose to vote in that division.

  That has been a principle that we have adhered to on this side of the chamber. We have always accepted that if a senator, who has a conflict of interest, is going to participate in speaking or in voting, then the interest that could be in conflict should be made clear so that the public and the parliament can understand the position of that senator. Why has the government taken out that obligation, that it was going to put in previous proposals, in the draft that is before us today?

  We are of a view that if this is to proceed, and the numbers in this chamber seem to indicate that it is, such an obligation should be reinserted, and we have an amendment to that effect. The British Select Committee on Members Interests 1992 report went so far as to observe that `there is a danger that the existence of a register may tempt members into being casual in their observance of the declaration rule'. Then let us put us back in. Let us try to find out from the government what it is seeking to hide. Why did it want that traditional obligation to be removed from its documentation?

  If this is to be applied to members of this parliament, we wonder why it is not also to be applied to those who report upon the business of this parliament. One might say they actually have greater influence in many ways than those who participate within the process. The question of the application of disclosure provisions to classes of persons other than parliamentarians has, of course, been raised in the past. I remind honourable senators that the Riordan report in 1975 recommended that the parliament should require those accredited media organisations that enjoy the facilities of Parliament House to comply with the same registration requirements that are required of members of parliament. There are precedents for this and we will be moving amendments later in this debate to extend the application of these disclosure provisions to accredited members of the Canberra press gallery. They will no doubt applaud those amendments because of the high standards that they would like to see of us.

  We have concern in relation to the definition of spouse. This is the first proposal in which the government has retreated from the position of requiring full public registration of the interests of spouses and wholly or mainly dependent children. The privacy of members' families is one of the areas of our greatest concern. There is a little more protection in relation to what is put before us, but it is, nevertheless, an invasion of the privacy of spouses and of children. However, if one is to talk of families why is it limited to spouses? Why does it not include de factos? Presumably, it was just a slip. Therefore, we propose to move an amendment to specifically include de facto spouses. I take it that the government will support that amendment when we get to it.

  We are concerned about many aspects of the penalties for non-compliance. Paragraph 1, subparagraph (2) of the motion provides that a senator who knowingly fails to provide a statement of registrable interests, or who fails to notify an alteration, or who knowingly provides false or misleading information shall be guilty of a serious contempt of the Senate and shall be dealt with by the Senate accordingly. Does that bring in the provisions of the Parliamentary Privileges Act or not?

  Clearly, the parliament has the power to identify and punish contempts of the Senate, but it is section 4 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act which identifies what is punishable by the courts. The essential element is conduct amounting to improper interference with the functioning of the Senate. It is arguable whether providing false information or failing to provide information would amount to contempt for the purposes of section 4. We believe that it needs to be clarified. We would have thought that even the Australian Democrats would be interested in the issue of penalties because they had previous amendments that specifically raised those issues.

  We are concerned as to the confusion between the supervisory role of the new committee that is to be set up and the investigatory role. In fact, it is not clear who should conduct the investigations into alleged breaches—in other words, where senators knowingly misled. We think it is wrong if the ambiguity is to be interpreted in a way such that this new committee should have the responsibility. We think there should be separate bodies because there are separate responsibilities of supervising the structure and carrying out the investigations. If we are to go down this path, and we think there are strong arguments against it, we think it would be better if the Privileges Committee were to conduct the investigations. It is a committee held in high regard and it has longstanding experience. We therefore propose to move an amendment to clarify the situation so that such investigations as are needed to be carried out would be carried out by that committee.

  I said some time ago that we have a serious concern that it will not work. It does not provide to the parliament the sort of information that is necessary and which the government would have required it to provide if it were serious. I will mention just a few examples again. A senator has to give information of his or her shareholdings but that does not tell people whether the senator is a major shareholder. It does not tell people whether those shareholdings are of great value or whether they are insignificant. It does not tell whether they are scrip left over from the 1969-70 mining boom which someone might have in the bottom drawer. They will have to haul out that scrip and see whether those companies are still in existence. The scrip may be worthless, but under this obligation they have to disclose that worthless shareholding, whereas a colleague, perhaps on the Labor side, who has literally millions of dollars of shares could simply list a company or companies and give the parliament no idea as to the influence through his shareholding that he can bring to bear in a particular company.

  With liabilities also, there is nothing that tells the reader of this statement—the public—whether someone is seriously in debt or in debt to a minimal extent. It is ineffective in that regard. There is nothing that gets behind discretionary trusts. There is nothing that gets behind holding companies. In other words, if the government were serious about this proposal, why did it not bring to the parliament a form that would ensure full disclosure of all relevant financial information that could potentially put a senator or member in a position of conflict? The answer to that, of course, is: because the government is not genuinely serious to that extent. What it is seeking to do is to gain political points out of putting a form proposal before the parliament and demanding that it carried.

  I hope the Greens and the Australian Democrats are seriously considering these major deficiencies that are in this document today. I hope they will not in their later speeches say `We all support these proposals with major deficiencies', because then presumably they would be failing in their responsibility. It would demonstrate that they have simply been got at by the government and have been drawn into this rather sloppy public relations exercise—political gimmickry, as I described it earlier—that is being engaged in by the government and by Senator Evans in particular.

  I could go on if I had time and take the Senate through each of the separate registrable instruments in the document before us and demonstrate how they do not give us any real information at all. Others will do that. Let me just round it out by bringing honourable senators back to the examples that we have before us, not just those that are hypothetical when we look at the document and start to imagine its shortcomings, but the specific examples that have demonstrated that what we have had before the House of Representatives and what we have had before the ministry in the past has not worked.

  Senator Evans mentioned the example of Senator Richardson and his failure in 1992 to disclose his directorship of radio station 2HD while Minister for Transport and Communications. What was the response to that? Senator Richardson said that he was not aware that he had to disclose it. He apologised to the Prime Minister, and that was the end of the matter. What is being expected of honourable senators in the same circumstance? They are going to commit by the same act a serious contempt of the Senate. It did not work in relation to Senator Richardson.

  Mr Howe, when Minister for Defence Support, failed to disclose that his wife was a member of the Victorian Town Planning Appeals Tribunal and had an income—and he is now Deputy Prime Minister of the country. Senator Button indicated that he was a director of a company. From memory, I do not think he had a beneficial interest—I think it was a trust—but he was director. He did not indicate that that company had substantial interests in BHP, and that was at a time when the major public issue of the day was the possible takeover of BHP. So it did not provide information to the public to gauge whether Senator Button had a real conflict of interest and how he was responding in those circumstances.

  The most notorious, of course, is the one that we will hear much more of today, that of the Prime Minister that I mentioned earlier, whose own declaration of interests really gave the public no helpful information at all as to the extent of his assets and liabilities in relation to his major piggery. If it does not work in relation to the Prime Minister, why should he be seeking to impose it on the rest of the parliament?

  In conclusion, for the reasons I have discussed, coalition senators do not support the motion moved today for a register of senators' interests in the form that it is before us. But, because it is likely to pass in any event, we will be moving a series of amendments. I have mentioned some of them during my speech: for instance, the amendment to make it clear that the committee of senators' interests is not going to be responsible for the investigation, and many other amendments that I will try to find an opportunity to expand upon a little later. (Time expired)