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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3104

Senator O'CHEE (11.18 a.m.) —It is with great regret that I am forced to raise the issues that I am raising today on the second reading of the appropriations bills. The issues relate to the good management and administration of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. The reason that I say it is a great shame that I have to raise these issues in the second reading debate is that they should have been properly dealt with in the process of an estimate's hearing. Senator Brownhill and I have raised innumerable matters in relation to the management of AQIS. We have been fobbed off by either the administration of AQIS, the senior public servants, or by the minister.

  For those who are unaware of this sorry saga, let me briefly encapsulate it. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service is this nation's shopfront to the world in terms of the good standard of our exports. I will state right here and now that I have a pecuniary interest in this because of my interest in the beef industry. It is in my best interests, as it is in the best interests of all Australian beef producers, to have a thoroughly rigorous export inspection program because it guarantees the quality of Australian beef.

  However, we should not have an export inspection program that puts massive charges on beef producers, especially when those charges are based on excesses, and outrageous expenses incurred by a bureaucracy that is out of control, and is not subject to review or to scrutiny. We have in this regime at the moment the concept of full cost recovery. However, do we have a concept that says the costs have to be contained? If one looks at the evidence that I am about to present, one has to say that the answer has to be no. Do we have a concept that says the user who pays should have some input into the costing structure? The answer is no.

  What Senator Brownhill and I have revealed over the last couple of months, based on information which has been given to us by confidential sources, is that most of the Senior Executive Service officers of AQIS who are based in Canberra have very real cases to answer in terms of their travelling allowances and in terms of their remuneration. When we first raised these matters, the government said that it would deal with them. Almost 12 months ago the government said that it would deal with them. How the government in fact dealt with them up until then was that the internal investigations unit that had found these prima facie rorts, the internal investigations that had gone through all the travel expenses and said, `There is something severely wrong with some of these expenses', was dismembered.

  A former Australian Federal Police officer who, we found out, had 22 years of investigative service was moved out of the internal investigations unit. It lost one-third of its manpower. That is how the government dealt with the allegations of rorts. That is how the government dealt with the allegations of excesses by the Senior Executive Service. What did it do? It dismembered the internal investigations unit. So much for accountability. So much for the rights of Australian primary producers, who are asked to pay the full cost of AQIS services in this country. That is how this government dealt with it.

  We said, `We believe these matters should be investigated'. So what did the government do? It appointed an investigator who seems, on the basis of evidence that I have already tabled in this chamber, to have gone about the process of a whitewash. Mr Mackey's so-called review had in it numerous flaws; numerous misquotes of the Public Service guidelines; and numerous attempts to say that what people had done which was totally unreasonable, was reasonable. One can say that black is white and white is black; one can say that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. But it does not mean that it is true. It does not mean that we should have a situation where, just because there is a whitewash, those of us who have very real concerns should pipe down, should go away, and should forget about the matter. The truth is the truth.

  Senator Murphy interjecting

Senator O'CHEE —Senator Murphy might have some difficulties with that, but the truth is the truth. The truth is immutable. The truth does not change. And the truth in this case is that we have had enormous problems with AQIS.

Senator Sherry —You are stretching it a little.

Senator O'CHEE —Senator Sherry says that I am stretching the truth. Let us go to some of the facts and see whether Senator Sherry thinks that I am stretching the truth when I say that it is highly irregular that Mr Gardner Murray, who heads up AQIS, should travel to a four-day conference in Europe and leave over 2 1/2 weeks early and immediately take leave as soon as he arrives in London. He arrived in London on 22 January in the year in question. He immediately took leave from 28 January to 31 January. They are the remaining working days of that week. He did not take leave on 1 February and 2 February. We do not know what he did, but it is unlikely that he did terribly much because it was a weekend. He then immediately took leave for the next two weeks before attending the four-day conference.

  I have said before, and I say again: everybody expects there will be a little bit of give and take in terms of people travelling overseas. I am sure most members of this chamber would not mind if officers take a couple of days leave when they are travelling overseas, because it is a long process and the workload can be very heavy. In the case of Mr Gardner Murray, he had already applied to travel out on 6 February, but he changed his travel itinerary to leave earlier and took all that extra time in leave. There was nothing productive at all done in that extra time that he was absent.

  That is the sort of thing that is going on. If Senator Sherry thinks that I have stretched the truth on that—if Senator Sherry can show me one thing that is wrong with those facts that I have outlined—I will be delighted for Senator Sherry to show me. Senator Brownhill and I have consistently attempted in a very responsible fashion—because we have been very reluctant to name people to date—to get some sort of response from the minister.

  We had a supposedly confidential and without prejudice meeting with Minister Crean which, to our great shock and surprise, was brought up both in this chamber and in the estimates hearings in a fashion which did not quite represent that meeting. We have been very restrained about that. After I was forced to leave that meeting and come to the chamber to do my Whip's duty, Senator Brownhill spent a long time with the secretary of the department, Mr Taylor, outlining his concerns.

  I suppose the real test of the government's bona fides on this matter is what had the government done to bring people to justice before Senator Brownhill and I were forced publicly to make our concerns clear. The answer is nothing. Not one person was charged. We had the infamous Mackey review. We then had an Auditor-General's report. The government told us that the Auditor-General's report gave AQIS a clean bill of health. But when the question was put to the audit officers, `Had you given AQIS a clean bill of health?' they said, `Far from it'. They said moreover that they were not the people who had the necessary skills to do an investigation. They said that they were auditors, that they were not investigators.

  Of course, we know what happened to the real investigators in AQIS. They were moved somewhere else. We know what happened to the people who had the investigative experience. We know what happened to the man who had 22 years of experience as an Australian Federal Police officer—he was taken off the case. That is the test of this government's bona fides. That is why we are forced to come into the chamber today.

  Let me deal with Mr Bisset. Mr Bisset, whose status is still unknown to us because all the questions we asked on 8 November—and the government and the senior officers knew perfectly well we were going to ask questions about AQIS—still have not been answered. The reason why they were not answered on 8 November is that none of the officers which Senator Brownhill and I requested to be present at that meeting were present. Not one of them was there. We never had an explanation as to why they were not there. They all appeared to be ill or on leave of absence without pay or otherwise unaccounted for. But it is quite interesting that Mr Bisset, who could not make the meeting or the hearing on 8 November, did however turn up a week later at another Senate committee hearing, but it was not a hearing of the estimates committee.

  So what was the story with Mr Bisset? It is unclear why he was not at the meeting, but what is clear is that nobody who was there was able to answer any questions in relation to Mr Bisset's remuneration, or rather the money that was paid by AQIS for Mr Bisset's services to AQIS. For example, from evidence in the annual report of the department of primary industry, it is very clear that AQIS has paid over $403,000 for Mr Bisset's consultancy services over a 25-month period. That is in itself a little disturbing. But more disturbing is that, on top of $403,000 in consultancy payments, AQIS has also met the cost of Mr Bisset's secretarial services, it has met his travelling costs and out-of-pocket expenses and it has paid Mr Bisset travelling allowances.

  We asked at the hearing on 8 November whether there was any explanation for the amount of money which had been paid out. No explanation was given. In fact, Senator Gareth Evans seemed to be objecting to my asking each question and waiting for an answer. He said, `Why don't you just ask them all and we will take them all on notice?'. That is not good enough. Senator Evans and the public servants knew that this was the last estimates hearing, that they did not have to answer, that this bill was going to come to the chamber for a second reading debate, that there would be no committee of the whole and that we could not hold up the appropriation until we got the answers. They thought they were in the clear.

  I want to give them a very clear message: Senator Brownhill and I are not going to stop. We are not going to give in. We are not going to say, `The estimates hearings are over; we will pack up our bags and forget about it'. No, what we are intending to do from now on is to start naming names—and naming them here in this chamber. In some cases we may be wrong, but we will never know unless our questions are answered.

  Why is it that $403,000 was paid for Mr Bisset's consultancy services? Why is it that additional costs were paid on top of that? Why is it that Mr Bisset also received travelling allowances? Why is it that Mr Bisset also had his secretarial costs met? Why is it that Mr Bisset also had his out-of-pocket expenses met? Is it the case that Mr Bisset is a public servant or has been a public servant? We do not even know what Mr Bisset's qualifications are to receive $200,000 a year or a little bit over that amount of money.

  To put it into perspective, why is it that a man who heads up the business services division of AQIS earns more than the Prime Minister? Why is it that a man who exercises the functions of a public servant would appear to earn more than the minister for primary industries? If I am wrong, Senator Sherry, please tell me that Mr Bisset has not received this money. It may be the case. But I have not had an answer. Senator Sherry has gone pretty quiet in the chamber. Why is it—

Senator Sherry —I am not supposed to interject.

Senator O'CHEE —It has never stopped you before, Senator Sherry.

Senator Sherry —You will get an answer to your questions.

Senator O'CHEE —I hope we will. Let us move on to Mr Fiveash. Mr Fiveash is another interesting character. Mr Fiveash was from the corporate services division of AQIS. Mr Fiveash came to our attention because Mr Bisset was supervising Mr Fiveash's leave of absence without pay. We asked: why was Mr Fiveash on leave of absence without pay? The explanation is an interesting one: Mr Fiveash—bless his soul—was overworked, stressed and needed leave of absence without pay to improve his personal lifestyle. I can accept that. Maybe Mr Fiveash was a very hardworking public servant. Maybe he did need a break. But one would have thought the first thing that Mr Fiveash would do would be to take a break. What did Mr Fiveash do? He took a contract of employment with a company called Computer Power, as a consultant to Computer Power.

  What is the significance of Mr Fiveash being a consultant to Computer Power? The significance of Mr Fiveash being a consultant to Computer Power is that Computer Power is a consultant to AQIS. And what section of AQIS agrees to the consultancy payments and lets the contracts to Computer Power? Why, none other than the corporate services division of AQIS, the very division of AQIS from which Mr Fiveash had just come. And Computer Power received half a million dollars in consultancy payments from AQIS during the two relevant financial years. That is where Mr Fiveash went and that is the section that approved it all, Mr Fiveash's own section of AQIS.

  Mr Bisset, who is a consultant, we are told, is presumably not a public servant, because I do not think a public servant can be employed as a consultant. If a public servant is employed as a consultant, it appears that the guidelines that are in place in the Public Service have been breached, although we are unclear about that because we cannot even seem to get a copy of the secretary's instructions to the department. That seems to be some sort of great official secret as well. Mr Bisset, who is a consultant, seems to have received a delegation to exercise the roles of a public servant in supervising another public servant's leave without pay while he has got his snout in the trough. It is all very sad and sorry. But we are still waiting on the answers to all of these things.

  Having seen just that snippet of evidence, Mr Acting Deputy President, I ask you, I ask honourable senators present in this chamber, and I ask people who will read this Hansard: is it reasonable to say that AQIS is thoroughly clean? Is it reasonable to say that the management of AQIS is responsible, and is careful with the money that it spends, money that primary producers, struggling farmers, are paying? The answer would not appear to be yes. The answer would appear to be no, AQIS is not careful with the money it receives.

  Here are all these rich bureaucrats; here are all these powerful men in the Senior Executive Service. The real question is: are the same rules applied to them that are applied to the junior officers of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service? The answer is no. Here we have people travelling overseas doing all sorts of things, and the first charge that was made was as a result of information that Senator Brownhill and I made public at the estimates hearing on 24 September—the first and only charge. It concerned thousands and thousands of dollars of money seemingly rorted from primary producers and from taxpayers.

  But what is the treatment given to the SES officers? Dismember the internal investigations unit; have a couple of reviews to sweep it under the table; and hope that the nuisance senators from the National Party go away. What happens when a junior officer from AQIS alters a leave form and gets a benefit of $71.83? She gets charged in the Canberra Magistrate's Court and collects for herself a criminal record. That is the fairness we see in AQIS. As far as AQIS is concerned, all animals are equal but some are more equal than others. That is what is going on.

  What of the only charge that has been made to date? The only charge was against a gentleman called Mr Corrigan. Mr Corrigan had been named in some of the investigations unit work. Mr Corrigan appears to have a penchant for Ireland. That may or may not be with some basis. We do not know what the basis of the charge is; it is very difficult to say. It would appear that Mr Corrigan may have been charged for soliciting money from the private sector when he was a public servant; in particular, for writing letters to people asking for them to pay for him to go to conferences in Europe—for which he subsequently received travelling allowance, by the way—promising in his letter that, in return for giving him the money to go to conferences in Europe, he would promote whatever aspect of their industry they wished.

  These are the gentlemen who are supposed to be the policemen of our Quarantine and Inspection Service. What are they instead? They are people with their hands out. They are people who are seeking apparently to use their position for their own benefit. I would have hoped not to have to deal with it here; I would have hoped that we could deal with this in the estimates hearing. I would have hoped that the officers would have been able to answer the questions, and would not have been hidden away somewhere or have all been given leave without pay, sick leave or whatever it was. Look, unless we get the answers, we are not going to stop. We do have more information; we want answers to these questions; and we want the government to recognise that the money AQIS is frivolously spending comes from the pockets of struggling farmers and comes from the Australian taxpayer.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Calvert)—Senator Sherry has a couple of facts he would like to be made known, so I will call Senator Sherry first.