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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 305

Senator PARER (10.34 a.m.) —I rise to support the motion moved by Senator Campbell. My reasoning is this: we have already had substantial debate on Centenary House, which I will not go over again, but in the process of that debate two points were made. One was the impropriety of a government in power arranging a lease deal which, on the face of it, had all the elements of secrecy that produce suspicion that a special deal has been made. The other part of it, and this is the nub of the points raised by Senator Campbell, is the question of accountability. What the department has done is try to fob off Senator Campbell in a very straightforward question. One of the most important aspects of the Centenary House deal was the level of rental paid, the escalation provisions and the net return to the Australian Labor Party. These lease conditions, which are not supported by the Department of Finance, are not just a cost to the government, a cost to the Auditor-General, but, ultimately, a cost to the Australian taxpayer.

  Apart from the impropriety, and the view that the general public takes about deals being made by incumbent governments, if the rental is a fair rental we do not have a lot to object to. Just as an aside, honourable senators might recall that one of the greatest stirs that occurred when the Russians saw the light and chucked out the Communist Party was to do with the deals made on properties owned by the Communist Party that had been paid for by the Russian taxpayers. So it is a matter of propriety.

  Let us get back to the motion moved by Senator Campbell. For the parliament to be able to determine whether a fair deal was made, we must know comparative costs paid by other clients of the Commonwealth government. It is a clear accountability that we are looking for. It is no good the department trying to fob off Senator Campbell and saying, `Here is the rental in Sydney', but refusing to give any other details on the basis—in my view, the phoney basis—that this is a matter of commercial-in-confidence. The Department of Administrative Services, the Australian Property Group and the Australian Valuation Office are accountable to this parliament, which represents the people of Australia, the taxpayers of Australia. To come along and say, `Here is the rental, but we will not give you any other details, so you cannot ascertain the net rental', is arrogance. It is the sort of arrogance we have come to expect in this country. It is important that the response be given.

  As Senator Campbell indicated, what is wrong with the government telling us the address of a property which is rented by the Commonwealth? No wonder we had the suspicion right from the word go, when the then secretary of the Australian Labor Party, Mr Bob Hogg, denied that there was any deal made for the leasing of Centenary House, and when subsequent information provided by the minister himself indicated that when Mr Hogg made that remark at a committee hearing, in response to a question by then Senator Olsen, the deal was almost completed. That was, I might say, without the knowledge of the tenant, the Auditor-General. He did not even know at that stage that the ALP owned the place. He thought it was Lend Lease, because they kept referring to it as the Lend Lease site, or to the joint venturers.

  What is wrong with the department advising Senator Campbell as to the address of the property? What is wrong with the department advising Senator Campbell and this parliament of the net lettable area? Surely that is not commercial-in-confidence? What is wrong with the government providing Senator Campbell and this parliament with the date of commencement of the lease? These are leases in respect of property in New South Wales and Victoria where the claim was made: `We have got a higher rental than we pay to the ALP at Centenary House'. What is wrong with giving us a breakdown of the building outgoings on a per square metre basis—this is normal information that is available—and the effective value of any incentives? As Senator Campbell has indicated, over the past couple of years, with the surplus of space available, all sorts of incentives have been paid. The only incentive paid on Centenary House has been to the ALP.

Senator McMullan —Not true.

Senator PARER —It was the only incentive. The incentive there was: `If you go and build a building, we will give you an escalation rate until the building is completed, and then we will give you a guaranteed minimum escalation for 15 years'. I indicated earlier that we are not going to go back and rehash all that old stuff. We will get the opportunity again; and I understand that there could be an inquiry into it anyway by the Auditor-General.

  The point I would like to make—and it is a very important point—is that, whether this government likes it or not, it is accountable to this parliament, which is accountable to the people of Australia, the taxpayers who are paying the bill. If the government has nothing to be concerned about, why did it not provide this information to a very simple question raised by Senator Campbell? The purpose of this motion is to insist that the government provide that information so that proper and sensible comparisons can be made.