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Wednesday, 16 October 1996
Page: 4279


Senator SCHACHT(3.27 p.m.) —Mr Deputy President, I rise to support the motion moved by Senator Faulkner. Today we had another bumbling, inept effort by the government to try to get themselves off their own hook; to try to dissemble from their own ministerial guidelines, which were trumpeted before the election and after the election by the now Prime Minister (Mr Howard) as a new standard of conduct for government in Australia. Yet, in the last 24 to 36 hours, the Prime Minister has been dumping on his own ministerial guidelines. I saw at a press conference held only at midday today that the Prime Minister is now saying, `As I read the guidelines.' He wrote them! He is now saying that there is a different interpretation of a guideline that he actually wrote.

In question time today, Senator Hill made it quite clear that the Prime Minister is the author of these guidelines. Yet at lunchtime, at the press conference, the Prime Minister was saying, `As I read them,' `As I interpret them.' Goodness me! He should not have to interpret them. He should be able to say, `These are my guidelines. This is what it means.' But now he is saying, `As I read them,' because he is under considerable embarrassment as a result of the actions of his own party.

Today in the Senate we had quotes from a backbencher and the President of Senate. Senator Reid, the President of the Senate, the Liberal senator for the ACT, asked about holding shares, said, `That, to me, seems a bit absurd. I think we need have to a closer look at what we are doing.' The President of Senate said that. Winston Crane said, `To be quite frank, I think we have been quite silly.' I know that Winston does not count for much on the opposition benches, but Winston is saying, `We have been quite silly,' and the President of the Senate says, `I think it is quite absurd.'

With all of that sort of pressure, the Prime Minister is now trying to think of a way to bust and break his own guidelines, which he trumpeted around the place would take the parliament to a new standard. He has now suggested there may be a blind trust established. The only thing that is blind is the Prime Minister, who now cannot see that Mr Moore and Mr Fischer are clearly in breach of his own guideline, which has now been quoted so extensively. It states:

Ministers are required to divest themselves of all shares and similar interests in any company or business involved in the area of their portfolio responsibilities.

Black and white, without any doubt. You can understand what that says—even, I think, most people opposite. The question I asked today about Mr Fischer dealt with the fact that as trade minister over the last six months while he held shares in BHP, which he admitted in the House of Representatives today he only divested himself of earlier this week, he made a number of representations on behalf of BHP. If he did not have shares in the company we would all cheer him on and say: `That is excellent. That is what you should be doing.' But it is a sheer conflict of interest, an absolute conflict of interest, to be promoting BHP in various countries around the world while you hold shares in it.

Maybe if you were in the old Somoza regime in Nicaragua that would be an acceptable practice, but not in a First World, OECD nation. It will be looked on as a pretty shaky operation—in particular, when he is threatening to take the Americans to the World Trade Organisation, which would help BHP. Imagine what they would say in America, after Mr Costello's extraordinary performance leaking on Mr Greenspan. We now have an example of the trade minister owning shares in BHP and on their behalf threatening to take the Americans to the World Trade Organisation. This is an astonishing conflict of interest.

Finally, if there is no conflict of interest, if Mr Howard is right with these two ministers, Moore and Fischer, why are they selling their shares? Even if it is late, even six months on, if there is no conflict of interest why are they selling their shares? They know that unless they sell the shares, even as late as it is, they cannot get out of the jam that they have placed themselves and their government in. The only thing we need now is two more resignations—that of Moore and Fischer. (Time expired)