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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 4415

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(3.12 p.m.) —by leave—Senator Vanstone has blatantly and barefacedly misled both the Senate and the public on this matter. There is no question about that. What we have from Senator Vanstone today is the tabling of documents and a chronology presented with spin from the minister. But the facts of the matter are this. On 23 September the Wright family was brought up at the Senate estimates committee by virtue of a question from one of Senator Vanstone's staunchest factional opponents, Senator Ferris.

I must say, Senator Ferris, I did not believe I would ever stand in this place and say that I feel sorry for you but I do because you are just another person who has been given the dump by Amanda Vanstone. You were the bunny who asked the question about the Wrights. You were the bunny who put out the press release entitled `Millionaires on Government Welfare Benefits', with the bodgie Wright family document that had been pre pared by Senator Vanstone attached. You were the bunny, Senator Ferris. I hope that in the next internal ballot in the South Australian division of the Liberal Party you do not forget who to blame.

That happened on 23 September. At that Senate estimates committee hearing, Senator Vanstone puffed herself up and said this:

I would like to see the Wright family take their case public, whatever their proper name is.

Senator Vanstone —I still would. I would like to see the real Wright family go public.

Senator FAULKNER —We know there is no real Wright family. I will bet she regrets these words, after they have been exposed as a complete phoney. She said this:

I am told that there are plenty of others where they came from.

Apparently, not only are there not plenty of others where they came from but the Wrights themselves do not even exist. Then, after Senator Ferris had put out her bodgie table and her press release as requested by Senator Vanstone, I was given a copy of this press release and the bodgie table by a recalcitrant member of the government. I was handed this—I cannot name sources—on 24 September. It was in the public arena but someone had caught hold of it and said, ` Look at this.' I did have a close look at it and, like most members of the Labor Party, I can smell a Liberal dead cat at 100 metres.

It was a bad mistake from Senator Vanstone because the Social Security estimates were on the next day. I had spent a lot of the time at the Social Security estimates—

Senator West —You did a good job.

Senator FAULKNER —And so did you, Senator West, and the other Labor senators who were there. I actually asked at the Social Security estimates whether the officers of the Department of Social Security could examine the figures in this bodgie table. They looked at it, pretty perplexed and stunned. Someone raced up from Senator Newman's office and whispered to officers at the table—so it was all terribly conspiratorial—and they took it on notice.

When Senator Newman is able to say, `Oh well, I found out about this' it is because a member of this opposition exposed this table at the estimates committee and demanded that the Minister for Social Security come back with information about the bodgie Wrights. That is why—no other reason why. Just like the situation we had in relation to Senator Short's and Senator Gibson's conflict of interest recently, it was exposed by a member of the Labor opposition.

On 25 September—what I am giving now is the real chronology, not the chronology with spin from Senator Vanstone—we had the Daily Telegraph, as an example, coming out with this headline: `Millionaires On Welfare'. There were similar stories in many other newspapers right around Australia. This story says that Senator Vanstone `raised the family in estimates'. Of course, the social security minister says that the family is still receiving massive welfare payments.

To be fair to Senator Newman, who is perhaps not one of the best ministers in the government—it is a pretty ordinary bunch and it is a bit of a competition for last place between Senator Vanstone and Senator Newman—she got onto this before Senator Vanstone. She put out what I would describe, I think, as a limited edition press release to correct the $229 parenting allowance mistake. She stated in the limited edition press release that `DSS cannot confirm that the family actually exists.'

I believe that Senator Newman probably did tell her colleague Senator Vanstone at about that time, probably on that day, that the story that was published in this newspaper and in many others in this country was wrong and that they were both, along with all other members of the government, right up to their necks in a colossal hoax.

Senator Vanstone says that 27 September was the day that she was told that the headline was wrong. Last night on radio on the PM program, after being pushed to confess, she said, `It was a couple of days later.' They are Senator Vanstone's own words. That was the same day, I think, that my own office received the reply to the questions that I placed on notice at the Department of Social Security estimates stating that the figure for parenting allowance was wrong; it was actual ly $6. What did Senator Vanstone say it was? Two-hundred and twenty-nine dollars. It also stated that the figure for child-care assistance was wrong. That is the real chronology here.

What is the real politics of this? Let me say to the Senate that it is very clear. Senator Vanstone, you have misled this parliament, this Senate and also the Australian people—you have misled the public. What Senator Vanstone cannot answer is: at any stage after she had been exposed through questioning by the opposition did she do anything to redress this sort of headline that appeared in newspapers around Australia? Nothing, nothing. You did absolutely nothing.

You have not tabled any letters that you might have sent to the editors of newspapers. You did not go on radio or television and correct the public record. You did nothing. Your very serious blunder is just another example that we have had in this parliament over the last fortnight of a minister seriously breaching John Howard's much vaunted code of ministerial conduct. That code makes it absolutely clear what you are required to do. That guide to key elements of ministerial responsibility states:

Ministers must be honest in their public dealings and should not intentionally mislead the Parliament or the public. Any misconception caused inadvertently should be corrected at the earliest opportunity. Any answer which may be found to be incorrect should be corrected as soon as an error is found, using the procedures of the House concerned.

Did you, Minister Vanstone, come into this chamber on any of the sitting days last week to correct the record? Did you? Did you come in early this week to correct the record? No, you did not. Did you at any time, since you found that you had been involved in this massive hoax, attempt to correct the public record? What you did do was to deliberately and barefacedly mislead both the Senate and the public—and you stand condemned for it.

Senator Knowles —Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. The Senate gave leave to Senator Faulkner to make some comments in regard to this matter. Leave was not given for him to yell and scream and abuse a person directly across the chamber. I ask you to call him to order and ask him not to yell and scream and abuse people, including the minister, across the chamber.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Faulkner was given leave to make a statement; he is making a statement and is in order.

Senator FAULKNER —What is Senator Vanstone's defence on this issue? Her defence is that she sent a sneaky letter—which I really do believe should have, at a minimum, at the very least, been a letter to every editor of every paper in this country—to, I think, the secretary of the estimates committee—

Senator Carr —The chairman.

Senator FAULKNER —To the chairman of the estimates committee, indicating that there were some issues of concern for her. What I think senators have to consider here is the crassness of what Senator Vanstone has done—she created a fictitious family where a couple of kids were added to make it look like the entire social security system was rorted.

Senator Vanstone —Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I take offence at the last—

Senator Bob Collins —That is not a point of order.

Senator Vanstone —It is because an imputation has been made against me which is incorrect and I am asking for that imputation to be withdrawn. The imputation, Mr Deputy President—if you have not spotted it, which I am sure you have—was that I had fabricated that example. I have on numerous occasions given a statement to the estimates committee and to this chamber that I did not fabricate that example. The department gave me the example. Once it was indicated to me that there were problems, I took pains to correct that. Senator Faulkner, in referring to me in his statement, is still asserting that I fabricated this example—that is, that I intentionally did it. I invite you, Mr Deputy President, to ask him to withdraw that imputation because, given the number of times that I have come in here and said that that is not true, for him to continue to say it is damned offensive.

Senator Mackay —Imagine how the people on social security feel.

Senator Knowles —You never worried about all the people on social security in 13 years.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Order on both sides! There are forms in this place for you to be able to correct statements about you that you think are incorrect. I invite you to do that after Senator Faulkner has finished speaking if you so wish. Senator Faulkner is in order. I ask you, Senator Faulkner, to occasionally address your remarks through the chair.

Senator FAULKNER —Let me conclude my remarks by saying that some of us on this side of the chamber thought that in Senator Vanstone's early days she was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time; that poor old Senator Vanstone was just accident prone. But what you have been exposed here as is someone who is not only a bungler and an incompetent but also willing to depend on fraud to make a fallacious point. That is what you have been exposed of. I say now, even for those who think you are only accident prone: you have become so accident prone in such an accident prone government that it is difficult to believe that Mr Howard will be able to operate with you in this portfolio much longer.

I now make my second prediction of the parliament. My last prediction recorded in the Hansard was that Senator Short would not last the distance. My prediction about you, Senator Vanstone, is that you have wreaked so much damage in the areas of your portfolio responsibility that Mr Howard will have no choice but to remove you from your portfolio responsibilities before the end of this parliament.

I want to say just one other thing, and that is about the accusation that Austudy is rorted. As senators would know, Labor corrected the ability for conspicuously wealthy people to escape means testing, on 1 January this year, with funds to investigate actual cases.

I want to make this point. The Wright family would not have been investigated because the Wright family does not exist and never did exist. This is an absolute disgrace, Minister. Why don't you consider doing the honourable thing and resign?