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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4196


Senator MILNE (5:07 PM) —I rise to comment on the report of the Standing Committee of Senators’ Interests. I preface my remarks by saying that cowardice is not something I admire. I find it cowardly in the extreme that Senator Abetz should use the parliament as cowards’ castle and make all kinds of innuendo and reflections when he knows full well that what he was tabling on behalf of the chair, the declaration of interests, was the information that is being made public for people to consider. I have to reflect that the only paper bag that I know of in Australian politics in recent times was the one that was received by the former Premier of Tasmania—the Liberal Premier of Tasmania—Robin Gray, who accepted—


Senator Colbeck —Who’s in cowards’ castle now?


Senator MILNE —I am not, because this is a matter of the public record in the Carter royal commission report. I would urge members—


Senator Abetz —It’s bad for Robin Gray but it’s good for Bob Brown!


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crossin)—Order! Senator Milne has the call.


Senator MILNE —Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. As I was saying, in the Carter royal commission report, which was a judicial inquiry established after an attempt to bribe a member of parliament to cross the floor, it was revealed in the public interest and on the public record that a paper bag containing approximately $10,000 was handed to the then Liberal Premier of Tasmania, Robin Gray. There was a whole inquiry into the kinds of transactions that took place—including, might I say, those involving the company called Gunns Kilndried Timber at the time and also Examiner-Northern Television. It so happened that the chair of both, Edmund Rouse, kept in the company a cash box of unmarked notes, undeclared, which was revealed in the Carter royal commission. He used that money for matters to advance the companies’ interests, including—and I think this is of extreme interest in the Senate here—for the purposes of trying to bribe a member of parliament to cross the floor because, as Edmund Rouse said at the time, his companies’ interests in Gunns Kilndried would be adversely affected by the coming to power of the Labor-Green accord, because at the time he was trying to effect a takeover of Kemp and Denning in the forest industry.

So let us not have this kind of innuendo. What is being tabled here is a record of senators’ interests, and in those interests my colleague Senator Brown has declared the interests that he has and, indeed, the donations. Furthermore, as Senator Abetz knows full well, those donations were to pay the legal costs associated with a court case which was brought about because Senator Abetz, when he was the forest minister, was facilitating the logging of the habitat of threatened species—namely, the wedge-tailed eagle, the swift parrot and the stag beetle. The Federal Court found that the Commonwealth was failing to protect those threatened species, and it was then that the Commonwealth—I believe it was Senator Abetz—with the Premier of Tasmania at the time, Paul Lennon, changed the Regional Forest Agreement to undermine what the Federal Court had said. They changed it to say that the Regional Forest Agreement protects threatened species, when the Federal Court had shown that in fact it does not. Once they had changed it retrospectively, it was then Forestry Tasmania that appealed, with the support of the Commonwealth and the Tasmanian Government—Labor and Liberal in there using taxpayers’ money—having retrospectively changed the RFAs, to appeal against the Federal Court decision and have it overturned. Senator Brown’s court expenses were incurred by him in trying to protect the forests’ threatened species because the Commonwealth, under Senator Abetz as the forest minister, was failing to do so.

Furthermore, the Auditor-General found that the forest minister—namely, Senator Abetz—in overseeing the disbursement of Commonwealth funds, had not taken particular care with his own department. It was found that DAFF, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, had completely mismanaged the disbursement of those funds. The Auditor-General said that they did not disburse those funds in an accountable way and brought in a whole lot of reforms. Senator Abetz was the minister, and apparently he did not take that much interest in what his department was doing, or he would know that there was no proper oversight. The Auditor-General found that there was no proper oversight. So let us not come in here listening to all this innuendo that Senator Abetz is trying to spread in this chamber. In fact, if anyone needs to be accountable, it is Senator Abetz for having spent all that taxpayers’ money in an appeal—the Commonwealth intervention in that case cost the taxpayers $436,000—in order to guarantee that the Wielangta habitat was destroyed and that the Commonwealth sent the wedge-tailed eagle, the stag beetle and the swift parrot closer to extinction.

History will show and the record will show that that money was raised to pay for court cases in the public interest, and the community knows and understands that. That is why the community came forward with such generosity to make sure that those court costs were covered so that Senator Brown and the Greens could continue to do what we do in this place, and that is stand-up for Australia’s natural environment, our threatened species; stand-up to protect ecosystems against the chainsaws in the hands of senators like Senator Abetz and our current forests minister. I will come to that shortly in relation to another statement.

I want to make it very clear that the whole purpose of this register of interests is to have senators register their interests. That is what my colleague Senator Brown did. The register of interests is there for public scrutiny. It is available publicly. It is disgraceful that Senator Johnston has abrogated his responsibility as the chair to Senator Abetz in the tabling of this report in order for Senator Abetz to make the slurs that he is currently making. If the chair wants to table the report, so be it, but I do not believe that the report contains the kind of innuendo and disgraceful accusations that Senator Abetz is making. I want to make it clear to the Senate that the report does not say any of those things; they are simply the words of Senator Abetz, who cost the taxpayer $436,000 in order to drive threatened species to extinction. It is he who ought to be fundraising to pay taxpayers back, because they do not elect members of parliament to drive their threatened species to extinction.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Before I call Senator Parry, I want to remind the chamber that we are taking note of a motion in respect of an update to the Register of Senators’ Interests. That is the debate before the chair and the chamber at this point in time.