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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 4355

Senator FIFIELD (3:45 PM) —I rise to speak on the Car Dealership Financing Guarantee Appropriation Bill 2009, which has been the backdrop of some current events over the last week. The opposition will not be opposing the passage of this legislation. Car dealers are encountering serious and genuine difficulties obtaining finance in the current economic climate. We do know that the global financial situation has contributed to a freezing up of global credit markets, with risk averse lenders re-evaluating many of their businesses and reluctant to lend. But there is no doubt that the Rudd government’s ill-considered bank deposit guarantee has made the situation far worse, as foreign banks and other financial institutions have come under enormous pressure as nervous customers seek the safety of government guaranteed deposit-holding institutions.

These factors contributed to two major finance companies, GE and GMAC, withdrawing from the car dealer wholesale floor plan finance market earlier this year. Many concerned dealers, who rely on readily accessible finance to drive their sales, have understandably found themselves in a very vulnerable financial situation. I understand that potentially hundreds of dealers, particularly in rural and regional Australia, were at very serious risk of becoming financially unviable if they were not able to access alternative sources of credit.

The coalition has always held the view that the best way to assist these dealers is to persuade GE and GMAC to withdraw their participation in the car dealer finance market in a more ordered and considered way rather than simply pulling up stumps on 1 January, as they advised they were going to do. Thankfully, both companies have opted to withdraw more gradually, and many other finance companies have stepped in to offer finance to these dealerships. This means the expected amount of guaranteed funds has declined from $2 billion to the most recent estimate of around $450 million. So the government is pushing ahead to establish a special purpose vehicle it has dubbed the OzCar fund, and the major beneficiary will be Ford Credit.

An important fact is that Ford Credit was not originally targeted for the government scheme. The parameters were changed to accommodate Ford Credit when it became clear it required assistance. The coalition does not quibble with Ford Credit’s inclusion in the scheme. However, the process of negotiation with Ford Credit raises serious questions about the government’s behaviour. These questions go to the heart of the saga which has unfolded over the last week. They go to the heart of this government’s credibility and they raise serious doubts about the Treasurer and his honesty.

All the available information suggests that Mr Swan has misled the parliament. In previous governments, misleading the parliament was considered a serious and sackable offence, certainly an offence which the previous government took very seriously. But the current government is intent on playing a game of smoke and mirrors to obscure serious questions that Mr Swan must answer. Mr Swan has repeatedly stated that the now very well known Mr John Grant, a personal friend and donor to the Prime Minister, an associate of the Treasurer and someone from whom he bought a car, has received ‘no special treatment’. Mr Swan told parliament on 15 June, referring to Mr Grant: he ‘received the same assistance as any other car dealer’. Mr Swan had previously said, in the House of Representatives on 4 June, in relation to the representations by his office:

I have no idea what the outcome of that was.

He said so in subsequent media interviews as well. Both Mr Swan and the Prime Minister have said that they stand by those comments 100 per cent. But we have good reason to be very sceptical about the Treasurer’s statements.

Let us consider for a moment the chronology of events which led to this saga. Mr Bernie Ripoll, a Queensland Labor backbencher, referred the case of Mr Grant to the Treasurer’s office. A senior staffer in the Treasurer’s office contacted a Treasury official who was responsible for OzCar to see if he could assist Mr Grant. That Treasury official has stated that it was clear to him that Mr Grant was ‘not your average constituent’ and was an ‘associate of the Prime Minister’.

The government has called into question the testimony of that particular Treasury officer, but we do not have to rely on his testimony to gauge the importance which was placed on the case of Mr Grant. There is ample evidence which testifies to the importance that the Treasurer’s office placed on this case. Firstly, the officer who was assisting Mr Grant, at the request of the Treasurer’s office, took extraordinary steps to assist Mr Grant. The officer met with Ford Credit, who were seeking access to up to $450 million in taxpayers’ money from the government. That meeting took place in Melbourne on 23 February. At that meeting, the officer raised the case of Mr Grant on behalf of the Treasurer.

There were two unusual facts about the request he made to Ford Credit for their assistance to Mr Grant. Firstly, Mr Grant operates a Kia dealership, not a Ford dealership, and Ford Credit only services Ford and Volvo dealerships. Secondly, the Treasury officer gave representatives of Ford Credit Mr Grant’s mobile phone number with instructions to contact him and see if they could assist. This raises very serious issues. Mr Deputy President, place yourself in the shoes of Ford Credit. They desperately need finance to assist their dealers around the country who face financial ruin if they are not able to access credit quickly. But Ford Credit was not originally eligible for the scheme, and they were engaged in a lobbying effort for the scheme’s parameters to be altered to include them. At a meeting with the Treasury official—who would have significant influence, you would think, on whether or not they gained access to the scheme—they were asked to do a favour for someone they would not ordinarily assist, someone who did not operate a Ford or Volvo dealership. It was a favour for no less than a personal friend of the Prime Minister. It becomes pretty clear what is expected of them in that situation, and it is highly inappropriate. It was not what Ford was expected to do—you cannot blame Ford—but the expectation that was placed on Ford by the government that was inappropriate. It is telling that the government is not able to point to any other instance where a senior Treasury official, acting at the instruction of the Treasurer’s office, provided the mobile phone number of a dealer in need of help to Ford Credit, and it is also telling that it was provided at a point where Ford Credit was most likely to be eager to please.

But these are not the only issues in the case of Mr Grant. In an effort to demonstrate that Treasury officials and the Treasurer’s office were going to equal lengths for other dealerships, Mr Swan’s office has released a series of emails about other dealers—emails which Senator Abetz referred to in his contribution. One of these was raised by a Liberal backbencher. The government exclaimed: ‘Aha! Gotcha! See: the government were willing to help anyone who needed assistance. The PM’s mate got no special favours.’ That is the thesis from the government. It is a great argument except for a few inconvenient truths. We know from emails originally provided to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics that the Treasurer took a very personal interest in the case of Mr Grant. Emails on the matter to and from his staff and the Treasury officer were cc-ed to the Treasurer, and his staff even went to the extraordinary length of faxing all email correspondence from Treasury to Mr Swan’s home fax machine.

The Treasurer has attempted to suggest that he was very interested in this issue generally and concerned about the plight of all car dealers. If he were being truthful, I think most of his fellow ministers would have to hang their heads in shame. Do they all have constituent inquiries of that nature, in that detail, faxed to their homes too? I would be surprised. But, unsurprisingly, other dealers did not get this rolled-gold treatment. Of all other emails made public by Mr Swan’s office, none state that they are being faxed to his home—not even cc-ed to Mr Swan. Why, then, the special treatment for Mr Grant? Is it possible that it just might be because he happens to be a friend and donor to the Prime Minister, or is it simply a coincidence that Mr Swan followed every email on Mr Grant’s case with the Treasury?

The government have attempted to make this debate about the opposition. They say the opposition have smeared Mr Rudd and Mr Swan, that we have pursued this issue too vigorously and that we should all just let it be. In effect, they are saying, ‘Move on; there’s nothing to see here.’ I am sure all governments would love it if oppositions did not pursue allegations of misconduct—you cannot blame them; it is fair enough—but, unfortunately for Mr Rudd and Mr Swan, that is not going to happen, because it is our job to follow up inconvenient matters. That is what the parliament is here for. That is why we have Senate committees: to uncover the truth about government behaviour—maladministration and inappropriate behaviour.

It seems, however—I hate to say it—that Senator Hurley missed that particular civics lesson at school, judging by her disgraceful conduct in the Senate hearing last Friday. Efforts by opposition senators to uncover the truth about contact between Treasury officers and the offices of the Treasurer and the Prime Minister were repeatedly derailed. Senator Cameron, who served as the Treasurer’s—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Fifield, I have just been reflecting on what you have said, and I think your comments about Senator Hurley should be withdrawn.

Senator FIFIELD —I withdraw them, Mr Deputy President. On the subject of Senator Hurley, her colleague Senator Cameron served as the Treasurer’s mailman at the committee, delivering Treasury emails. After all, you have to find a job for Senator Cameron, and it is good that the government found one for him. Senator Cameron was also the chief interference runner, repeatedly interjecting as Senator Abetz was questioning witnesses.

Senator Parry —He scored some own goals.

Senator FIFIELD —Indeed he did, Senator Parry. On other occasions Senator Hurley, in the chair, asserted that the Treasury officials had answered Senator Abetz’s questions before they had even been given an opportunity to respond. Senator Hurley also repeatedly asked witnesses if they would like to answer the questions. Mr Deputy President, you would know that it is not the role of a chair to determine which questions have to be answered, and it is certainly not the role of a chair to tell witnesses that answering a senator’s question is an optional exercise. That is a matter which I think needs to be looked at at another time, because the role of chairs in this parliament goes very much to the integrity and good functioning of this parliament.

Mr Deputy President, witnesses before a Senate committee are effectively under oath. They appear before the Senate to answer its questions and are expected to do so to the best of their ability. As I say, I do not think the unprecedented intervention by the chair helped uncover the truth at that committee. It is important, I think, that all senators take very seriously their responsibility to uncover the truth and ensure that Senate committees fulfil that task. It is clear that the government has a lot that it wishes to hide in relation to OzCar. They would not be engaged in the unprecedented smear campaign against the Leader of the Opposition through the media and the parliament if they were not worried—and, for that matter, also the smear campaign against Senator Abetz.

The publicly available evidence makes it clear that Mr Swan does have serious questions to answer. His suggestion that Mr Grant was the recipient of normal constituent services is laughable. Mr Grant was clearly the beneficiary of special treatment. No other car dealer received the care, attention and assistance as promptly or as comprehensively as Mr Grant did. Mr Swan needs to answer the charges against him. He needs to fully disclose any other matters which are relevant to this case, and I hope he does so for the proper functioning of this parliament—that is, that ministers are open, honest and transparent. That is all the opposition is seeking: answers to legitimate questions.

Just before I conclude, I cannot finish without responding to some of the comments and some of the contributions of Senator Brown earlier in this debate where he said that the coalition had vetoed a reference to the Privileges Committee. He said that the Senate, and the opposition, had effectively vetoed a reference to a court—viewing the Privileges Committee as a court of the parliament. I think the Senate took the right decision. The Senate did the right thing. The Privileges Committee has never been used for partisan political benefit and it is important that this chamber ensures that the Privileges Committee is never used for that sort of purpose. One of the great strengths of the parliament is the Privileges Committee. Its operation goes to the integrity of the parliament. A Privileges Committee operating correctly and appropriately is one of the safeguards ensuring that the parliament and senators are behaving appropriately. It is for that reason that I believe the Senate took the appropriate decision—took the decision that it did—that the Privileges Committee not be embroiled in what was clearly a very partisan and political reference to it. That is not the purpose of the Privileges Committee.

The Senate has made its decision. It is not a decision that Senator Brown likes. Senator Brown is something of a sore loser. He has lost a few things recently—I think there was a court matter and now he has lost a vote here on the floor of the chamber. I think Senator Brown was upset because the Senate had the temerity to defy ‘the will of Bob’. But the Senate has made its decision and it was the appropriate decision. Senator Brown also, I thought in a very cheap point-scoring exercise, criticised Senator Abetz for, in his words, ‘fleeing the chamber’. Senator Abetz did not flee the chamber; Senator Abetz was paired. Senator Abetz has stated to the chamber that he thought that, given the matter which the Senate was deliberating on related to him, the appropriate thing was not to be in the chamber. I think Senator Abetz was right to do that. I can imagine how, if Senator Abetz had stayed in the chamber and cast a vote on the matter, Senator Brown would be screaming and hollering how inappropriate it was that Senator Abetz was involved in the deliberations.

Senator Hanson-Young —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Senator Fifield has reflected on comments that Senator Brown made in relation to Senator Abetz fleeing the chamber. My understanding is that Senator Brown then withdrew that and replaced those words with ‘leaving’.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Trood)—I am not sure that is a point of order.

Senator Hanson-Young —Mr Acting Deputy President, it is about correcting what is on the record, and I would like Senator Fifield to take that on board.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I invite Senator Fifield to address that matter if he chooses to do so.

Senator FIFIELD —Mr Acting Deputy President, I am not sure I have to correct anything here because those words were uttered in the chamber. I think it was a cheap and unnecessary point made by Senator Brown. Senator Abetz did the right thing. If he had stayed in this chamber and taken part in the deliberations on that matter then Senator Brown would have been screaming and hollering that it was inappropriate for him to be here. So I feel for Senator Abetz. He really cannot win when it comes to Senator Brown. Senator Abetz is a man of great integrity. He is a good and honest servant of the parliament. He has conducted himself appropriately at all times. I think the reflections that have been made on him in this place and outside are totally unwarranted. He has been fulfilling his duty as a senator—which is to seek the truth. It is not always comfortable and it is not always convenient, certainly not for those who are being questioned, and it is not always convenient for the person asking the questions. But he is fulfilling his obligations as a senator and as a shadow minister. With those remarks, I will conclude and commend the bill to the chamber.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Trood)—Senator Macdonald, you are not on my speaking list. Do you wish to speak?