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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6897


Senator BILYK (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (20:34): There are still many serious questions that senior Liberals have to answer about the handling of the alleged theft by their former state director in Victoria and Tasmania, Mr Damien Mantach. It is believed that some $1.5 million may have gone missing from the Victorian division of the Liberal Party, discovered after forensic accounting firm PPB Advisory found irregularities in the branch's accounting. According to The Age article from 20 August:

The fraud allegedly included payments to non-existent companies for non-existent services, with money channelled back to family interests.

Party president, Michael Kroger, was quoted in the article as saying he hoped to recover some of the missing funds which had been spent on investments and lifestyle. I understand that the Victorian branch's administrative committee has been preparing a brief of evidence on the matter for Victorian police.

The article also included revelations that there were discrepancies in Mr Mantach's spending on his party credit card from his time as director of the Tasmanian branch of the party, and it was later revealed that he had racked up almost $48,000 in personal expenses on the card.

It is understood that the then president of the Tasmanian branch, Mr Dale Archer, met with the then Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Abetz, on 5 March 2008 to inform him of the investigation. According to Senator Abetz's account of the meeting, 'no advice was sought or offered' and 'no sum of money was mentioned'. The following day, 6 March, Mr Archer informed the federal director, Mr Brian Loughnane, that Mr Mantach had resigned. According to the Hobart Mercury, Mr Archer said:

Brian Loughnane was informed by me of the full extent of the circumstances surrounding Mr Mantach's departure …

There is a file note that confirms in writing that the federal director was advised of this issue on the 6th of March, 2008.

It is curious. If we believe the accounts of both Mr Archer and Senator Abetz, that means that, within a day, the investigation was completed, the amount of money was determined and Mr Mantach had agreed to resign.

A couple of weeks ago, the party's current Tasmanian President, Mr Geoff Page, held a closed-door meeting with about 60 members to discuss the party's handling of the issue. Mr Page told members at the meeting that a 'sensible decision' was made to 'negotiate' the repayment of the money by Mr Mantach. Until the Victorian revelations came to light, the Tasmanian branch had not disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission Mr Mantach's repayment of the expenses.

The current Tasmanian Director, Mr Sam McQuestin, filed the request only last month and said that the failure to do so seven years ago was an 'administrative oversight'. It would be easier to believe that the failure to disclose these repayments was an oversight, were it not for the failure to disclose Mr Mantach's dealings to the members of the branch or the broader Tasmanian public. Everyone was kept in the dark.

There are a number of questions for the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party to answer over this scandal—and this includes Senator Abetz, who we have heard knew of Mr Mantach's conduct at the time. It also includes the Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, who was, and still is, a member of the party's state executive, which is responsible for the affairs of the party. Firstly, when did Mr Hodgman and other members of the executive first become aware of Mr Mantach's activities and the arrangement for Mr Mantach to pay back the money? Did the party discuss going to the police if Mr Mantach refused to pay the money? Why did the party have to 'negotiate' the payment of the money? Section 234 of the Tasmanian Criminal Code states:

Any person who steals anything is guilty of a crime.

So if money was stolen, repaying the money does not absolve a person of committing the crime. Section 102 of the Criminal Code states:

Any person who solicits, receives, or obtains, or agrees to receive or obtain, any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person, as a consideration for any agreement or understanding that he will compound or conceal a crime, or will abstain from, discontinue, or delay a prosecution for a crime, is guilty of a crime.

So I ask: why was the matter involving the Tasmanian branch of the party not reported to the police?

I know that the Tasmanian Leader of the Opposition, Bryan Green, wrote to the Tasmanian Police Commissioner, Darren Hine, asking him to investigate the matter. Tasmania Police advised Mr Green that they would not investigate the matter because, according to Deputy Commissioner Scott Tilyard:

Tasmania Police does not investigate alleged property offences without a complaint from a victim, or a person acting on behalf of a victim.

Given the police will not investigate the matter without a complaint from a victim, it now falls to the Tasmanian branch of the Liberal Party to answer on behalf of their members the question: will they now refer this alleged crime to the police, albeit seven years too late?

The Federal Director of the Liberal Party, Mr Brian Loughnane, also has questions to answer. I understand that Mr Loughnane was part of the selection panel that appointed Mr Mantach to the position of director in Victoria. The other panellists were Mr Tony Nutt—former Chief of Staff to Prime Minister John Howard and current New South Wales Party Director—then Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and his Chief of Staff, Mr Michael Kapel. We know that Mr Archer claims to have informed Mr Loughnane of Mr Mantach's resignation. So I ask: did Mr Loughnane inform any of the other panellists about the nature of Mr Mantach's departure as director of the Tasmanian branch? Did they, along with Mr Loughnane, appoint Mr Mantach to the position of Victorian Director of the Liberal Party knowing the circumstances of his resignation as director of the Tasmanian branch? I am also curious to know what the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, knew of Mr Mantach's dealings.

In March 2013, tape recordings revealed that Mr Nutt and Mr Mantach offered cash, accommodation and employment assistance to former staffer Tristan Weston, after he was forced to resign when his role in a plot to undermine former police commissioner Simon Overland was made public. At the time, Mr Abbott gave Mr Mantach his support. He said: 'I know Damien Mantach well. He is a person of integrity. So let's see where this investigation goes. He has my confidence.' So Mr Abbott was claiming at that time to know Mr Mantach well. I wonder, did he know of Mr Mantach's conduct in Victoria and Tasmania? And why did he consider Mr Mantach to be a 'person of integrity'?

If just one of the many people in the Liberal Party who knew about Mr Mantach's conduct in Tasmania had come forward and reported the matter to police, it is possible the much larger alleged crime in Victoria could have been avoided. Given that public funding of political parties is available in Victoria, this is not just members' money we are talking about—although the members clearly have a right to be angry about this. It also involves public money, and the Australian public have a right to answers.

In this place we hear a lot from the other side about union thugs, but when it comes to issues of crime in their own midst, they do not care to report them or to get the police involved. It is high time that much more white collar crime was brought to the fore. This whole murky affair is either a monumental stuff up—a case of mismanagement by those in the hierarchy of the Tasmanian, Victorian and federal divisions of the Liberal Party—or, even worse, it is a cover up and conspiracy. Either way, those who had knowledge of this scandal need to come clean and tell Liberal Party members and the Australian public exactly what they knew and when. Because what we have heard so far, as Mr Hockey would put it, simply does not pass the 'sniff test'.