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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26054

Senator WEBBER (8:32 PM) —I do not propose to take up too much of the Senate's valuable time. These days federal elections are, more often than not, close-run affairs. I suspect this will prove to be the case with the coming one as well. The Australian people have become increasingly cynical over the years about the political process and politicians, unfortunately. Given some of the recent goings-on in my home state of Western Australia, they are justified in being cynical. Today in the Australian newspaper is an article headed `Letter scam rocks Liberals'. Essentially, the people of Western Australia have seen an inquiry into the Liberal campaign for Swan and specifically the writing of letters to the local newspaper.

An 87-year-old woman, Emily Dickman, had published in the local community newspaper, the Southern Gazette, a letter containing a number of false accusations against the member for Swan, Kim Wilkie. Ms Dickman's letter claimed that Mr Wilkie had failed to attend a community crime forum that he had organised. Not only did Mr Wilkie attend that forum but he also had an attendance register that did not contain the name Emily Dickman. Concerned about this accusation, Mr Wilkie's staff contacted Ms Dickman, who indicated that the letter had in fact been written by the Liberal candidate for Swan, Andrew Murfin.

Mr Murfin was interviewed on Perth radio on Friday morning last week but on Friday afternoon, when he was scheduled to appear at his own community crime forum, he failed to appear. I am sure that the irony escapes no-one. To avoid answering the questions of the press, he did what the false letter claimed Mr Wilkie had done. It seems that, in the electorate of Swan, what goes around comes around.

Senator Crossin —That's what Shane Stone said on the radio the other day!

Senator WEBBER —Indeed. It now appears from the article in the Australian today that the fall guy—or in this case the fall woman—has been found for the false letter. One of Mr Murfin's campaign workers has been given notice to explain how the letter came to be published. This is in fact the fifth attempt by the Liberal campaign in Swan to explain this misleading letter. On one occasion on Thursday last week, Ms Dickman claimed to local press, `I wrote the letter, and Mr Murfin tidied it up.' Then Ms Dickman twice claimed, when contacted by other media outlets in Perth last week, that Mr Murfin had helped write a letter to her niece in England and she knew nothing about the letter published in the Southern Gazette. Then there is Mr Murfin himself. On 6PR, a Perth radio station, on Friday last week he claimed that he had helped Ms Dickman write a letter so that she could claim money back on her health insurance policy, and he knew nothing about the letter to the Southern Gazette. It would seem that everyone but Mr Murfin is to blame—and now we have found the fall person.

Last night as I sat and watched Media Watch, which identified letter writers to major newspapers who had failed to identify potential conflicts of interest, I wondered whether Ms Dickman and the Liberal campaign for Swan would be given their well-deserved air time as well. The Southern Gazette editor printed a footnote in this week's newspaper that said:

Ms Dickman's letter included her details but attempts to contact her were unsuccessful. As she was listed on the electoral roll, it was decided to publish the letter. As a result of this issue we have reviewed and changed our verification process.

So the decent, hardworking staff of the Southern Gazette now have to take additional steps to verify letter writers as a result of the actions of the Liberal campaign in Swan. It is clear from the footnote that the editor and staff—and no doubt the readers—of the Southern Gazette are more cynical about the political process as a result of this letter fix-up.

This of course is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg in my home state. It is not the first time that we have seen Liberal candidates coordinating these kinds of letter campaigns. In fact, the Liberal member for the state seat of Kalgoorlie also has form when it comes to having ink on his hands. It is true that the pen is mightier than the sword, especially when the pen is wielded by unseen people on campaign teams whose coordinated propaganda messages are portrayed as the view of everyday Australians. So much for truth overboard—when you actually start from a position of deceiving the Australian people, there is no truth to get on board in the first place. It is little wonder that the Australian people are cynical.

The Australian people also have the right to be cynical about former ministers and members of parliament who leave this place and immediately jump into the ranks of lobbyists in the very area that they had responsibility for in government. Mr Fahey, Mr Reith, Dr Wooldridge and now our former colleague Richard Alston have all joined the ranks of lobbyists that are working in portfolio areas for which they had ministerial responsibility. The behaviour of another Western Australian falls into this category as well. According to the West Australian published on 31 July this year, the member for Canning, Don Randall:

... lobbied the Minister responsible for the Australian Securities and Investments Commission on behalf of a Perth businessman who was being investigated by the corporate watchdog.

As a result of this lobbying, Mr Randall accepted shares in the WA company Reefton Mining. Reefton Mining occupies a rather dubious place in WA corporate history. During the period 1 July to 31 October 1999, shares in Reefton Mining surged from a mere 7c a share to 35c a share. According to the article in the West Australian, ACC documents show that there was false and insider trading going on at Reefton Mining.

At that time a deal was being negotiated to sell a Mr Nigel Mansfield's online casino project to Reefton Mining. One of the reasons that Reefton Mining was looked at closely was that several known Perth identities, or `persons of interest' in police parlance, were involved with Reefton Mining or the online casino project. Indeed it is alleged that the notorious Mr John Kizon was one of those persons of interest. According to the paper, Mr Randall's client was involved in the false and insider trading at Reefton. This client, who apparently caused ASIC to state that it would continue to hunt the man down, was important enough for Mr Randall to make an appointment with the then Minister for Financial Services and Regulation, Mr Hockey. According to the paper, he was given a warning by Mr Hockey to stay away from the target.

At this point one wonders what Mr Randall did. He accepted the payment of the Reefton Mining shares for the services he had provided. However, he claimed to the newspaper that he had no reason to not accept the shares. I quote:

“Not really because I was being paid for services,” he said. “I didn't know who I was dealing with at that time, did I? At that stage I thought it was just shares in a mining company.”

How could he not know whom he was dealing with? The minister had given him a private warning to stay away from the target. Any reasonable person would have said to themselves: `Hold on a minute, my client is being investigated by ASIC. The minister is telling me to stay away from him. Maybe this is not quite all above board.' A reasonable person would not have taken shares from a client who was under suspicion of behaving illegally.

Even though it is clear that Mr Randall has not acted illegally, his involvement in the matter yet again reinforces the Australian people's cynical view of politicians. One wonders what Mr Randall was attempting to achieve by lobbying the minister. Surely he was not attempting to get the minister to influence an independent ASIC investigation. One thing is clear: former ministers and members of this parliament must be above reproach if they are going to act as lobbyists when they leave here.

Finally, I have to say that I feel sorry for the Prime Minister—and that must come as a surprise to most people. However, it is hard not to feel sorry for him when every time he comes to Perth the WA division of the Liberal Party manages to serve him up yet another scandal. The last time Mr Howard was in Perth, in February, they managed to serve him up Paul Afkos, the former candidate for Stirling. The irony for those of us not in the Liberal Party was that the Prime Minister made a big announcement on his Tough on Drugs policy on the same day that he opened Mr Afkos's campaign office in Stirling. Within 11 days Mr Afkos was no longer the candidate for Stirling—a man whom the Prime Minister had described in these glowing terms:

He has been in every sense a wonderful citizen of this country and I'm very proud to have him as the Liberal Party candidate here in Stirling.

Not long after that ringing endorsement it was revealed by the West Australian that Mr Afkos was embroiled in an investigation after he had borrowed $300,000 from a convicted drug dealer. The real problem is not the link to the convicted drug dealer, although it is a very serious issue, but the story that ran in the West Australian on 16 February 2004 titled `Libs hid Afkos deal for months'. It appears that for two months Liberal Party officials kept secret the information which the newspaper broke only in February. The article stated:

Mr Afkos yesterday told The West Australian he had told the Liberal Party in December about his involvement with the man who had been arrested by organised crime detectives.

But even as Mr Howard launched Mr Afkos' campaign in Perth two weeks ago, senior party officials kept the sensational information secret. Liberal Party State director Paul Everingham yesterday admitted he had been made aware of the $300,000 loan and the drug charges and approached Mr Afkos after another Liberal Party member had raised concerns with him. He ordered the party lawyer to investigate the matter.

You have to wonder what sort of game they were playing at Menzies House. It cannot have been much of an investigation if they had not got to the bottom of the matter before the Prime Minister's visit.

Some of the questions that still need to be answered on this matter are: given that the Director of Public Prosecutions has ruled that the $300,000 must now be repaid as an asset allegedly attributed to a person convicted of and currently charged with drug trafficking, what inquiries have been made to ascertain the source of the campaign funds and the ownership and lease arrangements for campaign offices in the seat of Stirling; given that it is normal practice for campaign funds to remain with the campaign, can we be assured that no money has come from persons associated with or alleged to be involved with drug trafficking; and what inquiries have been made as to any other contributions or donations that may have been made to the Liberal Party by either Mr Afkos or his associates, in particular the person who is the subject of the $300,000 loan? As I said at the outset, we are often concerned about why the political process is held in such low regard by our fellow Australians. These three examples from the Western Australian division of the Liberal Party illustrate some of the reasons why they do.