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Government Accountability - The Senate

Senator the Hon John Faulkner
Labor Senator for NSW

The Senate 

2 March 2006

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As we know, today marks the 10th anniversary of the election of the Howard government. And what have we seen in those 10 years? We have seen 10 years of ministerial failure. We had the Prime Minister’s code of conduct, first released with great fanfare in 1996, hastily watered down once and then twice and finally junked.

Let us recall a sample of those ministerial disasters - I only have 20 minutes so I cannot go through them all.

Minister Jim Short was forced to resign for failing to divest himself of financial interests in his area of ministerial responsibility.  Industry minister John Moore was exposed for his shareholdings in technology investment and share-trading companies.  Parliamentary secretary Brian Gibson lost his job because of a conflict of interest. Small business minister Geoff Prosser was running three shopping centres while he was a minister and he was forced to resign. Resources minister Warwick Parer had massive share interests in a coalmine and in other resource companies; he stayed, in breach of the ministerial code. Acting minister for communications Peter McGauran forgot that he owned 70 poker machines. Employment services minister Mal Brough promoted training courses which were actually Liberal Party fundraisers. Industry minister Ian Macfarlane was involved in a complex scam to rort GST rebates from Liberal Party fundraisers. Aboriginal affairs minister John Herron kept up his practice as a surgeon, in breach of the code.

Mr Howard himself was found to be in breach of his own code when he failed to resign as a director of the Menzies Research Centre. Mr Howard misled the parliament over meetings he had held with ethanol producer Manildra’s boss - massive Liberal Party donor Dick Honan. It was eventually proved that the meetings did occur, and three weeks later the government increased trade penalties against a Brazilian ethanol producer.

Parliamentary secretary Warren Entsch’s concrete company won a massive government contract in breach of the code. Peter Reith was appointed as a consultant to defence contractor Tenix immediately after resigning as defence minister.  Health minister Michael Wooldridge signed a $5 million building deal for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and days later, after resigning as health minister, was employed by the college as a consultant. Senator Coonan, as Minister for Revenue, avoided paying a land tax. She was then exposed and forced to resign as a registered director of an insurance dispute resolution company operating from her own home.

Wilson Tuckey, then Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, heavied a state police minister on behalf of a family member.

Parliamentary secretary Bob Woods retired from politics when he was under police investigation for travel rorts. Communication minister Richard Alston’s family trust held Telstra shares. Peter Costello, the Treasurer, appointed Liberal Party megadonor Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank board despite being told by Mr Gerard that he was involved in a 14-year-long tax evasion dispute with the Australian Taxation Office.

Three ministers - John Sharp, David Jull and Peter McGauran - were forced to resign as a result of travel rorts involving false claims, mismanagement or cover-ups.  Parliamentary secretary Bill Heffernan was forced to resign over fabricated claims against a High Court judge. We had all that and much, much more.

What else have we had over the past 10 years? Ten years of public policy failure. A partial—very partial—list would include the massive pork-barrelling of the $1 billion Federation Fund program; the scandal over the budget leak about MRI machines; the development of a culture of assumption and denial in DIMIA while Mr Ruddock was minister for immigration, which the Comrie report called failed, catastrophic and dehumanised; the wrongful and scandalous deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon; the wrongful and scandalous detention of Cornelia Rau at Baxter detention centre; the utter incompetence of veterans’ affairs minister Danna Vale over roadworks at Anzac Cove; the rorting of the $500 million Regional Partnerships program, with massively disproportionate grants being allocated to coalition seats - not to mention the Tumbi Creek and Beaudesert Rail scandals under the same program; support for the training of scab labour in Dubai to work on the waterfront;  and the use of dogs and security guards in balaclavas during the waterfront dispute, as waterside workers were sacked under the cover of darkness with the loss of all entitlements and, in some cases, personal possessions.

The Prime Minister introduced the GST after promising he never, ever would. The Howard government have sponsored many attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the courts, including repeated slurs by Senator Heffernan in this chamber and in Senate estimates. They scrapped the free Commonwealth dental health scheme for low-income people. They put back the cause of reconciliation irrevocably by refusing to say sorry to the stolen generations. They blurred the line between church and state by the disastrous appointment of Archbishop Hollingworth as Governor-General of Australia. Within days of coming to office the Howard government sacked six departmental secretaries and have since politicised the Public Service so that officials will never offer frank and fearless advice. In fact, the government have encouraged a culture where advice of any kind from a public servant is not welcome. They have increased government staffing of ministers and parliamentary secretaries from 293 when they came to office to 430 now, many paid above the salary range.

They cynically manipulated public sentiment about asylum seekers for political advantage. They refused to sign the Kyoto protocol to deal with our greatest global environmental challenge: climate change. They sponsored attacks from the former communications minister Richard Alston and from government backbenchers over alleged ABC bias while making partisan appointments to the ABC board. They introduced draconian industrial legislation to strip away the hard-won rights of Australian workers. They introduced the flawed Pacific solution, which has seen detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island remain open without any detainees.

They have allowed an Australian citizen, David Hicks, to be held overseas without charge or trial for more than four years and left him to face a highly flawed tribunal process without making any efforts to ensure he will have a fair trial. Then there was the dithering over preferences to One Nation, giving succour, as a result, to Pauline Hanson and tacit approval of her racist views.

There was the billion dollar bungling of major defence upgrade and acquisition projects. There was the massive blow-out of $2 billion in the Commonwealth’s consultancies bill. There was the complete fiasco of the family tax benefit debt trap, which has slugged millions of Australian families with over $1.5 billion in debts.

There is the fiasco of child-care shortages and the broken promise of the government on the child-care rebate. And of course we have had the Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, presiding over private health insurance premium hikes, which have totally absorbed the government rebate. We have also had the plunge in bulk-billing rates and the breaking of the health minister’s promise not to increase the Medicare safety net threshold. We really have seen 10 years of sleaze, deception and manipulation.

We would be here all night if I had time to list every sorry exploit of the Howard government, but I do not. A mere sample includes: National Textiles, the company headed by the Prime Minister’s brother, Stan Howard, which was bailed out by the government to the tune of $4 million; the infamous Peter Reith telecard affair; the lies and deceit of ‘children overboard’; and then this nation being committed to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction while the government claimed that they were not aiming for regime change in Iraq. But when the government’s claims about weapons of mass destruction proved false, of course regime change became the justification for the war in Iraq. Never before has an Australian government sent our troops to war and lied to the Australian people about the reason for doing so.

We had Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty heavied for doing no more than stating the obvious about the increased terrorist threat in Australia after our involvement in Iraq. We have had public servants and senior defence officers forced to take the blame over the government’s denials about their knowledge of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison. We have had an unprecedented amount of public money splurged in advertising campaigns - as the Auditor-General has reported - to promote Liberal Party policies in the lead-up to the last three federal elections when the Howard government was in office. We have even had the government write the name of the Federal Liberal Party into electoral legislation on 33 occasions to strip the Liberal state divisions of public funding. They even now use the parliament for their own dirty factional work.

Despite the farcical denials that we have heard about Senator Hill’s appointment, he is about to become the 18th former Liberal Party politician to be appointed by the Howard government to a plum diplomatic post. Mr Howard perverted the accepted definition of an election promise. He broke promises willy-nilly but just redefined those broken promises as ‘non-core’ promises.

What about the Nixonian leaking of a classified document to Andrew Bolt in order to politically assassinate its author, Andrew Wilkie, while not vetoing the leaker from contesting a Liberal Party preselection ballot? We also had a situation where Mr Howard’s government engineered the sleaziest of deals with a former Labor senator, Mal Colston, to promote Colston to the deputy presidency of the Senate in return for Colston’s vote on crucial legislation. How low can you go?

We had the unprecedented gagging of public servants before estimates committees just a week or so ago. Mr Howard himself, his senior minister, and his entire government have turned a blind eye to kickbacks paid to Saddam Hussein’s regime to ensure wheat sales. At the same time, we had Mr Howard self-righteously proclaiming that Saddam Hussein is a ‘loathsome dictator’. They turned a blind eye to our single-desk wheat exporter, who practically became the banker of the Baath Party in Iraq. They turned a blind eye. Who knows where that money ended up? Who knows what it paid for? What we do know is that under the government’s own terrorist legislation, if someone acts recklessly and funds turn up in the hands of terrorists, the guilty party is subject to life imprisonment. You go to jail and they throw away the keys if you recklessly engage in an action under our terrorism laws where financial resources end up in the hands of a terrorist. Let us see what happens in relation to the Howard government, which has acted as Saddam Hussein’s banker.

Of course, all these sins mean nothing to the Howard government. After all, how can it repent what it cannot recall? This government, and its hand-picked sycophants, suffers from the worst case of collective amnesia in medical and political history.  What are the bywords of the Howard government? ‘I cannot recall,’ ‘I don’t recollect,’ ‘I wasn’t informed,’ ‘I can’t remember,’ ‘I have no recollection of that.’

Best of all, we had Trevor Flugge of AWB fame claiming, as his defence, that he is hard of hearing.

It seems to me the whole of this government is hard of hearing.

It is certainly deaf to the cries of conscience.

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