Thursday, 29 November 2012
by leave—I move:
That the Leader of the Opposition address the House for a period of 15 minutes to substantiate his claim that the Prime Minister has breached the laws of Western Australia, or if he cannot do so, to unreservedly apologise, and that following the Leader of the Opposition's address the Prime Minister be given 15 minutes in reply.
Australians are rightly sick of sleaze and smear and rightly sick of the opposition's tactics of negativity and taking up the time of this parliament by not addressing issues of national interest.
I have been saying for weeks now that I was prepared to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt when it came to the AWU corruption scandal but that I needed—the nation needed—to hear the Prime Minister's side of the story. Well, this week we have heard more of the Prime Minister's side of the story, but I have to say that the more we hear from the Prime Minister the more obvious it is that she has been involved in unethical conduct and possibly unlawful behaviour.
As a partner at Slater and Gordon, the Prime Minister had three clients: Mr Blewitt, Mr Wilson and the Australian Workers Union—her boyfriend, his self-confessed bagman and their union. The Prime Minister advised two of those clients in setting up an association that turned out to be a vehicle for defrauding the third client. She unceremoniously left the firm, and the AWU—one of the firm's most prestigious clients—dumped the firm. The Prime Minister says—she has consistently said—that she has done nothing wrong. If there was nothing wrong here, if there was nothing to hide here, why did the Prime Minister never open a file? Why did she never disclose any of these activities to her partners?
But it goes further than that. When queried by the Corporate Affairs Commission, the Prime Minister wrote to the Corporate Affairs Commission stating that the purpose of this association was workplace safety. But it was not workplace safety. We know that it was not workplace safety, because the Prime Minister subsequently told her own partners that it was a slush fund—a slush fund, pure and simple; a slush fund for the re-election of officers to the union which subsequently turned out also to be a vehicle for defrauding the union.
The Prime Minister, we know from the unredacted transcript released today, argued to the West Australian Corporate Affairs Commission that this organisation, this association, should be registered. Presumably, she said that it wholly complied with the law—only it did not, because the law requires it to have at least five members and the Prime Minister knew full well that the association had but two members.
Let me make these fundamental points. First, it is highly unethical for a senior lawyer, a partner at a law firm, to provide misleading information to an official body such as the Corporate Affairs Commission of Western Australia. Second, it is actually illegal to provide false information to the Corporate Affairs Commission. Third, it is wrong for a prime minister to fail to give full and candid answers to this parliament. It is wrong in ethics for any person in authority to cover up wrongdoing.
In this parliament this week, on five separate occasions the Prime Minister was asked about the representations that she had made to the West Australian Corporate Affairs Commission about the body which she knew was a slush fund. Did the Prime Minister come clean? Was the Prime Minister candid and honest? No. On every single occasion, the Prime Minister stonewalled or she engaged in unbecoming abuse of the questioner. And we now know why, because we have the unredacted transcript of her termination interview, her exit interview, with Slater and Gordon. She had written to the Corporate Affairs Commission. She had argued for the incorporation of this association. She had represented that this was an association that could validly be registered under Western Australian law when she knew that it could not be, because she knew all along that this was a slush fund—a slush fund for the re-election of union officials. She was party to the creation of a slush fund, on her own admission in her exit interview with Slater and Gordon.
This whole exercise was a sham to facilitate a fraud. And the Prime Minister's involvement in it was this: she gave the advice and she made the representations that enabled the association to be incorporated; that facilitated the fraud.
But the Prime Minister's wrongdoing did not end there. She must have known after the exit interview that there was an abundance of problems here. She must have known, because she terminated the relationship with Mr Wilson. She must have known that serious wrongdoing had taken place—that union money had been stolen. But, instead of making a clean breast of this, instead of reporting this to the relevant authorities, she said nothing about it. She said nothing at all about it for years and years and years, and her silence meant that the fraud could continue. Her silence meant that more money that belonged legitimately to the Australian Workers Union was siphoned off for the benefit of her, by then former, boyfriend and his bagman, Mr Blewitt.
At the very least, this is conduct unbecoming—it is unbecoming of a legal partner; it is unbecoming of a future prime minister of this country. The Prime Minister says she did not know anything about the actual fraud at the time the fraud was being committed. She says that she did not know anything at all about whether she was receiving any benefit from the fraud—indeed, she categorically denies receiving any benefit from the fraud. Again I say that I am prepared to extend to the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. The problem is that where we have had the opportunity to test the Prime Minister's assertions against the documents—against the record—her assertions have turned out to be gravely lacking in truth and in substance. So the charge is that the Prime Minister has been, at the very least, a dodgy and unethical lawyer and that she has been an incompetent and untrustworthy Prime Minister, as has been demonstrated abundantly by the evasions and the obfuscations that we have so consistently seen from this Prime Minister in the parliament this week.
But this is not just about an old scandal: corruption that dogged one union a long time ago. It is also about the ability of this government and this Prime Minister to stamp out union corruption wherever it occurs. We know that there is a very long echo of the AWU corruption scandal in the Health Services Union scandal, which is taking place to this very day. We know that one of the Prime Minister's own MPs has been involved in gravely unethical conduct—conduct in breach of the law—because the Fair Work Australia report into the Health Services Union states exactly that. These are not allegations and these are not claims. These are findings from the government's own organisation: the quasi-judicial body Fair Work Australia. We know that a former National President of the Australian Labor Party, Michael Williamson—who is also the former boss of the Health Services Union—has been guilty of grave misconduct because, again, Fair Work Australia has found it to be so. The gentleman in question is now subject to serious charges.
How can a Prime Minister and a government be expected to stamp out union corruption when senior members of the party and the government have been associated with union corruption themselves? As I said, let us return to the nub of this. The Prime Minister gave the advice and she provided the representations which enabled the incorporation of the body that facilitated the fraud. She made representations to the Western Australian Corporate Affairs Commission that she knew were not justified. She made representations to the Western Australian Corporate Affairs Commission that this was a body that had the requisite number of members and that had been established fundamentally for workplace safety, and she knew that this was purely and simply a slush fund.
I say to the Prime Minster and members opposite: let us get to the bottom of this. Let us have the judicial inquiry that Mr Ian Cambridge, the then National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union, was calling for at the time and has been calling for ever since. Let us have the judicial inquiry that quite a number of the Prime Minister's own backbenchers thought was warranted then and think is warranted now. Let us have the judicial inquiry that will finally get to the bottom of this whole squalid affair. I have for the benefit of the Prime Minister some terms of reference which I will seek to table at the end of this time.
There is another issue. It is an issue for those opposite; it is an issue for the Australian Labor Party.
Mr Combet interjecting—
What kind of person do members opposite wish to have leading their party? What kind of character and judgment and integrity do they expect of the person leading their party? Plainly there has been an abundance of unethical, illegal conduct here. Much of it has been facilitated, at the very least, by the Prime Minister and the advice that she has given. Since this time, in the parliament and elsewhere, she has consistently given evasive, misleading and obfuscating answers—and that, frankly, is conduct unbecoming of a Prime Minister of this country. So the question for members sitting behind the Prime Minister today is: is she a fit and proper person to hold the prime ministership of our country? That is the question they need to ask themselves.
Government members interjecting—
They can shout all they like today, but that is a question that will play on their consciences over the next couple of months until this parliament comes back.
The Prime Minister has clearly been preparing for this moment. I think we know what we can expect from the Prime Minister. We can expect more of the bluff and the verbal intimidation that she has practised throughout her career. I have this piece of advice of the Prime Minister: this is not about gender; this is about character—and, Prime Minister, you have failed the character test.
I seek leave to table the terms of reference I referred to in my speech.
Leave not granted.
Believe it or not, the Leader of the Opposition is such a negative human being that that was his version of an unreserved apology. Let us be very clear about what this motion is about and what the Leader of the Opposition just spectacularly failed to do in a halting, nervous and ultimately content-less performance. Let us be very clear about what he failed to do. This morning the Leader of the Opposition went on to national television and accused me of committing a crime. That is what he did this morning.
Opposition members interjecting—
No amount of screaming from the opposition changes the transcript. The Leader of the Opposition was on the Today show and said I misled the WA Corporate Affairs Commission and that is obviously a very serious matter that would certainly appear to be a breach of the law. He then went on at the end of the transcript to accuse me by saying: this is a Prime Minister who made false representations, who gave false information to the Corporate Affairs Commission, which allowed a vehicle to be established which was then used for fraud. The Leader of the Opposition this morning was out accusing me of a crime; let us be very clear.
And then, at the behest of the Leader of the Opposition, the Manager of Opposition Business was calling for my resignation on the basis that I had committed a crime. Now there is a problem with all of this for the Leader of the Opposition. When leaders of the opposition overreach and go out and falsely accuse the Prime Minister of committing a crime, we have seen this movie before. If he wants to see how the movie ends, turn around and look at the member for Wentworth because we saw in the Godwin Grech affair what happens to a leader of the opposition who accuses the Prime Minister of a crime and cannot back it up. We see what happens to them in public esteem and we see ultimately what happens to them in the eyes of their own political party.
Earlier this week, on Tuesday, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition knew how bad it was to make an error and accuse me of a crime when the opposition had no material to back it up. In the morning she did that, in the afternoon she was denying she had done it and then she back flipped and said no she did not mean that at all. So the Deputy Leader of the Opposition engaged in a humiliating backdown. But there was no such backdown for the Leader of the Opposition today. He just went out and said that I had committed a crime. We have given the Leader of the Opposition 15 minutes to make this allegation good. Where the Leader of the Opposition got to out of his 15 minutes was 'conduct unbecoming'. That is where he has backed off to. Let me just explain to people exactly what has happened this morning. What has happened this morning is that—
Opposition members interjecting—
No amount of screaming changes the opposition leader's conduct. No amount of screaming does that. What the opposition leader has done this morning is as follows: he has woken up, he has read a report in Fairfax newspapers, he has gone on television relying on that report with no other evidence or information at his disposal and, during the course of the morning, Fairfax corrected that report twice because it was wrong. The material the opposition sought to rely on this morning was an assertion about a transcript of interview between me and two partners of Slater and Gordon in 1995.
Let me actually take people to the transcript of the interview. Let us see what it says as opposed to the claims made by the Leader of the Opposition. The transcript of interview goes to a letter to a Western Australian government authority suggesting to the authority concerned that the association, which I provided legal advice on and the incorporation of, was a trade union and therefore ineligible for incorporation under that legislation and that we had prepared a response—that is, Slater and Gordon—submitted on Bruce Wilson's instructions to that authority suggesting that in fact it was not a trade union and arguing the case for its incorporation. Whatever view people take of the facts of this matter, I have never heard anybody contend that the association is a trade union. Saying it is not a trade union is a simple matter of fact. This was misreported in Fairfax this morning as me saying or writing that the association had no trade union links. This was backed down by Fairfax once on its website and then backed down by Fairfax again on its website.
If this was just a debate between me as Prime Minister and Fairfax that is something we would resolve outside of this parliamentary chamber. That is not the point of having a parliamentary debate. The point of having a parliamentary debate is that the Leader of the Opposition, who is a rash man, who has never worried about the facts of this or any other matter and who is a man who clutches for negativity and sleaze whenever he can, read the newspapers this morning and, without any further inquiry, without any skerrick of evidence, then went out and accused me of a crime. Based on a false report, the Leader of the Opposition accused me of a crime. Based on a false report, the member for Sturt called on me to resign. Based on a false report, the opposition has been involved in this blitzkrieg this morning.
The problem for the Leader of the Opposition is this: 15 minutes he has just had to outline the facts and allegations on which he relies and all of them are either spin or they are untruthful. Let us go through the things that the Leader of the Opposition has claimed in this place today, which are untruthful. The Leader of the Opposition today said in his parliamentary address that I told the commissioner the association was dedicated to workplace safety. There is no evidence of this in the Slater and Gordon transcript and he has not produced any letter to that effect. He says I was not honest in response to parliamentary questions about the letter to the commissioner. That is not true and I refer him to the Hansard.
Opposition members: What Hansard?
Yesterday's Hansard. He says I knew the association could not be properly registered. That is false and unsubstantiated. He says I must have known there was wrongdoing but said nothing and that the fraud continued. He has not provided any evidence of that because no evidence could possibly exist—because I did not know of any wrongdoing.
The Leader of the Opposition, after all of these weeks, after all of these months of smear, has had an opportunity today to put up and he has not been able to do so. The Leader of the Opposition is now handcuffed to an allegation that I committed a crime and he is handcuffed to the fact that he does not have any evidence of that. A decent man would apologise for this course of conduct. A decent man would recognise that he has gone too far, that he has made an error, that he has relied on a false report and that he cannot prove what he has been saying. If the Leader of the Opposition were a decent man, he would have used his 15 minutes to say that he was wrong this morning. But the Leader of the Opposition is not a decent man and he is not a man who can be relied on to go to the facts of a matter.
Mr Pyne interjecting—
Government members interjecting—
Yes, that interjection from the member for Sturt was very funny, given the campaign the opposition has been involved in. The Leader of the Opposition does not look to facts; he just looks to sleaze and smear.
Let us go right through this from the start. The Leader of the Opposition has accused me of a crime. He cannot evidence that. There is no evidence of it and the accusation ought to be retracted.
Mr Pyne interjecting—
The member for Sturt is yelling about a letter he has not produced.
Opposition members interjecting—
I know the opposition does not like dealing with the facts; they like sleaze and smear. The opposition is trying to make up allegations it does not have any evidence for. The Leader of the Opposition contended I committed a crime. He does not have evidence of that. He based it on a false report. He should have apologised for that today. The Leader of the Opposition has then gone on to make up material about my state of knowledge about the association, when I have been accurate and truthful about my state of knowledge of the association. The Leader of the Opposition has then gone on to make up allegations about the circumstances of the incorporation of the association and who was responsible for what. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that the application to incorporate the association was signed by Ralph Blewitt—he took responsibility for it with that signature—the person the Deputy Leader of the Opposition is now in regular contact with. So any questions about authority for the incorporation of the association is resolved by Ralph Blewitt's signature on that document.
After all of these months of smear, the opposition, after all of these questions, now stand today in the circumstance where they cannot say to me anything stronger than they think my conduct was 'unbecoming'—after all of these months of sleaze and smear. Any allegation beyond that they cannot substantiate, have not substantiated and have got wrong—and they have made things up. They have gone out into the court of public opinion and said that I am guilty of a crime and they cannot provide the evidence for it.
Where does this take Australians to? In my view, Australians need to think very carefully about what this course of conduct says about the opposition leader's ability to show judgement and to deal with facts. He races out the door this morning with the most serious allegation you can make about a Prime Minister—with no facts at his disposal. He comes into the parliament and, given an opportunity to back it up, cannot back it up. If this is the way the Leader of the Opposition would deal with an allegation as serious as this, what does it say about his ability to deal with all the public policy matters people look to their political leadership to deal with? Can anybody imagine the Leader of the Opposition, with his track record of negativity, with his conduct today, being the sort of person who could carefully produce a health policy, an education policy or a jobs policy based on the facts? Can anybody imagine him being the sort of person who would use his brain rather than his political brawn in the interests of the nation, the sort of person who would show policy strength instead of policy weakness?
The Leader of the Opposition, throughout his time as leader, day after day, has demonstrated to the Australian people that he is someone good at insults. But there is never a moment when he produces a positive policy in the nation's interest, never a time when he produces a file on health or education or jobs. All he ever has under his arm—or under the arm of one of his staff members—is a dirt file. That is who the Leader of the Opposition is.
The Leader of the Opposition is someone who is using sleaze and smear because his political business model of fear has been going out of business. The Leader of the Opposition had hoped that, after the 2010 election, if he caused enough chaos, he would be rewarded with the prime ministership. Then he had hoped that, if he caused enough fear about carbon pricing, he would be rewarded with the prime ministership. Now, because those things are, transparently, not working for the Leader of the Opposition the way he had hoped, here he is inserting sleaze and smear in this place even though he does not have the facts available to him to back up his claims.
The Leader of the Opposition has had his opportunity to put up. Having so frankly failed to put up, now he should be shutting up. The only thing which should be coming out of his mouth is an apology for the false and defamatory allegation he made against me this morning. The only thing I can imagine coming out of the mouths of Australians is dismay that this Leader of the Opposition is so entrenched in negativity and smear that he can never lift his eyes to say anything positive about the nation's future.