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Speech: Senator Sinodinos must explain Australian Water Holdings dealings

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 19 Mar 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (10:57):  I rise to speak in support of this motion on behalf of the Australian Greens. This is a motion calling on Assistant Treasurer Senator Sinodinos:

... to immediately attend the Chamber to provide the Senate with a full explanation of his dealings as a director of Australian Water Holdings, with particular reference to political donations, his shareholdings and his role in contract negotiations ... and his statement made in the Senate on 28 February 2013 and reaffirmed during question time on 6 March 2014;

The motion goes on to say:

... if no statement has been made ... before 12 noon today, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate ... may immediately move a further motion relating to Senator Sinodinos' failure to comply.

For those who may be listening to this debate and a little confused about the background to it, I just indicate that this motion to have the Assistant Treasurer attend the Senate and give a full explanation is in relation to statements that he has made in the Senate previously-statements which, in the view of many of us, are characterised by omissions. We are concerned about the omissions in those statements, as well as what has been said in those statements. We know that Senator Sinodinos served as a director of Australian Water Holdings for three years, at a time when it was lobbying for a lucrative state government contract, which could have earned the senator between $10 million and $20 million from his shareholdings in the company.

In relation to the hearings into Australian Water Holdings by the ICAC in New South Wales, Senator Sinodinos has been requested to attend and provide evidence. Counsel assisting the ICAC, Mr Watson SC, has said:

'It's ... difficult to offer observations on the conduct of Mr Sinodinos-

and we acknowledge that Senator Sinodinos has not given evidence before the ICAC yet. Mr Watson continued:

'It's quite transparent that Mr Sinodinos's true role in Australian Water Holdings was to open lines of communication with the Liberal party and there will be evidence that he tried to do so.'

This goes to the heart of why the Australian Greens are supporting this motion at this time. It is because, increasingly, there is a murky revolving door that the Australian public are becoming aware of, with great concern, where business is linked, by donations to political parties, to the parliament. It is a revolving door. We have business donations to political parties and representatives in the parliament-and it goes round and round. It is murky territory that we see more and more in Australian public life, and the public, I think, is becoming increasingly concerned about that.

We need to have transparency. We need to be able to get to the bottom of what is occurring in these kinds of dealings that we are hearing about all too often. Given that, at this stage, we do not have processes for a national investigation of this kind of conduct, unfortunately it is then left to the parliament to try and require full explanations to be given.

I go now to some of the key elements of ministerial responsibility, which is such an important aspect of the Australian system of parliament. I refer here to the key elements recognised in the code of conduct that ministers are required to sign up to when they take on that important role being a minister. They are obligations in relation to dealing with lobbyists, obligations to disclose investments, bans on lobbying after someone has become a minister and bans on fundraising at the Lodge and Kirribilli. They go to show the importance with which the whole parliament treats matters to do with the conduct of ministers. We know that, in our Australian system, ministers are clearly responsible for both their acts and their omissions, and ignorance of a matter does not excuse a minister. These are just fundamental principles that I am referring to here. These are important principles.

When it comes to actually being able to investigate those and having some means of ensuring that ministerial responsibility is upheld, academics in Australia have pointed out consistently that the code of conduct should be enforced by an independent commissioner such as a parliamentary ethics or integrity commissioner, because in the absence of the means of enforcing that concept of ministerial responsibility, too often there are allegations, there are concerns raised, which are never properly, fundamentally, dealt with. In the absence of that kind of national commission, we now find ourselves in this position, where we are trying to require the minister to come and face the Senate and provide the full explanation that we believe the Australian public and this house are entitled to.

Because we need to have this transparency, the Australian Greens have consistently said that we need to have a national integrity commissioner to look into these kinds of issues. We have had various matters over recent years, and probably not so recent years, where issues about ministerial responsibility have been of great concern but there has not been an ability for adequate follow-up. We have ICACs in some states, such as in New South Wales, which is of course where some of this information is being examined. There is a bill before this parliament that the Australian Greens introduced, the National Integrity Commission Bill 2013, a private senator's bill, because there is currently no national anticorruption agency that can investigate claims of misconduct and corruption across the federal parliament and Commonwealth agencies. This is a glaring omission in making sure that members of parliament and Commonwealth agents are acting with the degree of integrity that the Australian public has a right to expect.

A national anticorruption and integrity commission, as envisaged by this Australian Greens bill, would protect the integrity of the federal parliament, parliamentarians and all Commonwealth departments. It would maintain integrity and help prevent corruption. At the moment, South Australia and-well, that is not true anymore; South Australia does have an anticorruption commission now; so, according to my notes, Victoria is the only state that does not have an anticorruption commission.

Senator Fifield:  Incorrect.

Senator WRIGHT:  And that is incorrect too.

Senator Fifield:  That's incorrect.

Senator WRIGHT:  So these notes may be out of date. Then-thank you, Senator Fifield-that makes the case even more for why it is a glaring omission that the states have these commissions but there is no national one. The Greens private senator's bill will provide the infrastructure to challenge corruption by establishing the National Integrity Commission as an independent-and that is an important word: independent-statutory agency. It would establish three co-dependent offices. The National Office of the Integrity Commissioner would be based largely on the successful New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption model. It would absorb the existing Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, ACLEI, and create a new office of the Independent Parliamentary Adviser to advise MPs and ministers on entitlement claims and the ethical running of their offices that the public rightly expects. We know as members of parliament and senators that often there is a somewhat grey area in understanding the requirements in relation to entitlements, and I think many of us would welcome the ability to be able to go to an independent adviser who could tell us how we should be acting in that situation.

The Australian Greens' bill would also establish a parliamentary joint committee on the National Integrity Commission to see that that commission was accountable to the parliament. The National Office of the Integrity Commissioner would actively prevent and investigate misconduct and corruption in all Commonwealth departments and agencies, and among federal parliamentarians and their staff. As I said, at the moment there is no ability to look into those things. This would fill the largest gap in our country's anticorruption framework. Its powers would be based largely on provisions in the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006.

Unfortunately, for the time being, we do not have such a commission. In the absence of such a body, when legitimate questions have been raised about the Assistant Treasurer's dealings and about the omissions from the statement he made on 28 February, the only means available to the parliament to pursue the matter is to require the Assistant Treasurer to attend the Senate and give a full explanation-today.


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