HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 27 MAY 2021
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Australia is now on track to head to $1 trillion of debt, and it is incumbent on those of us on this side of the House to look at the quality of that spending. You can't look at the quality of the spending by the Morrison government without looking at the question of scandals. We have seen a government replete with rorts, scandals and handouts to mates. The sheer volume of the scandals can sometimes overwhelm. Each scandal crowds out the previous one.
So I want to take the House through a succession of scandals by the Morrison government and talk about the misuse of public money involved in that. I do so in the context of a budget which has devoted some $9 billion to 20 slush funds in which ministers have discretion over spending as they have over past spends. We have seen the annual spend by Commonwealth departments on contractors and consultants to do work formerly carried out by public servants more than double over the past five years and now total more than $5 billion a year.
In 2017 Home Affairs awarded $423 million in contracts to a little-known company called Paladin to provide asylum seeker security and site services on Manus Island. At that time, Paladin's registered address was a beach shack on Kangaroo Island and it had just $50,000 in capital. While Paladin received around $1,400 per asylum seeker per day, it paid its security guards $450 a month. The company made $1.3 million in profits every week, and documents released to the Senate in September 2019 revealed that Paladin breached its key performance indicators thousands of times.
In April 2018 we had an announcement from then Prime Minister Turnbull that the government would give $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, an organisation with six full-time staff, annual revenue of about $10 million and no track record of managing half a billion dollars in Commonwealth funds. Managing Director Anna Marsden said the charity had never asked for the money. The first time they knew about it was when the offer was made. When the Australian National Audit Office examined the awarding of the grant, it found both planning and oversight to be inadequate. The department said that was because the Great Barrier Reef Foundation would leverage new contributions, and the foundation itself said it aimed to attract some $357 million from other sources, but by July 2020 it had raised only $22 million of in-kind donations. How much cash did it raise? None at all.
We had in 2017 the example of Eastern Australia Agriculture, a company co-founded by Minister Angus Taylor. Eastern Australia Agriculture was paid for overland flows. The overland flows are hard to price, because floodwaters only occur irregularly, but a recent purchase had been $800 per megalitre. Other valuations had been between $1,100 and $2,300 per megalitre. The eventual price paid to Eastern Australia Agriculture by the Commonwealth was $2,745 per megalitre. If you take the mid range of what the department had priced such rights at, they paid Eastern Australia Agriculture nearly double the mid-range price. Indeed, Eastern Australia Agriculture had self-valued its entire water holdings at $79.5 million in 2016. Just the next year the Commonwealth paid them more money for less than half of their overland flow water. Indeed, it wasn't the better half; it was the worse half: the less reliable half of their overland flow water.
Eastern Australia Agriculture booked a $52 million profit on the transaction and sent it off to their parent company, headquartered in the Cayman Islands. You can't make this stuff up. At a time when Australia should be cracking down on tax havens, we had a company founded by a minister, located in a tax haven, receiving excessive payments from the federal government itself.
The Australian Federal Police were called in to investigate the Leppington Triangle land purchase, in which the department approved the purchase of 12 hectares of land near the proposed Western Sydney airport and paid $30 million for land that had been valued at $3 million just a year earlier. The overpayment in that case didn't lead to any convictions of incompetence or wrongdoing, and the Australian Federal Police have yet to bring to account those who paid 10 times the value of the land.
As Karen Middleton noted in the Saturday Paper:
In the federal election period between March 1 and May 23—
almost $2 billion in grants across 20 programs were effectively rubberstamped through regulations.
One of these was the so-called sports rorts affair, in which colour-coded spreadsheets were used to hand out funds, which were skewed towards coalition seats in a deeply partisan manner. There was the Urban Congestion Fund: $3 billion spent; 83 per cent went to coalition seats or target seats for the coalition—marginal Labor seats. There was the $3 billion spent via the Community Development Grants Program, of which coalition seats received more than 75 per cent. There was the $150 million Female Facilities and Water Safety Stream Program, which ended up being spent on building swimming pools in just 11 seats that were held by the Liberal Party and the National Party. There were no guidelines, no tenders, no application processes, and yet, according to the ABC, there were 41 spending promises made from that fund before the 2019 election.
There was the $22 million Communities Environment Program, in which one marginal Liberal seat holder announced $40,000 of funding before the program was even opened. There was the $55 million Safer Communities Fund, better known as the 'safer seats fund', administered by Minister Peter Dutton. There were Minister Paul Fletcher's multiple election campaign grants. A $60 million Mutual Understanding, Support, Tolerance, Engagement and Respect initiative distributed grants on a closed, noncompetitive basis that required an invitation to apply for it. There's the Building Better Regions Fund, recently analysed by journalist Rosie Lewis from the Australian, who found that 27 per cent of the funds went to the electorates of the four ministers who were overseeing it. There are the Regional Growth Fund, the Drought Communities Program, the Regional Jobs and Investment Packages—all of which disproportionately went to coalition seats.
We've had a $5 million grant awarded to CT Group, formerly Crosby Textor, to conduct research relating to a small-business campaign, for which the public never got to see any of the results. There was the contract in 2020 to Resolve Strategic, worth more than $1 million, awarded by Treasury, for market research informing the government's so-called ‘comeback’ campaign. This is fundamentally Liberal Party research being paid for by taxpayers.
And then we have the incident of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer billing taxpayers almost $5,000 to take the Prime Minister's private jet from Canberra to Sydney for Lachlan Murdoch's 2018 Christmas party. Special purpose aircraft must only be used where the primary reason is parliamentary business, and there was not even an attempt to justify it. I've drawn, in much of this, on research done by Nick Feik, published in the Monthly, in which he says:
When was the last time we heard a Coalition minister cite principles of responsibility, or reveal salient facts and documents voluntarily, or pledge to support an organisation or individual that had revealed something that embarrassed the government?
Crikey has recently noted the 27 falsehoods that they can identify to the Prime Minister, some of which go precisely to the issues I've been talking about today. I won't use the word that Crikey has used to describe it, but there are, thankfully, a range of synonyms. There was the fabrication in question time on 7 December 2020, where the Prime Minister said:
I thank the member for his question and wonder why he'd want to bring personalities into this, given that Mr Rudd has done the same thing—
in other words, leaving the country during the pandemic. He was forced to apologise for that the same day.
Then there was the falsification by the Prime Minister on 29 September 2020, claiming that if went go down to Port Botany or Kurnell and looked out you could see ships which were carrying medical supplies being delayed. The number of ships was considerably lower than the Prime Minister had claimed and none of them contained medical supplies.
There was the departure from the truth in which the Prime Minister said on 7 September 2020, 'The agreement puts Australia at the top of the queue.' However, the Australian government is not even in the top 100 countries for the vaccine rollout.
In relation to the sports rorts affair, the Prime Minister said on 13 May 2020, 'The only authority sought from the Prime Minister's office and from me was in relation to announcements.' But this was clearly a myth, a flight of fancy, a figment of the imagination, because the Australian National Audit Office had shown that the Prime Minister's office dictated the removal and addition of sports grants to the Minister for Sport's office for the political benefit of the government. The Prime Minister uttered another half-truth, a falsity, on 29 January 2020, saying, 'It is important to note that the Auditor-General did not find there were any ineligible projects that were funded under the scheme.' In fact, officials from the Australian National Audit Office had told the Senate inquiry that 43 per cent of the projects funded under the program were ineligible when agreements were signed.
There was the statement by the Prime Minister on 20 January 2020—'Our per capita emissions will fall by half over the next 10 years.' This was clearly a tall story, a whopper, a porky pie, because the government's own December 2019 emissions forecast showed a fall of 19 per cent, not 50 per cent, over the next year. We had the Prime Minister in an interview with David Speers on 12 January 2020, saying, 'Emissions today are 50 million tonnes less on average each year under our government than under the previous government.' This was clearly some form of dissimulation, a terminological inexactitude, a form of fiction. It is in fact the case that, according to the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory data, emissions were down five million tonnes, not 50 million tonnes. Of course, little of that has anything to do with the Prime Minister's policies.
The Prime Minister said on 4 January 2020, via Twitter, 'The video message the Liberal Party ran during the summer bushfires simply communicates the government's policy decisions and the actions the government is undertaking to the public.' This is some form of mendacity, deceit and duplicity when in fact the ad was on behalf of the Liberal Party and authorised by the Liberal Party and the homepage solicited donations to the Liberal Party—
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Llew O'Brien): That last comment needs to be withdrawn.
Dr LEIGH: I withdraw. There's the statement by the Prime Minister on 3 January 2020, saying: 'We took the advice to the fire commissioners, and the fire commissioners' advice was the same as that which is being provided. So we've acted on that advice.' In fact, there had been a request for funding by the National Aerial Fire Centre which was refused by the government. That's another form of perjury, misleading the Australian people. It's a sham and a ruse. The Prime Minister needs to be straight with the Australian people and end the rorts.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra