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Adjournment Speech: Multinational Tax Avoidance, Donations to Political Parties

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 19 Apr 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:02): On another matter, Australia has been awash with corruption related stories in recent weeks. So many of those stories that have broken have given us a window into how the wealthy operate, how they live, how they protect their money and how they ensure they do not pay taxes. It was an insight into that world that ordinary people rarely get. Meanwhile, Liberal, National and Labor MPs in this parliament have continued to deny the need for a national corruption watchdog. I would really say there has been no significant debate about the many scandals that have exposed how the very wealthy make their money, how they hide their money, how they fail to pay taxes and how they get away with it.

Again this week we have seen the Turnbull government fill up the time with debate on unions and workers. I have often come in on that debate and commented that the point about bringing forward the ABCC is to weaken unions and undermine the ability for workers to organise collectively. I would add that there are other reasons to it. It is about running cover, because the constituents of this Liberal-National government are the people who have insight into their world-how they make their money, how they protect their money. I would argue that the very unsavoury tactics we have seen play out in this parliament have a lot to do with running cover. We have seen extraordinary exposures of corruption, but we are not dealing with them here in a very thorough way. It is about distracting attention from the exposure of serious crimes which should be investigated. When you are failing to pay millions of dollars in tax and when you are running various schemes to hide your money-much of it is illegal and if it is not illegal, it is highly unethical-we should be working on what laws are needed to ensure that the right thing is done.

It is worth reminding ourselves, as we finish what was supposed to be a three-week session of parliament in two days, about some of those scandals which should have been major issues for this parliament to consider. There is Leighton Holdings, which has been caught up in the Unaoil scandal. This company is one of the main players in the delivery of Westconnex, a totally unwarranted, irresponsible motorway project right in the heart of the city. It is a con job that goes back to Labor days and is now continued by the Liberals and the Nationals. It is being presented as a solution to transport problems in Western Sydney, but it is not about Western Sydney; it is about connecting to motorways which are getting very close to Sydney's CBD. Here we have a company which is regularly associated with corrupt practices overseas and which is a major player in the $16.8 billion Westconnex project. The company has been plagued by allegations of bribery and corruption overseas to win government contracts. Interestingly, they are also major donors to the Liberal, Labor and National Parties. Since 2005 it has donated $1.3 million to those three parties. What have we seen at the same time? We have seen that company pick up significant government contracts. It donated $150,000 to the federal and New South Wales branches of the Liberal Party just before the last state election.

Then there are the famous Panama papers-surely we should have spent at least a whole day debating them and working out how to respond to them. There is so much data we need to get into to find out the implications for Australian corporations and what should be done about it, because so much money is being ripped out of Australia. But the issue has barely been mentioned. The Mossack Fonseca have been instrumental, I have to say, in putting the spotlight that web of arrangements through which the wealthy learn to protect their wealth, their privilege, their power. What we are talking about is the use of tax havens, which shield corruption, money laundering, tax evasion and other criminal activities. I would call those things 'criminal activities', even if there are no immediate laws against them. As I said, they are unethical and we should be bringing in laws to ensure that people pay their fair share.

It is fair enough that people accumulate wealth but they should pay their fair share to this society. I understand about 11 million documents were released in this latest download. They revealed about 800 Australians who were clients of Mossack Fonseca. I understand that some of them are already under investigation in tax avoidance cases; 80 of them have been identified in the Australian Crime Commission's database for serious and organised crime. So that is a start-some work has been done there-but, considering the amount of material that has been released, we should be looking at the lessons that could be learnt here. How do we improve the laws?

Again I need to say that, while it is not illegal to set up these offshore companies, it links these various companies and businesses with corrupt practices and criminal activities. It is significant that the Australian company Wilson Security was found to be involved in a Hong Kong corruption scandal as a result of the Panama papers leak. They have extensive ties with the Australian government through their security operations in the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. That is something we should be giving a lot of attention to. There is a wealth of information there that should be looked at.

Then there is all the work around political donations which I have spoken often about and which we still give inadequate time to. We know that the laws shield the political parties. Coming into this election, people will not know who has given money and how much they have given to political parties and candidates fighting in this election, because disclosures do not have to be made until 1 February in the following financial year. It is another way to limit people's scrutiny and people's understanding of who is trying to influence political outcomes. I also note that Australia's reputation as a transparent country free from corruption is in jeopardy. Transparency International has found a four-year slide in the rankings on its 2016 international corruption index for Australia. That is why we need to get the debates into this place. We need to work out how we are going to deal with corruption because, right now maybe we do not talk about them, there are big problems and we have a responsibility to deal with them.


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