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Speech: Lee speaks about ICAC

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Sep 2014

Lee's adjournment speech on NSW ICAC
23 September 2014.

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:55): The ICAC report into New South Wales politics is due to be handed down in December, possibly close to Christmas. The work of ICAC holds significance for our own work as federal MPs and all aspects of federal public life. It is clearly time for a federal ICAC. Why Labor and the coalition continue to back each other in refusing such an oversight body is raising suspicions. The regular comment I hear is: what have they got to hide?

The corrupt activities revealed by ICAC are not just damaging to individuals caught up in the proceedings and the political parties they belong to; the very fabric of democracy is weakened and tarnished. All of us in public and political life are impacted.

There is enough evidence in the public domain for Prime Minister Tony Abbott and opposition leader Bill Shorten to respond by publicly committing to clean politics and the formation of a national ICAC.

The Liberal Party have a lot of rebuilding to do. Twelve New South Wales and federal Liberal MPs have resigned or stood aside following corruption inquiries this year. The spotlight is moving to the Prime Minister. What will he do about Senator Arthur Sinodinos? I understand many senators have not read the ICAC transcripts. That is understandable; they are obviously quite long. So I will summarise some of them.

When Senator Sinodinos was questioned about the period when he was the deputy chair of Australian Water Holdings and the Liberal Party Treasurer various information came to light. Clearly, these were two high-level positions, carrying great responsibility. In evidence, Senator Sinodinos said that he had no knowledge of extensive donations made to the Liberal Party. This evidence was limited, as the senator said he did not remember in response to a number of questions he was asked in his two appearances at the ICAC inquiry. Senator Sinodinos could have set an ICAC record for not remembering.

All up, there were 69 occasions when he did not remember. The senator gave 25 'I don't recollect' responses; 41 'I don't remember' responses; and two 'I don't recall' responses. Then there was one response, 'Not that I can recollect.' What he actually said at this time is interesting. This was when counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson SC, asked:

Did you know at the Liberal Party in your capacity as treasurer that Australian Water Holdings was making donations to the Liberal Party?

Senator Sinodinos said, 'Not that I can recollect.' At least the senator did acknowledge that he had failed to declare that he was set to make between $10 million and $20 million from a possible public-private partnership between Australian Water Holdings and Sydney Water. At the time, he was lobbying the then Premier of New South Wales, Barry O'Farrell, and the then finance minister, Greg Pearce, for this deal. Surely, the Prime Minister and others in the Liberal Party are asking whether Senator Sinodinos is fit to be a minister again, let alone a senator for the Liberal Party.

Then there is Senator Sinodinos' connection with Paul Nicolaou, former executive chairman of the New South Wales Liberal Party's main fundraising body, the Millennium Forum. Interestingly, and probably significantly, Mr Nicolaou resigned as chief executive of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Hotels Association a few days before ICAC hearings covering Liberal Party fundraising were due to recommence. ICAC took evidence that in 2010 Mr Nicolaou attempted to damage the reputation of Kerry Schott, who at the time was the chief executive of the Sydney Water Corporation. AWH was in dispute with the Sydney Water Corporation. Mr Nicolaou wrote to radio commentator Alan Jones, calling Ms Schott a 'base corrupt criminal'. At ICAC he agreed he had no information which could justify these claims.

That is just a bit of background to Mr Nicolaou. Obviously a lot more has been revealed at ICAC. For now, what is significant is that revelations at ICAC Operation Spicer hearings suggest Senator Sinodinos was present at a Liberal Party finance committee meeting where Mr Nicolaou explained that developer donations prohibited in New South Wales could be sent to the Canberra based Free Enterprise Foundation and then funnelled back to the New South Wales Liberal Party. The ICAC exchange here is worth reading. Mr Geoffrey Watson, the SC assisting ICAC, asked:

Were you aware that it was a suggestion by Paul Nicolaou that the Free Enterprise Foundation could be used as a means whereby otherwise prohibited donors could still make donations to the state Liberal Party?
Senator Sinodinos said: 'If there were such a suggestion it went over my head. Mr Watson responded:

Right. Well, I just want to get a clear answer to it. Are you aware of a suggestion made by Paul Nicolaou that the Free Enterprise Foundation could be used as a means whereby otherwise prohibited donors could donate money to the state Liberal Party?

Senator Sinodinos responded, 'No.'

Is it credible that Senator Sinodinos, as Liberal Party treasurer and chair of Australian Water Holdings, was oblivious to these deals? There are two possible explanations here: Senator Sinodinos was either aware that money was being funnelled illegally to the New South Wales Liberals or he was not. If he was not aware, it is extraordinary that this happened under the Senator's watch. Remember his dual roles while these donations were being moved around. Remember-

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): Senator Rhiannon, resume your seat for a moment. Could I ask you to be aware of standing order 193(3). You are quoting at the moment from an ICAC transcript, and I think that is quite in order, but I remind you that the we in the chamber do not make any imputations of improper motives or reflections on fellow members. I ask you to ensure that your quotations relate to something in the public arena and that you do not drift into opinions of a fellow senator.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President, for your advice. Remember who we are talking about here: the man who provided the solid foundation the Howard government relied on; the 'steady hand' of the federal Liberal Party for much of the 1990s. He was the man who would have handled so many responsibilities when he headed up the former Prime Minister's office. It is hard to believe anything escaped his attention or that he would forget.

What Senator Sinodinos has forgotten is substantial. A significant amount of $700,000 was moved by the Free Enterprise Foundation to the New South Wales Liberals. Much of this money came from sources that, under New South Wales law, could not donate to a political party or a candidate for a New South Wales state election. There is another Liberal funding body, the Eightbyfive Scheme, which raised about $400,000. Some of this money, which came from developers, went to the New South Wales Liberals for their 2011 election campaign. Senator Sinodinos has said he had no idea about these funding arrangements and did not agree to the funnelling arrangements.

The ICAC hearings have already revealed a systemic failure within the Liberal and its fundraising arms. This failure leads to, and rewards, corrupt activities. With the ICAC report due to be released in December, possibly just before Christmas, the Prime Minister could use this slow media period to try to sidestep the ICAC scandal enveloping Australian politics. The Prime Minister could remove the perception of avoiding the problems ICAC hearings have created for his party by taking action now. It is time to shut down the Free Enterprise Foundation and Eightbyfive. Mr Watson, the counsel assisting ICAC, has stated that the Free Enterprise Foundation has been used to disguise donations from prohibited donors. This alone should be a good reason for the Prime Minister to instruct his party to shut down this secretive fundraising body. Senator Sinodinos should not be reappointed as the minister. Bringing the former finance minister back into the fold will display weakness and will draw the federal Liberals and the Prime Minister into the reach of the New South Wales ICAC. Now is the time for the Prime Minister to announce a national ICAC.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I am very concerned that Senator Rhiannon has breached standing order 193(3) in relation to the rules of debate. I believe her speech does reflect personally on a senator, Senator Sinodinos. I would ask that you refer her speech to the President for consideration and an appropriate ruling as to whether any action should be taken, and that you refer any matter arising to one of our committees. I am very concerned she has breached that provision.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I did counsel Senator Rhiannon to ensure that her comments related to matters in the public arena and that she was not, as none of us are, to reflect on members; but I will certainly do as requested in the chamber and refer the matter to the President. I am sure the President will make some comment. The advice to me from the clerk, and I do appreciate it, is that the President will report back if he believes he has cause to. The Senate stands adjourned and will meet again tomorrow morning at 9.30.

Senate adjourned at 22:07

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