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Dealing With Craig Thomson: An Impressive MPI Debate

An impressive Matter of Public Importance debate took place in the House of Representatives this afternoon.

The MPI was devoted to the issue of how the House should treat Craig Thomson, the member for Dobell, in the light of allegations against him and his statement to the House yesterday.

Debate revolved around the nature of a censure and the arguments for and against suspending Thomson from the service of the House.

Mark Dreyfus, the Cabinet Secretary and Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, put the case against punitive action most effectively in terms of proper process and the presumption of innocence.

Tony Windsor, the independent member for New England, provided an interesting comparison with the 1992 downfall of former NSW Liberal Premier Nick Greiner in another hung parliament.

This is the complete audio of the MPI debate, with the accompanying Hansard transcript:

  • Rob Oakeshott – Ind (15m)
  • Mark Dreyfus – ALP (15m)
  • Christopher Pyne – Lib (10m)
  • Tony Windsor – Ind (10m)
  • Harry Jenkins – ALP (10m)
  • Julie Bishop – Lib (10m)
  • Andrew Wilkie – Ind (10m)
  • Stephen Jones – ALP (10m)

Hansard transcript of the Matter of Public Importance debate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The Speaker has received letters from the honourable member for Lyne and the honourable member for North Sydney proposing that definite matters of public importance be submitted to the House for discussion today. As required by standing order 46(d), the Speaker has selected the matter which, in his opinion, is the most urgent and important; that is, that proposed by the honourable member for Lyne, namely:

“The importance of public confidence and public trust in the Australian Parliament, and how the Parliament should respond to matters related to the Member for Dobell.”

I call upon those members who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of members required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (15:19): Quite obviously, there is an issue of importance before the House at present. The aim of this matter of public importance is certainly not to fan the lynch mob or be a kangaroo court. It is not to trawl through the tea leaves of events within a particular union a decade ago. It is not to add to the stress of the family of the individual member involved or to ignore the human element in dealing with the Fair Work Australia report. It is not to pass judgment or to play jury. It is to have a debate, starting with full respect for the principles of the presumption of innocence and the separation of powers. It is to have at its heart the aim of trying to kick-start a more rational debate on what next. Where do we go with the findings in a 1,100 page report from an independent statutory body of the Commonwealth and with a 59-minute initial reply from the member for Dobell? We have what I consider to be a category killer for all of us. It is causing significant damage both short and long term with regard to public confidence and public trust in the Australian parliament itself. In my view, we do therefore need to respond in some kind.

The point of this MPI is also to express my views that the member for Dobell’s inactions as a member of parliament—not as a union official a decade ago—including the admission he made yesterday that he regrets putting legal advice and political party advice before getting to his feet and explaining to colleagues what an earth is going on, are issues that this parliament needs to address.

The point of the MPI is also to call for some very clear leadership from the executive and from the Prime Minister in particular on where to go from here. The vast majority of people who have contacted us, particularly in the last 24 hours, are asking that very simple question: what next? What investigations are currently underway and who is going to assure the community that these matters will actually go to court, which so many are saying is the appropriate place for these matters to be addressed? Leadership in explaining the next steps in the process is what is being sought by many. Personally, I remain, frankly, angry and let down by the member for Dobell as a fellow member of parliament for saying a year ago that he would make a speech to the House and only doing it yesterday, leading to an increased loss of public confidence and trust along the way. I as well, frankly, personally remain angry and let down by the member for Dobell in his confirmation that he had put in the public square some language with regard to defamation and just left it hanging—he did not choose to correct the record as quickly as possible, which should be part of the values that all of us as MPs hold dear. Frankly, personally, I remain angry and let down by the member for Dobell with regard to reports that continue to suggest a reluctance to fully and openly assist investigative bodies in an effort to resolve all issues, as should, again, be a basic value held by all MPs at all times.

My interest in being a member of parliament is in empowering and building community and in working on issues nationally to lift the standard of living of all of us. It is not this stuff. I would be surprised if any of us are here with the motivation of being driven by issues that have arisen over the last 24 hours with regard to a fellow member. Issues for me include the Pacific Highway, regional education, regional hospitals, and reform programs in the areas of natural resources, aged care, innovation and tax. Each MP in this place, I am sure, has their own list. As a value, I believe strongly that the best way to achieve all these reforms for the better is through this place, through our parliament, and by that I mean in the process of debate. I believe in participatory democracy and that the simple act of airing issues and engaging community through debate can assist greatly in reaching the right outcomes in public policy. It is a natural default position of what it is to be an MP.

So I feel sadness and anger that public confidence and trust has been eroded through the range of issues associated with the Fair Work Australia report, and in particular that issues have not been dealt with by the member in question in the past year when he said he would deal with them in the public domain. These are outstanding issues that go back nearly a decade and have remained outstanding for the past three parliaments. That, I think, is something that all should be pretty frustrated and angry about. As stated, my particular frustration is that it has taken so long for facts to be put on the table by both Fair Work Australia and the member for Dobell. That delay in establishing the facts has done damage to the parliament itself. The delay of four years is an unacceptable length of time by Fair Work Australia in its duties and raises policy questions of why and at what expense to the taxpayer. Likewise, the delay in the member for Dobell standing up and at least explaining the issues from his point of view has, in rugby league terms, brought the game of the parliament into disrepute and has ended up doing damage to the parliament itself. It was unacceptable that it took the member for Dobell so long to fulfil his duties as an MP and to stand up in this place, a point he himself acknowledged with regret yesterday.

So just as the Labor Party has felt it necessary to dismiss one of its own over this issue, so the parliament should find the right response to the Fair Work report. The parliament needs to play its role, in my view, and express little tolerance for further delays in resolving the many issues in question. These issues in question do go back, as I said before, nearly a decade—not to the previous Rudd majority parliament nor the last two Howard minority governments, but back to 2003. It is wrong to blame this 43rd Parliament for dealing with what should have been dealt with by various parties involved a long time ago. It is right that we tolerate no longer delays in debating this issue and to encourage any investigations that may need to proceed. It was nearly a year ago that the member for Dobell informed us, his parliamentary colleagues, that he would make a statement on all issues to the House to clarify the swirling rumours and attacks on the parliament itself on issues that none of us, if we are honest, are fully aware of in detail. It is his failure to recognise the damage his silence has been doing to our great institution, as well as the findings of the Fair Work report itself, that are the two substantive issues this House needs to consider.

The Fair Work report was a 1,150-page report with over 150 contraventions identified. It is a shocking and damning report. It has status and it has worth. The line of questioning at the end of question time today is the right way for this parliament to do its job. It is wrong to deny its status and it is wrong to deny that the work done by Fair Work Australia does not deserve the full support of government.

I accept that the member for Dobell has raised serious allegations against Fair Work Australia that involve Kathy Jackson and Tony Abbott’s relationship with the deputy. On this point I do not accept an argument of interference from either Kathy Jackson or Tony Abbott, and arguments presented on websites such as VEXNEWS should be dismissed as both unhelpful and untested. In my view, the weight of evidence is with the Fair Work Australia report, and progress on those findings should be expected and encouraged. The Prime Minister this morning identified that progress in other investigations is expected from the Fair Work Australia report. I ask her—hopefully on behalf of the parliament as a majority—to be very clear on what those next steps are in the investigation processes.

As well, to complement that, I will be raising—as has been raised with me by committee members—at its next meeting the question of whether the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit is willing to undertake an inquiry into Fair Work Australia itself, on the question of whether due process has been followed. It is ultimately a matter for the full committee to agree on, but it is a suggestion I will be putting to them later this week. As well, I will personally be encouraging debate on the coalition’s position with regard to the 14-day suspension, even though personally I do not agree with it. Debate is important. I want to hear from the coalition on how they argue this motion is sustainable for the long term and for future parliaments, and how they answer the charge that several of their own MPs would fail the benchmark for suspension that they are trying to set for others. I will also be putting three motions to the parliament for debate and consideration by the selection committee. The first motion will be a censure motion of the member for Dobell, and it will be along the lines that this House censures the member for Dobell (1) for the length of time taken to publicly respond to issues under investigation from 2003 to 2006 and the damage this has done to public confidence and trust in the Australian parliament; and (2) the lack of full cooperation by the member for Dobell with investigatory bodies, state and federal, and the damage this has done to public confidence and trust in the Australian parliament.

The second motion is that I will also be putting on the Notice Paper a motion seeking the endorsement of the House for the draft code of conduct that has been circulated since November last year. It is related to this issue; it was agreed on by all of us and by all parties 18 months ago. It is timely that we progress that. Then if we are in the future caught in this space between issues raised by section 44 of the Australian Constitution and community sentiment wanting action, we will have a document that we can refer to and hopefully set a standard from.

The third motion deals with other related matters, and there are four points to it. The first point requests a report from a committee on the integrity commission that I know is being followed up by others. The second point requests a report from the Standing Committee on Privileges and Members’ Interests on any relevant issues for members’ consideration in light of all information available in relation to the Fair Work Australia report, including issues of concern relating to commentary by any MP in relation to section 28 of the Commonwealth Crimes Act. Whilesoever any member has rights in this place, I would hope all of us respect, protect and defend those rights, no matter what we may think of a member personally. The third point is to encourage the Special Minister of State to act swiftly in bringing forward electoral and disclosure law changes as identified by the Australian Electoral Commission. And the fourth point seeks greater progress on Commonwealth whistleblower legislation from the relevant minister, again as agreed in September 2010, and I know it is being followed up by parliamentary colleagues.

Ultimately, it is up to the majority of the parliament—all of us and all of you—to decide what we debate. I do not want in any way to be positioned as some sort of Mr Shiny Shoes on parliamentary integrity or human failing. I accept the majority view on each of these motions. I acknowledge that, at least on the crossbench, I have few friends in censuring the member in question, but still I think it is worth pursuing. I do think it is appropriate to make a statement about what we as members of parliament should all be trying to do—that is, to seek the highest values possible. I know that does not mean that others do not share the same values, but that is where I end up with this story that we saw unfold dramatically yesterday. I do not demand it; I just seek it.

I fully recognise it is a group decision, not on party lines, but as a collective of MPs and a reflection of the community. I do not think it is asking too much. I am surprised and somewhat saddened that we are quick as individuals to go down the path of, as I called it before, ‘category killing’ the values of what it means to be an MP when we attack each other, but then are strangely reluctant as a group to stand up for the values we do have and do seek on behalf of all Australians. From my perspective I would hope there is good and due consideration of those motions. I do hope this is a moment of reflection where we can collectively, regardless of party lines, do a bit of work in restoring some integrity and public confidence and trust in this institution that I hope we all hold dear.

Mr DREYFUS (Isaacs—Cabinet Secretary, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency and Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Innovation) (15:34): I am very pleased to have the opportunity today to speak on this matter. I believe that the issue of public confidence and public trust in the Australian parliament is an issue of the utmost importance, as this place is the place where governments are formed and the shape of our nation is altered. It is imperative that the Australian public hold this place and its occupants in the highest regard and are convinced that their elected representatives carry out their obligations with judgment, with diligence, with honesty and with integrity.

Most recently, there has been a great deal of debate about the actions of the member for Dobell, particularly in the light of the report by the investigator acting as the delegate of the general manager of Fair Work Australia, which was tabled recently in the Senate and was indeed the subject of the statement made by the member for Dobell yesterday. The report, of course, made a number of findings against the member for Dobell and I would be remiss if I did not say I share the concerns of many in this place at the findings in this report. They are disturbing findings; they are distressing findings. No right thinking person could fail to be disturbed at the findings made by the investigator of misuse of the funds contributed to the union, which represents some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia. Yesterday we saw a lengthy statement by the member for Dobell, a statement in which the member for Dobell outlined very personally the impact that these events have had on his life and, of course, he maintained very strongly his claims of innocence. It is worth noting that this was a statement that the opposition had been calling for and that it was a statement he made in response to those calls. I should also say that, as I understand the position, the reason that the member for Dobell had not made the statement before now was on legal advice.

I think that the topic for this matter of public importance is well chosen. It draws attention to the tasks we have before us as members of parliament, and one of those important tasks is to maintain the integrity of this parliament. But we are not a court; parliament is not a court. Despite the baying and shouting from those opposite they have offered nothing concrete. This is why the member for Lyne has raised this matter of public importance; those opposite have raised no concrete suggestions as to how the matters raised by the report of Fair Work Australia can actually be dealt with. We are not here in some American TV crime series: we are not investigators, we are not police and we are not a court. As a democratic country we have very well developed institutions: we have police forces, we have investigators and we have different regulators for many parts of our society. And we have courts, and these matters need to be left to the courts.

We are not a body that can consider evidence in the way that a court does. Listening to the statement made yesterday in this place for nearly an hour by the member for Dobell, one of the first things that struck me was the near impossibility of sifting claim and counterclaim, sifting allegation and counterallegation and sifting the vast body of factual material which forms the subject of the Fair Work Australia investigator’s report. Those matters—that process of sifting and assessing and judging—are quintessentially matters that are dealt with by courts. They are not matters that this parliament is set up, either historically or actually, to deal with.

We are not well placed to determine it, nor is it our role to determine whether the member for Dobell has correctly stated the position, or whether the findings made by the Fair Work Australia investigator are true. We are not in a position to assess the claim and counterclaim, even though—and this has been pretty clear from the public debate and clear from some of the statements made in this House—many of us may question parts of the explanation. That is why this matter is going to go to the courts.

I need to make it clear, just to put to rest the suggestion that the matters raised by this Fair Work Australia report are not presently before the courts. The general manager of Fair Work Australia has said publicly that she has instructed lawyers to prepare legal proceedings in respect of the findings arising from the investigations into the HSU national office and the HSU Victoria No. 1 branch. The general manager of Fair Work Australia has the power to apply to the Federal Court of Australia under section 336 of the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009 and she indicated in her statement on 14 March 2012 that she would do just that—that she would instruct the Australian Government Solicitor to apply to the Federal Court for penalties and other orders in relation to contraventions of civil penalty provisions. She also indicated that she would apply to the Federal Court for declaratory relief in relation to three additional contraventions described in the Fair Work Australia investigator’s report, those not being civil penalty provisions.

So, on any view, this matter is going to court. It is going to the proper forum at which these matters will be looked at and at which the claims and the counterclaims that have been made yesterday by the member for Dobell can be assessed in their proper place. One is left to wonder what it is that those opposite are wanting here. We have legislation passed, indeed, by the Howard government. These provisions—these investigation provisions, these civil penalty provisions and this referral to the Federal Court provisions—are all of them Howard government legislation, indeed, passed when the member for Warringah, the present Leader of the Opposition, was the responsible minister.

Are they saying, perhaps, that they do not wish this matter to be finalised by the courts? I hope that they are not saying that. We, on this side of the House, want this resolved for the benefit of the long-suffering members of the Health Services Union, and we want that to occur before the Federal Court, which is the appropriate place for these matters to be resolved. They cannot be resolved here. That is a key point that should not be lost. The actual matters that are the subject of this Fair Work Australia report cannot be resolved in this place.

There are a number of options that the parliament can consider in relation to the member for Dobell. But we need to think carefully in considering what actions might be taken: whether the actions that are taken actually will increase the regard that Australians hold for this House and for this parliament and whether it is the proper place for this House to act in the manner that is put forward. I will come back in a moment to the suggestion that has been raised here by the member for Lyne. But just to look at the range of options: some have suggested that the House should suspend the member for Dobell, some have suggested—completely without basis—that the House should expel the member for Dobell and some suggestions have been made of censure. I just note that it is worth reminding the House that this place no longer has the power to expel members. The power once existed but was removed by the Parliamentary Privileges Act of 1987, and for good reason.

The power of expulsion was used once before, in 1920, to expel the member for Kalgoorlie, the Hon. Hugh Mahon, for what were said to be seditious and disloyal utterances. The member had expressed publicly sympathy for the Irish republicans and opposition to the British policy in Ireland. The power was abolished on the recommendation of the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1984. This was a bipartisan committee consisting of members of the Labor Party and members of the Liberal Party—indeed, members of the Liberal Party back then in 1984, who had a great deal more respect for the institution of this parliament, for the conventions of this parliament and for the institutions of Australia than the present opposition demonstrates on a daily basis. The present opposition demonstrates on a daily basis nothing but contempt for the conventions of this parliament and for the institutions of our country. The Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege noted in 1984, in relation to the dangers inherent in a system where a partisan vote can determine whether a parliamentarian is fit to remain in office—and, one might add to that, where a partisan vote can be brought to bear on a censure or on a suspension:

“Looking back to the Mahon case—”

which is the only time when a member was expelled—

“one is struck by these features: the speed with which the motion was brought on; the limited time for debate; the haste in which such an important matter was determined; and the vote on party lines.”

They emphasise:

“… the only case in federal history when the power to expel was exercised is … when … the power was demonstrably misused …”

I think that the bipartisan authors of that report would be very concerned to look at what has been occurring in this parliament in recent days. We might, in fact, be seeing some evidence of something similar to what occurred at the instance of then Prime Minister Billy Hughes back in 1920, when, relying on the numbers that he commanded in the House of Representatives, he used them to expel a member of the House.

There should be no suggestion that the parliament should assume what would be a wholly inappropriate role for this parliament, that of the courts—or, even more than that, that of judge and jury—for partisan political ends. Suggestions that the member for Dobell should be censured are troubling for the same reason. Taking action to censure the member, to expel the member, which is now not open, as I have pointed out, or to suspend the member, I would suggest, will not result in an increase in the parliament’s prestige—quite the opposite. That is particularly so if the purpose of the censure is to draw attention to matters which occurred before the member became a member of this House.

What I am pointing to is the fact that there have been a very small number of examples in the history of this parliament when the censure power has been used. There have been only four occasions since Federation, but the most recent occasions were both in 1995, when this House censured the member for Barker, Mr McLachlan, for misleading the House on the source of documents relating to the Hindmarsh Island Bridge matter, and when the House censured the member for Chisholm, Mr Wooldridge, in August 1995 for intentionally misleading the House during a personal explanation relating to the Penny Easton matter. What is notable is that it is in some doubt, according to House of Representatives Practice, whether or not even those censure motions were within the traditional purpose of a censure. House of Representatives Practice notes ‘the parliamentary convention that the traditional purpose of a vote of censure is to question or bring to account a minister’s responsibility to the House’. The Practice goes on to note on page 322:

“Furthermore, given the relative strength of the parties in the House, and the strength of party loyalties, in ordinary circumstances it could be expected that a motion or amendment expressing censure of an opposition leader or another opposition Member would be agreed to, perhaps regardless of the circumstances or the merits of the arguments or allegations.”

That is, of course, what happened back in 1920, when there was an expulsion on party lines.

I note that the member for Lyne has put forward the possibility of moving a censure motion which would be directed not at the conduct of the member for Dobell before he became a member of this House but rather at, as I understood the member for Lyne, the delay by the member for Dobell in making a statement in explanation of the allegations that had been raised. That, I can say without pre-empting a decision made on this side of the House as to the way in which we would treat such a censure motion, would at least be within the past practice of this House—not totally within the conventions of this House but at least within some past practice—because it focuses on conduct in the House. That is a very important distinction which I would invite all honourable members to reflect on: that when we are thinking about what is to be the way in which this House responds, if it chooses to respond at all, it needs to be focused on parliamentary conduct. It is wrong to devalue the very special place that the legal system—the court system—has in our society, and if we are to embark to displace it then it would cut against all of the separation of powers that sits at the heart of our democracy. (Time expired)

Mr PYNE (Sturt—Manager of Opposition Business) (15:49): The key point made by the member for Isaacs in relation to this matter of public importance is that it is outrageous for the parliament to be considering the matters to do with the member for Dobell. I would point the member for Isaacs to one of his own very respected and senior colleagues in past parliaments, Senator Robert Ray, from his own state of Victoria, who, when matters were being raised in 1997 to do with another person in another place, wrote to Peter Reith, at that stage the Leader of the House. He said in that letter:

“… your intervention is an affront to the principle that there is no authority superior to Parliament in the determination of its own procedures and actions. Indeed, an earlier Speaker of the House of Representatives has relevantly observed that there is no authority superior to Parliament which could arrogate to itself the power to appoint any commission or other tribunal to invade the sphere of Parliamentary jurisdiction in the conduct and direction of its own business.”

In other words, the parliament had every right in 1997, as it does today, to consider, vote upon and deal with the matters to do with the member for Dobell. It is simply a convenience put forward by the member for Isaacs in this debate today to try to continue the racket that has surrounded the member for Dobell for a very long time in this place to stop him from being held to account for bringing the parliament into disrepute.

On 9 September last year, the member for Dobell told the Australian, ‘I will make a comprehensive statement in the near future.’ Eight months ago the member for Dobell indicated that he would make a statement to the parliament in relation to what at that stage were allegations—now findings of fact by Fair Work Australia that have engulfed him. After many attempts to get him to do so—all opposed by the Prime Minister, the Labor caucus and, until two weeks ago, the members for Lyne, Melbourne and New England, voting again and again in this place—he gave a statement yesterday. He was given one hour to justify himself. The opposition was not given even one minute to test his claims. But he did not give a comprehensive statement. He gave a statement that was an exercise in self-justification, blame-shifting and heaping of conspiracy upon conspiracy. His statement, to many, sounded like pure fantasy, an alibi for the Prime Minister, a fig leaf for what we all know to be true—that the Prime Minister failed to act until too late. By rejecting his vote in the caucus but accepting it in the parliament, she has exposed her own hypocrisy. While she is prepared to be judge and jury when it does not affect her, she will cling to her vote in this place because her No. 1 priority is in fact to hang onto power.

The member for Dobell’s claim was that he was set up by a tormentor in the Health Services Union. For his story to be believed, the following must be true: his tormentor was able to break into his hotel room and use the hotel room, leaving undetected, on numerous occasions; his tormentor knew the code to his mobile phone and was able to use it moments after the member for Dobell made legitimate business calls and get it back to him moments before other legitimate business calls, without being detected; his tormentor stole his credit card and drivers licence from his home on the Central Coast, drove to Sydney, passed himself off as the member for Dobell, forged his signature, drove back to the Central Coast, broke back into the member for Dobell’s home and put his credit card and drivers licence back into his wallet, and left undetected—

Mr Fitzgibbon: Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: I am genuinely reluctant to interrupt—I mean that very, very genuinely—but I ask you to reflect on whether the Manager of Opposition Business is going well beyond any allegations made in the Fair Work Australia report and, if he is going to make such substantial allegations, whether he should do so by a substantive motion rather than abuse the MPI.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr KJ Thomson): The MPI before us is about how the parliament should respond to matters related to the member for Dobell rather than an examination of the actions of the member. I hope the Manager of Opposition Business will bear that in mind in his remarks.

Mr PYNE: I am, Mr Acting Deputy Speaker. In order to be able to debate the MPI, in order to debate the importance of public confidence and public trust in the Australian parliament, we need to examine the believability of the statement the member for Dobell made yesterday. If it is found to be unbelievable, it goes to the second part of the MPI, which is about how the parliament should respond to the matters that are related to the member for Dobell. I thank the member for Lyne for putting the matter of public importance into debate today to give the opposition the first opportunity it has had to do so.

I continue. His tormentor was able to pull this off not just to purchase the services of escort agencies but also to purchase personal items such as running shoes; to dine at restaurants such as 41 in Sydney’s CBD; to travel interstate and overseas; to hire staff to work on the Dobell election campaign in 2007; to pay for printing for the election campaign; to make $100,000 of cash withdrawals from ATMs; and otherwise to live the high life—all without the member for Dobell suspecting that there was something going on.

But if that is not enough to strain credulity, we need to suspend reality to believe that, in spite of the member for Dobell suspecting he was being set up, when each of the credit card statements was presented to him for payment he ignored the suspicions in the back of his mind that he was being set up and simply signed off on them being paid. That is odd, really. You would think that, if most people received their credit card statements and names like Miss Behaving escort agency appeared on them, it would cause them to pause before they signed off on the payment of such credit card invoices—not so the member for Dobell. It reminds me of the words of Jack Palance, from Ripley’s Believe It or Not—’believe it or not’. And the opposition does not believe it.

In the statement the member for Dobell made yesterday, which he claims to be a comprehensive statement, he left out some of the very key issues that this House has been questioning the government about for some time and that were clearly needing to be dealt with yesterday in his statement. He failed to explain to the House the finding of Fair Work Australia that he misused $457,000 of funds on all the other matters besides the escort agencies, that he dealt with yesterday. How does he account for the finding of Fair Work Australia that he advanced false and misleading evidence to the authority in that investigation? Did he receive a credit card from the printing firm employed by the Health Services Union for his own personal use that would amount to receiving a secret commission if true?

When did he receive the benefit of the payment of his legal fees from the New South Wales Labor Party and loans from the New South Wales Labor Party, and why were they not declared on the Register of Members’ Interests until media inquiries were made about them? Why until recently has he declined to assist both the New South Wales and Victorian police with their inquiries into his own actions and the operations of the Health Services Union when he was its national secretary? On what basis did he claim to Mike Smith last year that $15,000 was repaid by a third party to the Health Services Union for unauthorised expenditure on escort services, a claim specifically refuted in the Fair Work Australia report?

These are the key issues that the member for Dobell failed to address in his statement yesterday. I and the opposition believe, as do the member for Lyne and other independents in this House, that these key issues need to be explained by the member for Dobell in a further statement to the House—a statement to the House that is genuinely comprehensive. He needs to not only cover the matters that he covered yesterday but deal explicitly with the questions that I have placed on the Hansard today in this matter of public importance. Until he does, this matter cannot be resolved. Until he does, the parliament still has a right, as outlined by Senator Robert Ray in 1997, to protect its own interests, its own integrity and the reputation of every member in this House.

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (15:59): I thank the member for Lyne for introducing this matter of public importance and I appreciate the degree of civility around the chamber in terms of trying to address what is a very substantive issue and troubling a lot of members of this House. I also thank the member for Sturt for his contribution a moment ago because he highlighted the absolute need for due process. He raised a whole range of questions. I have no doubt that some of those questions, for students of the law, probably do need to be answered, but they cannot be dealt with in a kangaroo court situation. They can be dealt with in a court. Now a little bit of heat has gone out of the day on this issue, we are addressing how the parliament can deal with this issue and how we as individuals or as members of various committees can play a constructive role not only in the present issues before the House but also in potential issues in the future. It does highlight the need for clear minds, concise legal interpretation of people’s rights, due process and, obviously, the separation of powers. I have said to the media in the past I would rather not be in this building if we start to use the numbers within this parliament—the delicate numbers of a hung parliament particularly—to start to adjudicate the law for individuals who have not been charged or convicted of anything. They may well be convicted by a court and, if they are, they should face the full force of the law. I will talk in a moment about maybe an extension of the current legislative arrangements for disqualification.

I went through a very similar situation to this back in the early nineties in another hung parliament where a very good Premier, in my view, a man called Nick Greiner, was found to be corrupt by the ICAC, the corruption body of New South Wales. There were calls then, as there is now, by the then state Leader of the Opposition—the attack dog in those days, the Tony Abbott of his day—Bob Carr, who is now in the Senate, for the removal of Nick Greiner. The federal leader of the Liberal Party, John Hewson, was also calling for the removal of Nick Greiner because it was doing damage to the party. Members of the Liberal Party in New South Wales themselves were calling for his removal.

There was talk of a no confidence motion being moved against the Premier on a Tuesday of whatever month it was. It was my vote that put the Liberals in power in that particular parliament. I can remember talking to Nick Greiner on the Sunday night and I told him that if a no confidence motion was moved by the other crossbenchers or by Bob Carr then I would not be supportive of it. I made the point that the reason for that, even though I was upset over the corruption charge as I am upset over the Fair Work Australia findings, was he had not exhausted due process. He said to me, and I remember his words quite clearly: ‘It is too late. They want me to go.’ He resigned the next day as Premier. Some students of politics might be interested in this point that he made to me after his Liberal Party people deserted him. He said: ‘You’ll be interested in this, Tony. The National Party were the only ones who’ve stuck with me.’ He resigned and about a week later, or it might have been only four or five days later, he was found not guilty on appeal. After the subsequent election, with a majority of one, Bob Carr became the Premier and changed the corruption legislation so that what happened to Nick Greiner could never happen again. Therein lies a story too of a code of conduct.

Codes of conduct tend to come before parliaments when the numbers are very tight or in a hung parliament. Both major parties tend to run from them. There was talk of a code of conduct in those days, and I think one was actually passed. I was not madly in love with the code of conduct because I knew quite well what would happen—and what did happen—as soon as a majority government came along: the code of conduct was dictated by numbers. That is one of the issues of a code of conduct. That is one of the reasons why I have postulated that maybe one of the things this parliament has to look at—if both sides are very concerned about the current issues before the parliament—and that may be worth considering is should there be other areas that qualify for automatic disqualification of a member?

We have two areas that automatically disqualify a member as I understand it. One is bankruptcy. You are out. There is no reference to your friends, your mates, your numbers, the marginality of your seat or the colour of your hair. The other is if you are convicted of a criminal offence with a jail term of more than a year. You are also out. There is nothing about civil offence and nothing about the standards that I believe the community are requesting and in some cases are demanding. I think we should consider, if there are standards that this House is not meeting or that some of the members are not meeting, putting it into a legislative arrangement so that there is automatic disqualification for a breach, rather than just recommendations for a code of conduct. A previous parliament did decide that bankruptcy and a jail term over a year were grounds for disqualification. Maybe there are other grounds that we should be looking at. I have said for some time that I would support references to the Privileges Committee for determination on activities, not the civil and criminal ones because they are dealt with by the courts, such as misleading the House or for internal procedures and processes of the House. I would be interested to see when that reference is finally made and the terms in which it is made. The member for Lyne made comment today about the possibility of introducing a censure motion. I have spoken to him about this personally and I fully respect his right to move that motion. I will not be supportive of it, because I believe it prejudges, in this case the member for Dobell, prior to due process. When I look at this issue—and I am as angry as anybody about the findings of Fair Work Australia—I think if we start to go down the slippery slope of prejudgment before the appropriate criminal or civil action is taken we do start to put ourselves out there as the judge and jury. I do not think that is what any of us have been elected to do. I might be an excellent bush lawyer but I would be pretty hopeless in a court. I think people need to reflect on that.

I know there is a lot of hostility and feeling in the room. I have been in a hung parliament before. I was in another one with a majority of one, which was virtually the same, where one number is tantamount—is very, very important. And that can be built up by redneck radio and a whole range of other people to a crescendo, where the hounds call for blood. But I think of our parliament and our democracy—the fact that our fathers and grandfathers and others have fought for this country not just to keep us in a free state but also to preserve the rights of the individual, the rights of the democratic process, the right to separate the powers of the judiciary from the parliament. Those rights should be at the forefront of all our minds, irrespective of the numbers of the day. To start playing a game with the numbers of the day for a short-term agenda could do enormous long-term damage in terms of the integrity of this institution. I make a plea to people: be careful that you do not walk down a road that you regret later on just for short-term advantage. Thank you.

Mr JENKINS (Scullin) (16:09): I thank the member for Lyne for proposing this matter of public importance and I thank those that have contributed to the debate from the crossbenches and Minister Gray at the table, because I think they have taken the discussion in the spirit that it was meant. Regrettably, the issues surrounding matters related to the member for Dobell have sunk to a very low point in politics. There has been an inability of the parliament to come to grips with the way that we should react to these matters.

Of course all parliamentarians are politicians but not all politicians are parliamentarians. There are plenty of other venues where we can practice our politics. I see some from the press gallery grinning, because they know that they participate in that contest of personalities that goes with politics. It is regrettable that, when given the opportunity, not all the chamber can take the opportunity to have a real contest of ideas, even when it is over such controversial matters that surround the actions of the member for Dobell before he entered this place.

Today we witnessed one of the great problems. There has been urging—and I appreciate that the member for Lyne is of this view—that the member for Dobell perhaps should have come into this chamber and made a statement earlier. But in the world of politics what have we seen since yesterday? The statement becomes the issue. In some way we conjure up that the statement, because in some eyes it misled this House, is the issue. Yet the member for Sturt can come in here and ask for another statement, but that is by the by. The privileges matter can be dealt with through the procedures and consideration of the Speaker, which will be reported back here and then the House will make its decision.

But what I really find regretful is that this controversial flashpoint has focused those that think about these issues to think about the way in which we can actually tackle it, so we have discussion of a code of conduct. I had hoped that earlier in this parliament, given that it was part of very learned pieces of paper that are very important for this parliament, we would have got to the code of conduct much quicker. But all we have is the discussion document: the draft code of conduct. At least we have got it and it will be easy to implement it. But once we have implemented it let us really think about how we are going to use it. Hopefully, if we get over the hard part, which was creating a code of conduct, how we use it will be easy. I might be so bold—and it is not necessarily those that I now hunt and run with on this side’s view yet—as to say that an integrity commissioner, an ethics commissioner is pretty easy. There are plenty of models around the world, and they sure take the sting out of the politics if people transgress.

I happened to be in Ottawa last month. It was a very important issue—I will take that up with those that I am facing from the gallery later on. We have headlines: ‘Raitt did no wrong in upgrading airline seat’. The ‘Raitt’ that they are talking about is the labour minister, Lisa Raitt. What was her crime? She got on Air Canada and Air Canada upgraded her to business. The next week the Canadian government intervened in an industrial dispute on the side of Air Canada. A bit embarrassing for poor old Lisa, because she is the labour minister. Where did it go? It went to the ethics commissioner. The heat was taken out of it. The ethics commissioner decided, given that it was just the poor bod at the gate who decided to upgrade, that there was nothing sinister. Another headline was, ‘Fantino denies offshore accounts: ethics commissioner examining documents’. The article said that some documents of unknown origin had been handed in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that indicated that Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino had some offshore accounts. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were investigating it; but, because Mr Fantino is a member and a minister, it has gone to the ethics commissioner. In several column inches of discussion in the Ottawa Citizen,not one member of parliament or politician is mentioned—because there is a process. You will love the headline that really attracted my attention, given my state of mind at the moment: ‘Oda repays limo service charges’. Bev Oda is the international cooperation minister, and she was being asked to pay $3,000 that she charged taxpayers for limousine services while staying ‘at a posh hotel in London’. Regrettably, this poor minister decided that the digs that she had been put in—where a conference she was attending was being held—were not good enough and she had to be sent to the Savoy. So she had to get a limo to the place where the conference was, and the ethics commissioner decided that she could pay the $3,000. The other incidental thing is that she is going to live to regret that she paid Can$5 for an orange juice at the Savoy, because she is being well and truly ridiculed.

I give those examples to show that matters that could be blown out of all proportion can be handled in a sensible way. The fact is that before the member for Herbert was a member here we had failed to put in a code of conduct or an ethics commissioner, where you could have sent—if you had wanted to—the member for Dobell, and you could have had the politics taken out and had it decided as a parliamentary discussion. That is the point that I make—besides the fact that we have a problem as a parliament because the matters pertain to actions of a member of this place before he became a member of this place.

We have a matter of public importance that stresses ‘the importance of public confidence and public trust in the Australian parliament’. That is not only about the statement that Craig Thomson made as the member for Dobell; it is the reaction of this House about the statement. We had people jumping up, after a 59-minute statement, with a prepared speech going to matters that they thought would be in the statement. It had to be rehashed and rehashed. Emotive terms were used by members of this place—who use those emotive terms all the time—saying that the member for Dobell’s vote is tainted. If it is tainted, it ain’t the first taint. There have been plenty of occasions when we have had people who have faced more serious matters. We have had a person who left the caucus and sat on the crossbenches because he had criminal charges hanging over him that led, after he left this place, to him going to prison. So it is not the first time. Why was there not a big kerfuffle then? There was a majority government. Suddenly the rules have to change, because we find ourselves—as a result of the will of the people at the last election—with a minority government that has been very effective in the way that it has legislated and very effective in the way that it has pursued policy matters through its committees. That is the only reason. And we have outside people saying, ‘Oh, if it were a majority parliament he would have been out of here already.’ I do not think he would have been. We would have been going through due process and, until the due process found that, for some reason, he was not qualified to stay here, that would have been the end of it. It is not only the actions of individual members that give this place an image problem; it is the way we react to them. I think that is the spirit in which the member for Lyne proposed this, and I am disappointed that the opposition has not— (Time expired)

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Curtin—Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (16:19): I thank the member for Lyne for proposing this matter of public importance. The member for Dobell owed this parliament an explanation in the form of a statement. He acknowledged as much, and he gave one. Having offered to do so, he owed this parliament a statement of the truth: the simple, unadorned truth—not elaborately constructed plots, not fanciful alternative explanations and not highly implausible, highly dubious, unbelievable conspiracy theories naming people under parliamentary privilege. Just the truth, plain and simple.

The government argues that the parliament has no role to play in dealing with the serious findings of Fair Work Australia against the member for Dobell. These matters are not mere accusations, nor are they rumour from the world of the union movement. They are official findings by an independent investigator of a quasi-judicial government agency. There was an investigation of more than three years, resulting in a voluminous 1,100-page report that included 156 specific findings against the member for Dobell. Included in that report is a finding that the member for Dobell, at a time when he was a member of this place, provided ‘information that is false or misleading’ to the investigator of this quasi-judicial government agency. The findings go to the heart of the member for Dobell’s legitimacy in this parliament, as the investigation found that he misused $270,000 of union funds to support his election to this parliament. His very presence in this House is based upon what the investigator found to be acts of dishonesty.

The member for Dobell must now address the further serious questions arising from his statement to the House yesterday and the discrepancies between it and his previous statements at various times. This matter of public importance asks how the parliament should respond. The member for Dobell must now clear up these questions which go to the heart of whether he misled the parliament yesterday. Given that the independent investigator found that the member for Dobell provided him with information that is false or misleading, the member for Dobell must explain why there are serious discrepancies in the version of events in the evidence he gave to Fair Work Australia and with his statement to the parliament and with some of his previous public statements, including radio interviews.

One of the key planks of the member for Dobell’s statement yesterday—and I will use this as an example—was that the video surveillance footage from the brothels that put charges on his credit card would fail to show him attending the premises. He demanded, ‘Get the video surveillance footage,’ and therefore we were invited to conclude that it could not possibly have been him. Note: at no time did the member for Dobell deny using prostitutes paid for with union money. What the member for Dobell did not answer was the finding that the majority of credit card charges related to escort services provided off site—not at the premises of prostitutes, not at the brothel.

His statement failed to address the crux of the Fair Work Australia findings against him that he used the Health Services Union credit card to pay for prostitutes. Yes or no? He has still not denied it. If the member for Dobell is innocent, as he claims, he should make a clear, unambiguous statement that at no time has he used the Health Services Union credit card to pay for prostitutes, whether at a brothel, at his hotel or under any other circumstances. He has not done that.

The member for Dobell must also explain the findings that payments for prostitutes were transferred between credit cards in his possession and why he authorised the payments and the transfers between the cards, despite claiming to know at the time of a longstanding conspiracy underway to frame him by fixing him up with prostitutes. His claim of a grand conspiracy—this elaborate sting operation—to set him up with prostitutes also directly contradicts his previous claim in August last year:

“The union reached a settlement with another gentleman who paid back $15,000 in relation to use of credit cards at an escort agency.”

That claim was flatly denied by the alleged gentleman and later proven to be false after an audit of the union’s finances. It was revealed that the $15,000 repaid by the gentleman in question related to an unauthorised pay rise.

The member for Dobell’s statement to the House reeks of recent invention, for he made no mention of this grand conspiracy against him during his statements at the time. He made no mention of Mr Marco Bolano, whom he identified yesterday as the leader of what had to be a ‘Mission: Impossible’ team that undertook this most mysterious of conspiracy plots. The member for Dobell must explain why he can claim Mr Bolano began his alleged covert vendetta against him even though Mr Bolano claims not to have started work at the Health Services Union until many months after the first charges for prostitutes appeared on the credit card accounts of the member for Dobell. The member for Dobell’s allegation that Mr Bolano has been complicit in a conspiracy that has included what must have been illegal conduct—if the member for Dobell is to be believed—is a very serious allegation indeed. The member for Dobell has raised these allegations of alleged dishonest and criminal conduct by Mr Bolano, and he has a responsibility to substantiate these claims with at least a shred of evidence. None was provided.

Another key plank of the member for Dobell’s statement yesterday was that these alleged conspirators must have cloned his mobile phone to spoof calls to the escort agencies. The member for Dobell cannot stand in the parliament and make such outlandish claims without providing any evidence to support them. According to security experts consulted by various media organisations overnight, this cloning requires highly sophisticated techniques, equipment that is illegal in the hands of the public and would require a very high level of technical knowledge—like a government surveillance agency—as well as access to the member for Dobell’s mobile phone and use of that mobile phone at the same place as the member for Dobell used it before and after the alleged cloned calls, because the records show that he was making calls at about that time. Not one shred of evidence was provided by the member for Dobell to support this allegation that somehow the members of the HSU are operating a high-tech illegal surveillance operation—the likes of which the CIA would be hard pressed to do. The member for Dobell may as well declare that aliens hacked his phone and then challenge others to disprove his hypothesis.

Another claim in his statement yesterday, relating to the reporting of the saga, was that Fairfax journalists published 12 articles without seeking his response. Yet Sydney Morning Herald investigative reporter Kate McClymont has rejected this claim and last night detailed extensive attempts to contact the member for Dobell and also revealed that he has sent her text messages on occasion complimenting her articles. Ms McClymont described his claim that Fairfax made no attempt to contact him as crazy—yet this is what he said to the parliament. The parliament deserves an honest explanation.

The parliament is not becoming judge and jury on this matter. Indeed, what the parliament deserves is a statement that is neither false nor misleading. And I find it hypocritical beyond description for the government to accuse the opposition of abandoning the presumption of innocence when the only judgments made against the member for Dobell have been by the Prime Minister and her government. The Prime Minister said in late April that ‘a line has been crossed’, and then she acted to suspend the member for Dobell from the Labor Party. Clearly, the Prime Minister passed judgment upon the member for Dobell and, on her version of events, concluded that he was no longer a fit or proper person to sit in the Labor Party parliamentary caucus. If he is entitled to the presumption of innocence, why not invite him back into the Labor Party until he has had his day in court?

After the member for Dobell’s statement yesterday, the Prime Minister said overnight: ‘I made a decision and I explained at the time about respect for the parliament and there was accumulation of issues here’—so much for the embrace of the presumption of innocence. The Prime Minister passed judgment upon the member for Dobell as being unfit to sit within the federal Labor caucus. She has found him unfit to be preselected for Dobell as the Labor Party’s candidate at the next election. If he is entitled to the presumption of innocence and entitled to his day in court, invite him back into the Labor Party caucus and preselect him as the member for Dobell for the next election.

This is hypocrisy on a grand scale. The Prime Minister passed judgment on the member for Dobell and found him unfit to remain in the Labor Party; yet Labor simultaneously argues that the parliament cannot examine or scrutinise his statement in debates. Four times Labor voted to gag debate on the member for Dobell’s statement and conduct. This parliament deserves an explanation. (Time expired)

Mr WILKIE (Denison) (16:29): This place matters. This place has the power to make decisions that will see people live or die. This has place has the power to make decisions that will allow people to prosper or to go broke. We should be leaders in the community. The behaviour in this place by all of the members should be absolutely beyond reproach. How sorry is it, then, that so many Australians are currently appalled at the behaviour in this parliament of politicians and of politics? I suppose this is not new.

In fact, some analysis done by the Australian National University between 1993 and 2010 of the public’s perception of the qualities of politicians shows the quality of knowledgeability falling from 36 to 21 per cent. The quality of strong leadership falls from 30 to 15 per cent, halving. The quality of honesty more than halves, from 19 to nine per cent. The quality of trustworthiness falls from 16 to nine per cent and the quality of inspiration falls from 13 to nine per cent. Those figures that I have quoted are from 2010. I would hate to think what the public’s view is of this place and those in it right now.

There are obviously many reasons for this. Some people believe the problem is that we have a hung parliament, a power-sharing parliament. But power-sharing parliaments are in place in many countries where they work very well and they are not seen as the source of all of the country’s problems. In fact, this power-sharing parliament has proven—despite all of the predictions and all of the commentary—to be remarkably stable, productive and reformist. No, the problem is the behaviour of people, not the numbers in this place. Neither side of the chamber is beyond guilt in this regard. There is no doubt that some of the decisions of this government have mightily disappointed people and in part account for the poor showing of the government in the polls. Dear to my heart, of course, is the reneging on the deal for meaningful poker machine reform back in January. But the opposition is also guilty of bringing this place into disrepute. I think the behaviour of the opposition has been overly negative and destructive and regrettably short on policy details.

Now we have the behaviour of the Speaker and of the member for Dobell. So what should we do about the alleged behaviour of the Speaker and the member for Dobell? I think that dealing with those two is the easiest problem this parliament has because, at the end of the day, we must let proper process run its course. That is all we need to do. Let proper process run its course. This is a time for cool heads. This is the time for the members of the parliament to show true leadership and cool heads and let proper process run its true course.

Let us not forget that both the Speaker and the member for Dobell should be accorded the principles of natural justice. They are genuinely innocent until proven guilty and they remain that way unless and until they are able to stand in a properly constituted court where they can defend themselves and where they may or may not be found guilty of an offence. Let us not forget that, according to the Constitution, the Speaker and the member for Dobell are eligible to sit and work in this place, and that remains the case in law by the Constitution of this land, until they are found guilty of a criminal offence punishable by 12 months or more in prison or unless they become an undischarged bankrupt or face some other matter such as a pecuniary interest with the Commonwealth Public Service. The point I am pursuing is that, according to natural justice and the Constitution, the member for Dobell has a right to sit in this place and to go about his work. Let us not forget that under the Crimes Act it is actually a serious criminal offence for anyone to intimidate to the extent of interfering with someone’s political liberty. I go so far as to say that some members in the community, and even in this place, could stand accused of intimidating to that degree.

More broadly, a number of parliamentary mechanisms might be brought to bear to help us through this difficult period. The obvious one is that we should be having a parliamentary debate about the findings against the member for Dobell by Fair Work Australia. I condemn the government for at every opportunity delaying the member for Dobell making a statement and, more recently, doing whatever it can to prevent a parliamentary debate about the findings against the member for Dobell. It is wrong and it is lousy politics. This whole matter could have been addressed long ago if the member for Dobell had been allowed to stand up and have his say. We could put a lot of the issues currently on the boil to bed if the government allowed a parliamentary debate about it. I think it is to the credit of the opposition and to the crossbenchers that we have done what we can to bring on such a debate.

Yes, there may be a case for references to the Privileges Committee and, on the face of it, there are charges to answer. The Privileges Committee would be an appropriate place to look into some of those accusations. I am pleased to have seconded the member for Lyne’s motion that seeks to censure the member for Dobell. I note that the member for Lyne has done entirely the right thing, focusing the censure not on the allegations or the findings against the member for Dobell before he entered the parliament but on things that he has done since entering the parliament which this parliament should find unacceptable, in particular the time it has taken him to publicly respond to the allegations against him and the allegation that he has not cooperated fully with Fair Work Australia since he has been a member of this place. I do not agree with suspension and I will not support any move by the opposition to suspend the member for Dobell. While we might censure him for specific behaviour during his time as a member of this place, I believe that to suspend a member is ultimately to pass judgement on and to sit as judge and jury of him. That is not our role.

Hopefully, as a result of this kerfuffle over the member for Dobell and perhaps with regard to the Speaker, we could look more broadly at other things that we could do. Some people say that the constitutional threshold that you are not eligible to sit in this place if you have been found guilty of any offence punishable by one or more years of imprisonment is too high. I do not know, but why not have a debate about it? Why not have a discussion about it? Twelve months might be good. Maybe it should be two years. Maybe it should be three months. But we should not be afraid to have a discussion about it. If after a discussion we think it is set at the wrong place then the government should consider trying to bring about changes to it.

What about other indiscretions that might be added to the list? The member for New England quite rightly explored in his speech this afternoon that perhaps there are other things a member might do that should mean he or she is ineligible to sit in this place. I think there should be a code of conduct, and for the life of me I cannot see why, after all of the attempts to have such a code, there is not one. What are we afraid of in this place? The member for Isaacs has identified some problems and difficulties with some of these mechanisms, but surely we have the goodwill and the nous to solve those problems. There is no logical reason why we cannot have a code of conduct. And what on earth has happened to the integrity commissioner? This is a rather historic document now that I have: it is my eight-page written agreement with the Prime Minister over the establishment of a parliamentary integrity commissioner. It still has not been done and it should be done.

In closing, most of the people I am mixing with on the street are sick to death of this issue. They are sick to death of the fight and the argy-bargy that is going on in this place at the moment. They want us to just sort it out and move on. They want the government to get on and run the country and they want the opposition to get on and prove it is a credible alternative government. I think that is what we should now be focusing on.

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (16:39): I welcome this matter of public importance that has been brought to us today by the member for Lyne. I think, in an unusual precedent, it is supported by all members of this place. It is a measured and principled approach to matters of current public controversy and it enables members of this place to set out the proper role of parliament when questions are raised about another member of parliament, particularly when those questions go to potential criminal proceedings.

I start at the outset by stating that I am deeply distressed, as I am sure every member of this place is, by the findings that were recently handed down in a report by Fair Work Australia into the affairs of the Health Services Union of Australia. I am deeply concerned as an Australian and I am deeply concerned as a member of this place, but I am also deeply concerned as somebody who has dedicated over 15 years of his life to the trade union movement of this country, a movement whose values and principles I love and whose best traditions I seek to uphold. Anybody who holds those values and who has that deep affection for those traditions cannot look on with anything but deep concern about the misuse of members’ money and the abuse of processes such as have been alleged to have been found in the Fair Work Australia report.

But the issue not whether or not we condone the behaviour that has been found by Fair Work Australia. Of course that is not the issue before us today. I do not think there is one member of this House that would condone that alleged behaviour. The question is not even whether we are convinced by the statement that has been recently given in this place by the member for Dobell. I am sure there are many people in this place who were convinced by the statement that was given by the member for Dobell and many people who were not convinced by it. But that is not the question for us in this House today. The question that we must consider is what the role of parliament is, and that takes us straight to the Constitution.

Make no bones about it, the matters that are being debated in this matter of public importance and the matters that have been strewn all over the pages of every newspaper in this country for the last few months and have been raised in just about every motion for suspension of standing orders and other motions before this House by the member for Sturt go straight to the heart of the Constitution. There is a great danger in the strategy that has been proposed by those opposite. It goes to who gets to decide who sits in parliament. Make no bones about it, the whole strategy that is being directed by those opposite is about who gets to decide who sits in parliament. We should be under no illusion about what is driving those opposite.

What is driving those opposite is an attempt to force the resignation of the member for Dobell. That is what is driving the opposition’s every breath, their every strategy, their every tactic in this place—to try and force the resignation of the member for Dobell. This has been admitted quite recently by the member for North Sydney in a Press Club address. It has in fact been admitted by the member for Sturt, with his numerous attempts to have the member for Dobell excluded from this House. That is what is at the heart of their every strategy, and we should be careful about that.

I have always adopted the principle, as a law student, a practising lawyer and a trade unionist, that what we permit to be done to the least of us is what we condone for those we revere. At this point in time it might be allegations made against the member for Dobell, but this parliament has had before it a great number of controversies, whether controversies about race, about gender, about sexual orientation or about political values. They are the proper debates that should be had in this place but, if we as a collective of men and women representing different electorates and different political persuasions are able to come in here and form a majority, the effect of that majority being to subvert the electors of a particular electorate by excluding their member of parliament from sitting in and voting in this place, we are tearing up the Constitution. That is what we are doing. We are subverting the democratic right of electors to determine who they choose as their elected member of parliament to sit in this place and participate in debates and votes of this House, which determine the laws of this land. Have no doubt about it, and I say this to all of those in this House: what we permit to be done to the least of us is what we condone for those we revere. There is a grave danger in the strategy that is being adopted by the opposition in relation to this matter.

Upholding the Constitution is normally the role of conservatives, who stand in this place and say they uphold the Constitution. I stand here today as one of the few members in this debate who have said, ‘It is our role as parliamentarians to uphold the Constitution.’ I will go to some of the suggestions which have been made by the member for Denison. There may be some value in some of the suggestions that he has made. The framers of our Constitution ensured that there was a separation of powers which distributed power within the Commonwealth and between the various arms of parliament. They framed a Constitution which ensured that parliament was elected by the people, to make the laws; that the executive was elected by the parliament to administer those laws; that the courts were established by the Constitution to ensure that this parliament operates within its constitutional powers; that the laws that are subsequently made by this parliament are upheld and do not infringe citizens’ rights vis-a-vis the Constitution; and that when citizens have objections or concerns about their rights they have a place to go to to have those rights determined by an independent court of law.

Courts themselves have expertise governed by the rules of evidence, which do not apply in this place. Those rules of evidence and rules of precedent have evolved over many centuries to ensure that both the defendant and the prosecutor are accorded every fairness that should be accorded to them. There are rules and precedents that do not apply in this place, and that is why we have established courts, to adjudicate upon the sorts of allegations that have been made against the member for Dobell. Let us be frank: those allegations of one sort or another could be made against any one of us. Allegations were made against a member of the Liberal Party only yesterday concerning his affairs before he became a member of parliament. It is not the role of this parliament to adjudicate upon those. Although we might all have our opinions, it is the role of a properly constituted court under our Constitution to determine and adjudicate upon those disputes.

It is important that parliament stays within its constitutional confines, it is important that courts stay within their constitutional confines and it is important that we as members of parliament stay within our constitutional confines. It maintains not only a balance between this parliament and other parliaments within the Federation but also the liberties of each and every Australian citizen.

Some suggestions have been made during the debate that we should alter the rules around which a member of parliament can be ejected because of their behaviour—whether the current two sanctions are sufficient and whether bankruptcy and certain criminal convictions are sufficient. I agree that a debate on these issues is a worthy one for us to have but, ultimately, it is not for members in this place to adjudicate on whether the current constitutional provisions are sufficient. It is for the people of Australia, through a properly constituted referendum, to determine whether or not we should alter our Constitution. If members of this place believe that that is a worthy matter to take to the people of Australia, then so be it. We can have a debate about that. But it is not for us solely to determine that. That role lies with the people of Australia.

These are important matters but, as the member for Denison has observed just now, there are many who do not live and breathe the affairs of this place and who must scratch their heads and wonder about the amount of time that these matters have occupied in this place. They may say they are important, but they may wonder whether they are the most important things that we should be occupying our parliamentary time with. I for one believe we should be spending a lot more time debating the economy, the future of our industries, the future for our young people, skills and education, and our place in the region. That is not to diminish this matter of public importance, but I think we have spent enough time talking about it today.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Rishworth): Order! The discussion on this matter has concluded.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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