Bills – Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020 & Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020 – Second Reading – Tuesday, 3 March 2020
Mr ALBANESE (Grayndler—Leader of the Opposition) (13:01): Over summer Australians stepped up on the bushfire crisis—well, most Australians. This Prime Minister, of course, we know, didn’t step up. He was behind in each and every way. Eventually he conceded that there was a need for a national response to the bushfire crisis, but last night we found out, yet again, that so much of it was about spin and marketing rather than substance. We found out last night that there isn’t actually a National Bushfire Recovery Agency. It isn’t actually an agency, remarkably. All it is is Mr Colvin—a fine Australian—doing his best, but just as a member of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Even more extraordinary is what else we found out in Senate estimates, after a question from Senator Watt:
Can you point me to where this national bushfire recovery fund is in the Portfolio Additional Estimates Statements? I’ve had a look and I can’t find it.
Ms Bradshaw responded:
The $2 billion fund is a notional fund …
So, Senator Wong asked:
Could I ask this way: can you just confirm that there is no additional appropriation in the additional estimates statement for this portfolio for the $2 billion?
Mr Colvin replied:
Now, ‘notional’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘existing only as an idea, not as something real.’ It’s little wonder that just $200 million has actually gone out the door—throughout all of the programs that have been allocated—$200 million, when the Prime Minister made it very clear when he declared that the money would be available straightaway. We know that businesses in places like the South Coast are saying they just haven’t seen a dollar come through. The fact is that across New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, a total of five farmers and small businesses have so far received emergency bushfire loans worth just $400,000.
Compare the hands-off approach on bushfires with another program: the sports rorts saga. In Senate estimates there have been more smoking guns in this sports rort saga over the last 24 hours than at one of Senator McKenzie’s gun clubs!
They’ve all been out there for all to see. And this Prime Minister, who said on election night that it was a miracle, has been exposed not as a Messiah but just as a naughty boy! He’s not keen to talk about it—and at the press conference he just gave, he slinked out as soon as a single question was asked. I’m waiting for him to brush it all off as an on-rorter matter—because this Prime Minister has been caught misleading this parliament, misleading the Australian people, and using taxpayers’ funds as if they were the funds of the Liberal and National parties.
Let’s have a look at what we now know. On 3 April, Sport Australia gave their list to Senator McKenzie. On something that’s dated 4 April—note: dated 4 April—allegedly, during that period, over 70 per cent of the projects were turned over in a different list. So 70 per cent in 24 hours. Who said they can’t be efficient? Can’t get money out the door for people whose homes have burnt down or for communities who have been decimated, but in 24 hours, we would have it believed, that decision was made. So the 5th of April came and went and so did the 6th, the 7th, the 8th and the 9th. We got to the 10th and Senator McKenzie sent a list to the Prime Minister’s office. The Audit Office says that this was what she intended to fund—’intended to fund’. We now know that those words stack up.
So the Prime Minister gets this list on 10 April and the election’s called at 8:30 am on 11 April—or 8.29 am to be precise—and the writs are issued and we’re off to an election. But at 8:46 am—after we are in caretaker mode—Senator McKenzie sends the list to the Prime Minister’s office. So between the email to the PMO the previous day and the email to Sport Australia—it wasn’t quite the same list—there’d been a change made. It wasn’t quite the same list. The National Audit Office gave evidence on oath before the Senate yesterday that that change, with a project out and a project in, was made at the request of the Prime Minister’s office—direct evidence that the Prime Minister was involved in these decisions.
But it didn’t end there. Remember, we’re hours into caretaker mode, and there are provisions under the Westminster system which make very clear that, once you’re in caretaker, the government can’t allocate funding without consultation with the opposition. Partisan politics end when an election’s on because—a bit like sports should be, and a bit like these grants should be—there’s meant to be a level playing field. But at 12.35 pm on that day, Senator McKenzie’s office sent a different list of projects to the Prime Minister’s office—one project out and another nine projects in. I wonder what the basis of it was? We know that there were multiple lists and that there was colour coding that occurred with all of these lists flowing to and from—a pantone chart of corruption, coded green and red and orange—to show where the marginal seats were on all of these colour-coded spreadsheets. Why would Senator McKenzie send it across to the Prime Minister’s office? Allegedly, according to this Prime Minister—who has said this in the parliament not once, or twice or three times or four times or even five times but over and over again—all the decisions were made on 4 April; no changes made; nothing to do with him.
At 12.35 the list goes to the Prime Minister’s office. Minutes later, after it’s ticked off—eight minutes later—the final list—another one—goes across to Sport Australia, sending across another final revised list of approved projects. It’s just extraordinary! The Prime Minister has misled parliament on at least seven occasions, including five times on a single day.
But this isn’t some accident. This is a debate that has been going on for a long time. This is a deliberate mislead of this parliament and the Australian people. What we’re finding with the sports rorts saga is that every day more and more information comes out which completely contrasts with the Prime Minister’s message. The problem isn’t just the abuse of the electoral system and the abuse of taxpayers’ funds. The Prime Minister obviously misheard the Beastie Boys song as ‘you gotta to fight for your right to rort for your party.’ What we see from the Prime Minister with this funding is on the one hand volunteer organisations—the local bowling club, the local cricket club—that rely upon Australians selling their raffle tickets, selling their sausage rolls on a Saturday, giving up their time, giving up hundreds of hours to put in applications—but of course we know that the fix was in. They had a go and they got done over. That’s what’s happened here. In contrast, the Sans Souci Football Club in the Prime Minister’s electorate received funding for a project that not only was completed but had already been opened, for which they gave thanks to the local soccer organisation and the district and the local council. No problem—out goes to money.
There is the North Sydney pool. The only way it could be closer to the centre of Sydney, located where it is next to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, would be if it were on the bridge! That is the only way it could be closer. But apparently country people swim in it! That’s the justification for this, while good organisations have missed out on funding right throughout the country. There are girls and women who can’t have access to change rooms because the funding was redirected.
We have urban congestion which apparently only occurs in Liberal and National Party seats and marginal seats. There’s no reason why people who drive through electorates that happen to be represented by the Labor Party should get a fair share of funding, because apparently you can solve congestion based on electoral maps.
This government, which can’t get money out the door for bushfire recovery, has hundreds of millions of dollars, and in some case billions of dollars, flowing out the door based upon the electoral map. And this Prime Minister has tried to cover it up each and every day. He’s deliberately misled the parliament on multiple occasions. He has said that it all occurred on 4 April. He has said that he had no part in the decision making. But the National Audit Office have given direct evidence before the Senate about what has really gone on here.
Remember those giant novelty cheques, with people like Georgina Downer—not elected to anything? That’s your illustrated guide to rorting taxpayers’ funds. That’s what they represent, there for all to see. But as far as they’re concerned it’s okay. The Prime Minister, in this parliament, when he went off script just briefly in the very short answers he’s giving, spoke about the member for Lindsay. The only problem was that she wasn’t in the parliament at the time—whoopsadaisy! But that’s consistent with the absolute rorting that has gone on here.
This inquiry has been extended to June. The government is still blocking the release of documentation, the 136 emails between the Prime Minister’s office and Bridget McKenzie’s office. The government is still blocking the information with all of the applications that were put forward in good faith by hardworking Australians representing their local communities. The fact is that the government are so arrogant they think they can get away with anything. And rather than put all the information out there and say, ‘Whoops!’ they threw Bridget McKenzie under the bus. Bridget McKenzie’s appearance before this committee is going to be pretty interesting, as will Mr Gaetjens’s, the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff, who was put on to give this independent inquiry, into what was an independent inquiry, but wasn’t given any of the colour-coded spreadsheets. He wasn’t given any of the information and didn’t interview anyone in the Prime Minister’s office. This absolutely stinks. We will pursue it, because taxpayers demand transparency and demand a government that represents the nation, not just its own interests. (Time expired)
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.