Transcript of doorstop – Opposition Leader’s Courtyard, Parliament House, Canberra
Senator Penny Wong
Shadow Minister for Public Administration & Accountability
Anthony Albanese, MP
Manager of Opposition Business in the House
Wednesday 20 June 2007
E&OE Proof only
Subjects: Liberal Party Dirt Units; Productivity MPI; Alex Hawke; Federal Police Investigation
WONG: Well today we have yet further confirmation that this Government has lost touch and that this Government thinks that taxpayers’ money is its own. John Howard thinks he’s entitled to spend nearly $2 billion dollars on Government advertising funded by the taxpayer, nearly half of that since the last election. John Howard has been quietly building a taxpayer funded private army of political foot soldiers to carry him to the next election: an additional 105 personal political staffers over the life of the Howard Government. And John Howard has long been running a secret dirt unit right here in Parliament House. And now what we have, are revelations of yet another secret dirt unit, this time housed in the Attorney General’s office, also funded by the taxpayer.
So let’s be clear, this is John Howard using taxpayers’ funds to pay for his re-election campaign, and the Prime Minister knows this is wrong that’s why he’s doing it in secret. But this is a Prime Minister who will say anything, do anything, and spend any amount of taxpayers’ money to get himself re-elected.
So we know about some of the Government’s advertising, and we know all about some of the political foot soldiers, and we know about some of the secret dirt units, but we don’t know it all, and nor do the Australian people. Just how far does this go? How many staff are there in these secret dirt units? Are there staff in every political office, every minister’s office working in these secret dirt units? So it’s time for John Howard to come clean with the Australian people, and tell them just how much taxpayers’ money is being used on these secret dirt units. And I’ll hand over to Anthony.
ALBANESE: Thanks Penny. This morning in the Parliament, Labor sought to give the Attorney General an opportunity to explain what is revealed in The Bulletin this morning; that there is a secret dirt unit operating out of the Attorney General’s office in Phillip Street Sydney, comprised of between six to eight people, and that it has been in operation since the year 2000 and has worked for the re-election of the Howard Government in 2001, in 2004, and it is continuing to work to that end in 2007.
This morning we raised a number of questions in the Parliament that the Attorney General, the senior legal officer of the land is obliged to answer, they are:
- what is the date of the secret unit’s establishment? We understand that it’s the year 2000, interestingly when the current Attorney General was the Minister for Immigration and we know the role that he played in the 2001 election campaign;
- the annual cost to tax payers of the secret unit’s operation;
- the secret unit’s full staffing arrangements;
- the secret unit’s recording arrangements;
- the functions of the secret units, including its monitoring of non-government media comment and other activities;
- the relationship between the secret unit and the taxpayer funded Government Member’s Secretariat;
- the relationship between the secret unit and other taxpayer funded units operating out of other ministerial offices;
- the relationship between the secret unit and the federal secretariat of the Liberal Party;
- the relationship between the secret unit and Crosby Textor; and
- the reason that the existence of this secret dirt unit has been kept secret from the Australian Parliament and the Australian people.
These are all questions that the Attorney General must answer, because after all the Australian taxpayers are entitled to know how their taxpayers’ funds are being spent by this government.
JOURNALIST: Don’t all political parties gather information, and media coverage/information about their opposition?
ALBANESE: I think it’s clear that what we see with this Government is a big distinction between what would be seen as normal operations, and the way that the Howard Government operates. We know that it has a dirt unit operating in this Parliament that’s growing year by year. Now we know that there’s another dirt unit operating out of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices in Phillip Street Sydney. And it is very clear that this is a Government that tries to hide from accountability and is prepared to spend whatever taxpayer funds are necessary to secure its re-election and to deceive the Australian people. And of course there is no greater deceiver in this Parliament than the current Attorney General.
JOURNALIST: What’s the dirt unit actually doing… the same as the National Media Liaison Service under the Hawke and Keating Governments.
WONG: I’m happy to take that question. I mean, the national media liaison unit was a transparent operation. It was open to liaison with journalists and circulated transcripts and so forth. But perhaps most importantly it was able to be scrutinised through the Senate Estimates process. You will recall, people were employed within a department and a portfolio, and Senators were able to enquire into the operations. What we have under this Government is staff employed, for example in the Government Member’s Secretariat, in the office of the Chief Government Whip. They are beyond the oversight of Senate Estimates, there is no transparency, so there is a significant difference.
JOURNALIST: And what exactly are these staff doing?
WONG: Well that’s probably a matter that we should ask the Government, but it’s quite clear from the Bulletin article, first that the Government Member’s Secretariat is engaging in what is clearly party political campaigning, the sort of activities that taxpayers would expect political parties, not taxpayers, to pay for. And we also now know of these additional staff in Mr Ruddock’s office, and the question is just what are these staff doing? Are the allegations that are raised in The Bulletin correct? Is this yet another secret dirt unit funded by taxpayers for the purpose of supporting the re-election of the Howard Government? This is a Government that uses taxpayers’ money as its own. It thinks it is entitled to use taxpayers’ money as its own, when it comes to political advertising, when it comes to political staff, and when it comes to these secret dirt units.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any other evidence apart from this article, to back up your allegations here?
ALBANESE: We certainly know that this is a Government that has extended its operation, courtesy of the taxpayer, in terms of monitoring media, in terms of producing material that would politically advantage the Government. We know when you look at the material that’s produced in electorates not just by Liberal Party member’s, but Liberal Party candidates in non-held electorates, that the amount of resources that are being extended as a result of Government expenditure, let alone the research which is being done as well. And that’s another question here, is to what extent is research, market research being done by Government departments to the tune of tens of millions of dollars being used to support the Liberal Party in its partisan political campaign for re-election in 2007. This is a Government that’s determined to stifle the democratic process which we would regard as being the foundation stone of this Australian Parliament.
This afternoon in spite of the fact that the Prime Minister and others in the Government have said that it’s critical that there be a debate on productivity, what has occurred is that today, Wayne Swan as the Shadow Treasurer, submitted a matter of public importance resolution about productivity and future economic growth. The Speaker has chosen a partisan MPI issue from Gary Hardgrave of all people, the tainted Member for Moreton, about union issues as the issue that will be debated in the matter of public importance this afternoon.
So much for the Government wanting a proper debate about productivity and economic issues. The Government is shying away from it. It will use all means at its disposal to push its partisan political interests, and to stifle the normal democratic processes, whether that be gagging resolutions in Parliament, not in accordance with the rules, as occurred this morning. Or whether it be the establishment of secret dirt units such as the one which is operating out of Phillip Street Sydney.
JOURNALIST: But you haven’t answered the question, is that all you only know from The Bulletin magazine?
ALBANESE: Well we know from sources at the moment, it must be said, the Liberal Party are providing some good material to us from time to time. We now know for example, that the candidate selected in Mitchell was selected, Alex Hawke, and which the Prime Minister endorsed was surprising given that the defeated candidate David Elliot actually worked for the Prime Minister for four years, was his campaign secretary in the 1990 and 1993 elections and was secretary of the Bennelong Federal Electorate Council of the Liberal Party. What is occurring is increasingly, this is a Government that’s unravelling in terms of its united position. Increasingly there are many concerns from within the Liberal Party about the abuse of power, from a Government that’s been in office for eleven long years, that is out of ideas, is out of touch and is determined to manipulate its way back into re-election later this year.
JOURNALIST: Are you more concerned about taxpayers’ money being used, or more concerned about what dirt this apparent dirt unit will dig up?
WONG: The key issues here, which is an issue of public accountability, this is an issue about the Government thinking and treating taxpayers’ money as its own. We’ve seen this pattern of behaviour from the Howard Government. We seen how many millions of dollars they are prepared to spend on taxpayer funded Government advertising. We’ve seen the blow-out in political personal staff under the Howard Government. And now we see more taxpayer funds being used on this additional secret dirt unit housed in the Attorney General’s office. And the question really should be to the Government, how is this justifiable for you to use taxpayer funds for these clearly party political purposes? It is an issue of public accountability.
JOURNALIST: Are you worried about what they might find out?
WONG: No, I’m worried about the fact that this Government is intent on using as much taxpayers’ money as it is able to on funding its re-election campaign and that is the accountability issue and that is what Australian taxpayers are concerned about.
Can I make one other comment on another issue that is running, and that is the comments this morning by Mr Cameron Thompson regarding the Australian Federal Police investigation involving three of his Liberal Party colleagues from Queensland. Mr. Thompson described the handling by the police of these allegations, of this investigation as, and I quote, ‘appalling’.
Can I say that Mr Thompson should reflect whether it is appropriate for a Federal Liberal Member of Parliament to describe the Australian Federal Police investigation in this way. And I will also say this, what is appalling are the allegations of bogus printing invoices and a fake staff position being used by the Liberal Party to create a slush fund in Queensland. That is what is appalling.
JOURNALIST: He was talking about the length of time though, not the actions?
WONG: Mr Thompson chose to make a comment about the conduct and handling of an Australian Federal Police investigation…
JOURNALIST: He was talking about how long it’s taken…
WONG: He chose to make comment about it, and my suggestion is that he should reflect on whether it is appropriate for a Federal Member of Parliament to make such comments about the handling of an AFP investigation.
JOURNALIST: [inaudible]… fifteen months though… he didn’t criticise the investigation.
WONG: Well hang on, he described it as appalling, and we are all in this place very…
JOURNALIST: He was talking about the length of time as appalling at all…
WONG: …very concerned to ensure that independent officers, and independent authorities such as the AFP are permitted to conduct their investigations as they see fit. That is the protocol, that is the appropriate thing to do, and I simply say this, that Mr Thompson should reflect whether it is appropriate for him to comment on the conduct of an investigation by the AFP.
JOURNALIST: Is Mr Hardgrave tainted or is he entitled to the presumption of innocence?
WONG: I’m sorry?
JOURNALIST: Is Mr Hardgrave tainted or is he entitled to the presumption of innocence?
WONG: Look, the presumption of innocence is a presumption under our legal system. I don’t think anyone is saying that that is not the case. The issue here is the AFP should be entitled to conduct its investigation as it sees fit. Thanks very much.