Melbourne Press Conference

SUBJECT/S: The Government’s hypocrisy on donation reform; Senator Brandis and conflict of interest; marriage equality plebiscite.










SUBJECT/S: The Government’s hypocrisy on donation reform; Senator Brandis and conflict of interest; marriage equality plebiscite.


MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Today we’ve seen a second former coalition Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, show the leadership that Malcolm Turnbull seems incapable of displaying on donations reform. Just days earlier we had another former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard urging change and this morning Mr Abbott has called for a ban on foreign donations. But Mr Turnbull, who has seemingly run out of mud to throw, stays silent. It’s become abundantly clear that Mr Turnbull’s only interest in donations is making them himself to his own party, to the tune of one or two million dollars. Perhaps it’s three or four, we don’t know – and we won’t know because the current donations rules mean that we won’t be told, there is no further disclosure needed until 18 months after a donation is made.


His other interest of course in donations is in using them to smear Labor. Mr Turnbull is a hypocrite. If he truly cared about the impact that donations are having on our political system, he would accept Labor’s offer to sit down and discuss what are the changes that we need to make to our donations disclosure laws? Punting the issue off to a committee is not enough.


I can tell you why Mr Turnbull is not interested in donations reform, it’s because it is all too uncomfortably close to home. Just this morning, we have had discussion in the media of the way in which a donor to the Liberal Party was able to obtain very prompt changes to the special visa rules for foreign students coming to Australia. This is of course a donor who made a donation to the Liberal Party of $65,000. And also just yesterday we’ve had another donations issue ensnare the Government’s leader in the Senate, Senator Brandis. A Queensland lawyer, Theo Tavoularis, who was a donor to Senator Brandis’s political party the Liberal National Party of Queensland, and who represented Mr Brandis’s son in a criminal case in Queensland, has somehow ended up with a $370,000 a year job on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.


The statement that was released by Senator Brandis’s office late yesterday on this issue clarified nothing. In fact it totally ignored Mr Tavoularis’s involvement in Mr Brandis’s son’s court case. The only clarification offered by Senator Brandis is that he claims he was not aware Mr Tavoularis had made a $1200 donation to the LNP. He does say that he had been acquainted with Mr Tavoularis for some considerable time. This is not enough. Senator Brandis should have known about the donation. Perhaps because in his rush to appoint some 76 members of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on the eve of the caretaker election, he didn’t have time to do the due diligence that should have been done before making all of these appointments. We’re talking here about the first law officer of this country. A senior government frontbencher, the Government’s leader in the Senate being unable to properly explain how it is that he came to give a long-time acquaintance, a Liberal National Party donor with personal connections to his family, an incredibly well-paid and prestigious role. It’s very concerning, it goes to the integrity of this government if you cannot guarantee that such appointments are being made without bias or favour.


Senator Brandis must still answer the following questions. First, did he declare this conflict of interest to cabinet when he was putting forward this appointment? What contact did he personally have with Mr Tavoularis before or after the appointment was made? Did Senator Brandis arrange for Mr Tavoularis to act for his son in the criminal proceeding in Queensland? Did Senator Brandis or Senator Brandis’s son pay the full commercial rates for Mr Tavoularis’s legal services? And a final question that Senator Brandis has to answer is did he in putting forward this appointment act on his own personal recommendation - was it his idea that Mr Tavoularis be appointed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal or did this come through the ordinary processes of departmental recommendation?


Anything less than a full explanation on these points, delivered today, is unsatisfactory. If Mr Turnbull truly believes in the integrity of politics he will be pulling Senator Brandis into his office immediately on his return to Australia and demanding answers. Anything else is completely unsatisfactory.


JOURNALIST: With that – obviously this is a government-wide issue, but is it ironic that the Labor party is taking this stance so strongly after what we’ve seen happen with Sam Dastyari?


DREYFUS: As we’ve said very directly, the discussion that has been prompted by Senator Dastyari by his own disclosure of the payment that he received, his own acceptance that what he did was wrong, and his resignation – the discussion that has been prompted is one that we should all benefit from. We now have calls for donation reform from John Howard, from Tony Abbott, from a range of Liberal Party members. Mr Turnbull is saying that he is prepared to entertain donations reform and in particular with a ban on foreign donations. Labor is saying let’s do this. When Mr Turnbull returns to Australia he should sit down with Labor and craft legislation that brings about some real and useful reforms to donations regulation.


JOURNALIST: These donations have been happening for a while though, what is it particularly in the international landscape that you see as a threat to the way the Australian government runs? Why is this such a concern?


DREYFUS: 114 countries around the world have banned the making of political donations from foreign sources in their political systems. Australia should join those 114 countries and ban donations from foreign sources for all of the reasons that have been identified in discussions we’ve been having this week about the need not only to eliminate undue influence from foreign sources but to ensure that there is not even the appearance of undue influence from foreign sources.


JOURNALIST: Would this issue at all hinder Labor’s bipartisan support of certain budget cuts or pushing through…an omnibus?


DREYFUS: Well it does not need to be connected to any other measures. This is a stand-alone issue and we’re calling on the Government to join us in legislation that would ban foreign donations, that reduced the disclosure level from the present ridiculous level of $13,200 down to $1,000, that would ban the making of anonymous donations above $50, that would ban splitting of donations between state entities and federal political bodies so that we are able to get proper disclosure. All of these things are things that Labor has been calling for for some considerable time. They have all been rejected by the Liberal Party. It’s time for the Liberal Party to back up its talk with some real action.


JOURNALIST: Regardless of this would you still, is Labor still considering supporting those budget cuts you suggested before?


DREYFUS: As you and everyone in Australia has heard from Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen, we are closely examining the Government’s so-called Omnibus Bill and closely examining the measures in it. Clearly Labor took a package to the last election, a package that included a range of savings to improve the budget bottom line, and a range of in some cases linked expenditure. It’s not up to the Government to simply cherrypick some of the measures from Labor’s comprehensive financial package and insist that they go forward. The Government needs to sit down and talk with us about the legislation it is putting forward. While it is doing that, we would invite the Government to actually implement the proposals we have put forward in relation to superannuation, which would actually fix the Government’s problems, deal with the problems of the superannuation measures the Government put forward in the last budget. It’s about time for the Government to sit down, in other words, with Labor and engage in proper negotiation rather than simply shouting at Labor across the aisle, using a megaphone to make demands without an actual negotiation.


JOURNALIST: And finally from me just on the topic of legalising same-sex marriage, the idea of a self-executing plebiscite has come up today, one where it could go to a public vote and then wouldn’t necessarily have to return to Parliament. Is that something you think Labor could support?


DREYFUS: We think that is an absolute minimum requirement. I’m not saying it would be sufficient to win Labor’s support for a plebiscite but the only way to get over the problem that conservative members of the coalition Parliamentary party are threatening, which is them subverting the will of the people in a plebiscite by not voting in accordance with what the plebiscite decided would be to have, as you and others have described it, a self-executing bill. What that would simply mean is that the Parliament would actually pass a necessary amendment to the Commonwealth Marriage Act to bring about marriage equality but that would not commence until a successful plebiscite had been conducted. That we think is a minimum to get over the problem caused by the plebiscite itself, or caused by coalition backbenchers and conservative members of the government party room who feel they won’t necessarily be bound by the result of a plebiscite.


JOURNALIST: So you would support spending in excess of $100 million if it was a binding vote?


DREYFUS: No I’ve said that would be a minimum but not sufficient for Labor’s support for this plebiscite. We have said all along that this plebiscite is a terrible idea. We’ve said all along it was a ruse dreamed up by Tony Abbott and conservative members of the Parliament to delay marriage equality in Australia and it was a pretence dreamed up by Tony Abbott to fix problems that he had when his leadership was very shaky. It actually turned out to be terminal – because a month later he lost the leadership. What is surprising about this plebiscite is that Malcolm Turnbull has gone forward with what is Tony Abbott’s idea. Labor’s position remains that this is a terrible idea.


JOURNALIST: So if it’s the minimum, what else needs to be done?


DREYFUS: There are a whole range of things I’ve mentioned that would be needed, we need to see however – the Government hasn’t even put forward a bill. There was an indication given to us last week that the bill would be shown to us by the end of next week. That has not happened – we’re now at the end of another week and no bill has been forthcoming. However things that the bill would need to deal with, we would say, is that there should be no suggestion that the Commonwealth government should, in addition to spending somewhere between $160 million and $200 million on the plebiscite itself, there should be no suggestion that there should be additional public funding of the no and yes campaigns. We’ve suggested that there should be no counting by electorate or by state because that is irrelevant to a nation-wide conclusion. We’ve suggested the need for careful consideration of material that might be associated with, or may accompany the plebiscite. And of course we think that voting should be compulsory. But of course until we see the proposed legislation in regard to this plebiscite, we’re not going to announce a definitive view.


Nothing further? Thank you.