02 November 2020


SUBJECTS: Christine Holgate; postal service cuts; taxpayers’ money; Commonwealth Integrity Commission; Leppington Triangle; Australian Financial Complaints Authority

JANE NORMAN, HOST: Let's turn our attention back home now and welcome our Monday political panel. New South Wales Labor front bencher Stephen Jones and Queensland LNP Senator Susan McDonald have joined me now. Thank you both for joining the program. Well, let's start with you Susan McDonald, Christine Holgate has stood down today resigned as the Australia Post chief executive. Did she deserve to go over the luxury watches scandal?

SENATOR SUSAN MCDONALD: I'm sorry, you're just breaking up a little bit, but I'm wondering if you said did she deserve to resign?

NORMAN: I did.

MCDONALD: Well, you know Christine has made her own decisions about her future. But certainly I think that taxpayers right across Australia were really surprised by taxpayer funds being used in the way that they were and it's something that we hold people to those standards very highly. And of course here in Queensland the performance of Australia Post during the last state election is something I've been really disappointed with. There are still people who haven't received their postal votes, and I think that disenfranchises regional and remote Australians, and I certainly was pretty disappointed with that.

NORMAN: The Prime Minister stood up in Parliament, Susan McDonald, and said that Christine Holgate had been told to stand aside and if she didn't stand aside will then she could go. Her lawyers describe that as humiliating. Was it appropriate for the Prime Minister to, you know, effectively kill off her career like that?

MCDONALD:I think Australians were really shocked to discover that their taxpayer funds and the Australian Government is the shareholder of Australia Post, that money was being spent on expensive watches, on accommodation, on things that we don’t, you know, we don't think is reasonable. And so the Prime Minister is the ultimate representative of the people just said that very clearly. So yes, I think we hold people to high standards and we expect particularly well paid executives to live up to those standards.

NORMAN: Stephen Jones, I'm keen to get your thoughts on this. Has Christine Holgate done the right thing and can we now draw a line under this whole watches fiasco?

STEPHEN JONES MP, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Look, I think her resignation was inevitable. There's no doubt that Aussie Post is a mess at the moment. You've got postal services being cut at the same time as executives are being rewarded with expensive watches. But I've got to say, if this is the sort of punishment meted out to somebody for blowing $20,000, a disgrace, but if this is the sort of punishment, what sort of punishment would be appropriate and fitting for blowing 27 million dollars on a parcel of land that has been valued at three million dollars? What sort of punishment should be meted out against the Prime Minister and his former Sports Minister or the sports rorts affairs where money was being thrown around in Coalition electorates against the advice of public servants? Extraordinary waste of money, extraordinary breaches of protocols in place there. So I've got to say if this is the standard that the Prime Minister is setting then there's a lot of other people that should be very nervous and it's a standard that he should be applying to himself as well. 

NORMAN: We know today the Government has released draft legislation and outlining the details of a new Commonwealth Integrity Commission. Just sticking with you Stephen Jones, would this commission be able to investigate such allegations of corruption that are currently being levelled against the public servants involved in the Leppington triangle land sale?

JONES: The great problem with the announcement today is that it doesn't live up to its spin. Three problems that we can see with the announcement today and we're still digging through some of the detail of this. The first is the capacity of the commission to investigate matters on its own motion. The second is its capacity to hold public hearings. And the third is its capacity to look at some of those retrospective matters, because of course as long as this is being delayed more and more of those rorts are being exposed and the capacity of these things to be investigated and appropriately punished by a body such as this is flowing past the wharf. So we were hoping for something a lot better than we've got. Corruption hates sunlight. Instead of providing sunlight they're provided shade cloth and we need much more. So Labor won't be supporting a commission that doesn't do the job. We will be engaging in the consultation process. But after two years you would have thought the Government could have done a lot better than this half-baked proposal.

NORMAN: Susan McDonald, what is your response to that? Do you agree that, perhaps, this commission as it's currently proposed leans too far in favour of secrecy as Stephen Jones was saying there?

MCDONALD: No, I don't. I think they confected outrage the Labor Party, something that they have  perfected over some time, and this is just another example. If he reads the details carefully he'd know that this commission will have greater powers to call people to hearings, to demand that they answer questions and before they get really hot under the collar about the parcel of land at the Sydney Airport, I think it's important to remember this is already being investigated by the AFP, this has already been referred to several groups for inquiry. And I don't think that anybody needs to worry that there's not going to be very bright light shone on the practices within the department. We've already beat that around the head at estimates a couple of weeks ago and it is just typical of Labor to huff and puff to try and make mountains out of molehills and not be productive and useful in moving forward. Because this is the most significant time in Australia's history for probably the last hundred years and we are working through an economic recovery for the nation after the COVID pandemic and I think we would be better served looking to the future to make sure that Australians are well served, in jobs in homes and secure, rather than looking for you know other other issues.

NORMAN: Just on the Leppington triangle land sale, Susan McDonald, I mean, I think one of the issues that was picked up was the difference in language in response. So when the Australia Post story broke the Prime Minister said he was disgusted and appalled, but when the Leppington triangle land sales story broke, the Deputy Prime Minister was still trying to insist that it might eventually be a bargain. I mean, I think Michael McCormack perhaps there's you know deserves a bit of criticism here for the way that he has responded to what were really significant allegations.

MCDONALD: Well, I'm not sure what else could have been done. The Secretary has referred the the department officials immediately for inquiries, referred to the Australian Federal Police. You know, I think that everything has been done appropriately as it should be and frankly I'm more interested in actions rather than words. 

NORMAN: All right, just stand returning to you, Stephen Jones, on the Commonwealth Integrity Commission. So the Government is now going to spend six months in public consultation, so it doesn't look like these body is going to be, you know, established anytime soon, but they're pretty significant powers that are being proposed here for the investigators like tapping phones, searching properties, warrants that kind of thing. So is it right for the Government to be taking some time to actually consider the extent of these powers?

JONES: They are run-of-the-mill sorts of powers that are provided to corruption investigating bodies all the way around the country. But I do want to return to this point that seems to be a point of disagreement between the two of us. The reason we have a strong body, the reason that we have public hearings, is because it sends a very clear message to those who may otherwise want to engage in corrupt behaviour, you better beware because there is a strong watchdog and all of your behaviour can be dragged into public view. So the sorts of incidents that we saw around the grubby deal that appears to have been done around the Leppington triangle, where 27 million dollars worth of taxpayer money has been squandered, wouldn't occur because the officials and the politicians involved would know that there is a very great risk that not only that this would be detected, but it would be exposed in the full public gaze. Now, we know what happens when this doesn't occur and can I just drag it back two years to the Banking Royal Commission. One of the key findings of the Banking Royal Commission was that they've had this culture in some of our financial regulators of laws being broken, that all being discussed behind closed doors, a slap on the wrist being given, but no public gaze and no sunlight on those serious breaches of the law. So we have, in our recent past, a very good example about why we need public hearings and it seems the Government is addicted to secrecy, hates scrutiny and they're going to set up a federal body that is going to reproduce all the problems of the past. 

NORMAN: All right. Well, Stephen Jones, just before we let you go I wanted to ask you about an issue that you have been hotly pursuing and that is the chair of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, Helen Coonan. The Australian Financial Review has put out an editorial calling on her to resign because of the role that she also holds at Crown Casino. Why do you think she should stand down?

JONES: Her position is untenable. She has been on the Crown Casino board for seven years, chairperson of that board for over a year. There has been a massive failure in governance which goes to money laundering, that failure in governance has allowed criminal activity including money laundering to go on on the premises of Crown Casino. In her own words they've been inept, but that same person is chair on the body which oversees investigations into breaches of financial law in the financial sector. How can you have somebody who by her own admission has been inept in administering serious laws which apply to financial institutions, that is anti-money laundering laws, how can somebody who, by her own admission, has been inept, sitting in adjudication of those sorts of functions. It's just not tenable for her to continue. 

NORMAN: All right. Well Susan McDonald last word to you on this. Do you think that Helen Coonan has a massive conflict of interest here by serving on AFCA while also on the Crown Casino board, given the revelations we've had recently?

MCDONALD: Well, I think it's a while too premature to be speaking before an investigation has been completed. You know, this is once again Labor's approach is to come in wildly, shoot at anybody that standing around and not actually listen to the facts, get to the bottom of it, understand that good government is good process and that's what's happening at the moment. Helen Coonan has been a well-respected minister. She is a woman of great competence and I think we should wait for the investigation to be completed. We don't just run around, you know making wild accusations before investigations are being complete. And Labor would tell you they want these commissions, they want additional powers and bodies, but they don't actually want them to do anything, they just want the opportunity to get on TV again with lot of convected outrage and huffing and puffing. The serious business of running government and delivering for Australians in the middle of the pandemic, that's what we're about. 

NORMAN: All right, Susan McDonald, Stephen Jones, thank you so much for your time today.