SHADOW MINISTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
ABC RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST
MONDAY, 19 OCTOBER 2020
SUBJECTS: National Integrity Commission; Western Sydney Airport land rort; Victorian COVID rules.
GERALDINE DOOGUE, HOST: Federal officials will face a grilling today before Senate Estimates about a controversial land purchase near the site of the new airport in Western Sydney. It follows a decision by the Federal Police to open an investigation into why the Infrastructure Department paid Liberal Party donors $33 million for 12 hectares of land that was later valued at just $3 million. The Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is standing by his comments that the higher price tag would eventually be a bargain for taxpayers.
MICHAEL MCCORMACK: What I said was in time it would be viewed that, when there are new runways and new infrastructure being required to be built at Western Sydney Airport, beyond 2050 whatever the case might be, that the price paid now, well, at least they won't be having to buy it and pay probably considerably more than $30 million for it then in decades time.
DOOGUE: And that was the Deputy Prime Minister speaking to us a bit earlier. This issue, and last week's revelations about Gladys Berejiklian’s close personal relationship with former MP Daryl Maguire, is being used by Labor to press its case for a long delayed federal integrity commission. Mark Dreyfus is the Shadow Attorney-General and joins us from Melbourne. Good morning Mr Dreyfus.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Good morning Geraldine.
DOOGUE: Taxpayers paid ten times what they should have in 2018 for this parcel of land that is true, isn't it? The Auditor-General's already had a close look at the sale and found it was unethical. Now, what more could today's estimates hearing find out about this deal? What questions do you still want answered?
DREYFUS: We need to get to the bottom of this. It might be that the taxpayers’ funds have been used to buy something that was worth only $1 million. And what we've had from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister is just brushing it off. The Deputy Prime Minister said this was a good decision. The Prime Minister says it’s a process issue. He’s had no criticism to make. He’s taken no action. He didn't call an inquiry. And now, topping off the Auditor-General's scathing criticism of it, it's the subject of a criminal investigation. If ever, we needed a demonstration of why we needed proper integrity commission a proper National Integrity Commission, an independent and transparent anti-corruption commission, it's this sort of dodgy deal that’s been exposed
DOOGUE: The responsible minister at the time was Paul Fletcher and he says he wasn't properly briefed on the purchase, which he blames on “junior or mid-level officials”. Now do you accept that the minister was kept in the dark about the land sale?
DREYFUS: We need to get to the bottom of it. But you could also say that this is a minister, and indeed the whole of this government doesn't understand the concept of ministerial responsibility. Apparently it's a good enough excuse to say ‘I was negligent’, which is what Mr Fletcher is saying. ‘I didn't know about it because I turned a blind eye. I didn't ask any questions about it. I didn't ask why the brief was inadequate.’ That's why we need a National Integrity Commission. That's why Senate Estimates are going to get to the bottom of this.
DOOGUE: I don't think he says that he thought it was inadequate at the time doesn't he? It's only in retrospect he’d concede that.
DREYFUS: He was so uninterested in the expenditure of $33 million of Commonwealth taxpayers’ funds that he didn't ask any questions and he now says it's an excuse that he wasn't told more about it. This is why we need to get to the bottom of it. It's why Senate Estimates are going to be asking questions about it. And I think the Australian people have had enough.
DOOGUE: See, it wasn't politicians who made the decision. I mean the original purchase price decision - he may not have asked enough questions, I suppose, but it was made by departmental officials and it doesn't really matter then that the people selling the land, Tony and Ron Perich had at some point they donated to the Liberal Party in the past? I mean, how relevant, do you say this political connection was?
DREYFUS: We don't know anything about this transaction in detail. I'm not saying it’s irrelevant, but the larger point here is extraordinarily bad processes of governmental decision making. And the minister who is sitting on top of this is washing his hands of the matter and saying “I didn't know” as if that was a complete excuse. We need to get to the bottom of it. The Auditor-General's done a fantastic job by picking up the discrepancy between the value that was given to this in the Department's books and what they actually paid for it, but now we need to get to the bottom of it. And I'd say, we've got a Prime Minister who is never responsible for anything. He doesn't understand what his own responsibilities are and is prepared to let his ministers off the hook with a completely inadequate idea about what ministerial responsibility is.
DOOGUE: I mean Labor says that this so-called Leppington Triangle scandal underscores the need for a federal anti-corruption body. We do now have a Federal Police investigation into the land deal don't we and we have today's Estimates hearings. May a Commonwealth ICAC, with all you'd have to resource it with, might that be overkill?
DREYFUS: Not at all. It needs to be clearly understood that corruption, and maladministration, which might be something slightly less, only slightly less but slightly less than a criminal investigation and a criminal conviction, is still needed and you must investigate these matters. And I think that Australians look at the integrity commissions, the anti-corruption commissions that exist in every state and territory, see the good work that those anti-corruption commissions are doing. They look then at the rorts and dodgy deals that have been exposed over the last few years in the Morrison Government, which get brushed under the carpet, which Mr Morrison doesn't want to investigate and Australians are saying, ‘why haven't we got, at the national level, an anti-corruption commission’. The time is up.
DOOGUE: I mean, the counter argument of course, and the Prime Minister does make it, is that you've got to devise an anti-corruption body which is a mix of power and responsibility, that it can't be publicly humiliating people and drawing them into the net. Because you start in those state ones with a lower standard than a criminal investigation and so you get into a totally different form of scrutiny. Isn't this something to be at least aware of?
DREYFUS: And all the state and territory bodies that have been established have shown that they are aware of that.
DOOGUE: Well there could be some debates around that too.
DREYFUS: Well, we can learn from the experience of, now, over 30 years of these anti-corruption commissions existing in some states, and make sure that we get the model right. But what's already apparent is that the kind of model that Mr Morrison and Mr Porter seem to have in mind will be a sham.
DOOGUE: Specifically why? Because there are loads of reasons people have criticised. What's the one that really stands out to you, you know, as a senior barrister?
DREYFUS: Well, it won’t be able to make findings of corruption. It won't be able to investigate anything that occurred before its establishment, which no doubt suits this government. It means that every day of delay is another day of dodgy conduct which won't be looked at. This is a cover up commission, it's not an integrity commission. It won’t be able to act on referrals from whistleblowers. It won't be able to initiate its own investigations. And apparently it's not to have any public hearings which are a vital component. I'm not saying that all of the hearings need to be in public, far from it. The late David Ipp, who tragically died a week or so ago, used to say how important it was that public hearings be possible to encourage witnesses to come forward and for the educational effect of exposing corruption in public. So none of these elements are present in the model that has been put forward by Mr Morrison and Mr Porter.
DOOGUE: Just before I leave this what about phone taps? Would you be happy for your phone conversations to be intercepted by a Commonwealth integrity commission?
DREYFUS: I think it’s been shown that phone surveillance and looking at telecommunications data are vital tools for inquiries of all kinds. And with appropriate authorisation in appropriate cases of course phone taps should be considered.
DOOGUE: And when the Government says that the only reason it hasn't moved this along faster was that they have been a bit busy with something called Coronavirus, do you accept that answer from them?
DREYFUS: It's an absurd claim. This government's been able to act on plenty of other things during the pandemic. And right now we've got the biggest spending budget in history. There has never been a greater need for an anti-corruption commission than right now. I think the Australian people are over those excuses. Time after time we're looking at scandals and nothing happens. No one's ever responsible in the Morrison Government. The time is well and truly up to have an anti-corruption commission.
DOOGUE: I must ask you as a Melburnian. do you think the city will ever get back to its vibrant best or will this all change Melbourne forever?
DREYFUS: I am confident that the great city that I'm proud to be a resident of is going to get back to its best. I pay tribute to my fellow Victorians for the fantastic community spirit that has carried us through this.
DOOGUE: And the Premier?
DREYFUS: And I'd pay tribute to Dan Andrews. He hasn't done the easy thing. He hasn't bowed to cheap politicking from the Liberals and the Prime Minister. He's done what the public health advice has required and has got on top of the infection here in Victoria. We're down to single figures. Just think about this. At the end of July both Victoria and France had over 500 cases a day. Victoria is now down to single figures and France is running at over 30,000 cases a day. There's two ways you can approach this virus, and in Victoria Dan Andrews has done the right thing.
DOOGUE: Thank you very much indeed for your time today.
DREYFUS: Thank you very much Geraldine.