Matter of Public Importance - Revenue


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:55): This Bell issue all arose from those horrid days, decades ago now, but summarised by the term 'WA Inc.' Let me tell you what Wikipedia says about WA Inc.; I use Wikipedia because it has a fairly succinct description:

WA Inc was a political scandal in Western Australia. In the 1980s, the state government, which was led for much of the period by premier Brian Burke, engaged in business dealings with several prominent businessmen, including Alan Bond, Laurie Connell, Dallas Dempster, John Roberts, and Warren Anderson. These dealings resulted in a loss of public money, estimated at a minimum of $600 million and the insolvency of several large corporations.

Bond and Connell were major contributors to the party in government, the Australian Labor Party and its remarkable fundraising structure, the John Curtin Foundation.

During a royal commission set up to look into this scandal, Connell alleged that Hawke, the then Labor Prime Minister:

… dropped a proposed gold tax after Connell and various Perth high-flyers donated $250,000 each to Labor during an infamous lunch in Brian Burke's office in 1987 …

I could go on, but suffice it to say that Wikipedia also sets out very concisely that the Western Australian, Labor-led government:

… lent large sums of money, offered financial guarantees and acquired assets at inflated prices. Because of the connections between many of the deals and cross-ownership of businesses involved, it is difficult to say precisely where the government's fault started and ended. A minimum loss to the state of $600M has been reported.

And that is what Senator Back was talking about when he said that Western Australians are still paying for that criminal activity by the Labor Party back in the 1980s.

Now, fast forward, because this fixation by the Labor Party and the Greens in trying to attack Senator Brandis is quite comical, frankly. They have had one attempt at doing it; they set up this dodgy committee to inquire into some very administrative matters with the Solicitor-General. Now, the Solicitor-General was appointed by Labor in the dying days of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. But Labor and the Greens in this chamber thought that here was a chance to destroy the Attorney-General.

So they had this wonderful inquiry—they had written the report before the inquiry started, that is how dodgy the inquiry was. It was a majority Labor-Greens thing, with four Labor, one Green and two government senators. So they set out to destroy Senator Brandis, the Attorney-General. But who did they end up destroying? Their mate the Solicitor-General, Justin Gleeson, who did the only thing possible—the right thing in the circumstances—and resigned. I am looking forward to this inquiry because I just wonder which Labor mate is going to get it in the neck as a result of this witch-hunt.

Senator Brandis is a very skilful politician. He is a brilliant lawyer and he is a very good Leader of the Government in the Senate. The Labor Party and the Greens hate him because they get nowhere in question time. Senator Brandis just flicks their attacks off as if they were flies landing on his forehead! And the Greens and Labor keep at it and at it to try to destroy the Attorney-General. They will not do it—I am giving them some advice now. But they will persist and they will end up destroying one of their own.

Do you know why I am looking forward to this inquiry? It is because we might just call Mr Bob Hawke, the former Labor Prime Minister. We might see if we can get Brian Burke, the former Labor Premier of Western Australia, who I think is probably out of jail by now. We might call him along. We might call some of the other Labor luminaries to the inquiry. I think Carmen Lawrence was mentioned. Peter Dowding was the Deputy Premier, was he not, and the successor to Brian Burke? And there was another Labor luminary involved in these things. This inquiry could be real fun, if we get all of these crooks, these criminals—some of whom have served time in jail—to come and give evidence to tell us what the Bell Group was all about. It was as a result of these dealings by the Western Australian Labor government, the Labor Party and these corrupt businessmen—some of them were found to be corrupt—that we have this situation where legal proceedings have been instituted for two decades now relating to the Bell Group shares which were purchased by the government from Robert Holmes a Court.

As my colleagues have explained, the Western Australian government tried to stop the professional litigators who bought into this deal from continuing to waste legal funds from the limited resources that were in the Bell Group that, if liquidated, could have been used to pay off some of the creditors, including the Commonwealth, the state government and many other creditors. But nobody was going to get anything, because these professional funders of litigation—how that all works is another story—did not want to settle. They did not want to come to any resolution, because their profit lies in keeping these court cases going and going forever until the money of the bankrupt company runs out. They get their money in legal fees and the creditors get nothing.

So what the Western Australian government tried to do was say: 'Let's stop this rort. Let's pass some legislation that will get the funds in Bell Group and distribute them fairly to those entitled.' In fact, the letter that Senator McKim talked about, dated 13 April 2015, from the Hon. Mike Nahan, the Treasurer of Western Australia at the time, said, 'Accordingly, the Western Australia government is planning to introduce legislation that will'—and this is the first dot point—'deliver a more rapid financial return to the Commonwealth, the state government and other creditors.' So, in the Western Australian Treasurer's letter, the Commonwealth was to be the first one to be paid. The second dot point says, 'Eliminate further speculation by professional litigation funders.' Then it goes on, 'Ensure no redistribution,' et cetera. There is something greatly conspiratorial about this letter, according to Senator McKim, but there it is. It is a public letter; you can see it. The Commonwealth was going to be the first favoured.

That letter was responded to by the then Commonwealth Treasurer, Mr Joe Hockey. Where this great conspiracy comes from that Senator McKim and the Labor senators talked about, I do not quite know. Mr Hockey's response simply says, amongst other things:

I trust the Western Australia government will therefore continue to engage in good faith in the forthcoming mediation processes.

Finally, he says:

Given the significant nature of the proposed course of action, I urge the Western Australia Government to ensure that the utmost probity is evidenced throughout the process so as to ensure that Australia remains and continue to be seen as an attractive destination for foreign investment.

So, regarding this inquiry, those letters are there. I cannot see how Labor and the Greens think they can in any way challenge Senator Brandis. They have asked him questions and wasted question time every day this week so far with ridiculous and repetitive questions, which have got them absolutely nowhere, and will continue to get them absolutely nowhere—because there was no deal. There was no conspiracy.

I have a photo of that lunch with then Labor Premier Brian Burke, then Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and a few other very senior businessmen at the time of WA Inc. It would be lovely to get some of them before a Senate committee and find out what WA Inc. and the purchase of Bell Group shares were all about. This has been litigated before, as a result of various nefarious activities. Brian Burke, the former Labor Premier of Western Australia, ended up in jail. This inquiry could turn out to be quite fun.

But, as far as the substantive issue has gone, on Monday morning Senator Brandis voluntarily delivered a very, very lengthy statement to this chamber, in which he carefully and precisely went through all the issues concerning his involvement—which was pretty limited and occurred right towards the end. The statement clearly sets out the real facts. In those facts, there is nothing that really requires answering. Because Mr Justin Gleeson—who I mentioned previously in relation to another inquiry—was involved, suddenly the eyes of the Labor Party and the Greens lit up, and they thought: 'We lost that one. We facilitated poor old Justin Gleeson's resignation as the nation's Solicitor-General, but, hang on, he's mentioned in this. Perhaps we can redeem ourselves by having him somehow involved in a further attack on Senator Brandis on this occasion.' It did not work last time; it will not work the next time.

I just wish the Labor Party would use the remaining time of this parliament this year at question time to ask questions about education, about health, about infrastructure, about border security, stopping the boats—but we do not hear any of that. All we hear is this fixation with Senator Brandis, and they will continue with that. Eventually the penny will drop and the Labor Party will again end up with egg on their face. I am looking to seeing which Labor mate is destroyed by this Labor-Greens inquiry into the Bell Group shares issue when this next inquiry comes up. It is an inquiry in which, again, there will be four Labor-Greens senators and only two government senators, but I do not think it really matters because the facts will speak for themselves. It will get nowhere and, as I say, I am looking forward to seeing who is destroyed.

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