I congratulate all my colleagues in the Senate on their election. We have a lot of work to do as a collective team. We have differences of opinion and differences of views, but I think that if we act and work towards getting outcomes for the people of Australia we can have a productive Parliament.
But to say that is not to hide the fact that we do have what I would perceive to be a crisis of confidence in politics around the world and also here in Australia. Successive elections have seen the growing rise of minor parties, a growing crossbench in this place and in the other place, as Australians have taken their primary votes away from the major parties. Of course, I accept and I welcome the will of the Australian people in this regard, and once again I congratulate all my colleagues on their election to this place. They have been rightfully endorsed by the Australian people. But what the minor parties are actually doing is tapping into a wide cross-section of community concerns about the direction in which our country is headed.
The government, quite rightly so, is concerned about debt and deficits and is about getting the budget back on track not just for our benefit today but also for the benefit of future generations. We also, quite frankly, have to restore faith in politicians and in the political process. If we do not, we risk losing something that is truly significant. I will not say that it is unique to Australia but it is a very special part of Australia’s body politic. As I said in my 2014 address to the National Press Club, broken promises, politicians’ perks, spin over substance, scandals, the little-perceived difference between the major parties and a lack of focus on the issues that truly matter all add to the gaping chasm between politicians and the people.
We have just had a double dissolution election. Many of us were optimistic that this would enable the country and the body politic to embark upon a fresh start. I regret to say that that fresh start has not occurred. One of the most damning things that has already condemned aspects of this parliament is the stench of possible improper use of and requests for money by a member of the ALP—that is, Senator Sam Dastyari. Senator Dastyari declared in October of last year that he had received compensation from a Chinese linked company for a personal debt that he owed to the Commonwealth caused by his own mismanagement of his office resources. This is a personal debt owed by a senator being paid by a third party that is linked to a foreign country.
Senator Dastyari overspent the relatively modest amount of $1,670.82 on his staff travel budget. This was a debt that he was required to pay. Yet Senator Sam Dastyari—one of the highest paid officials in the country; in the top one per cent of income earners—could not find it within his own resources to pay back $1,670.82 to the Commonwealth. For some reason, which he has not explained to this chamber or to the Australian people, he got the Top Education Institute to pay his bills. This education institute has made donations to both sides of politics. Making a political contribution to a political party is legitimate to conduct that has been accepted as appropriate. But never in my recollection, never in my memory, has it been appropriate for an entity linked to a foreign government to pay the personal debts of a member of parliament.
I invite anyone who thinks that can be justified in any way, shape or form to come into this chamber and explain it today. I invited Senator Dastyari to come in and explain it, and he gave a statement saying that, yes, he did the wrong thing. But let me tell you: it is not just about accepting our responsibilities and requirements under the parliamentary act to disclose benefits or various other support mechanisms that we may have received in the course of our duties; we owe the people of Australia our good judgement. How can the Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate stand up in this chamber and say that his judgement should be relied on by his colleagues, by the people of Australia or by the ALP nationally when he does not see it as wrong to get reimbursed for a personal expense by a company linked to the Chinese government? This is absolutely wrong.
Senator Dastyari needs to come in here and provide a full disclosure of how the circumstances came to be. It is simply not credible that the Top Education Institute just discovered that Senator Dastyari had a debt to the Commonwealth and thought, ‘I’ll pay those bills for him.’ Did Senator Dastyari write to them and ask them? Did he go and visit them? Did he call them in one of his extravagant phone calls—which clocked up $15,000 to the taxpayers? This is an organisation with very close links to the Chinese government—the head of this organisation has had photos taken with both a Chinese premier and the education minister of China—which received a special sanction from the Chinese government as the only approved nonspecialist education provider in 2013. How did Senator Sam Dastyari have his expenses reimbursed by this organisation?
We are right to question this. This is a question of judgement; this is not a question of political ideology. This is a question about anyone in this place who thinks it is okay to go and ask a company linked to a third entity, another country, a sovereign nation, to pay their personal bills. It has the stench of corruption. How deep and how widespread this is is the question that needs to be asked. If you go through Senator Dastyari statement of interests, it all seems linked to the Chinese government. Typical Labor: they leave others to pick up the tab—such as the catering for an afternoon tea sponsored by the Australia China Relations Institute. For goodness sake, can’t a senator—a highly paid senator and a good political operator—pay for the afternoon tea himself?
The links between Senator Dastyari and the Communist Party of China are extraordinary. Yes, they have been disclosed in his register of interests, but there is a pattern here. We are right to question what influence, if any, a foreign power has over Senator Dastyari when they are not only sponsoring his travel and his hospitality bills but also paying or supporting, in one way, shape or form, his personal bills.
I do not know the truth about Senator Dastyari involvement. I do not know the truth about whether Senator Dastyari has disclosed everything he should. But I do know that under no circumstances could any person that is fit and proper to hold the position of Manager of Opposition Business in this place think it is okay to have his personal expenses paid by a company linked to a foreign government. As I said, this is not about political donations per se. This is about a personal benefit, a benefit that has been paid by a foreign linked corporation to cover someone’s personal expenses, which were incurred in the course of their political duties.
Earlier today, as she was defending Senator Dastyari, Senator Wong took me to task—quite rightly so—for asking a rhetorical question about who pays her mortgage, and I withdrew that. But the rhetorical nature of the question was simply because Senator Wong pays her own mortgage, as we all do. So how can she defend the fact that Senator Dastyari has a debt to the Commonwealth that was paid by people linked to the Chinese government? That is a judgement issue, and if Senator Wong or anyone else on the other side wants to defend that, then they have judgement issues too.
The only answer is for Senator Dastyari to stand aside from his position as Manager of Opposition Business, for the ALP to conduct a full inquiry, for Senator Dastyari to be asked to fully disclose to this place all the dealings he has had and what other remuneration or benefits he may have received and not disclosed, and for Senator Dastyari to explain the nature of the benefits more fully than he has disclosed. We are quite right to question whether we should undermine the integrity of this parliament and the confidence of the Australian people in the incorruptibility of those that are here, for a seemingly minor amount of $1,600. The amount does not matter. It does not matter if it is $1,600 or $16,000; what matters is the principle applied here.
The Manager of Opposition Business could not manage his own office budgets. He could not manage his own office budgets and he had a debt to the Commonwealth. That in itself is not unknown in this place, but what is unknown in this place is expecting a foreign entity to pick up your personal bills. Other senators—and I do not have to name them—have worked out debt repayment plans, because mistakes can happen. This is not a mistake. This is a grievous error of judgement that brings into question the influence of foreign entities on our body politic.
Just yesterday the Australian Financial Review reported that one of the significant donors to both major parties was complaining, in a Chinese language paper, that they were not getting enough value for money out of their donations. This individual, who, as I say, has donated to both major parties through their company, is the same individual who also bailed out Senator Dastyari from legal obligations he had, and that was fully disclosed as well. But the fact is that it comes back to this: how does it come to pass that a foreign controlled entity with close ties to another sovereign government is paying the legal bills of a senator? It has got the stench that should inflame the nostrils of every single person in this place and every single person outside this place. The only conclusion I can draw, in the absence of any other information coming to hand, is that Senator Dastyari is not fit for his current position and he should question whether he is suitable and appropriate to remain as a senator in this place.
We clearly have a problem. Personal benefits have been given to a senator by people associated with foreign entities, and one of those people has complained in recent days about not getting enough value for their money. Just what did they expect? Is it okay for individuals to travel at other governments’ expense? Yes, it is, because in this place we go on delegations and we cooperate in official functions all the time. Maybe on occasions it is right for some of us to avail ourselves of information by going to other lands to attend formal sponsored events. But when there is a historical pattern of largesse, personal benefit, that has been directed to a senator, we are right to ask: do we have a bigger problem?
One of the stories doing the rounds is from an ALP member who was going to Hong Kong to meet with someone. They received a phone call from a close associate of the Chinese embassy suggesting that they do not meet with that individual. Quite rightly so, they said, ‘No, I’m going ahead with it.’ Yet, when they were in Hong Kong about to meet with this individual, one of their colleagues from the ALP rang them up and begged them not to go, because it would upset the Chinese embassy. Who do you think that person was? I would like them to come in here and explain the circumstances. I would like them to explain why our own members of parliament are being warned off, by their own colleagues, from meeting with individuals because it might upset the local embassy.
Do we have a problem in this country? I do not know. If I keep tugging this thread, I do not know how deep and wide and far it is going to unravel. But what I can tell you is that the aroma, the scent, that is emanating from just this one small, seemingly innocuous payment of $1,600 and the pattern to which it is attached make Senator Dastyari’s position as Manager of Opposition Business entirely untenable. He needs to come in here and he needs to provide a more full explanation than he provided this morning, when he said: ‘I disclosed it; I’m within the parliamentary requirements. It was just an error of judgement.’ There is much more to this than that. How did it come to pass that another company paid his legal bills? How did it come to pass that the Top Education Institute was made aware of Senator Dastyari’s obligations and debts to the Commonwealth? What sort of member of parliament thinks that it is okay to take the fat salary and all the benefits and perks that go with it but not repay the $1,600 themself? That person is not fit to occupy the position he currently occupies and, until a full explanation can be brought forward, I think it is incumbent upon the ALP to ask Senator Dastyari to stand aside. If he will not do that, then we need to have a much broader investigation into what is going on with the body politic in this country.
I make no bones about it: I have been on the record for years saying that we need donation reform. We need donation reform and we need to start thinking about how hospitality and donations to individuals are influencing parliamentary behaviour. As I said, I do not know of any other circumstance—and I am happy to stand corrected on this—where the personal debts of an individual senator, where they are owed to the Commonwealth of Australia, have been paid by what is effectively a very close entity of another sovereign government. This is not a case of raising a legal fund and crowdfunding it, or staving off bankruptcy or anything else like that; this is a case of a seemingly minor debt. All giant scandals begin with the tugging of just one thread, and I suspect that there is a giant scandal here. Until we can get to the bottom of it and until Senator Dastyari fully discloses and can assure the people of Australia, the people of this chamber and the parliament that there is nothing untoward in this, or in anything else that he has done, he needs to stand aside.
It gives me no pleasure to do that and to say that, but it is the integrity of this place that is more important in the eyes of the people than anything else. We can have our disagreements on policy views, we can call each other names, we can do a whole range of other things; but the fact that there is even a whiff, a hint, that there may be some corrupt practices going on is enough to justify our concern. The crisis of confidence in politics is universal because people are in it, seemingly, for themselves rather than for the people they are meant to represent. We need to change that. We need to change it, and we can start changing it by getting to the bottom of exactly what has transpired here.