This might raise a wry smile. It is last Thursday’s Hansard of Senate Estimates featuring two great Crikey yarns on Alex Somlyay’s strange domestic arrangements come election time and the Sue Knowles letter. NSW Labor bruiser Stephen Forshaw is the unnamed chair, and for a laugh remember that the chief witness here, Electoral Commission boss Andy Becker, likes a drink.
CHAIR –I welcome Mr Becker and officers of the Australian Electoral Commission. The committee will continue its examination of the Finance and Administration portfolio, and we will start with general questions of the AEC
Senator FAULKNER –I will ask about an article I saw in the Sunday Mail newspaper on Sunday, 24 February. It is under the heading: `Somlyay details referred to police’. I do not know whether you are aware of it, but I will just read you the bit that I want to ask you about. It states:
The Australian Electoral Commission launched its own inquiry after the Sunshine Coast MP revealed to The Sunday Mail early this month that his wife, Jennifer, had voted in a cliffhanger election in Fairfax, when she did not live in the electorate. Mr Somlyay also revealed his wife had never lived at a Coolum house where they enrolled before the 1998 election.
I am well aware of the background to this. My question only goes to one matter: the status of any such investigation.
Mr Becker –I believe it is still with the AFP at this stage.
Senator FAULKNER –It is a matter with the AFP?
Mr Dacey –The matters have been referred to the AFP.
Senator FAULKNER –Is it true that the AEC launched its own inquiry?
Mr Dacey –Not true.
Senator FAULKNER –I did not say the AFP, I said the AEC.
Mr Dacey –The AEC has not launched its own inquiry; the AEC referred the issue to the AFP.
Senator FAULKNER –I hope I said the AEC; I think I did. The article states, `The Australian Electoral Commission launched its own inquiry.’ It said, `Federal Police have been called to investigate enrolments,’ and, `The Australian Electoral Commission launched its own inquiry.’ Maybe it is a misprint.
Mr Dacey –It is terminology, I guess. We would make preliminary inquiries, but that is not an investigation as such by the AEC.
Senator FAULKNER –I am just checking. The article certainly talks about the AFP. I was interested in that element that went to the AEC, and that is all I am asking you about.
Mr Becker –We read the report, followed up on that and referred it to the AFP.
Senator FAULKNER –That is the issue: the AEC did refer the matter to the AFP?
Mr Dacey –Absolutely.
Senator FAULKNER –That is where it lies, as far as you are concerned?
Mr Becker –As far as we are concerned, yes.
Senator FAULKNER –My question goes to process and process only. That is its current status?
Mr Becker –Yes, that is its current status.
Senator FAULKNER –At the conclusion of such an inquiry, you may or may not receive a report from the AFP?
Mr Dacey –It varies; we could.
Senator FAULKNER –So you may or may not?
Mr Dacey –We may or may not. The AFP may choose to go straight to the DPP in these sorts of cases.
Senator FAULKNER –I want to use the right terminology here. You can help me with this, Mr Chairman. How would you describe `crikey’? Would you describe it as an Internet site?
Senator Abetz –Pathetic, useless, unreliable.
CHAIR –A profound Internet site.
Senator FAULKNER –I hear what Senator Abetz’s description is. I was not looking for those sorts of adjectives; I was looking for the technical terminology.
Senator Abetz –I am sorry; I misinterpreted.
Senator FAULKNER –An Internet site.
Mr Becker –The home page on our web site?
Senator Abetz –No, `crikey’.
Mr Becker –Crikey.com? I am sorry.
Senator FAULKNER –No, Mr Becker, it is not your web site.
CHAIR –We might link the AEC site to `crikey’.
Senator FAULKNER –No, I do not think anyone would suggest that. Not even one of Senator Brandis’s or Senator Mason’s conspiracy theories would go that far, Mr Becker, I can assure you. The `crikey’ Internet site reported on 27 May 2002 an item about a dozen people paying $3,300 to attend a luncheon briefing given by Senator Alston and Senator Minchin on media policy.
Senator Abetz –That sounds very cheap to me.
Senator FAULKNER –It goes on to say that there were `the usual investment banker types, but three people particularly caught crikey’s attention’. I will not say who they are particularly, unless you would like to know. One is actually identified on the basis of being somebody else’s fiancee. So it goes on. My issue goes to technical questions about obligations for this under the act. As I understand it, section 287 of the Electoral Act defines `gift’ as:
any disposition of property made by a person to another person … being a disposition made without consideration in money or money’s worth or with inadequate consideration, and includes the provision of a service (other than volunteer labour) for no consideration or for inadequate consideration …
I raise the issue here: in the view of the AEC, is paying $3,300 for a lunch with the two senators interpreted as `a gift’? We can deal with this in the hypothetical or we can deal with the specific case. But this is an important issue in terms of the AEC and your obligations. I wonder, first of all, whether the AEC was aware of whom the cheques for that lunch were made out to.
Mr Becker –I might ask Kathy Mitchell, who is Director, Funding and Disclosure, to answer that question.
Ms Mitchell –No, we do not have any detail in relation to that particular function at this stage. We would not expect to see anything until the returns for this financial year are due, which is not until October, if we expected to see anything at all. You are probably aware that the issue of payments for attendance at fundraising functions–or what might be termed `fundraising functions’–has always been an issue that receives consideration by the AEC. But the fact that the legislation does talk about whether or not there was adequate consideration for the payment is an issue that is complex and often goes to the view of the person paying the amount of money. If they feel that they have had adequate consideration for the amount of money that they have paid, it is difficult for the AEC to argue to the contrary.
Senator FAULKNER –But what do you do in a situation–this is an example–where such a function or luncheon is reported in the media? Does your section take a note of that?
Ms Mitchell –Yes, and they are issues that we would follow up when we get the returns and when we carry out our reviews of the information that is in the returns.
Senator FAULKNER –How effective do you think the coverage is of these things? This particular luncheon that I am talking about got quite a bit of publicity. But there may well be luncheons that occur of a similar nature that do not have any public notoriety.
Ms Mitchell –It is not a simple issue, and the way the legislation stands at the moment does not lead to making it a simpler issue. So it is an issue that is quite a complex one for the AEC to consider.
Senator FAULKNER –What do you do when something like this comes to your attention?
Ms Mitchell –Whenever we see media reports, we take a copy and keep them on file for when we are reviewing whether or not the returns meet the requirements of the legislation.
Senator FAULKNER –How else are these things drawn to your attention? I suppose that you would have seen the media reports of this one.
Ms Mitchell –Yes.
Senator FAULKNER –Let us say that you had not. I could draw it to your attention, I suppose, in a Senate estimates committee, couldn’t I?
Ms Mitchell –Yes.
Senator FAULKNER –But what are other ways?
Ms Mitchell –In the normal course of events, when we review the returns for completeness, we will actually visit the relevant organisation. Usually, in the books you look at, you see documentation of functions, and those are issues that we look at.
Senator FAULKNER –So, as the AEC, you would check in this case whether the Liberal Party benefited in any way. Is that what you would do?
Ms Mitchell –What we need to determine is whether or not there has been a gift and, if there has been, whether or not that has been disclosed in a return.
Senator FAULKNER –You see, section 305B (2) of the act says:
If a person makes a gift to any person or body with the intention of benefiting a particular registered political party or State branch of a registered political party, the person is taken for the purposes of subsection (1) to have made that gift directly to that registered political party or branch.
I would suggest that, if there were a benefit, the gift must be declared. That is the intention of that section of the act, isn’t it?
Ms Mitchell –Yes, and that is the issue that we need to determine: whether or not there has been a benefit. If we determine that there is a benefit, then we would expect to see the information reflected in both the party return and a donor return.
Senator Abetz –Only if it is a gift. If I am wrong, I am sure I will be corrected: as I understand it, if the benefit arises as a result of a commercial transaction, for example, then it is not a benefit coming from a gift.
Ms Mitchell –Yes.
Senator Abetz –I can assure you, Senator Faulkner, I looked very closely at all this in relation to another lunch, dinner or whatever that excited the interest of Laurie Oakes. I will not go down the path of Markson Sparks, but I looked at that and I think that was the differential. So, without trying to be provocative, I am trying to assist.
Senator FAULKNER –I do not find that at all provocative. I think disclosure is absolutely appropriate in these circumstances. The obligations under the act I think are clear. They ought to be adhered to, regardless of the political party involved. I have no problem with that at all. In this particular case, you have your friend, Senator Abetz, at crikey.com–
Senator Abetz –I think you are getting to the stage of misleading now. A friend at crikey.com? I hardly think so.
Senator FAULKNER –Should I say `your enemies’?
Senator Abetz –That would be right, given the things they allegedly write about me.
Senator FAULKNER –They must have been drawn to your attention.
Senator Abetz –Some kind people print them off and put them on my desk for me.
Senator FAULKNER –There we go.
Senator Abetz –In case I feel too good one particular day, they just run it off for me to deflate me somewhat.
Senator FAULKNER –But anyway, let us not get caught up with your obsessions about the aforementioned web site. They did actually name three people who attended this luncheon. In fact, it was Mr Ian Smith, Mr Stokes and Mr Stokes. Again it is a process issue I am interested in here. Do you go to the registered political parties here; do you go to the ministers–in this case, Senator Alston and Senator Minchin; or do you go to the attendees–and, in this case three are named in this crikey.com article? What is your approach? I am interested in how you deal with this, if a matter comes to your attention–and we know that this one got considerable notoriety
Ms Mitchell –The first approach would be to wait and see whether information is contained in annual returns. Once we receive annual returns lodged by political parties and associated entities, we undertake reviews. During the course of any review of the returns that have been lodged, we would look at issues that have been raised with us, either by the media or by direct approach, or issues that we come across when we are looking at the financial transactions of an organisation. Then we would determine whether we felt there was a disclosure obligation there. If we determined that a disclosure obligation was there, we would raise it with both the party and the donor.
Senator FAULKNER –That is really the point. I wondered whether you had taken an advisory role in relation to disclosure obligations of the attendees themselves.
Ms Mitchell –One of the things that we have been looking at is how to convey information to attendees about whether or not they have disclosure obligations. To a large degree, we are reliant on party records to identify the full list of attendees. As you have noted, only three of the attendees are reported in that particular media article, and I imagine there were others. So they may all have disclosure obligations. We would have to obtain a full list of attendees in order to be able to write to them if it were determined that they had a disclosure obligation.
Senator FAULKNER –This will be dealt with obviously at a later stage and I do not want to delay the committee too long but, finally, in terms of the information gathering process that you explained to us–keeping a record of media coverage and the like–how broad is that?
Ms Mitchell –We have a media clipping service that provides us with copies of newspaper articles that relate to electoral matters. We monitor the crikey.com site–
Senator Abetz –Shame!
Ms Mitchell –for issues that are raised. Our media monitoring service also provides us with reporting from radio and television.
Senator FAULKNER –Why do you monitor crikey.com?
Ms Mitchell –Because we have found that we often get questions raised at Senate estimates in relation to it.
Senator FAULKNER –Who by?
Senator Abetz –Senator Faulkner.
Ms Mitchell –Any one of the senators who might be on the committee at the time.
Senator FAULKNER –That is a very discreet answer.
Senator Abetz –A diplomatic answer.
Senator FAULKNER –I must admit that I received a free subscription but it was provided by crickey.com. I don’t feel that I should declare this because I didn’t ask for it.
Senator Abetz –It’s definitely not worth $200.
Senator FAULKNER –If it is $200, it is probably worth it. There is always an issue here. I have consulted close colleagues–
Senator Abetz –You didn’t consult me.
Senator FAULKNER –and given that the subscription is free, I felt that this is a matter that is not declarable although I have said it at a number of estimates committee meetings from time to time. It is like other things that are provided to senators and members. I do every now and again keep a weather eye on material, Senator Abetz, so we can hold you particularly accountable on these issues.
CHAIR –Is it true, Senator Faulkner, that you wear the crikey T-shirt or is that just a rumour?
Senator FAULKNER –That is not true. I don’t have a crikey T-shirt. I may have been sent a crikey T-shirt but, if I was, it was obviously–
Senator Abetz –The staff intercepted it.
Senator FAULKNER –Either the staff or the security services at Parliament House.
CHAIR –Senator Faulkner, I think that Senator Brandis has a couple of questions on this issue
Senator ROBERT RAY –There was some controversy among your colleagues–nothing to do with us–which began as a dispute over who would chair the 80-odd friendship groups that seemed to bubble over into where entitlements were used. Has that been brought to your attention in terms of the use of entitlements, even though it is irrelevant to the initial dispute?
Senator Abetz –Yes. What I think you are referring to is an article in the West Australian newspaper. That is how it was drawn to my attention.
Senator FAULKNER –I think it was a crikey.com exclusive.
Senator Abetz –It was reported in the West Australian newspaper.
Senator ROBERT RAY –On 26 March.
Senator Abetz –In the West Australian?
Senator ROBERT RAY –Yes.
Senator Abetz –As a result of that I have written to Senator Knowles. She has responded and I am about to send her another letter.
Senator ROBERT RAY –I see. So that is still an ongoing matter?
Senator Abetz –Yes, it is.
Dr Watt –We have our IT expert with us, if you want to move back to that question