Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Grievance debate

Government integrity

Grievance debate

Government integrity

John PESUTTO (Hawthorn – Leader of the Opposition) (16:01): I rise today to grieve for Victorians, all Victorians, and the state of integrity in Victoria – a state which once upon a time boasted a reputation for governments that championed probity, governance and proper standards consistent with the expectations of the Victorian people. But what do we have today – a government coloured by hubris, a government so chuffed with itself it is ignoring the decay at the very foundations of its ministry, and I will come to that in a moment.

We begin with a backdrop of outstanding IBAC reports – from Sandon, Richmond and today Clara. What else is yet to come? IBAC reports galore? We do not even know the full extent of it. We do not even know how many IBAC investigations the Premier and his ministers have appeared before. All we know is that there are a lot – more than any other previous government in terms of IBAC reports. We know as part of that backdrop that the Victorian Ombudsman is conducting an unprecedented investigation into the politicisation of Victoria’s public service. And it is a testament to the broad concerns right across the political spectrum, excluding those opposite, that it took a coalition of disparate parties in the other place to put together a motion for the Ombudsman to conduct that investigation into the public service and the efforts of this government, under this Premier, to interfere with a very important institution in our government – the idea of a public service that is functionally independent and provides frank and fearless advice to the government of the day. But not so now. Now we have a situation where it has become necessary for the Ombudsman to deploy resources to look into the way the systems of independent public service functioning and advice have been corrupted by the appointment of political mates who interfere in proper processes and do not give Victorians the good government and the good governance they deserve.

Look at the Parliamentary Budget Office, another part of our integrity framework – ignored by the very government that set it up. Recently the PBO issued a report, and its complaint was that this government ignored it, did not cooperate with it. Well, we did. We cooperated with it, but this government did not.

Infrastructure Victoria, a body that was set up to give non-political advice on infrastructure – what did they do? They ignored it, like everything else they set up. It is a media release, it is a grab, it is posturing, and then it is ignoring – ignoring the institutions that have been set up to give Victorians good government.

But this week we have seen the culmination of that decay I talked about a few moments ago. We have a senior member of the government caught up in a conflict of interest scandal that should concern every member of this house, that should concern every Victorian, because it is about trust and confidence in the people elected to this place to put the interests of the public before their own pecuniary interests. That is not happening this week, and I will come to that in a moment.

But let us ask the question: who is Danny Pearson, the Assistant Treasurer?

The SPEAKER: Order! Members will call members by their correct titles.

John PESUTTO: Okay. Thank you, Speaker. Who is the Assistant Treasurer, the Minister for Government Services, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, the Minister for WorkSafe and the TAC? Well, I think it is fitting to note that he is a former lobbyist – a former lobbyist for Hawker Britton, a Labor-aligned lobbying firm. And the Assistant Treasurer is an expert. The Assistant Treasurer, I can tell you what he does –

Members interjecting.

The SPEAKER: Order! The member for Eureka is warned.

John PESUTTO: I can tell you, the Assistant Treasurer, the former corporate lobbyist – do you know what he does? He slides through the corridors of power, a chancer on the make looking for what he can make, a chancer who puts his share portfolio before his ministerial portfolio.

Let us just look at some of the examples. The Commonwealth Bank: the Assistant Treasurer has had shares in the Commonwealth Bank, $100,000 worth – that we know about. A hundred thousand dollars worth of shares in the Commonwealth Bank – well, wouldn’t every Victorian love that? When he became the minister, shortly afterwards the government let the contract for Victorian government banking services, and guess what? His Commonwealth Bank, which he has a ton of money with, was appointed to that panel, but he says he had no active part. Like a true lobbyist, he knows how to spin. He had no active part, but he received seven briefings. Well, I tell you, if that is what you get for doing nothing, I would hate to see how much work you would have to do if you were doing something.

Seven briefs – let us just look at them. On 31 July 2020 the Assistant Treasurer received a brief from the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF) on the banking and financial services state purchase contract request for tender – okay; on 5 August 2020, mandating that all Victorian government agencies use the new banking and financial services state purchase contract – it is getting better if you are a shareholder in Commonwealth Bank of Australia; again on 5 August 2020, cash and banking state purchase contract, deed of variation; on 12 October 2020, cash and banking state purchase contract; on 16 April 2021, cash and banking state purchase contract; on 30 June 2021, banking and financial services state purchase contract, request for tender – that is the second RFT, by the way; and on 9 July 2021, the Assistant Treasurer received the seventh of those briefings, the banking and financial services state purchase contract implementation and data inclusions brief. So for a guy who was doing nothing, he was getting a lot of material from his own department. He says, ‘What – no active part.’ He was just noting. Then why the briefs? Why the briefs?

It brings us to a more important question: when this $120 million banking services contract was let in 2021, the minister has told this house – the minister has told the Victorian people – that he did not execute it. But he has not told any of us and any of the Victorians watching, who depend on this government to act in their interests and their interests alone, who authorised it. He did not tell them who authorised the contract.

Members interjecting.

John PESUTTO: Anybody who has worked in government – and I doubt the honourable member across will ever serve as a minister; if so, we are in trouble – if a contract of that magnitude is let, I can tell you, and I can bet you London to a brick that a minister – and if not the minister, the entire cabinet – has had to approve it. You tell me: what $120 million contract can be signed by a public servant with delegated authority from a minister? Tell me anywhere in Australia where a public servant has delegated authority to that extent – a $120 million contract. The truth is the DTF told us the truth. In its own public material it says to this day that the Assistant Treasurer approved that contract appointing the Commonwealth Bank to that banking services panel when he had $100,000 worth of shares in the Commonwealth Bank. Outrageous!

Emma Kealy interjected.

The SPEAKER: The member for Lowan is warned.

John PESUTTO: Damien Tudehope in New South Wales resigned simply because his superannuation fund contained shares in Transurban. This minister, this Assistant Treasurer, makes Damien Tudehope look like a jaywalker. Let me tell you: this guy does it on an industrial scale. And it does not just stop with that. What is perhaps even worse is that the minister – the Assistant Treasurer – says that he is going to fix the problem. He is going to fix it by setting up a blind trust. He knows exactly what he is putting into it, but it is a blind trust so it is okay. It is a blind trust. Victorians, do you know what? The minister who apologised unreservedly yesterday for breaching the code of conduct is going to continue to earn profits on those very shares. How good is that? The Assistant Treasurer, Mr Pearson, shows that you can make it in this state government if only you invest hard. The Assistant Treasurer’s apology is hollow. It means nothing. Like everything else, whether it is IBAC, the Ombudsman, the PBO, Infrastructure Victoria – it is all just air. It does not matter.

That is just the Commonwealth Bank. What about the $10,000 in Bega Cheese shares which the minister owns and has done nothing about? When the state government announced a $31 million package, the Business Recovery Energy Efficiency Fund, it helped Bega Cheese, but did the minister recuse himself? We asked him plenty of times. The media has asked him plenty of times if he recused himself and he refuses to answer. He does not say yes or no, like a good lobbyist, a lobbyist who understands what you need to do to slide through the corridors of power and gently avoid accountability and responsibility. He knows what to do, he knows what to say, he knows what to avoid.

In the same month that this government approved Beach Energy to turn a testing well beneath Port Campbell National Park, running under the Twelve Apostles, into a production well, Mr Pearson owned $10,000 in Beach Energy shares. He owns $100,000 worth of shares in CSL. At the very time when the government announced a $95 million jointly funded incubator with CSL he owned those shares. He has another $10,000 parcel in Computershare shares. The Assistant Treasurer knows what he is doing. He owned the shares in Computershare at the same time the government announced that Computershare would benefit from a $5000 per intern wage subsidy. And he has $10,000 in Telstra shares because he wants to support a great company like Telstra. It is a great company, and he is doing his bit for himself, owning $10,000 in Telstra shares when the government announced a $250 million plan to deliver over 1100 infrastructure projects in partnership with telecommunications companies, including Telstra.

Here we have a minister who continues to own the very shares that are the source of the problem, and he will do nothing about it. The question I have and the question I ask on behalf of all Victorians is: is this what it has come to in this state? A minister can invest and a minister can sit at the cabinet table and he thinks it is okay as long as he does not say anything. He folds his arms and he sits at the cabinet table. Is it okay in Victoria to get briefs from your department telling you that you are going to make money out of the very things you are being asked to sign off on as a minister? If that is the state of affairs in Victoria, then God knows what we are going to do to get this state out of the predicament it is in.

We look at other states. Ministers resign or are dismissed for so much less than what this minister is guilty of. He has had ample opportunities just to tell the truth, to fess up. Because of his apology we know that he knows he is in breach of the code of conduct, and yet he parses his words. He looked like a frightened child today when he was asked very simple questions that he could easily have answered.

Members interjecting.

The SPEAKER: Order! Members who are not in their allocated seats will not yell out across the chamber.

John PESUTTO: Do not think that this minister is not savvy when it comes to these shares. There is no naivety here. Speaking in 2017, the Assistant Treasurer said this in the course of a speech on the Land Legislation Amendment Bill 2017:

A case in point would be, for example, if you look at CSL. It was floated at a price of $.80 and it is now $135 a share.

What do I say to that? On behalf of the Victorian people, ka-ching ka-ching for the Assistant Treasurer. I grieve on behalf of Victorians for a better government.