What we learned today, Tuesday 10 November
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The infrastructure department secretary, Simon Atkinson, has said there is a “question around culture” in the Western Sydney unit that “should be looked at” – but he doesn’t have any evidence the whole unit has a cultural problem.
The evidence is there has been a substantial problem here [with the Leppington Triangle sale], but it may be a one-off type of activity. Many governance-type activities were embedded inside the unit, a different construct [to the rest of the department]. Any organisation that has something like this happen should look if there is a cultural element to it.
Labor’s Penny Wong attempted to probe what other areas the public servants being investigated in connection with the Leppington Triangle might be working on.
She said it was a “dubious” purchase and wanted to know if they’d worked on other projects such as the Inland Rail project.
Atkinson asked to provide the evidence in camera (in private, at the conclusion of the hearing) because it might identify the person or breach their privacy.
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Senate Estimates has started with Penny Wong grilling the infrastructure department about incorrect evidence about when it first became aware about concerns with the Leppington Triangle sale.
The secretary, Simon Atkinson, had told an earlier session he thought he first learned about the issue when the audit office sent through its proposed report in August.
That was incorrect – the department received “preparation papers” on 23 June that identified the problems with the purchase. Atkinson explains that he got those two stages of the audit process confused and had treated them “as one” because he was venturing his best guess.
Wong is upset, telling Atkinson he had given “incorrect evidence that you should’ve corrected”.
She then queried why it took until 21 August to set up investigations into alleged code of conduct breaches, when it had actually known “a number of months and weeks” before about allegations of misconduct or corruption involving the sale.
The deputy secretary, David Hallinan, told the hearing the department hadn’t done nothing, it had ensured that the two staff members who were impugned by the ANAO report played no further role in compiling the department’s response. HR also began to look into the issue as a “precursor” to the later code of conduct investigations.
On 14 July it responded to the ANAO – including to query whether it had taken further action such as referring the matter to the police.
Wong is now asking for a series of documents, including the briefs the ANAO found failed to warn the minister, Paul Fletcher, about the total price and the basis of the calculation.
Wong wants to know whether two briefings to Fletcher in January 2018 and July 2018 are included in the scope of code of conduct investigations.
“I want to know that every brief the minister had is being investigated properly,” she said. Officials say their expectations is the answer is yes.
Wong is concerned there are more than two public servants involved in writing the briefs. Officials have taken it on notice.
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The Morrison government will narrow the coverage of its foreign veto bill – and enshrine more details in the legislation itself – in an attempt to ease concerns of the university sector and the opposition of the reach of the planned new powers.
Guardian Australia understands the government will make two major amendments, including putting the definition of foreign universities’ institutional autonomy into the bill itself.
The other change will be requiring a review of how the new powers have operated to be completed within three years of the law coming into effect.
The definition is crucial to how far-reaching the powers as they relate to universities will be.
This is because universities will have to notify the government of any planned deals with foreign universities only if that foreign university “does not have institutional autonomy”.
The foreign affairs minister will have the discretion to block such deals if they would adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations or would be inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy.
Originally the government had not included the definition in the bill itself and was going to leave it to the foreign minister to spell out in accompanying rules (ie by regulation) – prompting fears of a lack of adequate parliamentary scrutiny.
It is understood the new definition will say: “A university does not have institutional autonomy if the government where the university is located – whether it’s a national or sub-national government – is in a position to exercise substantial control over the university.”
And what is meant by substantial control? Apparently, it is based on factors such as who is on the university’s governing body, whether there is a law or governing body that spells out the control that can be exercised, and whether academic or research staff are required to adhere to political principles or doctrines.
The government has previously insisted the legislation is country-neutral, and that it would not be spelling out which countries will and won’t be in the frame. But based on the definition that is being discussed, universities would likely not have to notify the government about agreements they make with counterparts in countries such as the United Kingdom and United States.
The government hopes the legislation will pass both chambers of parliament by the end of this year.
Labor had been calling for changes including to address the “lack of clear definitions of critical terms”.
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Federal Labor staff asked to contribute to party ‘fighting fund’
The staff of federal Labor MPs and senators have been asked to contribute to a fighting fund to prepare for the next election. The party is seeking regular monthly contributions ranging from $25 to $250 per month, in addition to the long hours hard-working staff already put in.
The Labor national secretary, Paul Erickson, told Guardian Australia:
I presented at an all-staff meeting and provided Labor parliamentary staff members the plan for the development of a campaign. I invited them to sign up voluntarily to a fighting fund. The fighting fund is entirely voluntary and was presented as such – I respectfully requested staff make a contribution.
Elections aren’t solely about the quality of arguments and the organisation – and often the loudest voice in the room wins.
We are at a structural disadvantage in terms of money compared with the Coalition. This is one of a number of fundraising initiatives to build the biggest resource base possible to take on the Coalition and their many allies.
That sounded like a dig at Clive Palmer, who spent more than $60m before the last election, failing to win a single seat but dragging Labor down with a negative campaign including boosting claims it planned to introduce a death tax.
In August The Australian reported that Labor’s election war chest is set to be $15m lower than Bill Shorten took into the 2019 election, but Erickson disputed that characterisation of the financial position.
“Our campaign budget today is in a very similar position to the equivalent point in the last cycle,” he said.
The party’s other fundraising efforts involve using digital channels to seek small dollar donations.
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Ken Wyatt says he will legislate for an Indigenous body
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