THE Commonwealth government is looking to pursue former WA Senator and farmer Rod Culleton to recover a debt related to taxpayer payments he accumulated while serving in federal parliament, including staff entitlements.
The former One Nation member was disqualified from the Senate in January when the High Court ruled he was originally ineligible to stand at last year’s federal election, as per constitutional rules regarding convictions and sentencing.
At the same time, Mr Culleton was declared bankrupt by the Federal Court over a long-standing debt linked to a soured farm sale and lease arrangement, and an agreement to sell oats, to his former farming neighbour and Wesfarmers director Dick Lester at Williams, in the WA Wheatbelt.
Last week, the Department of Finance’s division of Ministerial and Parliamentary Services wrote to Mr Culleton saying it was now advising that - due to the High Court ruling on his ineligibility - payments made to and in relation to him, since the July 2 election last year, were a debt to the Commonwealth.
The letter from Jason Ford, the First Assistant Secretary, Ministerial and Parliamentary Services - seen by Fairfax Media - said under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability (PGPA) Act, the Department of Finance (for non-salary payments) and Department of the Senate (for salary payments) had obligations to pursue the debt.
It said the Finance Department was currently working to quantify the exact amount of the debt for which it was responsible, including legislated superannuation payments, benefits and staff payments.
“In the interim you may wish to consider your options in relation to this debt, which could include: providing evidence of your financial circumstances for consideration of the Departments in determining what action to take in relation to the debt, noting that we understand that you have recently been declared bankrupt,” it said.
The letter also said an accountable authority may decide to not pursue a debt – while another option for Mr Culleton was to apply for a waiver of the debt.
However, the notification said the PGPA Act provided discretionary power to waive debts owing to the Commonwealth, with Special Minister of State Scott Ryan the relevant decision maker.
Mr Ford’s letter said Finance would also be providing specific details of the non-salary amounts owing, in the week commencing May 15, while Mr Culleton had until May 30 to advise if he wanted to pursue any of the listed options.
But Mr Culleton said he would not be seeking a waiver on the alleged debt and his petition challenging the High Court ruling was in effect a counter-claim.
“I wasn’t in the Senate as a bit of mist – I was voting,” he said.
“I’m not going to be in debt to the government for the rest of my life; that’s what will happen if I seek a waiver, it’ll be an admission.”
Mr Culleton said he did not know what the actual total debt would be, although it’s understood a Senator’s salary is about $200,000 per year and he served for about six months.
But he said it was “concerning” the Commonwealth was seeking to reclaim any monies linked to staff payments and entitlements like air travel and accommodation, from Perth or other interstate venues into Canberra, while supporting his parliamentary service, including efforts to support farmers dealing with bank lending issues.
“We helped keep three farmers out of jail,” he said.
“This shows the government are still trying to run over me like a bit of old road kill – but if they were to win, it would be a hollow victory.
“Who would want to run for parliament, if that’s what they’d do to you?”
Not a bankrupt, despite court ruling
Mr Culleton reiterated previous statements that he was not a bankrupt or insolvent, despite the court’s ruling.
“I’m still in control of my assets,” he said saying legal action remained before the courts.
In his correspondence to the parliament, Mr Culleton claims to be a “Senator in exile”.
In a petition referenced under standing order 207 of the Senate rules, lodged with the Senate Clerk in late April, he claimed the election of his brother-in-law Senator Peter Georgiou to replace him, at a special re-count of the WA Senate election votes by the Australian Electoral Commission in March following the disqualification, was invalid.
The signed petition said the power to replace a Senator isn’t vested in the High Court and the Electoral Commission but in the Governor of WA.
“As such, the Court of Disputed Returns had no power to order the Electoral Commission or the Senate to swear in a new Senator and as such Senator Pangiotis (Peter) Georgiou is ultra vires, and not validly appointed,” it said.
The Senate Clerk has declined to comment on Senator Culleton’s petition seeking to challenge his disqualification.
Senate President Stephen Parry’s office declined to comment on the advice made to Mr Culleton, at this time, regarding the debt.
After Mr Culleton lodged a formal petition with the Senate’s management and wrote to all Upper House members, seeking to challenge the court ruling and reclaim his parliamentary post, NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm said the former One Nation member was flogging a “resoundingly dead” horse.
But today, Senator Leyonhjelm said the government’s plans to potentially chase Mr Culleton for any debts accrued while he was serving as a federal Senator, including payments to staff members, was “a bit unfair”.
“For all his faults, Mr Culleton believed he was validly elected and entitled to normal treatment as a Senator,” he said.
“It took a court decision to determine that he wasn’t eligible.
“Given there was no dishonesty or intent to deceive, I wonder whether recovery attempts by the Senate could be successful in any case.
“Furthermore, he is a bankrupt and not in a position to repay a debt - I suspect it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money to pursue him.”