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Wednesday, 29 November 2000
Page: 20152

Senator FORSHAW (4:45 PM) —I want to add a couple of comments, because what Senator O'Brien said is quite correct. Indeed, if you go back to the speeches in the second reading debate made by Senator Woodley and me—and by the shadow minister in the other place—this question of accountability for Commonwealth matching funds is very much at the heart of the issue. We recognise that there is a tension, if you like, built up in the sense that, if you are privatising the entity and trying to put more control in the hands of growers and industry, that is an appropriate objec-tive in these circumstances. But what seems to be happening—it is something that we have raised on a number of occasions, and it has been raised by members of all parties through the committee process—is that this is leading to a significant reduction—almost elimination—of the opportunity of the parliament, and certainly of the Senate committee, to pursue issues of accountability.

Just to elaborate on that, the parliamentary secretary mentioned earlier that she was following the model of the meat industry. There are different models. Certainly in the case of the wool industry—that bill is going to come on tomorrow—I am sure we will raise similar issues. The question of accountability in the wool industry has been raised by members of parliament not only under the new structure, but also under the existing structure. There have been concerns expressed—I think it is well known—that, even under some of the existing arrangements, whereby information is provided through the portfolio budget statements and/or the annual reports, both those of the department and also those of the specific corporations, you have still got to do a lot of detective work, a lot of searching, to get the information that you want. That has certainly been the case in respect of one major matter in the wool industry. I am sure the parliamentary secretary knows what I am talking about without my going into detail. I highlight the fact that, at least under the current structures, the R&D corporations, when they are all published in the PBSs and the annual reports, provide an opportunity on the surface, laid on the table, to pursue these issues. Similarly, our committee is shortly to report on another issue in the meat industry. Again, the question of accountability—this time not so much in respect of accountability regarding matching funds but in terms of accountability to do with decision making processes which ultimately benefit some people in the industry as against others—was an important matter for the committee to inquire into. We have been doing that.

As I said, I do not want to go into detail in those matters, because they are still to come before the parliament in the next few days, but I am very concerned—and I know other members of the committee are concerned; I am sure all senators would be concerned—that this is a somewhat convoluted process. As Senator O'Brien said, you get officials of the department before the committee—notwithstanding the fact that, generally speaking, in our committee in estimates we have a pretty good understanding with the departmental officers, who at all times try to be as helpful and as forthcoming as possible—who nevertheless respond by saying, `We're sorry, we are just not able to advise you as to what happened to those matching government funds, because they are in a private company.' That has now occurred in, I think, two or three situations.

That also points to the problem that, notwithstanding your comments about what ability the members might have, we find often that, because it is industry bodies or industry organisations that are represented, the grower members themselves are often the ones that are left in the dark. You need only to look at the saga of what happened to AWRAP, the wool research and promotion body. That was the end result. I note—and I ask you to comment on this as well—that, from reading the legislation and the memorandum of understanding, there is more emphasis on accountability in terms of the minister's powers to impose penalties such as withdrawing their status as an industry services body or export control body and so on than there is in terms of being proactive about providing an opportunity to the parliament to pursue accountability issues. I note from the explanatory memorandum that all of the rhetoric is about what the minister can do to penalise or punish the company for doing the wrong thing, rather than focusing on what should be required in the first place to make them open and accountable so that the likelihood of imposing those penalties would be really very much a last resort.