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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 23

Senator WONG (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister representing the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer. I refer the minister to an interview with ASIC Chairman Jeffrey Lucy on Business Sunday yesterday, where Mr Lucy indicated ASIC would be seeking additional funds to successfully complete its investigation of James Hardie. Given the importance of this matter to thousands of Australian workers and their families, why has this situation been allowed to arise? Why has the Howard government failed to fund ASIC to fulfil core obligations such as investigating serious alleged breaches of the Corporations Law? Does the minister find it acceptable that the Chairman of ASIC has to go cap in hand to the government in order to investigate James Hardie properly?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Wong for the question. As I alluded to recently—in response, I think, to an earlier question by Senator Wong—these matters relating to James Hardie have been the subject of a significant investigation by Mr Jackson QC and have been the subject of ongoing speculation in relation to the future funding of the foundation and the board's ability to come to some accommodation in respect of the matters that relate to properly compensating victims. What I have said is that this government certainly shares the community concerns about the difficulties faced by victims of asbestos disease and their families and certainly wishes to ensure that they are treated fairly. The government remains of the view that James Hardie should honour its obligations to fully compensate asbestos victims. The government considers that James Hardie should guarantee the claims of asbestos victims in the event that the foundation is not able to pay claims put forward and goes into provisional liquidation. Aside from those general comments, the matter is subject to an ASIC investigation. If indeed it is the case, I will bring the comments of Mr Lucy to the attention of the minister. If there is anything further I can add, I will inform the Senate.

Senator WONG —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The minister has failed to indicate whether or not the government will make a clear and unequivocal commitment to properly fund ASIC. The Chairman of ASIC has indicated that more funds are required to investigate James Hardie. Why will the minister not give a clear and unequivocal commitment that ASIC will be funded sufficiently so as to allow the Hardie investigation to proceed?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —As Senator Wong well knows, and as those listening to question time know, the government has properly funded ASIC for many years. Some further consideration is needed of what amendments may be required to the Corporations Law. Whether criminal investigations and criminal charges should proceed is a matter for ASIC to determine. In the HIH matter, when ASIC came forward and asked for funds to undertake prosecutions once it had investigated everything, further funds were provided to ASIC. This is a matter that the government takes seriously. ASIC is always properly funded for appropriate action.