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Tuesday, 6 December 1983
Page: 3317


Mr CADMAN —by leave-This is probably one of the most important reports that the Public Accounts Committee has brought to the Parliament. It relates to the Canberra Commercial Development Authority. In particular it deals with the management and development of the Belconnen shopping mall. The management of the Canberra Commercial Development Authority did not comprehend or accept the responsibilities that are proper for a public authority. The annual reports were delayed and financial statements for 1981-82 were submitted only within the last few days. For the first time they are unqualified. It has taken nine years for the Authority to get its accounts and its public operations in line with the requirements of the Auditor-General and of proper public administration.

Matters have been dealt with by the honourable member for Barton (Mr Punch), who tabled the report of the Public Accounts Committee. They involve the approval of the Treasurer for certain borrowings, the approval of the Public Service Board in regard to the appointment of staff, which was not sought, the approval of financial statements, and the capacity to work within the legislation and the Ordinance establishing the Authority. The excuse of differences in interpretation of the Ordinance was offered by the Canberra Commercial Development Authority as a reason for not sticking to that Ordinance. The authority did not seek an opinion on the ordinance, nor did it apply for a variation. Where it sought information that information was used selectively when given to the Committee. It is not reasonable to expect an authority of the Parliament to conduct itself in this way. The boards of Qantas Airways Ltd, Trans Australia Airlines or any other commercial public organisation could not be allowed to continue as the Board of the Canberra Commercial Development Authority has. It is a most serious situation.

Despite the comments of the Auditor-General and of the Public Accounts Committee, whose report was most critical, the Minister for Territories and Local Government (Mr Uren) has seen fit to reappoint the Board of the Canberra Commercial Development Authority. Parliament does not and cannot expect appointees to behave in such a way as to ignore their responsibilities, to go to the very fringe of proper commercial behaviour and, on the other hand, be dragged unwillingly to observe their legal requirements and responsibilities by the Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee. The standard set by this organisation is not good enough. It is completely unacceptable. The appointees to any organisation, must be willing to inform themselves firstly of their responsibilities. When appointments are made the appointees must be willing to report regularly and on time to the Parliament or their Minister and they must at all times seek advice on restrictions and advise their Ministers and the Parliament on restrictions placed on their capacity to complete the tasks they have been given. People chosen to do jobs on behalf of the taxpayer must be chosen for their integrity as well as their ability. They are acting on behalf of the Parliament.

The Public Accounts Committee could have pursued a number of alternatives. It could have continued the public inquiry regarding all matters, which may have included criminal matters, with legal representation for both the Committee and the parties involved. It could have referred the matter to one of the departments of State or it could have ignored the whole matter. The Committee chose to refer the whole subject to the Attorney-General and his Department. There was a long delay in the response from the Attorney-General's Department and finally, with regret, because of the time that had expired, the Committee accepted short extensions of the appointments to the Board because it was the then Government's intention to sell Belconnen Mall. However, the Minister for Territories and Local Government has indicated that he will not be proceeding with the sale and he has reappointed members of the Board. The Government has also expanded the activities of the Authority to cover additional projects. The Minister's explanation that he will exercise greater ministerial supervision and his commitment that these matters will not be repeated indicate that he has taken full responsibility for all previous activities of the Authority.

I cannot remember an occasion on which such a serious allegation and such a serious report prepared by the senior standing committee of the Parliament have been ignored by the Executive. The Minister's attitude has tended to show a lack of appreciation of the serious matters involved. In fact, he has rejected the main finding of the Committee. This brings into question the role of committees of the Parliament. The Public Accounts Committee has suggested that Mr Speaker appoint proper legal officers to serve committees, to advise on matters such as criminal negligence or the prospect of criminal activity, so that prompt accurate advice can be given and the proper processes of the law undertaken. The alternative, and it is one that I prefer, is for committees of the Parliament to take on themselves the role that the committees of the United States Congress adopt, that is, to have full legal representation so that the committees can properly pursue the matters raised before them. That is the only alternative with which committees of the Parliament will be faced from now on. It is with great regret that the Committee learned that the Minister has chosen to ignore its basic findings. He has not cleared the situation in any way. No inquiry of the type the Committee wished has been conducted, so there is a cloud over the whole exercise. It is most regrettable and it will have long and lasting ramifications in the activities of parliamentary committees.