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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2445

Mr JACOBI —My question is directed to the Attorney-General. In the light of this week's unanimous recommendation of the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, confirming what is widely perceived throughout the business community, that is, that the existing co-operative companies and securities scheme has failed to respond to the need for efficient corporate regulation to meet the increasing international pressure, particularly in capital and securities transactions, will the Attorney-General take steps to legislate nationally in the field of companies and securities regulation and, if so, will he now put in place a joint committee on business regulation?

Mr LIONEL BOWEN —In respect of the latter part of the question, I have no objection at all to putting in place a committee on business regulation. That is a matter for the House to determine, and I am sure that my distinguished colleague would know that that can be the subject of a resolution here at the appropriate time-which I do not have the carriage of. In respect of the national companies and securities scheme, I indicate that it has always been the policy of my Party to have such a national scheme. Of course, this has to be looked at in the light of what one might call the political developments that have ensued for a period of time. For example, in our previous Government of 1972-75, the Australian Labor Party attempted to introduce such a scheme, but it was rejected. I well remember being in opposition during the period following the 1975 election, and attempting to introduce, as shadow Attorney-General, a national scheme by means of private legislation. That Bill was rejected by the Senate on the first occasion and on the second occasion Parliament did not even bother to debate the matter. But at least some progress has been made since then. I am now a member of the Ministerial Council, which was created from what is called the national scheme that was developed in co-operation with the States and which was the subject of legislation in 1978. That scheme provides for all the States to be parties to it and, where there is a Ministerial Council, to decide what sort of legislation should be introduced into Parliament. When such legislation is introduced and passed by Parliament, it becomes the law applying to all the States and the Territory.

There is some artificiality about that, and in debates in Parliament objection has been made to the fact that, once the Ministerial Council has agreed, we in Parliament cannot alter the legislation. The argument is that it makes this Parliament a neuter somewhat, because for the first time legislation introduced here could not be altered or amended, as that would be contrary to the legislation introduced in 1978. I have always taken the view that it would be appropriate for the business communities to suddenly realise at last that the national scheme is in their best interests. The scheme relates to one market, one economy. Members would be aware that in recent weeks legislation has been passed to allow for the creation of the Australian Stock Exchanges. The various stock exchanges have agreed themselves that it is important that they get together as an Australian enterprise to deal with the Australian share market. It is an important market. It would have much more credibility and receive much more support from the public if the public realised that there was at least a national support for it. The difficulty that I face from time to time concerns what would be the attitude of other parties in the Parliament. I think I am judging the situation well now in thinking that everyone would agree that there ought to be a national scheme. I must say, though, that when I go to the Ministerial Councils and suggest that there ought to be a national scheme I am usually outvoted, on the basis that they feel that the State instrumentalities are the best way to manage the scheme.

Mr Howard —On both sides of politics.

Mr LIONEL BOWEN —Yes. I said the Ministerial Council. The creation of interest was encouraged at the time when the Leader of the Opposition was taking some interest in the matter. The State instrumentalities want to retain their respective responsibilities and to also retain the income that they get from the registration filing fees. At present there is a profit in it for the States of about $70m. However, it is only the Australian Parliament that is out of pocket, as the scheme was reasonably devised on the basis that we would always pay half the cost-but we get nothing like half the income. So, whilst we are putting up with half the cost, the States are getting the benefit. I know that this will not help my credibility with my State colleagues on the basis that I feel that they are looking at the matter more from the point of view of their State Treasuries than the national need.

I want to pay a tribute to the Senate, which established a committee and which recently produced a report. That report is of interest. Evidence was given to the Senate Committee that there is increasing support for the suggestion that the Commonwealth Government should assume complete responsibility. I would be happy to do it. In fact, I am going to the Ministerial Council in May to suggest that I do it. I will ask for its support. I will be very surprised if I get it. However, the issue would be: What does the business community feel ought to be the situation? It appears very clear that the Business Council of Australia, the Confederation of Australian Industry, the Australian Merchant Bankers Association and, certainly, the New South Wales Attorney-General, a colleague of mine, support a national scheme.

The honourable member has asked a very important and valid question. He has always taken an interest in these matters; it is a very important interest. We are trying to indicate to the Australian people that we can have effective legislation on a national basis. There is no need for the plurality of some seven or eight different instrumentalities trying to deal with the same matter. I think that we would do it more effectively and efficiently than is the case at present. Some 1,400 employees work in the State corporate affairs offices. They have over 300 investigators, and there is the problem of the National Companies and Securities Commission saying that it desperately needs more resources. I will accept that; but the resources are already there, although probably not effectively utilised.

Mr Carlton —Why don't you make a statement?

Mr LIONEL BOWEN —I do not need to make a statement. I just say that it is a pity that the Opposition, when in government, did not understand the national need. I am delighted to know that it now does, and I am delighted to know that the business community now does. I will do my best to meet those demands.