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Monday, 2 March 2015
Page: 1594


Mr RIPOLL (Oxley) (12:11): It gives me absolutely no pleasure whatsoever to speak on this bill, because this bill abolishes the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee, CAMAC, which is a longstanding committee that is efficient, thorough and has provided essential advice and service to all governments and the community for a very, very long time. It plays an integral and critical role in the proper functioning of our markets and corporations.

I cannot believe that this bill is before us. It beggars belief. It is just another example of the government shooting itself in the foot—not understanding its role, not understanding the importance of markets, and not understanding the work that this particular committee does and how it does that work. This is a perfect example of a government that has no idea about itself, about its own agenda, about the economy, about Australians, about how markets work or about efficiency. This is a government that is rolling from one crisis to another, and this is a perfect example of that.

This bill abolishes the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee for no good reason. There is not one good reason for abolishing that very, very fine committee, made up of quality Australians, who provide, almost on a voluntary basis, a critical advisory service to the government. Governments—previous governments, this government and other governments; not only governments but also the community—have made enormous use of and benefited greatly from the work that is being done. To get rid of this committee really does beggar belief.

I will be very interested to hear what government members have to say in defence of why they would want to get rid of this committee that provides them with quality advice—that frank and fearless, quality, nonpartisan, non-political advice that is so essential to decision making when it comes to very important issues about our businesses in this country—small business, big business, small and medium enterprises and corporations—and the way markets work and the way that we interact with them.

The explanatory memorandum has some explanation, though. It explains and states that the cessation of CAMAC is expected to have a positive impact. I take that word with some irony, because there is nothing positive about abolishing CAMAC. It says it has a positive impact on the fiscal balance of $2.8 million—that is it: $2.8 million—and on the underlying cash balance of $3.1 million over the forward estimates. I am not talking about per year; I am talking about over the next four years. So for much less than $1 million a year we have a fantastic committee, made up of quality, eminent Australians, who work almost voluntarily in the time that they give of their own knowledge, their own intellect and they work much, much beyond anything that the committee requires. To have this government for a few measly coins—this number, this so-called saving of $3.1 million over the forward estimates, would barely register in budgetary terms on any fiscal position of the government or this country.

Labor absolutely opposes the abolition of CAMAC. CAMAC, as I have said, is an apolitical committee. It is made up of corporate and business experts who have been a very, very valuable resource to government for many years. In fact, when the former parliamentary secretary to the Treasurer, the member for Moncrieff, introduced the bill to the House he said:

This bill fulfils a commitment … to achieve a smaller and more rational government footprint.

I do not see how making things smaller by getting rid of a key advisory body actually helps anybody. I do not think it really can help the government's budgetary position. There is nothing rational about it either because it does not achieve the government's own goals. Maybe the government does not understand what it is here for. Maybe the government does not have a program and an agenda. Maybe the government does not know why it is in government. Maybe it is just in government because it thinks that winning power and winning government and sitting on that side of the House is it—that is the goal and the goal has been achieved and it is just about staying there as long as possible rather than looking at what things it can do for the country.

The former parliamentary secretary to the Treasurer said it 'fulfils a commitment', but a commitment to whom? The question would be to whom is the commitment to have a smaller footprint, a smaller government. I do not know to whom. I will ask that question many, many times—to whom does this fulfil a commitment? It would not be the business community, because the business community would have an expectation, if anything, that the government would enhance CAMAC because of the great work it does not that it would get rid of it completely.

This commitment does not have a rationale from our markets because our markets rely on good, efficient processes and good information. When there are reviews to be done or critical issues that need to be debated in this place, who do we turn to? We turn to CAMAC, because CAMAC has the resources and expertise. When Labor want to seek the advice of business people, the business community of experts, and ask their view and opinion, we turn to CAMAC. But this Liberal government does not need any advice, apparently. When it is faced with critical decisions, who does it turn to? Apparently it is nobody. It turns to itself. It is inward-looking.

We have seen this. We have seen this in the rolling crises that are before the government today. There are things happening with the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and there is a lack of confidence from his own backbench. We know this in absolute terms because there was a recent poll—not a newspaper poll or phone poll but a poll of the government's own party room—and it emphatically demonstrated that there is no confidence in the Prime Minister. This is just another example of why. Their own people have no confidence in the Prime Minister. Who else would have any confidence in this government when they are getting rid of a key independent advisory body? Getting rid of it would save them such a small and trifling amount that you would barely notice it anywhere. Certainly you would barely notice it in the budget papers compared to the value that it brings.

So rather than treating CAMAC, this expert advisory committee, in a non-political way, by doing this they are actually politicising it. They are politicising this advisory body and the good business people and experts who are on this committee. Somewhere deep in the back of my mind I thought there was a chance or an underlying theme from the Liberals that they are somehow pro-business and pro-market. But I cannot figure out what they stand for. I cannot see it in any of their actions. I cannot see how they are pro-business.

Let me tell you that the business community do not agree with the government on this. The experts do not agree with the government on this. They think the government has got it really wrong. They think the government is making a big mistake. If the government wanted to gain some confidence from the business community it would drop this bill altogether and say, 'Sorry, we have made a mistake here.'

But I think they have a bit of form on this. There is something happening here. I have only picked it up in the last couple of weeks or months—or maybe a bit longer. There is a bit of form from the government and the Prime Minister. They do not like experts. They do not like independent bodies. They do not like business people, for that matter. They do not like anyone who has maybe a different view to theirs, as small a difference as that might be. I think I have it.

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr RIPOLL: You can like me or dislike me; it does not really matter! I think I have worked it out, though. If somebody does not agree with them on something in particular then they get rid of that person if they can. But if it is somebody like the Human Rights Commissioner then they cannot get rid of that person because that person has a mandate for five years. If they cannot get rid of them, what do they do? They vilify, attack, character-assassinate and do everything they can to bring that person or body down. That is what they have done. We have seen that.

The government and the Prime Minister might think that is really clever and that, by character-assassinating or rubbishing an independent authority or people who have more expertise in an area than they do, somehow that puts them in front and they win with the public. I do not think that is right. I can almost understand why the government would go down that path if the Human Rights Commission had a different view to theirs, but in this case here it seems to me that they are just attacking their own people. If we are to believe the government that they support business then we have to ask: why are they getting rid of one of the very, very good-quality advisory bodies that provide the frank and fearless advice that is needed? That is not just something you desire in government; it is actually something you really need.

Let me tell you a little bit about the history of CAMAC, because I think it is important for people to understand. Since 1978 the Commonwealth has had an independent research based reform body focused on corporations and financial markets. It started with the Companies and Securities Law Review Committee and was followed by the Corporations and Securities Advisory Committee and is now known as CAMAC. It changed name in 1989 and in 2002, following the referral of corporations powers from the states.

This is not some trifling little body that we can do without or ignore. CAMAC has produced dozens of reports, too many to list them all here. It is a busy committee. It does a lot of work. If you want to talk about rationales, efficiency and smaller government, this is what delivers it. It is CAMAC that delivers it. The government does not deliver any of it. This is the body that delivers it, and it has done some very, very good work that has led to essential reforms that save consumers money, protects our markets, and provides the efficiency that underpins what we call this great country. If we are going to have good markets then you have to have the right sort of reforms in place. You would want to at least seek some advice—you are not just turning to yourself for advice in these areas.

They have done some great work in terms of continuous disclosure, company restructuring to avoid liquidation, executive remuneration and directors' liability. This is the real red-tape reduction. This is the real work of government. This is the stuff that actually makes a difference on the ground, not that bonfire of red-tape rubbish that we saw from this government when it says it is going to burn 18,000 pages of red-tape. They forgot to tell you that the 18,000 pages-worth are dating back from 1901 and 1905 that nobody had used for about 90 years—some of them were actually blank pages with a line.

Mr Chester: Get rid of them!

Mr RIPOLL: I am happy to get rid of them. In fact, we support getting rid of them—some of them. We did it in government when we removed thousands and thousands and thousands. We did not just have a national day off for the whole of Australia on bonfire red-tape day! When people add up the individual savings, it amounts to a big, fat zero. Some of the efficiency red-tap reduction went so far as getting rid of a comma on a page. They forgot to tell you how much it cost to get a bureaucrat, or somebody in the department, to find where that comma was—'Find me a lot of commas and get rid of those!' This is the sort of rubbish—a waste of time and taxpayers money. If it is going to get rid of anything, this government ought to get rid of itself. That would make smaller government. It would make it really efficient too. Get rid of yourselves. No, hang on—you are working on it. Sorry, I just missed the last couple of weeks. You are working on it. You are getting rid of yourselves. Well done. It would make a lot more sense than having this bill here, which actually gets rid of some really good people and a really good organisation.

Perhaps, because CAMAC is so independent and made up of expert members who use proper research and verify what they do when providing those quality reports, there is a pattern building here that this government does not want independent advice. It does not want frank and fearless advice. It wants something else. It wants a whole group of people that just say, 'Yes. Yes. Yes. Anything you want. Whatever you say.' The world does not work that way. People will stand up and speak out, and there will be a price to be paid for getting rid of CAMAC.

Not many people listening to this will have ever heard of CAMAC; I do not expect them to have. I do not expect people up in the galleries to know what CAMAC is, the work that it has done, or how important it is. It is one of those quiet, expert, independent bodies that costs taxpayers a trifling, tiny, little bit of money from the government but provides so much value and so much expertise. So much, that if you add it up—the value and the savings to the taxpayer, or the efficiency measures to our markets, or the reason why we are held in such regard around the world for some of the thing that we have reformed in this country—then you would appreciate the real value of this body.

Obviously, this is a government that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. They have no idea what value is compared to price. Anyone can work out $3.1 million over the forward estimates. They will roll that off as if it means something. But, what of the value here? The value that we have lost is enormous. Next time the government might need some advice, do you know where it will turn to? It will pay more than $3.1 million for a report from a friendly consultancy firm who will be told, 'This is the results page with the results we want. Write 500 pages that backup our view.' They will charge that to the taxpayer and it will cost the taxpayer several million dollars.

Mr Chester: Don't be so cynical, Bernie.

Mr RIPOLL: I am not cynical. I am just thinking about experience and history, particularly this government's What does it do? If it needs advice, it goes and seeks advice and says, 'Here is the outcome, now provide us with the 500 or 600 filler pages—whatever the number of pages. We will pay whatever amount of money.' Because, that does not count. Red-tape, bureaucracy and inefficiency do not count as long as they get the outcome that they want. I would not come in here and say all of these things unless there was something behind this supporting it. I have all the evidence that I need in this retrograde step to abolish a fantastic committee that does really great work, and I am looking for reasons here. I think, 'Well, it can't be the dollar saving because it is so small that it makes no difference.' If this government thinks it is going to turn around the economy and create jobs by getting rid of CAMAC, I would like to hear that. That would be of interest. I would like to hear how they are going to do that.

I am not sure about other people, but I remember Joe Hockey, the Australian Treasurer, saying that he would deliver a surplus in 12 months—

Mr Perrett: That is right—

Mr RIPOLL: and every year thereafter. Now, that is something I would like to see. Apparently, he was different to everyone else and he was going to. I remember another very important promise, something that is even closer to my heart, and that is jobs. I remember the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: If the member for Oxley and those gathered continue to enjoy themselves like this, the Australian public will get a different view of this parliament.

Mr RIPOLL: They might do. They might find it quite interesting, Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you. I remember just before the election that the Prime Minister made a very specific promise. He promised a million new jobs. I might not be great at mathematics, but a million new jobs would be a million more, and that would mean that the unemployment rate would have to come down. I think that is simple maths. But, the unemployment rate has only gone up, and is now 6.4 per cent—a terrible figure. So, I had to look it up. I wondered when we last had an unemployment rate that high. It was in 1992. Guess who was the industrial relations minister and the minister for employment in 1992?

Mr Perrett: That was 2002.

Mr RIPOLL: Sorry, it was 2002. Thank you. In fact, you are right—it was 2002. That just makes my point even stronger, because it has been a while.

Mr Chester: He was on the grassy knoll as well!

Mr RIPOLL: Yes, he was on the grassy knoll. But, guess who was responsible for trying to create jobs in 2002? It was Tony Abbott. It was the current Prime Minister. He was responsible for it back then. So, when I hear that there is going to be a million new jobs and that there will be a surplus every year—you hear all this rubbish and you think that that is part and parcel of what is before us here. What this bill for the abolition of CAMAC actually does is completely different from what the government says. It says anything. It promises anything. It does not care. A promise a day, a promise an hour—it does not really matter.

If it were only my view, I could understand that people might be cynical. I could understand why government members might get upset and say, 'Well, that's just your view; you're on the other side.' If you have a look around, you will see it is not just one voice. We know that it is not just us saying these things; there are a whole heap of stakeholder groups who have made their views and submissions public. I inform the House that, if you want to take the time to read them, there have been many good comments and submissions made.

I turn, for example, to Professor Ian Ramsay, from the University of Melbourne law school. He was quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald as saying, in relation to the abolition of CAMAC:

"It's very regrettable that for the saving of three salaries a committee that has worked long and hard over decades to basically facilitate business has been cut,'' he said. ''It's been cut with little thought and little understanding of its role.''

That is the problem: little thought and little understanding—no idea. Professor Ramsay also said:

''That's the complete irony of this,'' … ''It cuts directly against the government's own philosophy and position about facilitating business.''

You would have to question that philosophy.

In a letter to Senator Cormann, the Business Law Section of the Law Council of Australia said:

CAMAC has delivered a substantial quantity of first-class reports and discussion papers very economically. … We submit that if CAMAC is abolished, the Government will not be able to secure access to this level of expertise and experience at comparable cost.

They are saying that it will cost more, and that is exactly what will happen. It may save a few coins over here—'Everyone look at the shiny coins; here you go, look at what we're saving'—but then it will cost you three times more somewhere else. Again, there is no thought, no rationale, no purpose. That is what happens when you have no purpose in government other than to stay in government. The only thing I can think of is that they just want to stay there.

In an article by George Durbridge entitled 'CMAC to be abolished', published on the Herbert Smith Freehills lawyers website—not regularly known as supporters of our side—he writes:

If CAMAC did not exist, we would have had to invent it. If it ceases to exist, we will have to reinvent it.

That would cost a lot more, but that is exactly what will happen, because government cannot do without this committee.

In an article on the StartupSmart website, Judith Fox from the Governance Institute of Australia pointed out:

"There’s a lot at stake in losing CAMAC," Fox says. "Corporations and the financial markets are the lynchpin of Australia’s economy. If they do not function efficiently, there will be detrimental consequences for business, investors and the capital markets.

You would think that a Liberal government might just acknowledge or understand that a little, but it is pretty obvious it does not. Maybe it has another agenda or maybe—even worse—it does not have one at all. Judith Fox continued:

Having an expert, research-focused, consultative and independent body like CAMAC to develop and advise the government on best practice policy has made a significant contribution to the strength and efficiency of our corporate and financial institutions. … CAMAC convenes a part-time panel of corporate law luminaries who for all intents and purposes volunteer their time. It is supported by three staff at an annual cost of $1 million," Fox says. "It's a small body that punches well above its weight and delivers economic benefits that greatly outweigh its funding costs, such as our high standards of corporate governance and a stable and efficient environment for corporate activity. These things are easy to take for granted but will be deeply missed when they are gone."

Further, in a letter to Treasury responding to the draft legislation, John Winter, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Restructuring Insolvency & Turnaround Association, said:

It is the view of ARITA that the abolition of CAMAC is a retrograde move …

ARITA urged the government to reconsider. So would I: reconsider.

Finally, the Australian Institute of Company Directors, in their submission to Treasury, said:

As the Government tries to reduce red tape, we are of the view that the Government's decision to dismantle CAMAC is likely to increase red tape in the long term.

It will actually make matters worse. That is why we do not understand what this government is up to. The submission further states:

Company Directors strongly opposes the abolition of CMAC and we recommend that the proposed abolition not proceed.

The quotes from all these stakeholders set out the concerns and bewilderment of the sector and quite accurately highlight the government's error in abolishing CAMAC. But I do not think we are going to get a turnaround. I do not think this is a government that will think about this in some sort of rational, small-government footprint way. It will go ahead regardless, oblivious to the cost to business, oblivious to the cost of additional red tape and the work it will create in other areas, oblivious to the cost of not listening to that frank and fearless advice and oblivious to the value lost.

The government made a number of arguments to justify abolishing CAMAC, and they are all pretty poor—simple as that. I will be very interested to hear if government members have anything further to say. The main arguments have been about cost and smaller government. As I said earlier, they know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. They have no comprehension of what this means for our markets. They have no comprehension of some of the things that are right now on the table that need to be done. But getting advice, particularly from experts and from the business community, is not high on this Liberal government's priority list, and we see that in a whole range of ways, with a recent newspaper story saying 'big business gives up on Tony Abbott and the government'. I wonder why that is! If small business have not already given up on this government, they will very shortly because they are realising that what this government did was give them the old nudge-nudge, wink-wink, 'We're on your side; it's in the ether somewhere,' while at the same time ripping out of the small business community around $7 billion in direct assistance, efficiency measures and a whole range of other things that Labor did in government to promote small business and make sure that small business—whether it was in the global financial crisis or in other tough economic times—had the support you would expect to keep people working and keep the small business community growing.

Mr Chester interjecting

Mr RIPOLL: The government uses the excuse: 'Well, those were tough years.' Of course they were. Globally, it was very tough for everybody. In Australia we managed to ride that out because Labor took tough decisions; but not one of those tough decisions was to abolish independent advisory committees that actually provide the sort of advice you need in government.

Whether we look at the Law Council of Australia's response to the government's argument or we go over those cost arguments again, it is just a repeat of all the same stuff. It is about cost—a few little dollars here, a few little dollars there.

The government's first argument was that the abolition of CAMAC would streamline the shape of government. I am not sure what shape it thinks it has got and whether we need to streamline it, but you do not get rid of a value-for-money entity—in other words, not get any good advice—in order to streamline. To counter this, of course, the Law Council stated that the abolition of CAMAC will not result in any reduction in duplication, because it is the only body that does this work. There is no other body. If you had three of these, you would go: 'Fair enough, let's merge them. Let's do something.' That is the challenge. Who else will do this? Who else will provide this particular work and advice? Who will provide the sort of assistance that Treasury needs, that ASIC needs and that professional associations need?

I know that some government members will see that ASIC can do this. How? The government has cut ASIC as well. Our regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, has $120 million less. At the same time that we want more from the regulator what does this government do? It says, 'We want you to give us twice as much but we're going to give you half the amount to do it.' Of course ASIC, as the regulator, says that it is up to government to decide what level of funding it will give it as a regulator, but there is a price to be paid for that.

I know this is stirring up a few of the souls opposite, because they know this bites in deep. They know that not everybody out in the community might understand this, because they do not have to deal with CAMAC every day or they may not be in the markets on a daily basis, but I can tell you that is a whole heap of people to whom the Liberals and the Liberal government give the old 'nudge, nudge, wink, wink, we're on your side' who will be looking at these guys and saying, 'Whose side are you really on?' According to everything I can find, every quote, every statement, every review—by eminent people such as the Law Council of Australia, which is not a small, insignificant organisation—is telling the government: 'You're wrong on all counts.' When that happens I think you have a problem. If we look at some other things that the Law Council of Australia has said about abolishing CAMAC:

… in these circumstances it is highly unlikely that there will be any cost saving, unless the task of corporate and market law reform is substantially downgraded or weakened.

That is the view of the Law Council of Australia, but maybe the government just does not care.

The government's final cost reduction argument is that this will ensure greater value for taxpayers. I think I have already made that point: there is no value in doing any of this. But I will go one step further: the question you have to ask is what is the rush on this bill? You would think there were higher priorities. Remember the debt crisis? Apparently it does not exist anymore and it never did. That is a revelation! I thought that was the case anyway. What is the rush? The bill is currently being examined by the Senate Economics Legislation Committee, who are due to issue their report on 16 March. We are just a couple of weeks away from one of the government's committees delivering a report, but they want to abolish the body before the committee delivers its report. Maybe they already know what is in the report. Maybe they already have a view as to what the report is going to say, that CAMAC is a good committee and should be retained. The only rush I can see is to get rid of this before they are given some more advice from people on their side.

What absolutely beggars belief in this is that it is completely antibusiness. This government is antibusiness. It is antimarket. It is anti-efficiency. It will go to any length to get rid of anyone who disagrees with it or produces quality advice, independent advice, fearless and frank advice. We are seeing it in everything it does. We are seeing it in this bill. It should not be supported.