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Tuesday, 23 October 1984
Page: 2266

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry and Commerce)(10.38) —I think it is gilding the lily to say that there was an arrangement that it would not be last night; to describe it as an arrangement is charitable in the extreme. Senator Peter Rae did not expect me to speak last night and I knew that he did not expect me to speak on this matter. When Senator Peter Rae raised this matter I was not unfamiliar with the history of it. I did undertake essentially to refresh my memory about the course of events which has, in a sense, been described to some degree by Senator Rae in comments he has made in the Senate. Essentially those events were that a Mr Sinclair, trading under the name of Sintex International Pty Ltd, purported to have held himself out as having a quota for certain items of apparel and then arranged for the sale of a range of products to various importers and in the course of so doing charged them, as it were, the effective rate of duty which he should have paid if the goods had been properly entered for duty and the duty had been paid by him.

This matter has been drawn to my attention on previous occasions. I have had correspondence with the solicitors, Messrs Abbott, Stillman and Wilson in Melbourne for the aggrieved parties. My Assistant Private Secretary has had discussions with the solicitor for the parties Senator Peter Rae purports to represent-I do not put that in any pejorative sense-in the course of the comments which he has made in the Senate. The solicitors have been informed that , as the matter is in the hands of the Crown Solicitor and in fact in some cases writs have been issued out of the Supreme Court of Victoria, I believe it is inappropriate for me to intervene at this stage as requested by Senator Rae. Rather I would say that it is my belief that the matter, being in the courts, and the issues being in contention, it should properly be addressed by the courts.

I would just like to say that when this matter arose the Collector of Customs for Victoria instructed the Deputy Crown Solicitor to refer departmental briefs of evidence to counsel for assessment and opinion. Mr Ron Merkel, QC, was engaged for this purpose and was assisted by Mr R. Finklestein of the Victorian Bar. Counsel in joint advice expressed the opinion that civil proceedings should be issued against Sinclair-I know that Senator Rae would not quarrel with that- and each of his clients which were party to the scheme for, firstly, the recovery of duty evaded and, secondly, for damages for conversions. It was suggested that Sinclair should be prosecuted for offences against the Customs Act and a number of offences are set out. I do not think it is to the point to read them out but they are offences which amount to fraud.

Senator Peter Rae —It is relevant only to the question of extradition. Do they amount to extraditable offences?

Senator BUTTON —I will come to that. Two of the client companies of Sinclair should also be prosecuted as evidence uncovered reveals their direct knowledge of the fraud. On the basis of that, in February of this year, the Comptroller- General of Customs authorised the institution of proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria against these parties nominated by counsel in their joint advice. I should add, in answer to Senator Rae's question that, although advice has been sought on the question of extradition of Sinclair and inquiries made by the Australian Federal Police, the advice has been that it is not an extraditable offence and it may be very difficult to get Sinclair back to Australia. Insofar as the importers are concerned, it is the view of the Australian Customs Service that such are the close relationships between the various companies operating in this industry and a particular part of the city of Melbourne that they knew or should have known that Sinclair did not have the quota which he claimed. I just add to that that it is on the basis of counsel's advice that proceedings have been instituted. We accepted that advice earlier in the year. In my view it would not be appropriate for me to intervene over and above the intervention which I took at an earlier stage this year when the matter was considered, correspondence was entered into and discussions were held with the solicitors for the defendants. I do not think I can usefully add anything to that.

While I am on my feet I would like to mention another matter. I record for the Senate record the passing of Frank or, as he was better known, Joe Chamberlain, a former Federal President and Federal Secretary of the Australian Labor Party. Mr Chamberlain held those positions for some years together with other positions in the Western Australian branch of the Labor Party. He was a controversial figure in Australian politics who held views very strongly and articulated them very strongly in public. One of the views Mr Chamberlain held, which became a source of constant advocacy by him, was that the Australian Government should have recognised the Government of China long before the Whitlam Government in fact recognised it in late 1972 or early 1973. As I have said, a lot of these views, held strongly as they were in the 1960s, were quite controversial. Mr Chamberlain was a very articulate and, I think, a courageous man in some of the views he held. I think he was a very disciplined person in terms of what he believed in. He was not without a degree of controversy about him within the Australian Labor Party.

Perhaps I might mention one anecdote. One of the fascinating things about some Prime Ministers of this country-Mr Whitlam and Mr Fraser I think both fell into this category-is their almost tireless energy. I very much recall meeting Mr Whitlam in Melbourne one day. He looked reasonably fresh but he said he had not slept for long. I asked why not and he said: 'I was in Darwin last night but I got up at 3 o'clock in the morning and wrote a long letter to Joe Chamberlain'. The letter was about an incident which very nearly led to Mr Whitlam's expulsion from the Labor Party. It was one of those very difficult factional fights which occur in political parties from time to time. I have never forgotten that, the idea of getting up at 3 o'clock in the morning in Darwin and spending two hours writing to somebody such as Mr Chamberlain. That reflects the vigour with which debates were conducted by people such as Mr Whitlam and Mr Chamberlain in those days.

I think it would be wrong for me, as Leader of the Government in the Senate, to let the death of Mr Chamberlain pass unnoticed. I did not agree with Mr Chamberlain on many issues, and a lot of other members of the Labor Party did not either, but there is no doubt about the dedication and intellectual honesty of the positions he held. They are admirable characteristics in any individual, and I just draw those matters to the Senate's attention and pass on the sympathy of the ALP to his relatives.