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Tuesday, 10 May 1994
Page: 514


Senator SPINDLER (4.33 p.m.) —The Australian Democrats will be supporting this censure motion. The central issue before the Senate today is that the Senate passed a motion requesting a minister to provide certain information. That motion was passed by a majority of the Senate after due deliberation and after consideration of a letter tabled by Senator McMullan representing the Minister for Administrative Services, Mr Walker. However, it is inevitable that in dealing with that, one also has to advert to some of the substantive details before the Senate. But it is basically a matter of process and procedure and the view that the Senate takes, and should take, of the refusal of a minister to comply with a resolution of the Senate.

  I also received a letter from Mr Walker after the Senate motion was passed. I was, of course, aware during the debate of the letter that Senator McMullan had tabled. I looked at that letter and considered it very carefully, yet still voted for the motion that Senator Campbell put before the Senate. On balance, I came to the view that the Senate should, in this instance, receive all the details required and that public accountability overrode some of the other considerations which I acknowledged in the debate.

  I did make the decision on balance. I did say that there were competing principles and that there was an element of commercial confidentiality involved. In particular, I believed it was in the area of not prejudicing the leasing of remaining vacant tenancies in the building to other tenants, but I took the view, again on balance, that 87 per cent completely and legally let office space constituted substantial letting of the building in the current property market.

  Mr Walker fastened on to those comments. He wrote me a letter saying that he thought we might be at cross-purposes and that if I considered that an element of commercial confidentiality was involved, he would like to pursue it further with me. He advised me that it was possible that further vacancies in the building would occur and that more than the 13 per cent of office space might have to be negotiated.

  I do not think that that substantially detracts from the balance question and from the decision I made. I do not quite know why Mr Walker thought that it should. He was faced with a resolution of the Senate, made by a majority after consideration and I do not see how our parliamentary system can work if, once a resolution like that is passed, the responsible minister simply says, `I don't agree with you. I'll continue to argue the point.' I do not think we can accept that.

  One other matter that he raised that Senator McMullan today pursued in quite some detail is the commercial disadvantage we would saddle the three government owned businesses with if their rents became public knowledge. That is a furphy and a nonsense, and I can address that with some commercial background. In fact, to Senator McMullan's probable discomfort, I can advise him that I ran a business which included providing interior design and decoration advice and sale of furniture, as well as wall-hangings, paint et cetera.

  I would not have cared a hoot if my competitors knew my rent outgoings in any business. Perhaps I should not draw the bow quite as widely as that. In a business of the type we are discussing the rent is a fairly minor cost item. I would estimate it to be between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the total cost of the enterprise. By far the greatest cost is the personnel that one employs, and the minister acknowledges that. Anyone who is interested in working out, for competition purposes, what it costs a competitor to run a business would have to put a figure against rent—whether one owned the building and therefore had to meet the interest payments, notionally or actually, on the capital invested in owning the building.

  I believe that once we have done that, we also know what the approximate market figure is if we are paying a rental. If we guess perhaps 10 per cent or 15 per cent, our competitor has an advantage in knowing the actual figure, but it can only be a marginal advantage. It may be a one per cent, a two per cent or a three per cent differential. Translating that against the magnitude of the total expenditure, the variation in the cost of rent is extremely marginal if we consider all the other factors that go into making our decision as to the tender price that we submit. We might make a decision that in this instance we want to accept a loss because we want to gain a client. That might make a difference of five, 10 or 20 per cent in our tender price. We might be using a material that we have access to which once again has a large variation as a cost factor.

  To argue that any of these businesses would be severely disadvantaged in the marketplace because the exact rental that they are paying could become known to their competitors is really a furphy. I simply cannot accept that. The requirement for the Senate to be informed in detail of the expenditure incurred on behalf of taxpayers, and of the considerations that went into using some PAP funds, far outweighs that particular consideration which I believe would be a very minimal one indeed. I believe that the minister's obligation to provide information to the Senate following a resolution of the Senate requiring him to do so far outweighs any other possible consideration. I think Mr Walker's attempt to continue to negotiate after the decision of the Senate has been made is reprehensible. The Australian Democrats support the motion moved by Senator Campbell.