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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1565

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (10.03 a.m.) —As we know from many other occasions in this place and from committee meetings, emotions have run high on the politics of this committee. But if we really stand back and look at what the committee was about, we can see that it was about public accountability for decisions currently made behind closed doors, public accountability for ministerial and prime ministerial actions and public accountability for policy decisions affecting the entire Australian community.

  If the processes that we have been looking into had been open, transparent and accountable, we would not have needed this inquiry. If the processes had been adequate, it would not have mattered what Conrad Black said to Paul Keating or Bob Hawke or John Hewson, or vice versa. It is the secretive nature of the foreign investment decision making process, the lack of transparency of that process, which has opened up the possibility for accusations of government interference, and that has been the basis of this inquiry. For the Democrats, the key to this inquiry has always been the operation of the foreign investment decision making processes of this country.

  On listening to all the evidence, I have no doubt that the Labor Party in various ways did try to influence the outcome of the Fairfax sale, and I have no doubt that there has been an orchestration of Labor denials of this to the committee. To Fairfax's credit, it withstood this attempt at influence. But it is the operation of the foreign investment process to which I wish to direct my remarks today. The recommendations in this report about the future of the Foreign Investment Review Board are a huge policy win for the Democrats. There is no other way to describe them. After today, let us hope that the Foreign Investment Review Board processes will never be the same again. The Treasurer has indicated that he has always felt that they were in need of change. Let us see him act on that.

  I raised the need for fundamental reform of the Foreign Investment Review Board in my first speech to this parliament four years ago. I introduced a draft private senator's bill to reform the processes 18 months ago. It was at my insistence that the Foreign Investment Review Board term of reference was included in this inquiry. For years, I think it is fair to claim, we have driven this debate. It has been hard work. I am very interested to see that others, such as Mr Alexander Downer, are now recognising our arguments and jumping on the bandwagon, to a certain extent.

  It is incredible that the information contained in the only official minute from FIRB to the Treasurer which has ever seen the light of day in the organisation's 18-year history, contains a series of gross inaccuracies absolutely detrimental to the only Australian bidder for the company concerned. It is more than incredible, it is damning. It really makes one wonder why the government is so keen to prevent scrutiny of other FIRB advices to the Treasurer. It does make one wonder also how soundly based government decisions in relation to a whole range of foreign investment decisions have been over a number of years. It is a situation which must be changed.

  I listened with great interest to Prime Minister Keating talking about forging our new national identity, with which I agree. However, he cannot claim to want to do this—to forge this contemporary national identity—at the same time as his processes deliver a huge question mark over ownership of key components of that Australian identity. The foreign investment policies of this government have led us to that precarious stage where, in seeking to pay off our national debt, we are swapping that debt for equity and loss of control of things which are uniquely and importantly Australian. They are important to this contemporary Australian identity which Mr Keating says is so important to him and to the Labor Party.

Senator Loosley —And it is.

Senator KERNOT —He cannot have it both ways. It is inconsistent to follow an Australian foreign investment policy which has this outcome. That is why FIRB must be reformed and that is why we must look at ownership of key sectors of Australian industry.

  I want to discuss some of the reforms to this process recommended in the majority report but, before I do that, I will say just a few words on my disappointment at the way in which the behaviour of the Labor Party members of the committee, which has been to the brief of discrediting its operations from day one—

Senator Loosley —Selectively indignant.

Senator KERNOT —It is a bit like Tammy Wynette—standing by your man no matter what. If you do not have the numbers, stack the branch; if you do not stack the branch, change the rules; and if you cannot change the rules, wreck the show, culminating in—

Senator Carr —Who are we standing by?

Senator KERNOT —Those opposite are standing by their Prime Minister, whose actions have been criticised in this report. I think it is really disappointing that the report has been leaked to the media. I regard it—

Senator Schacht —Ask Richard. Ask the boys who leaked it.

Senator KERNOT —Senator Schacht may well point his finger, but if he goes back and reads the chronology that I tabled in parliament last night, he can draw his own conclusions. I will be pursuing this matter after we have been through the policy debate which surrounds this report because it is very important as well.

Senator Faulkner —I can honestly say I have never known anyone in the government ever to leak anything to a newspaper.

Senator KERNOT —I ask that it be noted in Hansard that that was said with irony. Government members have tried to discredit this committee from day one, and it has not worked because the policy stands alone. The government's decision not to cooperate with the processes of this inquiry has been an abuse of public accountability. The ability of a minister to prevent information from being publicly scrutinised by asserting but not having to prove—and not even seeking to prove—that the release of information is against the public interest runs counter to all tenets of proper public accountability.

  I have introduced into the Senate a private senator's bill to remedy the public interest impasse. I believe enactment of that bill by the parliament would restore the proper balance between parliament and government in relation to the parliament's right to important information produced or held by government.

Senator Carr —Are you still going to gaol people?

Senator KERNOT —I notice in a paper today that the Greens are thinking of taking up that matter. I drew the line under that some time ago.

Senator Carr —So you are not going to gaol people?

Senator KERNOT —I said some time ago I am not going to gaol public servants. Senator Carr seems to have missed that. We still need to look at resolving the impasse because people do have a right to access this sort of information. Let us go to the really important recommendations which apply to FIRB. I point to a couple of them:

That the government introduce legislation in the Parliament to amend Australia's foreign investment laws in accordance with the recommendations of this report.

And they are extremely well thought through recommendations.

That the legislation include a comprehensive statement of the goals of foreign investment policy and identify those sectors of the economy which should be subject to foreign investment regulations.

. . . . . . . . .

That the legislation contain the criteria which should be used to determine applications by foreign investors and that it should also provide, where appropriate, that the interests of domestic bidders be taken into account

No more of this rubbish about being not contrary to the national interest and the Treasurer deciding on the day what is in the national interest of Australia. Prime Minister Keating has to draw together a cohesive foreign investment policy which actually reflects the goals that he says he is trying to achieve for Australia.

  I want to close in thanking, too, the secretariat—Mr Richard Gilbert, Mr Bruce Houley and Mr Michael Dupe. They had to synthesise mountains of evidence—some of it extremely controversial. They had to test its accuracy and work under extremely difficult conditions imposed by time frames. I think most people do not recognise that public servants might be willing to work weekends and late in the night in order to meet deadlines imposed on them by members in this place. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, particularly for their professionalism. (Time expired)