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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1618

Senator ELLISON —My question is directed to the Acting, Acting Prime Minister. The minister will be aware of the very serious criticisms levelled at the transparency of the foreign investment review process, as starkly revealed by the Senate select committee inquiry. Is the minister also aware of recent statements by the Treasurer, Mr Willis, that he would look at changes to the procedures after the committee's report had been handed down? In these circumstances, does the minister have the gall to pretend, as Senator Loosley did this morning, that any changes that the government might make have nothing to do with the Senate committee's inquiry?

Senator ROBERT RAY —Let me say to begin with that I have never had the gall of Senator Loosley. What Mr Willis has indicated prior to this report coming down is that he would consider a review of the role and operations of the Foreign Investment Review Board. He has indicated—and the government indicates today, of course—that we will respond to both the majority and the minority views expressed in that report that the government responsibly put down here, and government action will be taken.

  I remind Senator Ellison that we have a lot of public views on the record about this and we will have to take them all into account. We will, for instance, have to take into account the views of Mr Downer expressed on 5 September 1989, when he said:

If they want to put the brakes on foreign investment in Australia through strengthening the powers—

Senator Alston —Mr President, I raise a point of order. It is all very interesting, I am sure, but I would have thought we are talking about the contents of this report. Is the triple Acting Prime Minister telling us that somehow he can redefine the rules of Senate procedures so that he can respond to anything he likes. I would have thought, Mr President, that on a clear ground of relevance you ought to rule him out.

The PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator ROBERT RAY —For Senator Alston's sake, what I have already said to Senator Ellison is that this government will read the report and take its views into account. But it is not the sole source of views. We are going to search the record and take all views into account. One of the views that we might take into account, let me repeat, is what Mr Downer had to say on 5 September 1989. He said:

If they want to put the brakes on foreign investment in Australia through strengthening the powers of the Foreign Investment Review Board and the like, they will simply exacerbate the economic catastrophe of our balance of payments situations.

Prior to that he had expressed other views. In 1986—we might have to take this view into account—he said:

So my view is that in a sense I am an unrepentant internationalist.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I take a point of order on relevance.

Senator McMullan —You don't like the answer, that is all.

Senator Hill —No. You have said, Mr President, that you will allow ministers to head and tail answers. But you will have to accept, I respectfully put to you, that it gets to a point where there is no way in which the answer that is now being given can be relevant to the question that was asked. We are quite prepared to have a debate on political history after question time, if that is what the minister wants; but that is not what this question sought. This question was a sensible question seeking an answer; and it deserves a proper answer.

Senator Faulkner —Mr President, on the point of order: the government has shown its tolerance by ignoring standing order 194(1), which says:

Senator shall not digress from the subject matter of any question under discussion, or anticipate the discussion of any subject which appears on the Notice Paper.

This matter does. So there is one rule for the goose and one for the gander.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I remind honourable senators that, as a matter of history, the question of relevance has been interpreted very flexibly in all debates in this place. If you want me to start ruling on every question, in accordance with that precise definition, you are placing me in a ridiculous position.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Because the opposition has such a glass jaw, I will desist from the political lesson I was reading. Those opposite never get educated, no matter how many lessons we teach them. I will at least go to a 1994 comment by Mr Downer as follows:

In order to facilitate proper control over foreign investment in Australia, the coalition supports the retention of the Foreign Investment Review Board.

That was dated 10 February; it would be familiar to committee members because it was sent to them. What we have seen develop in the last few days from Mr Downer over the Foreign Investment Review Board is one of the great back somersaults in history. It is one of the great backflips of all time. The editorial in this morning's Australian Financial Review asked:

Is Mr Downer serious? The tougher attitude to foreign investment signalled by the Opposition Leader yesterday is dangerous populism.

What we are seeing the opposition do is adopt the old Maoist principle of the long march from a principled policy position to pragmatism. But in the process it is falling into the cracks of opportunism. With all these sorts of policy backflips, what is its policy on foreign investment? It does not have one; it does not have a policy on anything.

  Mr Willis has indicated that he will have an open mind, that he will consider this report in the context of the broader foreign investment ramifications and may well change government policy. He has already indicated that there may be a possibility to make the Foreign Investment Review Board processes more open and maybe publish—with one qualification; that commercial in confidence has to be protected—some of the findings.

Senator ELLISON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In view of the minister's comments, is it not a fact that despite their bleatings about the inquiry, Labor committee members have themselves recommended significant changes to the current practices of the Foreign Investment Review Board? Does this clearly demonstrate that Labor's claims of this being a flawed inquiry and a waste of taxpayers' money are totally hypocritical?

Senator ROBERT RAY —I guess some good even came out of the Salem witch trials—I do not know what. And yes, some good may come out of this inquiry. But Senator Ellison has missed the point: this inquiry was about a political witch-hunt. This inquiry had a rigged jury and rigged terms of reference from start to finish. This was a political exercise. If the honourable senator is asking me whether something good may come out of this political exercise targeting the Prime Minister, full of all its hypocrisy, full of all its leaking and full of all its pre-judgment, the answer is that something might. Whether it was worth the expenditure of all that effort and expediency, opportunism and sliminess, is in high doubt. But if something good comes out of it, well and good.