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Thursday, 9 July 1998
Page: 5378


Senator FORSHAW (4:42 PM) —Having heard that last comment, I am almost persuaded to think again. Senator Parer, I object strongly to that slur on the previous government. We do not support these amendments and, as Senator Murray is aware, we have had this debate in respect of other legislation and we put our views on the record then.

In brief, again, we do not believe the amendments will advance the principle, if you like, that underpins them. As I said before, we think they are largely window-dressing. I agree with Senator Murray when he says that he is trying to deal with a perception. There is a perception, a belief, out there in the community that people who may be appointed to boards are appointed as a result of political favours or whatever. As we know, that is something that is often fuelled by the media. When you consider the unfortunate general view that applies to the status of politicians and ex-politicians who might happen to be appointed to boards, I think that at the end of the day it is something we are going to have to live with. It is a perception that can probably only be changed by fair and unbiased reporting and by education.

In that respect, I noticed an article in the Financial Review yesterday by Malcolm McGregor. I am one of many politicians over the years who have borne the brunt of Malcolm's spleen when he has vented it and when he has got stuck into politicians mercilessly as a bunch of boneheaded layabouts and whatever. He actually wrote a column yesterday which praised the integrity of the overwhelming bulk of members of parliament who work hard, and I invite all members of the public to read it. Unfortunately, not all members of the public will get to see that article. If there was more of that, then maybe some of the perceptions that we know do exist would not be as strongly felt.

My point is that, in endeavouring to overcome a perception that something is wrong in the method of appointments, we should not create another perception. That is what this legislation does; it creates a perception that there will be an even stricter and greater application of these tests that are set out in the amendments than already is the case. I have said before and I will say again—and I support the minister on this—that I believe people who are chosen by governments and ministers for appointment invariably do have the requisite skills and are not simply put there as a result of political favours. I might say, as I have said also, that if people do not perform and if they do not demonstrate that they have the skills, expertise, integrity and appropriate independence, there are mechanisms in place by which that can be remedied.

I will just conclude by relating one incident. A few years ago when the Labor government was in power and I was the general secretary of the Australian Workers Union, a union which had a great deal of involvement in the primary industries and energy sector, the then minister—I think it was John Kerin, but it may have been his successor, Simon Crean—established an advisory council for the primary industries area. I was nominated as a member of that because I represented the employee organisation that had most involvement in the industry. There was a balance on that committee. There were representatives from employer organisations. It included people like Lachlan McIntosh from the mining industry, and there were a range of representatives from other industry sectors, the CSIRO, the universities, the Conservation Council, and so on. Whilst it was not a board, I was privileged to be in such esteemed company.

We sat down and had a couple of meetings, and we concluded that, having looked at all the other bodies that existed and were there to advise the government and this department, advise the minister and carry out all of the tasks that were required, we did not think we needed to exist. So we made probably the first and only ever recommendation of any government appointed committee or board that we should abolish ourselves, which we did, and everybody went back to their lives. It was a great idea at the time, and I just thought I would put that on the record for posterity, if nothing else. We oppose the amendments.