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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2786


Senator STOTT DESPOJA (4:01 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document tabled earlier today.

I rise to speak very briefly on the government response to the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties on its inquiry into the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery and draft implementing legislation. Before I do so, given that we are talking about the role of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and in particular that important issue of access to treaties on the Internet, an initiative which I think most people in this place would support, I want to clarify for the record that I believe Senator Abetz was suggesting that this was a promise of his government. I am willing to acknowledge that, but I think it is important to put on record that in fact the allocation of money for the purposes of putting treaties on the Net and the permission to do so was actually granted in 1995, before this government came into office. While that process was set up in early 1996, I am sure that Senator Abetz would acknowledge that, while I have no doubt they were committed to that project, it was not necessarily done under the auspices of the coalition government.


Senator Abetz —Not draft treaties though. That is what we are talking about. We are putting the draft treaty on the Net.


Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I acknowledge that interjection of the initiative to which Senator Abetz refers of putting draft treaties on the Net. I should also put on record the role of Senator Vicki Bourne in the process of advocating very strongly and over a long time for not only access to treaties but also the issue of transparency and accountability in terms of treaty signing and treaty making in this nation.


Senator Abetz —A sensible Democrat policy.


Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Senator Abetz is nodding. I hope that is an indication that he also acknowledges the role in that process of Senator Vicki Bourne, who has for a long time expressed the concerns on behalf of the Democrats and indeed many members of our community about the processes that have been going on for a number of years in relation to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

The Democrats do welcome the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and the ministerial response in relation to the 16th report, entitled OECD convention on combating bribery and draft implementation legislation. The Democrats remain extremely concerned about the ongoing abuse of bribery in business internationally. In light of the political and economic developments over the last year, we also have particular concerns in relation to our own region. The OECD report and the subsequent movement towards an international agreement to address the issue of bribery in business is welcomed. However, we remain concerned about some of the definitions—perhaps described as lax definitions—of corruption.

The background to the OECD report seems to be the United States position on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In that legislation, an exception is available for bribes which can be classified as facilitation payments. I will not address that issue here in any length, but I put on record our curiosity and concern about this exception. Anecdotally, the use of facilitation payments by some businesses has been responsible for many of the distortions in business process within the economic systems of some of our nearest neighbours.

It seems to be that all that may be required for a bribe to become legal is that an official assures you that the business deal would go ahead. Any money offered after that moment is a facilitation payment as opposed to a bribe. We remain concerned. The Democrats are concerned that Australia provide a leading example of the long-term strengths of honest international business. Australians have an excellent reputation internationally on this. We do not believe that the legislative response should endorse or allow for any other possibility.

I note that almost a year ago a senior lawyer was quoted in the Financial Review as saying:

Most Australians accept that paying bribes to our own officials destabilises our democracy, and we don't tolerate it as a community. How can anyone argue that it's an acceptable practice in other countries, particularly newly developed democracies?

That was Peter Butler, a senior partner from Freehill Hollingdale Page, quoted in last year's Australian Financial Review on 31 March. That statement was made even before we were fully aware of some of the developments in our region and certainly the depth of the Indonesian crisis.

The Democrats welcome the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties report on the OECD convention. We certainly want to see an ongoing commitment from this government to supporting stringently honest models for business. I add to those comments by saying that one concern we have had is that we seem to have been promised a response and legislative action on this issue for a long time now. I believe we have been promised some kind of legislative response and action for certainly over a year. I hope that this is finally it and that we will see work from this government that ensures that we maintain our reputation in the international business sector. But it has taken a while. With that qualification, the Democrats certainly welcome the government's response before us today.

Question resolved in the affirmative.