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Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs begins an investigation into the Australian Securities Commission

MONICA ATTARD: The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs today began an investigation into the Australian Securities Commission. The corporate watchdog faced a lot of criticism, including allegations that it denied natural justice, used improper coercion, and manipulated records of interview. It was the first day of public hearings in Brisbane, and in response the Securities Commission gave a stout denial of any impropriety, attacking the motivations of those who've complained.

Anthony Fennell was at the proceedings, and he has this report.

ANTHONY FENNELL: In its first day of hearings, the Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs took oral and written submissions from four interested parties, one of whom, Peter McDonald, was a former press secretary to Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Mr McDonald, the Acting Registrar of the Queensland Justices Association, told the Senate inquiry that his organisation had been put through hell by the ASC for 18 months. He said the Securities Commission had adopted intimidatory tactics and manipulated records of interview. Mr McDonald went on to say that the ASC had been guilty of obfuscation, unprofessionalism, and conducting a vendetta-style investigation.

It was indeed an afternoon for strong words. Another person to give evidence was solicitor Michael Hart, a partner in the firm Cleary, Hoare, Hart and Grant. For his part, Mr Hart accused the ASC of having a fetish for secrecy. He said that while officers of the Commission appeared to be trained in self-importance, they lacked training in commercial evaluation in respect of their inquiries.

Senior officials of the ASC were on hand for the bucketing, but when given the opportunity, they gave as good as they got. Securities Commission Chairman, Alan Cameron, pointed out that Peter McDonald had, in fact, pleaded guilty to one of the charges brought against him by the ASC. And in response to a suggestion that the ASC was so callous it had tried to subpoena a two-year old, Mr Cameron pointed out that the company involved in the claim had traded millions of dollars worth of shares without a prospectus and had listed the said two-year old as a shareholder and trader.

But the real excitement of the inquiry came late in the day, in an exchange between Senator Bill O'Chee, Mr Cameron, and another ASC official, Greg Tanzer. The subject matter - a lecture on investigative practices given to the Queensland University of Technology by an ASC officer, allegedly detailing confidential information.

There was certainly more than a hint of the Bronwyn Bishop approach to Senator O'Chee's questioning.

BILL O'CHEE: I'm very sorry Mr Tanzer, but, I mean, one of the things that we heard today was that the ASC didn't want to discuss specifics of many cases because there could be ongoing investigations, or litigation which is either in progress or could take place in the future. Yet, we find specifics of cases where the facts are arguably in dispute being dredged up in a QUT lecture. I don't care whether you want to talk about confidentiality in interviews or not. It seems that there is one set of rules for when ASC officers turn up at QUT, and another set of rules when the ASC appears before this inquiry.

UNIDENTIFIED: With respect, Senator, I think you are overlooking the timing. The timing of the matter is quite clear. The matters were before the court in March and April 1992. The lecture was given in May 1992. Now, I don't know what was said. I only know that Ms Weir has categorically denied that she did anything improper of the kind that's alleged by the two deponents. And that being so, I'm not sure what it is you now expect us to investigate.

BILL O'CHEE: Well, I want to know why you just sit there and say we'll take her affidavit, we'll file that in court, and that's the end of it. You have invited us to say to people if you have a problem make a complaint to the ASC. If all that happens when somebody makes a very serious allegation like this, and it is a very serious allegation, is that the ASC just goes and gets an affidavit from their particular offices, saying `I didn't do it, it's all a lot of bumpkin', then there is absolutely no confidence that can be placed in any procedure that you want to come up with, where people make a complaint to the ASC. If they make a complaint to the ASC and all you go and do is ask your officer did you do it, and the officer says no, then what confidence has anybody in this room have in the whole process of complaint?

MONICA ATTARD: Queensland Senator Bill O'Chee.