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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10352

Mr HILL (Bruce) (11:14): It is probably a good thing the chamber is empty, because this won't be the most scintillating contribution to Hansard in this term—far from it! I was challenged by my friend the member for Oxley to insert the word 'unicorn' into my speech, so I thought I would meet that at the outset, hoping it may liven things up!

In thinking about this bill, we are going to hear at the outset about another mythical creature that tends to stalk the Notice Paper, and that is a 'zombie'. We've heard a lot about zombie bills and zombie budget measures that just do not die and keep coming back in different forms. Now we have before us a bill to kill three zombie acts and seven zombie bodies. It's a bill to kill, which is a nice change from 'kill Bill'—the government's latest campaign when they have nothing positive to say. This bill is again what largely seems to pass for action and reform under this government.

I say at the outset that Labor will not oppose this bill. We don't support the abolition of all of these bodies, but after they've been gutted by this government, by not appointing members, by removing funding and staff and not providing them with any work to do—left unloved to wither in the corner—they now exist, in effect, in name only. But it is important, I think, to make some remarks and not just let this stuff sail through, because these bodies did play an important role over their life, and so, if you like, this is a bit of a funeral oration, a last rites, for some of these bodies.

The bill repeals three acts and amends 10 acts to abolish seven bodies. The tradespersons' rights committee, rest in peace. The Oil Stewardship Advisory Council, rest in peace. The Product Stewardship Advisory Group, rest in peace. The advisory group of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, rest in peace. The Plant Breeder's Rights Advisory Committee, rest in peace. The Development Allowance Authority, rest in peace. Perhaps most substantively from our point of view, the Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee, CAMAC, rest in peace. Some of them are redundant because other bodies have overtaken their roles, such as the tradespersons' rights committee, or the programs they administered have ceased, such as the Development Allowance Authority, and it is entirely appropriate that those bodies should be removed from the statute books. But it is important to note that not all were redundant in function, and so I want to provide a brief eulogy, if you like, for CAMAC, to illustrate the point.

The Corporations and Markets Advisory Committee was born in 1978, and through its life it had three incarnations. It started off as the Corporations and Securities Law Reform Council, and then in 1989 it was reborn as the Corporations and Securities Advisory Council. Around 2002, when the corporations powers were referred by the states to the Commonwealth, it was reborn as CAMAC, as it has been known until this bill passes. It was an expert advisory committee. I know experts and advice are out of fashion under this government, but it provided non-partisan advice, independent advice, to the government of the day. Indeed, oppositions throughout its time, have also drawn on its transparent, independent advice. It focused on corporations and financial markets, which are, of course, still important matters for governments to constantly pay attention to and, I believe, to receive transparent, expert advice on. In its life, it did play an important role. Some of its recommendations, even in more recent times, influenced governments in very important ways. For instance, there are the related party transactions and continuous disclosure rules—no small matters from a corporate governance point of view and in terms of ensuring as best as we possibly can as policymakers the integrity and efficient operation of the markets in this country. There are the reforms to takeover and insolvency laws, the establishment and operation of managed investment schemes, and the introduction of crowdsourced equity funding. Again, these are all important matters, which have been, I think, improved because of the independent advice from CAMAC.

Despite the importance, you would think, of these kinds of functions, the government decided early on in its term, when it was the Abbott government, before it became the Turnbull government—what is it at the moment? Abbott-Turnbull-Joyce-Chester government, depending on how things play out—

Honourable members interjecting

Mr HILL: We'll see—speculation. You heard it here—not first, actually; I think I've heard it in the other place. In 2014 there was a bill to abolish it; it was in an omnibus bill. Labor opposed that bill, as did the business community, academics and all of the experts in the country, saying: 'For goodness sake, government, this is critical. Politicians aren't always the best at knowing the detail and the ins and outs and, of course, the corporate world.' This is so even for people who come into this place, having had significant business experience. The corporate world changes fast and it's important we have expert advice. Sadly, the tin hat, Neanderthal, buffoon elements of the government seem to have won this debate and the government starved it to death. They gutted it, provided it with no funding and no people. It was unloved, left to die in the corner. It was then eaten by the Treasury when Joe Hockey was the Treasurer. He started chewing it, and here we are today.

There is benefit in independent advice, I believe, because transparency in advice, which does often have to be institutionalised, leads to better public policy in so many important areas. It's sadly a pattern of the Abbott-Turnbull-Joyce-Chester government that they ignore experts, even when they ask for advice. An example recently, to illustrate the point that I'm making, was the Finkel report. That was asked for. It provided what I think most people in the community would say is a pretty reasonable path through a very difficult maze also filled with zombies and monsters of the last decade. Trying to get a sensible bit of public policy that will last the distance in place, it proposed the clean energy target, which would lead to new investment and lower power prices. But, in response to that sort of independent advice, the government have escalated the war on evidence, reason, facts and independent, non-partisan advice. So now they're chewing off that report.

I'm not sure whether it's better or worse, though, if you ask for advice and then ignore it completely or do not even seek advice, as we've seen on other important matters just in recent weeks, like the proposal to drug-test welfare recipients. That was the subject of no independent advice and, indeed, every independent expert has spoken out on it. Or there are the citizenship changes, which were the subject of no advice from national security agencies. Indeed, 14,000 submissions received, including many from experts, said, 'That is a dumb idea,' and two said it was a good idea. Departments—and this is an important point that is relevant to the bill—are ultimately under the control of ministers. I've worked in many departments for both sides of politics. Ultimately departments are not independent bodies; they're not always best placed to provide the accurate, transparent advice on important matters like corporate market regulation that governments need. Most recently there was the fake crackdown on skilled migration by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, who didn't even seek the advice of his own advisory committee, MACSM. So, when you set this decision against the pattern, colour and record of the government, the death of CAMAC makes a certain kind of morbid sense. But I hope it finds a little peace, and I do, on behalf of our side, thank those people who put in their time and expertise to provide advice for governments of all persuasions over many years.

We're told that these independent transparent arrangements will be replaced by a variety of ad hoc or informal consultation arrangements—agile, innovative, not transparent and not independent. In some cases, of course, that's okay. But this is an important point. Where there is insufficient transparency, as we have here, as to what in each instance is replacing these bodies then it really is hard for the parliament to make an informed judgement. That is why, when these proposals were put forward in 2014 when there was still a little bit of life and a little bit of blood and money flowing through these bodies, the Senate committee said: 'No, you haven't given us enough of a case. It's fine to put forward a case, Government, saying you don't want this pair of socks, but what's going to replace them?' There's still no transparency. It's been buried and eaten up by government departments. Two examples of that in particular were talked about in the Bills Digest—OSAC and PBRAC.

Of course there is a balance between flexibility and possibly lower costs. Yes, at times, if there is institutionalised advice with salaries for chairs and all that kind of stuff, that can have a marginally higher cost. But that does have to be weighed transparently against the quality of advice received by a government. If I were sitting there as a minister with these kinds of bodies, I would think it was good, long-term public policy architecture not to just get rid of them but to actually say: 'It's all right. I might not always want to hear the advice. I don't have to accept it.' Jokes aside, the government doesn't have to accept the independent advice it gets. It could choose to give up on renewable energy and go a different way to the rest of the world and burn coal forever. It could do that. We'll see, no doubt. The party room will be talking about lumps of coal for weeks to come.

But the point is that, at least when you have that kind of frank, fearless and transparent advice that can speak truth to power, the government and ministers of the day, whichever side they're from, are at least, I think, forced by the parliament to consider proper evidence and reason. Evidence and reason I know are sort of out of fashion at the moment, but I remain hopeful they will come back. So I think institutionalising this kind of advice is good public policy practice.

The final thing I would say—I couldn't find anything in the Bills Digest, but I will put it on the record—is that I have little bit of concern about some government legislation, and I want to build on some remarks that I made in probably an even less fascinating contribution to the Hansard in August in relation to the statute law update revision bill—catchy!

In that one we talked about the government's war on hyphens, the war on typos, the war on semicolons and curious spellings—'program' or 'programme'? These are big matters for the parliament to consider! And of course they could have just been dealt with under delegation by the Office of Parliamentary Counsel, but, hey, you've got to pretend you've got an agenda by clogging up the Notice Paper with this kind of rubbish. But there was a concern I noted then that that sort of nonsense maybe substantially counted towards the government's deregulation targets.

You'd remember there was great fanfare in the first couple of years of the Abbott-Joyce-Turnbull-Chesters government about four repeal days—

Mr Snowdon interjecting

Mr HILL: The acronym is UNICORN, indeed! There were four repeal days, when ministers stood up and occupied whole days in the parliament and counted the deregulation benefits to the Australian economy, repealing all sorts of things—wonderful! Now, that was 2014 and 2015, and annual reports were published for those two years. Indeed, I think the 2015 report counted $50,000 of economic value to the nation from fixing some typos in legislation. So that's wonderful methodology! But there is no 2016 annual report. Maybe it'll come, but it seems they've lost focus; the website's gone dead. But I will be interested to see what the contribution this bill, if passed, is counted as making towards the nation's deregulation economic agenda. If you get $50,000 for some typos, this could be a million dollars of economic benefit to the country—a million dollars from killing some zombies!

The final point I'd make is that, whatever numbers the government claim as the deregulation benefits of this kind of stuff, there's still no basis for public confidence in those numbers—back to that point of transparency and confidence; who knew!—because the government did have this inconvenient truth: there was a little election commitment, saying, 'We'll conduct an independent'—independent; who knew!—'evaluation of the benefits of our deregulation agenda.' But the Auditor-General noted in his report looking at the deregulation agenda in 2016 that they hadn't done that and suggested, 'You probably should go and do that.'

I'm pleased to say that, finally, after we had a public inquiry by a government controlled committee in this parliament and poked the government—'You really should go and do that, it's been four years; you've got some numbers and we don't know what they mean. No-one knows what they mean. They're probably okay, but who knows, really? What have you got to hide? Why don't you just do that'—fairly recently an independent report was commissioned and handed to the assistant minister for deregulation. I tried to google who that was and I still couldn't find out, but apparently there is one, because we were told that in the public accounts committee. It's gone mysteriously quiet since the current Prime Minister took over. But, hopefully, that report will be released and there will be a greater basis for public confidence in the numbers that are bandied around.

I've made some points there; I think I've said enough. Rest in peace, CAMAC. Really, I do think that, in future, when we on either side of politics are putting forward proposals to get rid of independent advisory committees we should be a little bit more transparent about what is proposed to replace them, because in important areas of public policy, particularly corporates and markets, I think that is good practice. So, rest in peace.