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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 69

Senator WEBBER (2:14 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Treasurer, Senator Minchin. I refer the minister to the Treasurer's claim in the House last week and in a subsequent media statement that the New South Wales government had failed to meet the request of ASIC to abrogate legal and professional privilege in respect of materials and records relating to James Hardie. Given ASIC is a Commonwealth statutory agency, does the minister agree that it is a matter for the Commonwealth to determine ASIC's powers and that it would be inappropriate for the New South Wales government to possibly put ASIC in a more favourable position under state legislation than under its own Commonwealth legislation? Is the minister aware that the New South Wales government in fact wrote to the Treasurer highlighting this issue for action some weeks ago? What action has been taken in response?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —The minister responsible for financial services and agencies such as ASIC in this chamber is Senator Coonan, as the opposition should well know. I am happy to give Senator Coonan the opportunity to answer the question.

The PRESIDENT —If Minister Coonan is willing to answer the question, she may help the Senate.

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, on a point of order: I appreciate your trying to help facilitate the question being answered. I just indicate that the question referred to claims made by the Treasurer. As Senator Minchin represents him in this place, I thought he was the appropriate person to ask. If the government would prefer Senator Coonan answer the question, then obviously that would assist the Senate.

The PRESIDENT —Thank you all very much for your cooperation but, quite frankly, if the minister can assist the Senate in answering that question I would ask her to do so. If not, we will move on to the next question.

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Of course I am very happy to accommodate Senator Webber's question. It deserves serious consideration and that is what it will get. As Senator Ellison said earlier, yesterday saw the passage of legislation that facilitated the use of evidence from the Jackson inquiry in New South Wales that would enable ASIC to take forward its considerations and come to a view about potential action that may flow from the whole of the issue to do with James Hardie. The government remains of the view—Senator Ellison and I have said so consistently in this chamber—that James Hardie should honour its obligation to fully compensate asbestos victims. I do think we need to be very clear about that; nobody is disagreeing about that. But until the results of the negotiations between James Hardie and the unions and asbestos victims represented by the ACTU are concluded it would be premature for governments to be committing themselves to particular courses of action. Obviously, it is better for everyone, particularly the victims whose interests we have to bear in mind, if you can get a resolution. It is always better than having to resort to enforcement action, although it may well be that ASIC investigations will indicate that some further actions should be taken.

As I understand it, the Commonwealth has not yet received detailed information—I may be incorrect about this and I will correct it if I need to get further information for the Senate—about Premier Carr's proposal to retrospectively unwind the restructure. It is certainly a proposal, and we need to very carefully consider whether that would ultimately be for the benefit of asbestos victims. Our main concern is that victims receive timely compensation. In order to better look at whether there have been any infringements of the Corporations Law, there was of course first the inquiry and now ASIC has under its purview a proper inquiry and investigation. This government has acted expeditiously to ensure that ASIC can have access to information and get over some of the evidentiary and other burdens that might inhibit its investigations. I think it is fair to say that we have as our very clear focus trying to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion for the victims.

Senator WEBBER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I remind both ministers that my initial question was about comments made by the Treasurer. But, seeing as ministers opposite are keen to ensure a high standard of public debate on James Hardie, will either minister ensure that the government will require the member for O'Connor to retract his outrageous claim that Hardie's victims are `ambulance chasers'? Does the minister agree that Hardie's victims are owed an apology by the member for O'Connor for these insensitive remarks? Will the government demonstrate their support for Hardie's victims and their families by requiring an apology from Mr Tuckey?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Once again, I will try and accommodate Senator Webber's supplementary question. I have responsibility in this chamber to answer on behalf of the portfolio and on behalf of the government. I have said that the government has taken expeditious action to facilitate the proper investigation of this matter from the point of view of ASIC, the Commonwealth federal agency and the Commonwealth regulator. But I think we have all agreed—certainly the government supports the view—that the victims are the ones whose particular interests need to be taken into account, together of course with others. We want to facilitate the early resolution of this matter. We will continue to do everything we need to do to investigate the matter under the Corporations Law. If people are answerable under the law, then so be it.