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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 100

Senator RIDGEWAY (8:08 PM) —I want the minister to respond more particularly to my amendment (3), which relates to ministerial directions being limited to performing new functions. I wonder whether the minister might be able to answer some questions on that. This was an issue that came up at the time of the Senate select committee process. I have no difficulties, by the way, with Indigenous Business Australia. It is a successful organisation and it does a terrific job. The committee heard evidence that, despite the fact that it is involved in significantly riskier ventures and markets than most other corporations, it has still managed to grow, profit and sustain itself. But the amendments being put forward in the bill interfere with what is already there by throwing into the mix the ex-ATSIC functions of business and housing loans. Clauses 113 and 114 of the bill are about giving IBA new powers to enter into contracts and make grants for the provision of business or housing loans.

I have confidence that IBA will be able to handle that without any difficulty. But I do not agree that the minister should take control of IBA’s other functions. That is the effect of what the government is putting forward. It is not just quarantining the minister’s powers to direct to the programs that were previous administered by ATSIC; it is also extending the power of the minister to direct to other programs that are currently run by IBA. That is an important point when you consider how IBA is established as, if you like, a quasi-government corporation. It essentially means that the minister’s control over ex-ATSIC functions is being not only transferred to IBA but also transferred and extended to all of their programs and all of their activities. They were not having any problems prior to these changes, yet this is the result.

I ask the minister what the justification for that is. The select committee was not able to get any sufficient answer, or any answer at all, about why those changes are occurring. It seems to me to be not necessary and dangerous to the stability and independence of Indigenous Business Australia. The government says that the directions are only general directions, but it can mean anything really. Just because the minister cannot say, ‘Give this personal loan,’ or ‘Do not make a personal loan to this particular business,’ it does not mean that the minister’s directions will have a negligible impact. Indeed, if they did not have an impact the minister would not want the powers in the first place and she probably would not mind supporting that amendment of ours.

The least the government can do is provide an answer or explanation about why that shift or that extension of the minister’s powers of direction to other programs that have previously had no control is occurring. It goes to the question of the prudent decision making of IBA. I raised the question of personal liability of IBA directors. I do not know whether the minister can respond to that. Does she have any legal view or has any legal advice been provided to her, given that her senior officers were made aware of this particular issue during the Senate select committee process, about whether or not the minister becomes liable as a result of these changes because of her power to intervene in decisions that are taken by directors in the normal manner of any director across the country operating under Corporations Law?

It is an important issue, because it compromises a corporation that has run well. No-one has really given thought to that particular question. If I were the minister or certainly if I were in government I would want to know whether or not I had a personal liability. If IBA makes some decisions based on a direction given by the minister and it goes badly then surely it must also mean that, in the way that links are put together in the chain, the minister must have some direct legal obligation as a result. So I ask the minister whether or not she has a view on that, whether she has been given any legal advice and whether or not it compromises the capacity of IBA as a corporation to operate like any other corporation and make prudent decisions under the Corporations Law according to standards that apply to any company in this country.