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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 882

Senator CHANEY —I preface my question by wishing Senator Gietzelt a speedy recovery. My question is addressed to the Minister for Industry and Commerce. Has he yet studied matters I drew to his attention in a question on Friday concerning apparent discrepancies between evidence given to the Black Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Making of a Customs Declaration and a submission from the Comptroller-General of Customs? I refer also to my question on Monday concerning the treatment afforded to the Special Minister of State in light of the Minister's statement of 5 July that Mr Young would be treated in the same way as any other passenger. Is the Minister aware of the examples at pages 798 and 799 of the transcript of evidence of the Black inquiry in which Mr Black notes that actions were taken contrary to normal Customs practice? Is he aware that these concern the way in which the Customs form was handled and the failure to check for previous offences through the intelligence system? As these observations are made by Mr Black and not by the Opposition, does the Minister still maintain that Mr Young was treated in the same way as any other passenger?

Senator BUTTON —I do not know how many times I have to say it in this chamber but I will say it again: Senator Chaney has a great capacity for confusing a statement made by me on 5 July with what happened subsequently. On numerous occasions in the Senate I have said that on 5 July I said that Mr Young was to be treated by Customs in the same way as any other passenger. I believe he was so treated by Customs in most respects. Subsequent to 5 July, however, a number of events occurred which, of course, made it quite apparent that Mr Young was not going to be treated in the same way as any other passenger. I refer to the fact that the Liberal Party had a committee on the matter, that there was a great glare of publicity associated with it and so on. I want to repeat this point because it is important and the Opposition clearly does not understand it. As I said in answer to a question the other day, all the documents which Senator Chaney alleges contain inconsistencies-

Senator Chaney —As identified by Senator Chaney.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney alleges there are inconsistencies. All the documents were submitted to the Black inquiry and considered by Mr Black. Mr Black's conclusions on those matters are quite clear. I refer particularly to the highly selective quotations which Senator Chaney has dragged from the transcript, I suppose as a result of the diligence of some member of his staff. I will refer specifically to those because he has asked me to do so. I do so as a matter of courtesy, though not as a matter of relevance, because I said that I would address those matters. On Monday Senator Chaney prefaced his question to me by saying: 'I want to address a question to a Minister about his portfolio'. I will answer it. If one reads Mrs Young's statement and the transcript, it is quite clear that Mr Black, in the course of his inquiry, was trying to establish what occurred during the process of valuation. He asked whether she could remember exactly what she paid for certain things, what questions were asked her by Customs officers, et cetera. As I understand it-it is the only way I can interpret it from reading the documents and the report-Mr Black was trying to establish the circumstances in which the valuation was made because he wanted to make a finding about that. He went through this aspect exhaustively, as the transcript reveals. Mr Black suggested that Mrs Young may have used guesswork in relation to some of the items. Mr Black said:

I mean, that does not mean to say that there is anything wrong about that.

Senator Chaney —Very helpful and friendly, wasn't he?

Senator BUTTON —Of course it is helpful and friendly. Most Customs officers in conducting valuations have a very good reputation. They are helpful and friendly . They are not all law school inquisitors. They are helpful and friendly to the Australian public. But the essential point at issue that Mr Black was trying to explore was the circumstances under which the valuation was made and whether those circumstances revealed impropriety on the part of anybody. He concluded, after examining the documents to which Senator Chaney keeps referring:

The assessment of duty is a matter of very common occurrence and the Customs officers rely upon their general experience and their assessment of the honesty of the owner of the goods. The process is essentially a matter of judgment. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred in the present case . . . I do not think the ordinary Customs procedures should be criticised.

That was his conclusion after examining the material. He examined all the circumstances surrounding the valuation and said:

I am satisfied that the relevant officer, Mr Jennings, formed a genuine opinion that the amount of duty sought to be evaded did not exceed $500 and that the conditions of s. 209 of the Act were properly applied. I entertain no doubt about this.

In the light of that sort of conclusion drawn by Mr Black, it is absurd for Senator Chaney to keep dragging up these questions of alleged inconsistencies. The fundamental inconsistency which he claims in this place was between something that the Collector of Customs wrote in a document prior to the commencement of the Black inquiry and something that Mrs Young said some time later in her evidence about what she could remember about prices of goods and so on.

Senator Peter Rae —If you read pages 108 and 109 you will see they are full of inconsistencies.

Senator BUTTON —The honourable senator should read it himself and see whether he can ask an intelligent question for once. If Senator Chaney thinks Mr Black is wrong in the conclusions he draws on these matters, he should say so. Mr Black examined the matter and his conclusions are in the report. I commend the reading of the report to the Opposition. I must say that the whole tone of Opposition questioning on this matter was revealed last Monday when Senator Chaney asked me a question prefaced by this statement:

. . . As a matter of novelty, I shall ask a Minister a question relating to his portfolio.

My God, it is a matter of novelty in the Senate for the Opposition-

Senator Chaney —I raise a point of order, Mr President. It is that the Minister is clearly misquoting me from last week. I used those words following a series of totally irrelevant answers given by his colleagues, which is so typical of their behaviour in this place.

The PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order.

Senator BUTTON —The words are incapable of misquotation. He said:

. . . As a matter of novelty, I shall ask a Minister a question relating to his portfolio.

That was a matter of novelty all right in the Senate last week. No questions were asked of Ministers relating to their portfolios. There were very few questions about the Budget, the economy or any of the issues which concern the people in this country.

Senator Chaney —Stop trying to slide out from under.

Senator BUTTON —I am invited to stop trying to slide out from under. As I said on another occasion, what hurts the Opposition most about this issue is that it was handled properly right from the beginning. The Opposition assumed that we were a collection of shonks like it was in government. The Opposition tried to have two Ministers, and indeed the Cabinet of the previous Government, conceal facts for a long period. In that case it took seven months for the Minister concerned to pay the duty-not the five days that it took Mr Young, or Mrs Young as the case may be, in this matter. That is the matter which really hurts.

I note with a great deal of interest that this matter so gripped the Opposition that at an earlier time this year-I think it was on 1 August-the Opposition set up a committee to examine this whole question. The committee met in Townsville and the conclusion of the meeting, as recorded in an article in the Press, was as follows:

The committee said in a statement that the public information on record was insufficient for the Opposition to conduct an inquiry.

All the information is now on record. The Opposition can conduct its inquiry. Let us look at who is on this Opposition committee. There is Mr McGauran, a new member for the seat of Gippsland in Victoria.

Senator Chipp —Mr who?

Senator BUTTON —Mr McGauran, who made his name as a legal luminary by making wills for cow cockies, with a thumb nail dipped in tar, in the darker regions of Gippsland. Another member is Senator Reg Withers, who spent five years in this place complaining that standards were too high, not that they were too low.

Senator Chaney —I take a point of order. My point of order is that the Minister is clearly debating the question.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I was about to suggest to the Leader of the Government in the Senate that he was bringing in extraneous matter. He should confine himself to the question.

Senator BUTTON —Mr President, I do not wish to canvass your ruling but there is nothing extraneous about Senator Withers. He has been sitting here as long as I can remember. That was the topic I was dealing with at the time. The Opposition says that it wants all the facts in this matter. It has all the facts. They were submitted to the Black inquiry, and the Opposition has the conclusions of the Black inquiry. Where, of course, nothing is happening is in respect of this committee which has been set up by the Opposition to inquire into the matter.

Senator Chipp —Who else do we have?

Senator BUTTON —Mr John Spender is on the Committee. His legal light is so surrounded by fibrous pomposity that he cannot even interpret the Freedom of Information Act. Of course, the star on the Liberal Party committee is Senator Durack. I think we will find that the report of that committee will remain in the bottom drawer, as have other reports under Senator Durack's jurisdiction.

Senator CHANEY —I ask a supplementary question. It took the Minister 12 minutes to fail to answer part of my question. I ask the Minister whether he denies that in at least two respects identified in the material that he has tabled, Mr Young was not subjected to normal Customs procedures. Does he agree that that is the case?

Senator BUTTON —I have been subjected to earlier questioning on this matter. One question I was asked was why the Black inquiry was instigated on 24 July.

Senator Chaney —Answer the question.

Senator BUTTON —I ask the honourable senator, if he does not mind, to let me answer the question. I was asked why the Black inquiry was instigated on 24 July and what was the new information. One of the pieces of new information which came to light was that the Customs form, having been returned to Customs, was taken back to the Minister's office. That was one of the things which were not normal.

Senator Chaney —That makes three. There may be a couple of others.

Senator BUTTON —There may be other-I do not know what Senator Chaney would call them-inconsistencies in the treatment of Mr Young. I concede that.

Senator Chaney —There was failure to follow proper procedures.

The PRESIDENT —Order! This back chatting has to stop.

Senator BUTTON —The essential point is that all these matters have been dealt with by Mr Black, their relevance has been assessed, and so on. The finding of Mr Black, as far as the Government is concerned, is conclusive on all these matters.

Senator Chaney —It sounds like a blackwash.

Senator BUTTON —That has provided the opportunity for a joke and I welcome it. The findings of Mr Black embrace the consideration of all the issues.