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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1493

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(10.15) —I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chaney, for reiterating some of the points he made last night. In these discussions in the Senate it is always very important that the technical competence of the Senate is maintained and is seen to be kept going. I am extremely grateful to Senator Chaney for his comments.

The essence of Senator Chaney's first amendment is to make the provisions of the Acts Interpretation Act apply to proposed new section 26M of the Bill before the Committee to have the effect that directions referred to in proposed new section 26M would be regarded as regulations and would be capable of disallowance. I say first of all that I understand the spirit of the amendment. If I may say so without in any way being construed as patronising, it is not a silly amendment. Sometimes silly amendments are moved by both sides of the chamber. Before making that statement I was very careful to make a qualification about it. Oppositions of either political persuasion sometimes move silly amendments. This is not a silly amendment. It is concerned with the question of the practice of the Parliament and scrutiny by the Parliament of Executive actions.

I just want to remind the Committee that this is an area in which firm policy directions are required and certainty is required in the development of the motor vehicle industry. For that reason, amongst others, the Government is not prepared to accept the amendment. I think Senator Jack Evans, the Australian Democrat senator from Western Australia, expressed this point in a sense quite eloquently last night in his contribution to the debate. I have said-it has been a matter which I think has been accepted by the Opposition-that the elements of this plan are not negotiable. The amendment proposed by Senator Chaney is, in my view, having regard to the nature of this industry, an invitation to negotiation in the Senate about particular matters. It is not, as Senator Chaney said in a very kindly way last night-we were very kind to each other last night in the course of the debate-a matter of a particular individual or Minister. He is concerned with a matter of general principle and so on.

But I still think the amendment runs the risk that very important details of the motor vehicle plan could become susceptible to delays and pressures as a result of the lobbying and so on of senators. The reality of the situation is that there would be no point in doing that in the House of Representatives. The government of the day, whether it be a Liberal, National or Labor government, would not change in the course of parliamentary scrutiny, I believe, the directions in the House of Representatives and would not seek to do so. This would occur only in the Senate and may not be the result even of an Opposition initiative. It may be the result of an initiative by a minority party or whoever.

In dealing with another issue yesterday Senator Chaney referred to the Administrative Review Council's eighth annual report for 1983-84. In relation to this matter I just want to refer to some of the exceptions to the general principles which that report enunciates. I refer particularly to paragraph 39 of the report which says:

The primary criterion for reviewability on the merits identified by the Council . . . is that rights or interests of individuals must be specifically affected to a significant extent by the decision in question.

The report deals there with social security appeals and so on. I again make the point about the Government's proposal that is now before the Committee that the whole purport of this part of the legislation is to confer benefits on sections of the motor vehicle industry in exchange for certain conditions which are laid down either in the legislation or in the guidelines which are proposed. It is very important to remember that context. In dealing with the exceptions, paragraph 41 of the Council's report refers to:

Decisions which should not be reviewable on the merits, notwithstanding that they affect rights and interests to a significant extent . . .

The first exception identified where a decision is not appropriate for review is:

where 'high' government policy or otherwise highly sensitive or partisan political issues are involved e.g. protection policy and management of the economy . . .

This legislation is part of an integral package, and to remove a small part of it may very well affect the whole thrust of the package. I think Senator Chaney conceded yesterday that in respect of the whole package that exception applied. I think it does in respect of important integral parts of the package.

Let me give another reason why the Government is not prepared to accept the amendment. In part this has been the subject of some discussion in the debate to date. The Government recognises that there must be limitations on the directions which can be given. I want to outline what proposed new section 26M contains. First, directions by the Minister have to be by notice in writing to the Authority. Secondly, the directions must relate to proposed new Part IVA, that is, this scheme. The directions are not at large; they have to relate to Part IVA which deals with the grants scheme. Thirdly, the directions have to be forthwith published in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette-that is, the Minister cannot give a secret direction, in writing or otherwise and it not become immediately a matter of public knowledge. If it does not become a matter of public knowledge because intelligent, perceptive and wise senators do not read the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette as a matter of course it becomes a matter of public knowledge, of course, because of the very nature of this industry. Publication in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette forthwith is important. The fourth qualification on the power of direction is that directions cannot be given by the Minister in relation to a particular company that are to the detriment of or for the benefit of a particular company.

The next matter I mention in respect of the question of accountability involving the operation of this scheme is that the Authority is required to report annually to the Minister and that report has to be tabled in the Parliament. One of the requirements of the report by the Authority will be that each report is to publish details of the so-called design grants scheme which will refer to the names of the companies which have been the beneficiaries of grants, the amounts of the grants they have received, the nature of the proposal, subject to any commercial confidentality considerations, and the provisions of the schemes which the Authority has recommended for approval. We believe that in that context there is a wide range of things to ensure that there is no secrecy about the directions and that there is an opportunity in this Parliament to peruse and debate them.

I reiterate the point about Senator Chaney's amendment. If I might say so, again in all humility, it is a perfectly understandable parliamentary point in a sort of legalistic sense. The reality is that in the circumstances of this industry any disaffection, as it were, in relation to directions would immediately find its way into this chamber and may be very detrimental, in our view, to the overall administration of the plan. For those reasons we do not accept the amendment moved by Senator Chaney. I might add at this stage that the second amendment foreshadowed by Senator Chaney is not unrelated. I can indicate now that the Government accepts the wording advanced by Senator Chaney in that amendment rather than any alleged refinement by the parliamentary draftsman. I will say something about that foreshadowed amendment when we actually get to it.