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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 674

Senator VANSTONE (6.21 p.m.) —The Law and Justice Legislation Amendment Bill was dealt with partially in committee earlier today and postponed until a later hour of the day so the coalition could get advice on some amendments of which, until that point, we were completely unaware. We made the point at the time that we were in favour of the principle of what was wanting to be achieved but we were not prepared to chance our arm and say that the amendments were probably okay. Many a mistake has been made that way.

  We have since had the opportunity to have some discussions. We cannot have them during the committee stage; we cannot duck out to talk to people who are in different places all over the building. The government has been discussing this matter with us in a different portfolio area, namely primary industry. As it was explained to me, the government discovered some particular technical impediment to proceeding through the primary industry legislation and decided to shift the amendments into law and justice. That was done at the last minute.

  What we understand to be happening, and what we asked to happen is that where RAS grants are made they cannot subsequently be sequestered by the trustee in bankruptcy when somebody goes bankrupt. Allowing that would mean taxpayers would be paying for the RAS grants to assist rural people to re-establish themselves, only to have that money suddenly taken by the trustee in bankruptcy to pay off creditors. That would just be a contribution to creditors, and that was not intended by this grant.

  We wanted to make sure that that would not happen. I am informed by the government that this matter was raised in the other place some time ago by Bill Taylor. The government said it would take it up—and it has. This move is widely supported. We understand that what has usually happened is that whenever the RAS scheme has been changed the Bankruptcy Act has been amended, but it did not happen in 1990 or 1992. That failure has now been spotted.

  As explained to me, the changes are such that all the people who would otherwise have had the benefit of this will get it. It has some retrospective application so those who may have lost out can seek compensation. I think the government believes that there are no cases afoot that will not fall into the appropriate net. I have no idea whether there are, but the best knowledge the government has is that that is the case. We are happy to support this amendment.

  The only other thing I want to add is a slight extension of what I said this morning. I think I understand how it is that we did not get advance knowledge of the amendments. They are not minor. The people who are about to have these grants taken by the trustee in bankruptcy understand the impact of this change.

  Another change we could describe as being technical is the one we agreed to this morning in relation to the AAT which, in effect, covers the replacement for Deirdre O'Connor, the president of the tribunal, until she returns in five years, or when she dies—if she is run over by a bus or something else in the meantime. The presidency of the tribunal would then come up for grabs. The person who is going to get the job now, or perhaps has got it, is not there as a permanent appointment but for the duration of Deirdre O'Connor's exit from the job, other than a permanent one as I have mentioned. It could be said that that amendment is consequential on announcements made some time ago that Deirdre O'Connor was moving to the Industry Commission and Justice Mathews, I think it is, is going to the AAT.

  These are not irrelevant amendments. As I understand it, they simply fell between departments. That is what was explained to me; that the AAT stuff was being dealt with by other ministers. Similarly, discussions on bankruptcy were going on in the primary industry area and everyone thought everyone was telling everyone else and nobody bothered—I am pretty sure that is the case—to say, `These are the law and justice amendments and they ought to go to the coalition person handling that.' Until this morning I had not seen them.

  As it turns out, all is well—due to the good sense of the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus) for postponing the debate to allow us to get this element looked at to make sure we were satisfied. But this is not the way to do things. Mistakes like that should not happen. I am very sorry that they did and am only pleased that we are able to resolve the matter amicably. People pay us a good deal of money and the civil service a decent amount of money, and they do not think that these sorts of amendments will be passed to someone that morning and a view sought on them without time to consider. In this case we have avoided that problem but the taxpayer is entitled to expect more of us—and we are entitled to expect more of ourselves. Anything else I might like to say on the time to consider legislation was said this morning. We support the amendment.