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Thursday, 24 May 2001
Page: 24334

Senator KEMP (Assistant Treasurer) (3:32 PM) —by leave—I wish to respond to an order made yesterday following a motion moved by Senator Conroy that, as the Minister representing the Treasurer, I table certain documents after question time today.

The documents requested relate to representations made since March 1996 by, or on behalf of, HIH Insurance Pty Ltd and all associated companies, to any minister or parliamentary secretary or his or her office, or to any agency of the Commonwealth in relation to the proposed amendments to the Insurance Act 1973 or proposals for the enhancement of prudential regulation of the insurance and finance industries.

I would like to make some initial comments about the breadth of the order and the context in which it has been made. In March this year, the New South Wales Supreme Court appointed a provisional liquidator to the HIH group of companies. In recognition of the extreme financial difficulties the collapse of the HIH group has caused for many people, the government recently announced a package of more than $500 million in hardship relief and has set up a hotline for those who seek to be considered for relief. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is already undertaking an inquiry into the collapse. On Monday this week, the government announced that there will be a royal commission to investigate the matter thoroughly, the terms of reference of which are expected to be released shortly.

As for the breadth of the Senate order, it requires a search by government agencies, departments and ministerial and parliamentary secretaries' offices for documents dating back to early 1996, the time of the commencement of the Wallis inquiry. The documents sought are those received from, or on behalf of, HIH Insurance Pty Ltd and its associated companies. Even assuming a narrow interpretation of `associated companies', that is, companies that are controlled by HIH, I am advised that the search would need to encompass correspondence from approximately 280 entities. Assuming a broader interpretation of `associated companies', the search would probably need to encompass correspondence from a considerably larger group, possibly 300, 400 or even more. Factoring in the words `on behalf of' presumably adds to the list because it includes solicitors, accountants, industry groups and others that may have acted on behalf of any of these companies.

Clearly, the order will require an extensive search which will take a significant time and will use substantial government resources—finite resources—some of which could otherwise be used to protect the interests of people hurt by the HIH collapse. And all this was to be done by today. It is hard to believe that it was a serious request. In the circumstances, particularly given the current ASIC inquiry and the forthcoming royal commission, this request, I regret to say, seems to be nothing more than a political stunt by Senator Conroy. It is a cynical ploy designed to seek political point scoring opportunities, and it does nothing to assist those who have suffered from the HIH collapse. In the context that I have described, it can only be described as politically motivated and, in my view, it is irresponsible.

It is not appropriate to table documents which deal with matters that will be considered by the forthcoming royal commission—an inquiry, I point out, that has coercive powers of discovery and interrogation—or to permit the diversion of extensive public service resources to locate documents of the kind described, when these resources can certainly be better deployed elsewhere. All that, in the shadow of two inquiries that will extensively investigate the collapse of HIH and related matters, would not, in my view, be responsible or in the public interest. Therefore, I do not propose to authorise the resources necessary to respond to the Senate's order.