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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21390

Senator O'BRIEN (2:31 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Vanstone, and concerns the legality of ATSIS expenditure. I refer the minister to her answer last week in which she said, `If ATSIC were confident that their legal advice entitled them to challenge the government's actions they would have done so,' and yesterday's decision by the ATSIC board to resolve the legal uncertainty surrounding the creation of ATSIS by launching such a challenge. Now that the minister has received a copy of advice to the ATSIC board from David Jackson QC, has she further reviewed the advice to her predecessor, Mr Ruddock, that warned the government that ATSIS may be unlawful? And, Minister, why won't you announce the government's response to the $1 million ATSIC review and resolve the crisis enveloping ATSIS, a crisis that casts doubt over more than $1 billion in Indigenous funding?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) —I thank the senator for the question. Yes, I have had the opportunity to look at the advice. If you have reflected on it yourself, you might see that Mr Jackson QC has said there was a question about whether the enactment of the ATSIC Act prevented the establishment of a new body but did not in fact offer an opinion on it. He did not offer an opinion on that question. With respect, you may be misleading people by suggesting that Mr Jackson's opinion in some way casts doubt. It does nothing of the sort; it simply says there is a question.

You might be interested to know—you might have an opinion that I do not—that I have written to ATSIC today asking for the initial legal advice they sought on this matter. The rumour mill has it that the initial advice ATSIC received said that the government was on 100 per cent rock solid ground. That is paraphrasing, of course; I am sure you would not pay for legal advice that said that.

Senator Robert Ray —Rumour?

Senator VANSTONE —Let us just wait and see. ATSIC might feel free to put that advice out as well. Senator, if you were concerned about this, you would have been concerned about Labor's transfer of health programs out of ATSIC earlier as well. Let me make this point: this decision was made months and months ago. I am aware of the decision made by the ATSIC board yesterday. I understand that Mr Clark, who is suspended, was nonetheless a part of these discussions. I have just one remark with respect to the ATSIC shenanigans that are going on at the moment: I have but one intention while I have this job, and that is to make sure that the money that is spent on Indigenous affairs gives value to Indigenous Australians. I will not be deflected from that by any shenanigans that you, ATSIC or anyone else gets involved in.

The PRESIDENT —I remind the minister to address her remarks through the chair.

Senator O'BRIEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the minister assure the Senate that no direct or indirect punitive action will be taken by the government or its agencies against the ATSIC board, individual commissioners or ATSIS funded organisations for the decisions made at yesterday's ATSIC board meeting, including the decision to withdraw the delegation of the CEO? Will she assure the Senate that no direct or indirect inducements will be offered by the government or its agencies to influence actions of ATSIC commissioners in this matter? Minister, if threats of punitive action were made or inducements offered in respect of decisions of a commission established under the laws of this parliament, would they not constitute acts of serious impropriety?

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Reconciliation) —Frankly, I regard that question as a disgrace—

Senator O'Brien —Answer it.

Senator VANSTONE —I will answer it. I will answer it when—

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator VANSTONE —You might have something else to say. You obviously do not want to listen to the answer. If you ask a question and talk back, you can wait for an answer.

The PRESIDENT —Minister, ignore the interjections and address your remarks through the chair.