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Wednesday, 5 December 1973
Page: 4289

Mr HUNT (Gwydir) - by leave- I thank the Minister for making these reports available to the Parliament at this time. I do not believe for one moment that these reports are the last chapters in what has been a sordid story. Here is a project to which funds have been allocated, without adequate research and scrutiny, ostensibly in the interests of Aboriginal advancement. For too long the Council of Aboriginal Affairs, the office of Aboriginal Affairs and now the Department of Aboriginal Affairs have been able to invest funds in Aboriginal enterprises without proper research, programming and supervision from the capital fund in the trust account. No-one quibbles at the expenditure or the investment; indeed, it is essential that great sums of money be made available to assist in Aboriginal advancement. Perhaps nobody would doubt the sincerity of those who were trying to find adequate enterprises and projects for the Aborigines of the Tones Straits and elsewhere in Australia, but every effort must be made in the future to ensure that Aboriginal enterprises do not end up as failures.

Of course, there is going to be the odd one, but here is a significant - a very important - Aboriginal enterprise that has obviously ended up in a very sad way. Now we have before us reports that have been prepared by consultants, and I cast no reflection whatsoever on the integrity or the ability of those who have been engaged; they are eminent gentlemen, and they represent wellknown firms of consultants. But why have we not had a report from the Auditor-General? I asked the former

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs a question in this House, and he replied that he had called for a report from the Auditor-General. I placed a question on the notice paper, as follows:

(1)   Will the Minister make available to the Parliament the Auditor-General's Report on the conduct of Applied Ecology Pty Ltd and Islander Marketing Pty Ltd.

(2)   If so, when will the report be presented to the Parliament.

The answers given to those questions are as follows:

(1)   and (2) A firm of chartered accountants and riot the Auditor-General was appointed by the directors as auditor, for the purposes of the Australian Capital Territory Companies Ordinance 1962-1973, of Applied Ecology Pty Ltd and Aboriginal and Islander Marketing Pty Ltd. Consequently it is not the Auditor-General's responsibility to report on the conduct of these companies or to inspect and audit their accounts and records.

The Auditor-General's responsibilities are limited under the Audit Act to ensuring that payments made to the companies from the Public Account have been approved by the competent authority. A similar situation exists with regard to his responsibilities under the Aboriginal Enterprises Assistance Act in respect of payments made to the companies from the Capital Fund for Aboriginal Enterprises.

I might add that the Audit Act makes no provision for Ministers to request reports from the Auditor-General on particular matters. In accordance with that Act the Auditor-General includes in his report to the Parliament such information as he thinks desirable in relation to those examinations and inspections carried out by him in pursuance of the provisions of the Audit Act or any other Act.

I think it is a most regrettable state of affairs that the Auditor-General, who was called upon to examine and to report on the affairs of these companies - I understand that he undertook some examination - is not being brought into this picture. I hope it is not the Government's intention to smother up the right and proper processes of investigation. We have seen a pretty sordid run of events, including the sacking - if one wants to use that word; perhaps that is unfair, but the removal - of a former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from his portfolio. I think this was followed then by statements by a senator in another place, making rather serious allegations against the way in which funds were being spent to advance Aborigines. In fact, I recall his very phrase - that the whole area is a disaster area littered with failures.

Then only a few days ago we heard that the Chairman of one of these companies had sacked Dr Bustard, and what has happened? Only yesterday the present Minister for

Aboriginal Affairs informed us that Senator Georges had been sacked as the Chairman of one of these companies and that Dr Bustard had been reinstated. It has created a rather curious set of events, and I do not think that we have heard the full story. I have had questions on the notice paper. If it is permissible, may I read a question that is on the notice paper?

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Scholes)Ifit is relevant.

Mr HUNT - It is quite relevant. Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. The question states:

(1)   With reference to the Minister's answer to my question No. 1298, does the Audit Act make provision for the collection and payment of public moneys and the audit of the public accounts and the protection of public property.

(2)   Is the Minister the sole shareholder in Applied Ecology Pty Ltd, Islander Marketing Pty Ltd and Aboriginal and Islander Marketing Pty Ltd.

(3)   Has the Minister contributed any funds other than moneys appropriated by the Parliament.

(4)   Was there any other source of revenue to any of these companies, other than public funds, in the year 1972-73.

(5)   In establishing 3 companies to spend public money, was it intended to avoid the scrutiny of Parliament and avoid the purposes of the Audit Act; if not, does it effectively do this.

(6)   Will the reports of the chartered accountants who audited the affairs of these companies be made available to the Parliament.

The latter part of that question has been answered by the tabling of these reports this morning.

I have had on the notice paper for some time a further question directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. It reads:

(1)   In view of the Minister's statement on 25 October 1973 that he favoured an all-party standing committee to screen all applications for loans, advances and grants for Aboriginal enterprises, did he authorise a statement which appeared in the 'Australian' of 8 November 1973 that a review committee of 7 second division officers of the Department would be established.

(2)   If so, why was the statement not made in the Parliament which was then sitting.

We had an undertaking from the Minister that he would set up a parliamentary select committee to screen and to review all Aboriginal enterprises. But on 8 November we were informed - not in the Parliament, but through a Press release which perhaps was issued by the Department - that there would not be an all-party committee screening these Aboriginal enterprises but that 7 Second Division officers of the Department would examine them. Is this another indication that somebody is trying to cover up the real facts of the situation? We cannot get away from 3 simple facts in relation to this matter. The turtle farming project was started and much money was spent on it, without the necessary permit to export being obtained. I put a question on the notice paper about that matter also.

Dr Jenkins - That started while you were a Minister.

Mr HUNT - I am not denying that.

Dr Jenkins - Be fair.

Mr HUNT - I am being quite fair. I think the whole project is a disaster. I do not think that it has been improved much by the current events. I hope that we do not see any further operations of this kind without proper research and without proper provision being made to ensure that the project has some hope of success. I think that in the past too many fingers have been in the pie. I think the Council for Aboriginal Affairs has been regarded somewhat as the final arbiter in these matters and, in fact, has been looked upon as fulfilling the role of the Minister. It was in the time of the former Minister. I understand that the present Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has now insisted that the Council for Aboriginal Affairs be directly responsible to him. If that is so, it is a very good step in the right direction to ensure that the Minister has complete responsibility for the conduct of Aboriginal affairs and the conduct of his Department. I return to what I said earlier. The turtle project was started without the necessary permit to export being obtained and without the position in relation to sales tax being ascertained. I think it is true to say that the exercise got off to a very bad start. I think that it has been somewhat of a disaster. I hope that heads are not being rolled unscrupulously to try to cover up a situation that has not yet improved.

I conclude by saying that I hope that all these allegations by Senator Georges which have not yet been proved or disproved are not swept under the rug. He is a man who has had a sincere and genuine interest in Aboriginal affairs, probably for as long as the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. I gauge from his reaction that he is a very distressed and unhappy man because of the way in which he has been treated just to preserve the status and position of Dr Bustard. Dr Bustard has been reinstated, whilst Senator Georges has been sacked as the chairman of a company in respect of which he was given a charter to try to overcome some of its difficult economic and financial problems. I hope that it is not the intention of the Government to try to whitewash the whole of this turtle farming project on the basis of the 2 reports which have been presented today. I do not believe that those 2 reports are good enough. I ask that the Auditor-General make a report to the Parliament in the not too distant future on the operations of the 2 marketing enterprises.

Mr Wentworth - Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to make a statement not exceeding 2 minutes.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Scholes)Order!

Mr Lionel Bowen (KINGSFORD-SMITH, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Mr Deputy Speaker, 1 seek leave to give a very short answer before the honourable member for Mackellar speaks.

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