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Monday, 11 May 1987
Page: 2924

Mr MacKELLAR(5.16) —As we all know, the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (No. 1) is a very special operation aimed at reducing the involvement of this chamber in the business of considering separate Bills for separate items. It is called `a Bill for an Act to make various amendments of the statute law of the Commonwealth, and for related purposes'. Obviously, many honourable members wonder how they should approach it. I think that there is only one approach, and that is for the House to take the opportunity to discuss the purposes of the principal Acts embraced by the Bill. In other words, the House, in agreeing with this compacting procedure, should not allow itself to drift to a situation where the second reading debating rights are in any way curtailed. We have already heard some honourable members' contributions as to the impact of some of these amendments which are said to be minor but which, in practice, are quite major. I mention that because of the tactics that some honourable members adopt when they hear criticism of legislation is to mount a hue and cry about relevance because they want to narrow the range and direction of comment. Obviously, a Bill of this nature takes away certain parliamentary opportunities to comment as it contains over 30 statutes which, if debated individually, would afford a speaking opportunity amounting to some 10 hours per member. By using the compacting procedure which the Attorney-General (Mr Lionel Bowen) has introduced again this year, the opportunity for individual members is reduced to some 20 minutes. I do not say that in any sense of grievance but to illustrate the nature of the arrangement.

The other feature to which I should draw the House's attention is that the legislation came upon us very quickly. The explanatory memorandum was distributed last Monday. It contains 82 pages. We were due to debate the legislation last Wednesday but, thankfully, we were given a bit more time and we are debating it today. However, the timetable takes a generous view of the responsiveness of honourable members to the wishes of the Leader of the House (Mr Young). I think that it is unwise, with a Bill of this nature, to proceed with such haste because it is not an easy matter to lay hands on Acts of Parliament in a form which would make such a timetable intelligible. Many Acts have lost their convenience of consolidation; so what we must do, as members of parliament, is to scan through and pick on things which concern us.

Let us consider one of the first items-amendment to the Anglo-Australian Telescope Agreement Act 1970. By no stretch of the imagination can this amendment be described as a tidying up amendment. It is a piece of substance-I hasten to add, in the right direction. The amendment enables the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board to expand its functions beyond the United Kingdom-Australian agreement of 1970. It enables regulations to do that. We as a parliament are not told in what direction the functions will be extended or given estimates of cost. The agreement, as honourable members may know, was born out of the fact that the Royal Observatory at Greenwich has an interest in the Southern sky and the collaboration is of value to us. The original agreement took years to put in place because some scientific lobbies thought that we should not be throwing scientific resource money around in this way. I think that that was very short-sighted.

The debate touches on a very interesting principle: Should we continue to support a centre of Australian scientific excellence simply because this is a fundamental way to sustain international scientific reputation? It is pure research and there will be the Philistines who will say that we can do without it. Clearly, by virtue of this legislation, the extension of the powers of the Board have escaped a number of filters and razor gangs and, without explanation, it lands here as a matter of some wonderment. For those with an innate pride in the achievement of our astronomers, it flickers as an illustration of what we can get away with in such legislation.

As an aside, I note that there is an amendment in this Bill which makes Commonwealth drivers responsible for the costs of damage in circumstances of unauthorised private use or drunken driving. This is somewhat belated, but again I suggest that it seems eminently sensible. The citizenship provisions in this Bill, engaging amendments to the Citizenship Act and the Migration Act, seem to me to offer an improvement in the identification of people who enjoy only residential status but who have a necessity or wish to travel abroad. A system of endorsing identity papers by return endorsement will now be dispensed with and instead provision made for the resident in Australia to be treated as a permanent resident outside Australia. This is a valuable and simplifying change and is appropriately placed in this omnibus legislation.

Amendments to the Australian Trade Commission Act enable the managing director to become the chairman. In the case of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the device was eschewed and a separate chairman was appointed. That was a sound move. The ABC is a hot potato and it is important that the executive is insulated from the public contest. I am not so sure that the Australian Trade Commission is so sensitively placed. The measure strengthens the Minister's hands by putting the managing director in the direct line of fire and the effect is that the role intended for the chairman is not so much exercised by the managing director as by the Minister.

The concept of a chairman gives the Commission the flexibility of not being required to take management decisions to the Minister. Certainly, if the Minister is prepared to strengthen his hand in this way, he must be prepared to take the onus which goes with the transfer of power back to the Minister. It is probably not a good thing in principle, and I hold a very cautious view of the change. But in the meantime I take the opportunity to say that the news coming from the Commission is good. I am particularly glad that it has embraced the tasks of attracting direct investment to Australia, thereby increasing technology transfer. Honourable members may not know that this area suffered years of neglect under the old system under which Treasury denied trade a role and instead concentrated myopically on stimulating financial transfers.

Substantial amendments appear in this legislation in respect of police functions and powers and the Crimes Act. Again, we find the device of special language to improve presentation. Should a prisoner accidentally released be reincarcerated? Common law says that he should not. This legislation says that he should be sent back to gaol under warrant. In this circumstance my sympathies are with the Attorney, but the amendment to a common law right cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be categorised as simply `tidying up'. In the same manner of substance I place the matter affecting the control of property of persons penalised for complicity in narcotics dealings and the amendment affecting the Director of Public Prosecutions.

I would now like to turn to a consideration of what I regard as the most important component of this omnibus legislation-the Audit Act. The Audit Act establishes the powers of an Auditor-General responsible to the Parliament. What I find a little extraordinary is that amendments to those dimensions are of such a proportion as to take up six pages of the explanatory memorandum. It is clear that, while some of the drafting clarifies the legal situation for the Auditor-General, other parts are quite substantive. It seems to me extraordinary that this legislation is cobbled up in the device of this Bill. After all, the Auditor-General is an officer of this Parliament, not of the Executive. One would have thought that the Attorney-General, of all people, might have regard to the special status of the Auditor-General and his relationship with this Parliament.

The second reading speech on this Bill contains 30 lines of bromide, telling us absolutely nothing. Euphemistic statements are used as a trick to waylay the unsuspecting. Recently in this House I had occasion to rebuke the Minister for Social Security (Mr Howe) for his lack of frankness in a recent second reading speech. Items which might raise contention-for example, the assets test-were not mentioned in his second reading speech and one had to rely on the explanatory memorandum. As we all know, Parliament is not the Labor Party room, where all kinds of presentational ruses are presumably used to get matters through the Party. We expect brevity in the second reading speech but not at the expense of truthful presentation. I suggest to the Leader of the House (Mr Young) that he might take up the issues I have raised. After all, it is not a good thing for the reputation of government for any encouragement to be given to what I think is a growing impression that the Government is being less than frank in what it is putting to the House in second reading speeches.

Returning to the Audit Act, we are given no adequate explanation for the necessity of section 11a. The legislation enables the Auditor-General to report to Parliament on its efficiency audits by making that action a report on itself as part of a report of its other activities. Presumably, there is a legal barrier which has to be cleared away to empower the Auditor-General to continue to report, as he is at present doing, to cover efficiency audits. But does it mean that some additional powers of critical presentation are available? What does it mean? A new procedure is drawn up for certifying the authorisation of expenditure. The effect of the amendment is to remove, as far as possible, the Auditor-General from the process and to empower the Secretary of the Department of Finance to proceed without the requirement for auditors' certificates. This is euphemistically described in the jargon of the misleading second reading speech as follows:

The Auditor-General will also be given some discretion on which matters are included in his reports.

The obligation on the Auditor-General to report on all breaches of the Constitution or legislation is now reduced to an obligation to report on matters of sufficient importance. I am not sure what the administrative outcome will be. Will it mean that there will be no reporting, that there will be no investigation in areas not determined to warrant reporting? Are we deliberately going to risk scandals which would have remained detectable under the old system? Honourable members might suspect that what we are seeing in these amendments is the imprint of proposals to cut down staffing. For efficiency reasons we take risks and exempt bad debts from malpractices as less of a cost than the cost of a huge superstructure designed to protect the situation against deviations. We may expect a few scandals such as the one in Queensland, where an officer used funds he authorised for a sporting organisation with the intention that the money would be in place when the cheque was cashed some time later. High interest rates and times of declining standards of living can open loopholes of temptation which, in less pressing times, would not be taken. In these circumstances is it advisable, or even desirable, that these auditing arrangements might encourage such risk taking?

As I said, I believe these audit amendments are quite significant. They do not fall into the category of tidying up. They open the system to risks. One wonders whether those risks should be taken. Doubtless there will be much ministerial rushing for cover as the `not important' scandals implicit in this new arrangement hit the fan.

The power to subject the activities of the Australia-Japan Foundation to comments by the Auditor-General is interesting. The Foundation comes under the Minister for Foreign Affairs. One wonders how far the activities of the organisation are to be judged by financial tests alone. What value will the Auditor-General bring to his judgments? Still, the opinion approach enables an outside view to be taken of the organisation and will enable the Minister to bring an arbitral spirit to his function.

Before closing my remarks on what I regard as significant amendments to the Audit Act-amendments which should have stood alone out of regard for the special status of the Auditor-General and his relationship with Parliament-let me illustrate again the misleading obtuseness of the second reading speech. It states:

The amendments will ensure that departments report to Parliament on their special operations-a requirement which has not existed previously.

What special operations are we talking about? Why do we not have a more frank presentation of the Minister's intentions when he makes these sorts of statements? It is enormously important in any second reading speech that those sorts of questions are answered directly and frankly. I invite the Attorney-General, in his reply, to the speakers to this Bill, to fulfil that obvious function.