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Monday, 16 September 1985
Page: 585

Senator LEWIS(6.28) —Is the Minister yet able to answer the questions I have raised about this matter? If he would make a financial statement to the Committee that provides all this information, we would not have to go through this rigmarole, which obviously will take some time after dinner tonight. It appears clear that this Government is not prepared to answer questions which, I suggest, are reasonable questions for the national Parliament to put to a body which is seeking to have its powers extensively extended to enable it to enter into all sorts of contracts overseas, where it will represent Australia as an arm of the Australian Government. It is proposing to enter into financial arrangements with other bodies, to create subsidiaries and perhaps enter into partnerships with overseas bodies. I draw the attention of honourable senators to what happened when Asia Dairy Industries (Hong Kong) Ltd got into such a situation. I put to the Committee that this body, the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, ought not to be allowed to have its powers extended to such an extent while the Minister refuses to supply the Committee with any semblance of information as to what is its current financial situation. How on earth can the Committee deal with a body on which it has not had a financial report for over 15 months, and which 15 months ago was shown to be highly inadequate? Not only did it have a loss of $5.4m for the year ending 30 June 1984, but the previous year its disclosed profit was only $41,000. Yet, as I have indicated, on my simple arithmetic this body must have liabilities in excess of $15m, and probably more.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.

Senator LEWIS —When we adjourned for the evening meal we were in the Committee stage of considering the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation Amendment Bill. My colleague Senator Archer and I had pointed out to the Senate that the financial situation of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation was a matter for grave concern; that the national Parliament had been provided with an annual report only for the year ending 30 June 1984; and that we had sought from the Minister information relating to the figures of the Corporation for the year ending 30 June 1985. If the Minister could indicate that he was prepared to supply me with those figures, I would sit down and allow him to do so. I seem to be getting a blank look across the table, so I am obliged to go on and draw the Senate's attention to the report on the Australian Dairy Corporation and its Asian subsidiaries, which was a unanimous report. I am pleased to see in the chamber the Minister for Finance, Senator Peter Walsh, who was, with me and others, a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations which reported concern about subsidiaries of statutory authorities. I hope we will hear from Senator Walsh as to whether he retains his concern about the creation of subsidiaries and the unanimous report of the Committee as to the nature of material which should be in legislation dealing with statutory authorities.

I am surprised that the Government has not accepted the proposed amendments. I am surprised to hear-outside the chamber, but ultimately it will be disclosed-that the Australian Democrats are not prepared, apparently, to support the proposed amendments. I would have thought that the amendments were--

Senator Sheil —Reasonable.

Senator LEWIS —Not just reasonable, as one of my colleagues says, but apolitical. I would have thought that they had nothing to do with political parties, but very much to do with the control of the Parliament and the control of Ministers over statutory authorities created by the national Parliament at the request of the Government. After all, all we are proposing in these amendments is, firstly; that the Corporation shall not join in the formation of a partnership or a company unless the Minister has approved in writing of the participation of the Corporation in that partnership or company. How any Minister of the Crown can say that he does not want that control is absolutely beyond me. I see Senator Button looking at the proposed amendment. I hope that he reads and digests it. It is not a difficult one. It would give him control over his own statutory corporations. I would have thought that that is totally apolitical and has nothing to do with being a member of the Liberal Party, the Labor Party or even the Democrats.

The second proposed amendment is that after giving approval, the Minister should approve the creation of a subsidiary. He would not have to tell the Parliament at that stage. After the subsidiary has been established, then the Minister shall lay before each House of the Parliament, within 15 sitting days of that House, a statement of the particulars of the partnership or the company that has been created. In other words, we would like to see the memorandum and articles of association, or the partnership constitution, which the subsidiary is establishing. Again I say to parliamentarians-and this time I turn to the Democrats, they will never be in the Ministry, but they will remain in the Parliament, one presumes, although I do not know for how long-that this would give them an opportunity to find out that a statutory corporation has created a subsidiary, and it would give them an opportunity to find out what that subsidiary proposed to do. But apparently the Democrats do not like that proposal.

The next amendment we are proposing is that the Corporation shall not join in the formation of a partnership or a company which has any function or power which is not a function or power of the Corporation. That is a very simple amendment. I am pleased to see that some other members of the Government ranks are coming in to listen to what this is all about, because it is vital for the sake of the Parliament. In other words, a corporation should not extend its own powers by creating a subsidiary. The Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation could, under the Bill, as at present framed, create a subsidiary which would have power to enter into trade. It could set up a subsidiary which could create a McDonalds and go into the fast food business. That is the way the legislation is framed at present. There is no control. The Parliament does not have any control over it. We are proposing by this legislation to allow this authority to create subsidiaries and we will not even find out what the subsidiary will be allowed to do, let alone being able to restrict the powers and functions of that subsidiary to make sure it does not extend the power of the statutory corporation.

If the Ministers do not believe that that is a possibility, let me remind them of what happened with Asia Dairy Industries (Hong Kong) Ltd. We heard Senator Walsh, when he was on this side of the chamber, make repeated speeches attacking Asia Dairy Industries (Hong Kong) Ltd and what it had done. He made all sorts of speeches attacking it when he was on this side of the chamber. Now that he is on the Government side of the chamber, apparently the activities of subsidiaries such as that are perfectly all right, because, after all, he is now in government and he does not have to worry about this sort of thing. Well, I am worried about it and I believe that my colleagues on this side of the chamber are very worried about these sudsidiaries. I remind Senator Walsh that he was a subscriber to the unanimous report of the Senate Standing Committee, which said that in future, this sort of limitation should be placed on subsidiaries of statutory authorities.

The final amendment which the Opposition parties are proposing is that when the authority itself reports to Parliament, it will tell the Parliament what its subsidiary has been doing. Again, how any parliamentarian could find anything wrong with that is absolutely beyond me. In the past, statutory authorities have been able to get away with not disclosing to the national Parliament what their subsidiaries have been doing. In fact, I believe that in the past a number of authorities have managed to get away without telling their Ministers what they have been up to, certainly not in detail. I would have thought that the whole thing had nothing to do with what party one belongs to. I would have thought that even the left wing of the Labor Party would support the proposed amendment-although I know it would be most unusual. But it is beyond belief that the Government can come here and say that the proposed amendments are not reasonable and that it is not prepared to accept them. How the Democrats could have the audacity to say that they are members of parliament and that they are representing the interests of the people of Australia but are not prepared to accept these amendments, is absolutely beyond me, because, as I said, to my mind the amendments are totally apolitical. They have to do with the control of the national Parliament over statutory authorities and their subsidiaries. I can see that Senator Tate is anxious to tell me where I am wrong. I shall sit down to allow him to do so, because I shall be very interested to hear what part of what I am saying is not correct.