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Monday, 14 October 1985
Page: 1186


Senator LEWIS(9.18) —The National Capital Development Commission Amendment Bill 1985 relates to the restructuring of the National Capital Development Commission which is, in effect, the town planning body of the Australian Capital Territory and a construction body of considerable size. The legislation arises out of the report of the Committee of Review of the Role and Functions of the National Capital Development Commission which was chaired by Mr George M. White. The Committee reported to the then Minister, Mr Tom Uren, on 6 July 1983, following a reference by the then Minister for the Capital Territory, the Hon. Michael Hodgman, made on 27 July 1982. I must admit to having some difficulty about the report because in the terms of reference, part of which are set out in the report of the Committee of Review, it is stated that the objectives of the Government's review were `to seek to eliminate unnecessary regulation, to reduce the scope and amount of public-sector activity and to transfer financial and operational responsibility to the private sector as much as is practicable or feasible'. Those words are contained in the general introduction to the report. To my way of thinking, the problem is that the report in no way carries out those objectives.

It will be appreciated that there was a change of government between the time of the reference and the time of the report. It seems to me that this is a report of a committee which one might imagine would have been set up by the present Government because, rather than reporting on means of eliminating unnecessary regulation, reducing the scope and amount of public sector activity and transferring financial and operational responsibility to the private sector, it in fact does the very reverse. I am at a complete loss to understand that because I freely acknowledge that in the introduction to the report the Committee has some four paragraphs of some sort of explanation about the discussions which it had with the Hon. Michael Hodgman during the course of the inquiry. In some way or other, these discussions seem to have been used by the Committee to explain why it did not really carry out the terms of the original reference but got itself involved in some other examination and why the government of the day-that was the then Liberal-National Party Government-had taken certain decisions with regard to the sale of land. I do not see why the Committee should have drawn any conclusion from that but apparently committees of review believe that they can have a chat with a Minister and sort out things on the side instead of carrying out the terms that they were required to carry out. In any event, as I say, I find the report of the Committee set up by the former Liberal-National Party Government a grave disappointment.

I would like to refer to the structure of the National Capital Development Commission. It will be recalled that the Commission was established many years ago by the Menzies Government as a corporation sole-in other words, one person being fully responsible for the development of the Australian Capital Territory. If my memory serves me correctly, I think three commissioners have carried out that role over a period of just on 25 years or thereabouts. One would have to say that they have done an excellent job. A corporation sole is, of course, a dictatorship and a benevolent dictatorship is probably the best form of government for getting things done. That was exactly what Canberra needed when this body was originally established-a body for getting things done. To the credit of the various commissioners, this is what has happened. I think both the people of the Australian Capital Territory and the people of Australia who visit this very fine city are satisfied with the result.

It appears that there have been some concerns that as the population of Canberra has grown the people of Canberra have not been able to persuade the Commission to take steps which certain sections of the community want the Commissioner to take. So there have been complaints about the activities of the NCDC. All I can say about that is that this town knows how to set up lobby groups better than any town I know anywhere in Australia. In my little country town of Warrnambool it takes a while for people to get themselves worked up and to take some action. In this town people can get themselves worked up within 24 hours. They are able to lobby a Federal Minister the very night that they establish a committee. If the Federal Minister does not listen to them they will call a public meeting to which he will be publicly invited to attend. The other day one organisation even went to the extent of placing an advertisement in a newspaper inviting certain members of parliament to attend a public meeting. As I said, this really is, without doubt, the most organised town with regard to lobbying. In my view it is complete nonsense for the people of the Australian Capital Territory to complain that they have been unable to influence the National Capital Development Commission. Of course they have been able to influence the Commission, and to influence it very substantially.

I hope the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) will listen to what I have to say about the area called Civic. If Canberra is ever going to have a city centre it is about time the area was called the city instead of Civic which was the name adopted when Canberra was being established. An area just adjoining Civic contains some buildings of no architectural merit whatsoever which were built in the 1950s. The NCDC wanted to pull down those buildings and erect buildings which were much more apposite for the development of the area. But what happened? As a result of some lobbying, this is not going to happen.

Another area of the city was proposed for redevelopment which included the construction of shops and offices. However, the 25 occupants of the particular street suggested for redevelopment took up a petition and objected to the relevant Minister and the NCDC. As a result, the development is not taking place. The people of this town are well able to frustrate, for reasons of their own, the logical development which ought to take place in Canberra. As I say, in my view it is complete nonsense to suggest that the whole of the NCDC corporation sole arrangements should be altered purely and simply because it is apparently not representative of the people of the Australian Capital Territory or is not listening to what the people of the Australian Capital Territory want.

I might say that I understand the complaints of members of the Australian Capital Territory House of Assembly because, from what I have been told, their representations to the NCDC have been treated as though they were the complaints of ordinary citizens. Of course, members of the House of Assembly have been elected to represent the people of the Australian Capital Territory in some way. I know that there are difficulties in respect of the House of Assembly. I know that the Assembly has had its term of office extended. However, members of the House of Assembly have faced an election. They have been elected and, in my view, representations which were made by them to the NCDC should have been given much more credit by the Commission that representations which are made by some lobby group which has a particular row to hoe.

Having made those preliminary remarks, let me now turn to the Bill and the report. The White report recommended that instead of having a sole corporation the solution to this problem would be to have a commission of five made up of one executive member and four part time members of whom one would be the Chairman. The Government has not accepted that recommendation; it is proposing to have a commission of seven. In my view I would have thought the White report would have produced a camel, but the Government's proposal to have a commission of seven will produce a goat.

I draw attention to an authority which is currently having difficulty. The Australian Bicentennial Authority has a committee of 17 and, being one of those 17, I assure the Senate that, if we really want to achieve an active body able to do things successfully, the smaller the body the better. If I had been the Minister responsible I would certainly not have been moving to have a commission of seven; if necessary I might have been recommending to my Party a commission of three. But the Government is not satisfied with the recommendation of five; it is proposing to set up a commission of seven. I do not see that that will, to use the words of the Minister for Territories (Mr Scholes), make the Commission more responsible and accountable to the different interests it serves.

The Government needs to think about that. How can having seven people trying to run the show make the Commission more responsible and accountable to the different interests it serves? If the Government appoints a unionist to the Commission, will he represent the unions' interests on the Commission? If the Government appoints a businessman, will he represent business interests on the Commission? When politicians talk about that, it is an absolute nonsense. When one is on an authority one's responsibility is to the authority. One cannot take on to an authority a responsibility to serve someone else's interests. So one easily finds oneself in a position of trying to wear two hats. If the Commission is to take some action which it believes is in the best interests of the Australian Capital Territory but which is contrary to the interests a member believes he represents, how does that member vote on that matter? One's obligation as a member of an authority is to vote in the interests of the authority, not in the interests of those who put him on the authority. That is why this sort of representational capacity on government statutory authorities is a nonsense, and has repeatedly been shown to be a nonsense in reports to the Senate.

I draw the Minister's attention to the September 1981 report from the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations on the Australian Dairy Corporation and its Asian subsidiaries. We looked at the Australian Dairy Corporation and Asia Dairy Industries (Hong Kong) Ltd, and laid down in black and white for the benefit of all future Ministers the problems created by statutory authorities made up of representative bodies. There are seven reports of that Committee on statutory authorities alone. Time after time that Committee unanimously reported-it was not just the view of the Liberal or National Party members, but of the Australian Labor Party members on the Committee, including a current Minister, Senator Walsh-on the impossible problems created by this sort of representational body.

As I said, and in any event, if I had been the Minister I would have been considering a much smaller Commission. Nevertheless, it is the Government's policy and we have to accept that this is what Mr Scholes wants and what the Government wants. So be it. However, the legislation makes no attempt to take up the recommendation of the White Committee that two members of the commission of five-the Senate will recall that the report recommended five-should be representatives of the local community nominated by the House of Assembly by a two-thirds majority. The Opposition believes that that Commission should have some representation from the local community so that it can be seen to be `more responsive'. We equate representation of two out of five, as recommended by the White Committee, with a representation of three out of the seven proposed by the Government. Accordingly, I will propose an amendment to the legislation which will require that three of the part time members of the Commission be people recommended by a two-thirds majority of the House of Assembly.

As I have indicated, this legislation neatly brings before the Parliament the question of resolution of conflicts between a government and a statutory authority. Statutory authorities are created by Acts of Parliament, not by governments. They are created in order to give a body a degree of independence from the Government, otherwise there would be no need to create a statutory authority; the body could simply form part of the Minister's department. A statutory authority has to have a degree of independence. It is created by the Parliament, not by the Government, and yet there must be responsibility back to the Government.

As has been indicated in the reports of the Senate Committee to which I have already referred, governments need to have a power of direction over authorities in regard to policy matters. That was the unanimous view of those Senate Committee reports. In particular I refer to chapter 6 of the fifth report of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations in regard to statutory authorities. It is also interesting to note that the Australian Labor Party agrees with this matter in general. I refer the Minister to a statement in relation to ministerial direction at page 210 of the paper entitled `Labor and Quality of Government', dated 9 February 1983. The White Committee also agreed that the Minister should have a power of direction and so recommended in paragraph 5.36 of the report. The White Committee recommended that the power of direction should be along the lines described as the Commonwealth Bank model which required that:

A direction from the Government to the Bank must be in writing; it must be tabled in Parliament within a set number of days; and the Bank then has the right to table its views on the issue.

The Opposition accepts and agrees with the recommendation of the White Committee, which follows the conclusions to paragraph 6 of the fifth report of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations. In that report the Senate Committee recommended:

. . . where a formal direction is given pursuant to the enabling clause the Minister should be required to table the direction in the Parliament within six sitting days of its being made. If direction should not be disclosed within this time for reasons of national interest or commercial confidentiality, they should be tabled as soon as possible together with an explanation of why the tabling was with-held and at the latest included in the following annual report.

We believe that provisions of this nature are essential in a body such as the National Capital Development Commission and accordingly, at the appropriate item, we will move amendments to that effect. Similarly, we believe that there should be no question that the Minister has any power to influence commissioners by their terms of appointment. Accordingly, we are of the view that the terms and conditions of appointment of members of the Commission should be approved by the Public Service Board, or if not so approved the terms and conditions should be tabled in Parliament. At the appropriate time I will move an amendment to that effect.

The White Committee recommended a regular process of review of the Commission's performance every 10 years. We accept that recommendation. We believe that the best way of doing so would be by introducing a sunset clause terminating the Commission at the end of 10 years, unless its performance has been reviewed and it is seen to be performing an essential function. The best way for the Parliament to be able to review any such body is to have a sunset clause which terminates the body and forces the Government to bring back into the Parliament legislation to extend the life of the body. This gives the Parliament an opportunity to examine the performance of the body. The White Committee also recommends that an executive member be appointed for a term of up to five years and that the other two members be appointed by the Minister for three-year terms.

At the outset, it would be desirable to make appointments for different durations so that terminations would be staggered to minimise discontinuity in the deliberations of the restructured Commission. The amendment Bill appoints a full time member for such period not exceeding seven years, as is specified in the instrument of appointment of a member and a part time member for such period not exceeding three years. It seems to us that the seven-year term for a full time member is far too long and, accordingly, we propose to bring in an amendment to the legislation for full time members to hold office for such period not exceeding five years, as is specified in the instrument of appointment of the member. That would enable the Minister when he makes these appointments, by specifying the period, to overcome the problems of discontinuity in the deliberations of the restructured Commission.

The Minister in his second reading speech stated that the Bill has no financial impact. The appointment of additional commissioners clearly has financial impact. We propose to seek information on the additional costs. One other matter that I wish to mention is that the Opposition has over four pages of proposed amendments to this legislation; the Democrats have over four pages of proposed amendments to this legislation. I suggest that this is an indication that somewhere or other the Minister has gone wrong.