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Friday, 26 May 1989
Page: 2830

Senator SHORT(11.19) —Estimates Committee E again raised in its report several telling points of concern about the operation of the Aboriginal Development Commission. Indeed, we were concerned at the inability of the Commission to answer questions during the Estimates hearings. The Commission had to take on notice approximately 80 questions compared with only 30 for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. That was despite the forewarning that we had given the Commission on the matters that we wanted to raise. Indeed, as the Minister would know, we gave prior notice of a large number of questions well in advance of the Senate Estimates Committee hearing.

The very fact that so many questions had to be taken on notice during the hearings themselves was a matter of concern. It was certainly a matter of concern because it prevented the Committee from pursuing issues through further questioning. This matter is of concern to the operation of Estimates committees in general because the further pursuit of an issue can be effectively closed off through an inability, refusal, or whatever to answer a question. There are, of course, legitimate reasons for taking questions on notice; for example, the complexity or obscurity of the question. But the Committee was concerned, and expressed this concern in its report, that in the case of the ADC the number of questions taken on notice was excessive and that the ADC should have been so represented that more questions could have been answered immediately. That is a matter which the Minister may not wish to comment on in this context, but it is a point which I hope will be taken up by this Commission when producing witnesses at further hearings.

The Auditor-General's special report attracted a very strong response from the ADC. It is of concern that there has been such obvious friction between the Australian Audit Office and the Aboriginal Development Commission. Indeed, the Audit Office went so far as to describe the ADC's approach to the Audit as characterised by `a relative lack of cooperation not seen before from an official body'. That is a very strong statement indeed from a normally prudent Audit Office. I do not know whether the Minister wishes to comment on the matter, but I draw it to the attention of the Committee because of the strength of the Auditor-General's response.

The Estimates Committee, examining both the Audit Office and the ADC on this matter, did agree that, on the evidence available to it, the ADC's attitude to the special audit was a matter of concern and that there was real evidence that an uncooperative approach had been adopted by the ADC. We were also concerned, as was the Audit Office, about the ADC having retained private counsel to deal with the Audit Office. Indeed, the Attorney-General's Department has rejected some of the grounds on which the ADC sought to justify the counsel's appointment. In particular, we were concerned, as was the Audit Office and as was the Attorney-General's Department, at the retention by the ADC of Mr Michael Adams, QC, at a cost of some $125,000 just to assist the ADC in its dealings with the Audit Office in relation to the special audit. I might point out that Mr Adams is a Queen's Counsel whose practice is principally in the area of criminal law, not in the interpretation of the statutory powers of Commonwealth authorities, which was essentially the subject of the Audit Office's investigation. The Attorney-General's Department, the Audit Office and the Committee were very concerned about the justification put forward by the ADC for its action to retain Mr Michael Adams. Indeed, setting aside the nature of the individual, the whole question of whether private counsel ought to be retained by a statutory body or other government agency or department in matters such as this is an issue of considerable importance about which the Attorney-General's Department has expressed considerable concern.

The Attorney-General's Department wrote a letter dated 1 May. I do not have the letter in front of me, but in essence it stated that departments and agencies ought to rely initially on the advice of the Attorney-General's Department, rather than on advice from outside the scope of that well-established machinery. That view was endorsed by the Audit Office itself, which in its report to the Estimates Committee said:

The Audit Office notes that included in the amount of legal costs by the ADC is $125,000 for legal advice obtained during the audit from barristers and solicitors. In the Audit Office's view, this expenditure was unnecessary because the ADC could have obtained legal advice from the Attorney-General's Department. The Department has advised and informed the Audit Office that it would have charged the ADC only $3,500 for the legal advice that was given and that preparation of private legal advice also caused an unnecessary delay in the audit.

The Attorney-General's Department has said that the ADC wasted approximately $120,000 of taxpayers' money by going outside the available legal resources of the Commonwealth and employing a private counsel whose expertise does not lie in the area relating to the investigation. I believe that is a matter of considerable concern. Would the Minister care to make any comment on that at this stage-in particular, as to whether steps have been put in train to ensure that this type of thing does not occur again?