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Wednesday, 31 May 1989
Page: 3144


Senator LEWIS(5.18) —I welcome the first annual report on the Australian civil offsets program as a very small victory to the Parliament over the Executive. This report is clearly in response to the efforts of a number of senators and the members of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts. It is very interesting to see the letter to the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button), by Dr Charles, the head of the Department, who in referring to the report says:

The decision to produce the report goes back to the Committee of Review . . . chaired by Sir Brian Inglis.

That Committee of Review on Offsets, and the Government's response to it, recommended that an annual report be made to the Minister, and the Government's decision in relation to that was to accept that decision. That was back in 1986, but this report was not sent to the Minister until 15 May 1989. In effect it has taken three years and a lot of pushing and shoving in this place, by various senators and the Public Accounts Committee, to at last actually get a report to the Parliament in relation to the civil offsets program, giving us an opportunity to study what is happening in relation to that program. In this letter to the Minister, Dr Charles mentions that, although this report details the information for the first time, reports about offsets have been set out in the Department's previous annual reports. He may claim that, but the truth is that there have been only passing references to the offsets program in previous departmental annual reports.

There are a number of minor errors in the report that I do not intend to go through in detail; no doubt in due course they will be picked up. In the limited time I have had to look at the report, it appears to be comprehensive, and I thank the Department for that. For example, at last we are able to see a draft of a memorandum of understanding on a partnership for development. A draft of that document is set out in one of the appendices, and it is interesting to look at. I will be interested to see how the report next year handles the record of events last August-September, when Senator Button was forced to make a detailed explanation to the Parliament about the partnership for development program. That was the report which he finally tabled on 27 September 1988, when the Senate was about to take him to task for not providing the Parliament with the information that we had requested of him.

There are clearly some inconsistencies between what is in the report and what the Minister told us last year on 27 September. For example, last year in his report the Minister mentioned that the partnership for development program evolved from the offsets program but that they were not related. This report shows that the partnership for development program is to be a key part of the offsets program. That is clear confirmation of what I have been saying for two years-that the Minister and this Department have not really worked out what they are on about in relation to partnerships for development. There is much misunderstanding or lack of clarity in their views. I hope that this report will enable the Department and the Minister to clear up finally what they are on about.

The report shows the extent of the administrative discretion and that the ground rules for that administrative discretion have frequently been changed. Once again that confirms my belief, which I have often repeated, that there is a need for a legislative base for the offsets program and for the partnership for development program. Without that legislative base, the people of Australia are being deprived of the information to which they are entitled about these programs. The report shows that companies incurred obligations of about $240m in 1987-88, and that was a substantial obligation imposed by the Government without the approval of the Parliament.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crichton-Browne) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.


Senator Lewis —I seek leave to continue my remarks later, as I understand that there are other people who wish to speak to the report.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.