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Wednesday, 1 September 1993
Page: 787

Senator PARER (4.16 p.m.) —In view of the remarks made by my colleagues, I wish to move an amendment to the motion to take note of the report. I move:

  At the end of motion, add—

``, but in view of the fact that the committee chose not to hold any public meetings prior to finalising its report:

(a)the report be referred back to the Finance and Public Administration Committee for reconsideration and report to the Senate on or before 28 September 1993; and

(b)in reconsidering the report, the committee shall hold at least one public hearing for the purpose of testing, with the assistance of oral evidence from relevant witnesses, the integrity and adequacy of the written evidence on which the committee based its report''.

I was the mover of the motion to hold a public hearing, supported by Senator Kernot, the Leader of the Australian Democrats. It was our expectation that when the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration heard this matter, it would not only take written submissions but also have a public hearing. In his remarks, Senator Coates said that it was a `misuse of the Senate'. Quite clearly, it was not a misuse of the Senate. When this motion was passed we had a reporting date of the end of the budget sittings of 1992.

Senator Coates —I said it would have been a misuse of the committee.

Senator PARER —I accept that. Senator Coates came to see me and Senator Kernot and said that because of the workload of the committee this was a bit tight, but he gave us his assurance that the inquiry would occur in an expeditious way. A remark was also made and, of course, this did not happen. Now Senator Coates explained this by saying that as this matter was before the court, it could prejudice the outcome of the court proceedings. We received advice on that from the clerks, who indicated that in no way could that happen.

  Frankly, in view of the fact that Senator Kernot and I both advised Senator Watson, following a suggestion by the chairman that he approach us, that there should be a public hearing, and then his use of his casting vote to prevent that from happening is really an abuse of the committee system.

  This matter raises with me—and I am sure it raises it with other senators in this place following the election—the question as to whether the committees of the Senate should not more adequately reflect the numbers in the Senate. In the past, the government was able to steamroll things through this place. Well, let me let it know that it cannot do so any more.

  The reason this matter was referred to the committee, as has been clearly outlined by Senator Watson, is the implications of what happened. The fund that is referred to was established in 1985 to protect building society members following the collapse of the Queensland Permanent Building Society. All building societies made compulsory contributions. This included the then Metropolitan Permanent Building Society, which became Metway Bank on 30 June 1988, by which time the total contribution by the then Metway Bank was $17 million. The question arose: was it or was it not the same entity? Quite clearly, it was the same entity. I think this was also the conclusion reached by Senator Coates. There is no dispute about whether or not it was the same entity. The Queensland government then decided to snatch this money away, and, in the view of Metway and its shareholders, it was the equivalent of pilfering money which belonged to the shareholders of the bank.

  Senator Coates made great play about the court decision. All the court decision did was reaffirm, quite naturally, that governments can legislate to do what they like. That is exactly what the Queensland government did. There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind and in the minds of others that it was expected that the people who made written submissions, particularly those who were more closely affected by this outrageous decision by the Queensland government, would be given the opportunity to present evidence at a public hearing. I do not dispute the fact that in many cases written submissions themselves suffice. But the expectation was there that those people would be given the opportunity to enlarge on the written submission which they gave.

  I am concerned about this quite deliberate action by the chairman of the committee, with the support of his Labor colleagues, to prevent a public hearing. It raises the question: why has he done that? It is not just simply a workload. No-one will swallow that.

Senator Coates —It is a matter of principle. That is what I explained, if you wanted to listen.

Senator PARER —Senator Coates has introduced an interesting matter of principle. Because this Senate decides to refer something to a committee, he decides that he will determine as a matter of principle that there should not be a public hearing. That is the sort of blatant arrogance we have come to expect from this government. It is the sort of thing we expect in the other place from the Prime Minister (Mr Keating), but not in this chamber. I can tell Senator Coates that there is no way in the world this chamber will allow that sort of behaviour to occur again.