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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1335

Senator O'CHEE (11.05 p.m.) —I wish to raise this evening a very serious matter and a very sorry matter. It shows the human cost of actions by people in the Public Service who do not appreciate that they are dealing with real people and real victims, in many cases, of grave injustices.

  This story is about a woman called Mrs Nola Sillars. Mrs Nola Sillars cannot tell her story because on 10 September she took her life. She took her life in exasperation at what she saw as an uncooperative bureaucracy and a legal system in relation to corporations which was very difficult to understand. Having discussed the matter with her surviving partner, I thought it appropriate that we lay these matters before the Senate.

  Mrs Sillars was married originally to a gentleman called Mr Ian Sillars and they lived in Western Australia. They jointly owned, through a company called Ticket Seal International Pty Ltd, the machinery and the rights to produce scratch-off lottery tickets and scratch-off promotional tickets that some honourable senators may have received in places such as McDonald's and so on.

  Mr and Mrs Sillars had a marital separation in early 1983 and she sought some legal advice. In retrospect, I think the legal advice she received was poor, to say the least. It may also have been that the legal advice she received was not given in her best interests. She sought to have the assets of the company and the associated family assets frozen, for the creditors to be paid, and then to sort out the financial arrangements between herself and her husband. It seems as though she was advised that the appropriate way to do that was not to put the company into liquidation, a belief that she held for the remainder of her life. I believe that she may have been poorly advised in that and that, had a separate course of action been followed, maybe this problem would not have occurred.

  It appears, however, that her solicitor was not diligent in pursuing Mrs Sillars's instructions. I also note that her solicitor later served a gaol sentence in Western Australia for matters arising from misconduct during the course of his professional duties, but not in relation to Mrs Sillars's case. Mrs Sillars, however, believed that he should have been gaoled for misconduct in relation to her case.

  Subsequently, it appears that her husband took the assets of the company—the machinery, the rights, the contracts and everything—went to Sydney and continued to trade under the name, not of Ticket Seal International Pty Ltd, but Ticket Seal International Sydney. My office has conducted company searches with the Australian Securities Commission and although we can find Ticket Seal International Pty Ltd, which is now a company in liquidation, there seems no evidence that there was ever a Ticket Seal International Sydney.

  What is even more disturbing is that, before the company in Western Australia was liquidated, Mr Sillars alienated all of the assets of the company for the princely sum of $5,000—what is known in the insolvency game as the sideways shuffle: all of the assets go one way and all of the liabilities stay where they are.

  Mrs Sillars had extreme difficulty in trying to get an amicable solution to this. During the disputation her 12-year-old daughter was also kidnapped from her. I understand that she did not see her after that time. She sought, with no success, to have Mr Sillars brought to justice for the things that he had done. The fraud squad in Western Australia looked at it and seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that it was too difficult. It subsequently appeared that after much pressure from Mrs Sillars the liquidator of the company did form a view that Mr Sillars's conduct was legally unsatisfactory. But Mr Sillars cannot be brought to answer for that because he has fled to the United States and shows little intention of returning to this jurisdiction.

  My concern was in relation to Mrs Sillars's attempts to get some explanation from the Australian Securities Commission as to what had happened. Her letters to the Australian Securities Commission are truly depressing. There is one letter on the file dated 11 November 1992 pointing out that in that year she had written to the Australian Securities Commission on 11 October, 16 October, 22 October and 26 October. She also wrote to the Australian Securities Commission on 15 December and again on 26 January this year. What she sought was some information in relation to the winding-up of the company. In particular, she sought to be assured that the information that she had provided at what she obviously thought could have been a grave risk to her own personal safety had been acted upon. The Australian Securities Commission was very unwilling to provide the information.

  Ultimately, on 12 February 1993, a letter was received by Mrs Sillars. In fairness to the ASC, it is not a bad letter, but it could have gone further. It indicates that the liquidator of the company spent six years pursuing a preference action which was subsequently lost. I do not pass any judgment on that, but it does seem very strange that it would take six years to bring and pursue a preference action.

  It also appears that the liquidator sought advice as to whether Mr Sillars could be pursued in relation to what was described as possible bankruptcy action and the outcome of a charging action relating to another company, but it appeared that there was no possibility of bringing him to justice. One wonders, however, why this conclusion was not arrived at until after Mr Sillars had had ample opportunity to strip the company bare and flee the jurisdiction. That should be a source of some concern. The Securities Commission refused to release the section 418 report which dealt with these matters in detail.

  Mrs Sillars, being both a former director of and contributory to the company, was also a person against whom it may have been possible to raise imputations if one were not seeking to form an honest opinion of the facts. Having looked at the file, I do not believe there is any ground for believing that Mrs Sillars acted in anything other than the best interests of the creditors, her family and her good name.

  She was so frustrated by this that she contacted me and other senators, seeking assistance, to get the relevant information released to her. On 10 September she gave up waiting and took her own life. On 15 September my staff received a letter from the Australian Securities Commission, which appears a little confused. It states that thus far the commission has not had to consider the question of whether or not a section 533 report or a section 418 report is available for access pursuant to the FOI act. One of the concerning things is that Mrs Sillars did not have the resources to pay the costs associated with an FOI application.

  When people have given information to assist organisations such as the Australian Securities Commission or people who are charged with responsibility under the corporations law, perhaps consideration ought to be given to waiving those charges. I think it is also necessary for us to consider whether it is possible to release to people information contained in some reports which at least shows them that their cooperative action has been worth while. It may be that some sort of briefing information can be provided under privilege. It may be that edited forms of the documents can be provided.

  None of this makes much difference now, I suppose, to Mrs Sillars. The wishes of her family are that this matter be pursued and that we attempt to get a change in attitude so that dreadful situations like this do not happen again. I cannot help reflecting on the conversation I had with her partner. She was fortunate enough in the last years of her life to have a loving and caring partner in Sydney. His stated wish to her on many occasions was that maybe she should give up this fight. He wanted her to settle down and for them to get married. I have spoken with him. He is a very good man and a man who is immensely upset by what has occurred. I wish to place on the record here, in this place, at this time, my condolences to him, to Mrs Sillars's surviving family and to the people who attempted to support her.

  I hope that those who could have been more cooperative in the discharge of their public duties will recognise that real people bear the costs of their inaction and that they have an obligation to everybody to discharge their duty properly. I hope that this may be a salutary lesson and that we will never again have to go through this dreadful situation.