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Wednesday, 27 October 1993
Page: 2665

Senator BOLKUS (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Multicultural Affairs) (6.55 p.m.) —The government opposes Senator Vanstone's foreshadowed amendments and, in doing so, goes back to the history of this provision and class actions and the whole debate about whether one adopts an opt-in or opt-out proposal. It is a debate that we have had on a number of occasions in the past. It was a debate that was running hot when I was Minister for Consumer Affairs. The government was then considering what sort of approach to take—an opt-in or opt-out approach. We went for the opt-out approach.

  I think Senator Tate, when he was minister, was responsible for legislation going through this parliament on this aspect of legislation. We opted for an opt-out approach because it was much more preferable on grounds of equity and efficiency. It allowed access to many more Australians to assert their rights and was most efficient.

  It is a debate that in previous times probably would have generated much more heat and would have had all sorts of groups on either side arguing which of the two options was the most preferred. We took the deliberate policy decision. We felt that legal access to redress of rights—particularly for those who are disadvantaged and less educated, those who have less access to the legal system—was more likely to come through an opt-out proposal which, at the same time as enhancing the access to justice of many, still protected those who wanted to drop out of a particular court action by allowing them to remove themselves from that representative complaint before an inquiry had commenced. Those people were able to commence separate individual complaints if they wished to do so.

  In essence, the history of these sorts of actions is that it is a simpler and cheaper process to run if there is an opt-out process. But, more importantly, when it comes to those in our community who do not have access to law—those who have extra barriers towards that access because of language, education or, most importantly, because of resources—an opt-out class action approach is much fairer and enhances their rights of access.

  The debate this evening does not have the vitality that we had some five or six years ago and even more recently when Senator Tate introduced legislation. To the extent that we go through the opposition's package of amendments, we are reliving once again past debates. I do not think we should take all that long canvassing it now, given the fact that our history has indicated that massive economic dislocation and massive cost to the economy was going to occur if we went down this road. All those threats and predictions of doom have not eventuated. We have in place a much fairer opting-out process, and the government sticks with it.