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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3108

Senator BROWNHILL (Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia) (11.39 a.m.) —I thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Senator Sherry) for making the comment that they are available. Of course, one of the problems with this whole unfortunate saga has been that a few times when questions have been asked, the answers have been before the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) and they have not got through to us. They might have made a difference to the course of the whole debate had they been freely available, and had the minister acted much more quickly—

Senator O'Chee —Or had the officer been there.

Senator BROWNHILL —Or if he had been a bit quicker in dealing with it. Mr Acting Deputy President, I am not going to argue across the chamber. I am quite sure that Senator Sherry will be staying here for a while. We have had long conversations about this issue.

  I would like to comment on the matters that Senator O'Chee and I raised in the Estimates Committee A hearings. Despite the cooperation of the committee and the best endeavours of the committee secretariat, I had great difficulty in obtaining information from officers of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. They simply did not turn up, for the most part. When they did, the minister representing the minister for primary industries at the time prevented them from answering questions. Senator O'Chee has already alluded to that. Both the non-attendance of the requested officers and the obstructive tactics of the two ministers who represented the minister for primary industries at the hearings were a discourtesy to the Senate and make a mockery of the estimates process.

  We are on the threshold of passing the appropriation bills and we are still to receive answers from AQIS, answers that could have been provided to us had the officers appeared or, when they did appear, had they been allowed to answer. I have to repeat that this is a government department that is, in large part, based on cost recovery from farmers but it is 100 per cent funded by the taxpayers, because those farmers either pay tax or the people in the community pay tax. It is something the new AQIS executive director appears not to acknowledge, if his evidence before the rural and regional affairs committee this week is any guide. There he said that certain funds for consultancies were coming out of budget. Surely that does not come out of the government; it comes out of the taxpayers in the first instance and government passes it on through its departments.

  The issues Senator O'Chee and I raised related to travel expense excesses, excessive consultancy fees and other administrative irregularities—some quite small and minor and others quite large and significant. We raised issues such as officers approving travel for other officers when they were not in Canberra to even sign the form, overseas travel taken without prior approval or approval backdated, extensive use of mobile phones and fuel cards for very identifiable private business when the regulations state that it is not permitted, and officers at the very top of AQIS repeatedly taking leave—which Senator O'Chee has just mentioned—while overseas to such an extent as to give the appearance that the trip was designed around the leave. These are questions that should be successfully answered if there is nothing to hide.

  We have the most senior officer spending more than half his time out of Canberra, which may help to explain why there is such chronic mismanagement of administration within the headquarters of AQIS. Maybe that is where the problem lies. They are good officers and good people, more than likely, but they are just not doing the job right. There are consultants employed at three to four times the salary of a permanent officer carrying out administrative functions that could and should have been done by someone on a prescribed Public Service rate. Senator O'Chee has made that point. Consultancy contracts have been awarded to companies that then employ senior officers from the very section that awarded the contract. These are questions that should be answered.

  There is a burgeoning consultancy bill that this year has blown out from $1.7 million to $3.5 million, at a time when AQIS is claiming that it is streamlining its operations and cutting back on costs. It is just moving the deck chairs. Officers have been soliciting funds from private companies. Senator O'Chee has made that point. Funds have been obtained from international organisations but have not been recorded and receipted in a proper audited manner. We are not the only forum that has sought answers. The matter started when the internal review officers were thwarted in their task. They had their records taken and altered and finally had their activities summarily stopped. We have to ask ourselves why.

Senator O'Chee —They were too honest.

Senator BROWNHILL —That could be right. I think they were too honest; they were getting on to something. Had the department acted openly and properly on what was discovered then, it might have prevented the whole department from coming under suspicion and attracting scorn, derision and discredit, as it has now. That is the sad thing for me as a user of the service, and it is a sad thing for Australia.

  The then secretary to the department, one Mr Geoff Miller, chose instead to arrange an authorised officer to review the matter, and that officer reviewed it in such a way that he was able to conclude that the first travel audit was improper and without foundation. He came to that conclusion without even examining any of the working documents. On that basis alone one would have to question whether he was really correct, or the veracity of it.

  Notwithstanding that, the department issued a media release to suggest that the matter had undergone the proper departmental procedures and that everything was in order. But the issues would not go away. So the Auditor-General was called in to give it a clean bill of health. But try as he might, he could not; and he concluded that there were at least three instances that were in-principle breaches of the Public Service Act. The report is The Auditor-General—Audit Report No. 3 1993-94—Australian Quarantine Inspection Service. In summary, the report notes that some 330 individual matters were examined and, of these, 39 per cent were found to have no substance; 47 per cent were breaches of regulations which indicated inadequacies in management practices—I repeat: 47 per cent were inadequacies in management practices; 13 per cent were breaches of regulations which involved recoveries from officers to the net value of $2,000; and there were three instances that may have involved misconduct in the terms of the Public Service Act 1992.

  The ANAO did not support the findings of the departmental officer that no misconduct had occurred in any of the cases examined. So the saga went on. One would think that at this stage the person in charge of the department would have been saying, `I want to clean it up'. But still nothing was done.

  Then Senator O'Chee and I started asking questions; and a very strange thing happened. All of a sudden, the department decided that perhaps things were not as satisfactory as it first thought and the very matters we raised were addressed. An officer who had been cleared by the internal review processes—not once but twice—and who could not be prosecuted, according to the Attorney-General's advice, was now the subject of charges.

  We have since raised the matter of the consultant who has, to our knowledge, received $403,000 in consultancy fees in the past 18 months. His qualifications appear to be in accountancy but could not be regarded as particularly unique or warranting such an income if he were employed as a full-time officer. As I have said, it would seem that he is costing the department three to four times what he would if he were employed as a permanent officer.

  The minister, Mr Crean, invited Senator O'Chee and me for a briefing which, I understood, was to be and to remain private but from which the minister has since chosen to disclose matters raised by Senator O'Chee and me. The minister assured us that it was his desire to ensure that AQIS was a credible, unblemished and efficient department. That was repeated at the Senate estimates committee by Senator Gareth Evans on 8 November. I quote from page 335 of the Hansard of Senate Estimates Committee A:

Mr Crean undertook to investigate any further matters that they might wish to raise in regard to AQIS.

Mr Crean also advised the House of Representatives, in response to a question from the honourable member for Murray, Mr Lloyd, that he was `perfectly happy' to fully investigate any aspect where irregularity was asserted. He went on to say:

I am prepared, as I say, to investigate anything that is put forward in concrete terms.

But just how sincere is the minister, because we have put other things forward in concrete form? Surely, he would be at this stage saying, `Look, I do not want this thing hanging over my head. I want to clean it up'. But the point really is, I suppose, that, if two coalition senators know what is going on in AQIS, why does the minister not know? Why is it that he addresses matters only after Senator O'Chee and I bring them to his attention? If he is genuine in wanting to clean up his department, why has he not acted of his own volition? Why must he wait for us to bring matters to his attention? He is, after all, the minister supposedly in charge of the department.

  He ought to know what is going on. If he does not, one has to question his ability as an administrator. I do not question his ability as an administrator. Obviously, he is a person of trust. He is a minister in charge of a department. His is a very important portfolio. I come now to the most serious ramification of all of this. I place on record the fact that threats, implied and otherwise, have been delivered to me directly and by messenger.

  AQIS is Australia's public face for our much envied veterinary and quarantine reputation. It is a reputation that has been hard-earned. I do not know of anyone who would want to see that reputation sullied. The officers about whom these allegations have been made are very senior administrators. They are the public face of AQIS. Australia's reputation rides on their credibility. So why are they daring to put at risk that reputation, a reputation that affects not only the primary producers of this country but all Australians, present and future? What right have they to do that and what right has the minister to protect them?

  This is not merely an internal matter of some trifle. It is a serious reflection on Australia's reputation. The action that Senator O'Chee and I have taken has been taken after long and very considered thought. It is not being done to punish any individual. It is being done in an effort to protect Australia's international reputation and to ensure that Australian producers get a fair deal. Senator O'Chee has alluded to that. It is being done to ensure a fair deal is given to the farmers and the people who pay for the inspection service, which is a cost recovery service.

  It is being done to try to restore the confidence of other officers within the department who believe in the worth of the service and who do not wish it to be destroyed by individual greed and careless mismanagement. I stress that I am not in any way impugning the reputation of the officers about whom we have been asking questions. They are acknowledged as international leaders in their field, and their professional abilities are not at issue. But they are jeopardising their own reputations, along with that of Australia, and the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy is exacerbating the situation.

  The reputation of AQIS is already fairly low, if evidence taken by the rural and regional affairs committee is any indication. Earlier this week, we had evidence given to us by people who said that AQIS officers were negligent as far as consultation was concerned. They had inappropriate consultations with the industry regarding the new charges that people perceive are being put on. Basically, the industry was saying that AQIS needed to achieve real reform, not just a shuffling of the cards. Officers were accused by others of being negligent in preparing the industry for change.

  I asked a question about a letter that was written two months ago to Mr Bisset, the person who is getting the high consultancy fees. The letter has not been replied to yet. It was about multiple charges for packing works within the same confines. There has been no reply to that letter for two months—I think the letter was written on 10 September—and the witness said, `I think it is arrogant'. They were the very words he used.

  This organisation is a division of the Department of Primary Industries and Energy. It is Australia's public face, yet throughout Australia it is subject to widespread criticism, so much so that there are measures in the budget to rationalise and reform the whole structure of AQIS to make it lean and efficient. It makes one wonder why a few jobs are being cut off, on the one hand, and a consultancy of $400,000 is being given, on the other hand.

  Efficiency in AQIS cannot improve nor can the attitude of AQIS change unless reforms start at the top, unless management is transparent and honest. Efficiency and productivity must be proven right from the top. That is not proven at this stage. If we do not get reform at the top there will be no desire to improve through the ranks of the inspection service. If Mr Crean has any decency, if he has any appreciation of what it means to be in charge of Australia's most valuable export commodities and to be responsible for protecting Australia's overseas reputation, he will move quickly to have the entire AQIS independently assessed and to have an open and thorough inquiry by professional investigators.

  That is what Senator O'Chee and I are asking for. We are asking the minister to realise the problems that he has had at the top of his department and to do something about it. The more he pushes the dust under the carpet, the more he tries to hide the people in AQIS behind his ministerial cloak, the more people will question why he is not cleaning it up, why he is not taking direct action to stop this saga that has been going on for so long.

  In any investigation, in any inquiry, the innocent never have anything to fear; it is only the guilty who search for protection. That is how it appears to us. I say to the parliamentary secretary at the table representing the minister, `The ball is at your feet and at the feet of your minister. It is in your court. Are you brave enough to pick it up? Are you brave enough to run with it and clean up an organisation that has had all these accusations made about it so that once and for all it is a lean, mean, squeaky clean machine of which we can all be proud?'.