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Tuesday, 29 April 1980
Page: 1886

Senator Walsh (4.21) -by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.

The Office of the Auditor-General is a high and esteemed office, and the presentation of its report is an appropriate time once again to outline very briefly the sordid and continuing saga of the Government's cover-up of the AuditorGeneral 's investigation and report on the affairs of Asia Dairy Industries (Hong Kong) Ltd. After a great deal of questioning, which was evaded by the two Ministers concerned in the House of Representatives last year, finally, on 15 November, the then Minister for Primary Industry, Mr Nixon, refused to table the report on the grounds that the matters referred to by the

Auditor-General were no longer relevant. A week later, in response to another question, he refused to table the report on the grounds that the matters disclosed in the report were commercial and, therefore, confidential, and that it would not be appropriate to table the report.

On 30 November last year, I telegrammed him, seeking his permission to read the report in his office in Canberra the next week and guaranteeing not to release any commercial information which the report may contain. On 5 December, I received a reply by telegram from the Minister, Mr Nixon, in which he refused me permission to view the report in his office, stating that action was pending as a result of the matters referred to by the Auditor-General and that it would not be appropriate to make the report available for perusal by me or by any one else until that action was completed.

On 1 7 April, in response to another question as to why he renewed the charter of Asia Dairy Industries without tabling the report, Mr Nixon said:

I am advised by the Auditor-General that it is not appropriate- indeed, it would be a precedent- until the investigation is completed, for that correspondence to be tabled in the Parliament. That is the advice that I have received.

The matter was taken up by Senate Estimates Committee A on Monday of last week, 2 1 April, when the First Assistant Auditor-General was asked:

Does the Auditor-General give advice to the Minister on whether reports should or should not be tabled?

Mr Taylorreplied:

As far as I am aware, the Auditor-General merely reports to the Minister.

He was then asked:

You are not aware of any case where the Auditor-General recommended to the Minister that a report should not be tabled?

Mr Taylorreplied:

I am not aware of any such case.

Bear in mind that the Minister had stated a few days before that such advice had been tendered to him by the Auditor-General. Mr Taylor was questioned again:

Are you aware that the Minister for Primary Industry stated last Thursday that he had been advised by the Auditor-General not to table the report on Asia Dairy Industries?

Mr Taylorreplied:

I did read Hansard. I am not aware that such advice was given by the Auditor-General.

There still has been no explanation of this matter offered by the Minister for Primary Industry.

Senator Carrick - I raise a point of order, and I hesitate to do so. There are a number of reasons why this contribution may be out of order. There is an Order of the Day No. 263 listed on the subject of Asia Dairy Industries and there are a series of other matters listed on the business paper. Equally, this is a matter that has been the subject of questions before Estimates Committee A- I am the Minister responsible to that Committee- and Estimates Committee A has received a report from the Auditor-General on this matter. I do not know whether it is available for use here, but I happen to have a copy. I suggest that, as Senator Walsh is anticipating business on the business paper, he is out of order. The proper place to debate this matter would be in Estimates Committee A or in the Orders of the Day as listed, particularly item 263.

Senator McLaren - We have nothing on that.

Senator Button - If the point made by the Minister was correct- that is, that because a matter is listed on the Notice Paper, the Senate is debarred from discussing the contents of the report of the Auditor-General, which embraces a wide range of matters- the Senate would probably have to close down, as, for different reasons, it nearly did yesterday. That is not in any sense a limitation on discussion of matters which are raised in the conduct of the debate on a report. Similarly, the fact that a matter has been before an Estimate committee cannot, in the context in which a report is published subsequent to an Estimates committee's deliberations, have anything to do with the debate on that report.

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - What is more, he was given leave.

Senator Button - As Senator McClelland points out, he was given leave.

Senator Peter Baume - He was given leave to move a motion and to speak to the motion within the Standing Orders.

Senator Button - If I might deal with Senator Baume 's interjection, the motion moved by Senator Walsh related to the Auditor-General's report and that is the matter about which he is speaking.

Senator Peter Baume - I do not argue about that.

Senator Button - I do not think the honourable senator ought to. What the Minister is really saying is that he has dredged up a couple of devices, unheard of previously, for stifling debate in the Senate upon a matter which happens to be unpalatable to the Government. That is the essence of the point of order and there is no more substance to it than that.

Senator McLaren - Mr President,I wish to speak to the same point of order. In raising the point of order, the Leader of the Government in the Senate made mention of the fact that the Auditor-General reported to Estimates Committee A on Asia Dairy Industries (Hong Kong) Ltd. I am a member of that Committee. I am not aware that the Auditor-General has reported to Estimates Committee A on Asia Dairy Industries. For the Leader of the Government to foreshadow that something will be entailed in that report when it is tabled in the Parliament later today, he must be privy to something to which members of the Committee are not privy. Members of that Committee drew up the report yesterday. It will be tabled today. I am not aware that there is anything in that report to us from the Auditor-General on the special inquiry he conducted dealing with Asia Dairy Industries. If there is and the Leader of the Government is privy to it, we now find that something is taking place in this Parliament which is completely outside the Standing Orders of the Parliament. If that is the case, he is able to obtain access to information which elected members of that Committee are not. I think he is just trying to draw a red herring across the trail to prevent Senator Walsh from speaking to the motion for the tabling of the Auditor-General 's report.

Senator Carrick - Mr President,I raise a point of order so that there is no misunderstanding of this matter. As the Minister responsible, I received a letter from Mr A. A. Taylor, First Assistant Auditor-General, dated 28 April, relating to Senate Estimates Committee A. That letter contained a copy of a letter written to the Secretary of Senate Estimates Committee A dated 24 April. I do not have any special knowledge at all. Presumably that knowledge has been passed to Estimates Committee A. I simply indicate the source of my knowledge.

The PRESIDENT - I have heard enough on the point of order.

Senator McLaren - The Committee must be at fault then because the letter has not been passed on to Committee members.

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