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Wednesday, 30 May 1973
Page: 2854

Mr ANTHONY (Richmond) - The Australian Country Party supports the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation Bill. However, I must express some reservations and some fears about what could emanate from the amendments that are proposed to this legislation. Perhaps experience might show them to be unfounded. This Bill is designed to expand the scope of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation to allow it to engage in construction work in Australia with a wider range of tasks than has been permitted by the existing legislation. It is not what is known about the legislation that is of so much concern to me as what is not known about it. It is the shadow of the intent rather than the substance that gives me concern. It should be a general rule that statutory bodies of government officials are established to perform useful functions. They should not be established as an expression of the political belief that there should be government involvment in an area of the economy simply because that area is important. Similarly, given that the existence of statutory organisations is indicative of the need for their existence, once the purpose for their intended role has disappeared or changed the nature of the organisations should be changed. In other words, the legal structure and functions of the Corporation reflect the apparent requirement for it in the economy. This is a sensible and pragmatic approach and, being consequently devoid of ideological preconceptions, it is one that the Australian Labor Party apparently seems to reject.

It seems to me that the Labor Party has an almost spiritual attachment to statutory organisations and an almost mystic belief in their universal appropriateness. By contrast, the Country Party approaches this legislation in an objective and constructive manner. I believe that legislation relating to statutory organisations should be subject to 5 criteria. Firstly, will the Corporation play a role in the development of Australia that could not successfully be filled by existing organisations? Secondy, is the role envisaged by the Corporation an appropriate one for a statutory body to fill, given the basic nature of the Australian economy and poltical system? Thirdly, is the resultant utilisation of public funds appropriate in view of the increasing and diverse demands for government expenditure on a national basis? Fourthly, will the Corporation's operations lead to a net increase in the national welfare to an extent not otherwise possible? Fifthly, will the aggregate benefits provided by the Corporation sufficiently offset the adverse competitive impact on sectors of the private enterprise economy, through the Corporation's access to public funds, to justify its actions?

These are real and fair tests that ought to be applied to this legislation. However, the answers cannot be clearly received as the intentions of the Bill are rather vague and indefinite. I am not implacably opposed to State intervention in the economy simply because of ideological implications. Each case must be looked at on its own merits. However, it would seem to me that the tasks of the proposed new expanded Corporation should be made clear by the Minister for Housing (Mr Les Johnson) before Parliament is asked to authorise legislation which could enable the Corporation to become the biggest construction group in Australia.

In 1970 the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority employed some 3,000 men and was geared to the super-vision of approximately $40m worth of work a year. The action of the previous Government to subsequently limit the operations of the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation and to arrange a specific list of matters was not taken out of political malice. It was taken for the very good reason that once the duties of the Authority had changed its nature had to be altered to take account of the circumstances. It did not want to retain a very large construction organisation simply because of an emotional reluctance to see it diminished in size. The functions of the present organisation have enabled it to engage in some very useful work for the nation. It has operated at a substantial profit and has had a full work load. If the Government wishes to expand the scope of the organisation it should make clear how it is to meet the 5 criteria I have listed, and what duties it envisages the organisation performing. The lack of a statutory organisation of this nature in the past has not prevented massive development work being carried out in Australia. lt has not prevented the rapid mineral development of this nation and the exploration and exploitation of previously untapped energy resources.

What I suspect is that from an organisation with a useful supplementary role in the economy, performing with distinction on a profitable basis, the Corporation will become a gigantic government-controlled construction authority serving, in a most clumsy and unwieldy manner, the dual purpose of satisfying the socialistic instincts of the Labor Party and, in a heavy-handed way, the use of overseas capital and skills in the development of Australian resources. I emphasise the word 'suspect' although from the Minister's second reading speech we have a subtle hint that the Corporation's relevance will be in relation to mining and to the construction of the gas pipeline between, I presume, South Australia and Sydney.

One would never have guessed from the bland second reading speech of the Minister that this legislation is one of the most potentially dangerous pieces of legislation one could imagine for State and Commonwealth relations. At present, the Corporation has broad functions associated with engineering work in a Commonwealth territory. Where the Corporation's activities relate to a State, the Minister shall not approve Corporation activities unless they are related to underground work and work associated with the development of water resources for the generation and the transmission of electricity. The existing Act shows that it was the intention of the Parliament that the Corporation may operate in a State, subject to these restrictions. The Commonwealth Parliament has power to limit the extent to which the Corporation may perform functions with the authority of State law, and it has done so.

All the States - Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania - have passed legislation complementary to the Act. That State legislation permits the Corporation to operate legally within a State in relation to those matters with respect to which the Commonwealth Parliament does not have power to make laws. The State legislation also controls the Corporation's operations in the State in order to protect the operations of existing construction authorities and consultant facilities in the State. What do the proposed amendments entail? The Corporation would be able to engage in the construction of engineering works not only outside Australia but also inside Australia. Previous restrictions as to its scope would be eliminated. Under the amendment to section 27 of the Act the Corporation would be given potential preferential borrowing rights. I oppose provisions of this nature under which the Corporation could well be in competition with existing organisations in the construction industry.

The Australian Country Party opposed a similar financial provision in the Australian National Airlines Bill and was assured by the Minister for Civil Aviation (Mr Charles Jones) in the Committee stage that it was intended that in practice Trans-Australia Airlines would not be given preferential borrowing rights. I hope it is not too much to look for a similar assurance from the Minister for Housing in relation to the amendments to this Act. But here is the crunch: The restrictions which the Commonwealth Parliament imposes on the Corporation in its operations in the States are to be removed. If the States go along with these increased powers and amend their complementary legislation, all will be done legally. But if the States do not go along with this the Corporation may exercise its newly acquired functions in a State to the extent that the Commonwealth legal authority over-rides State legal authority.

To what extent is this the case? Here we are getting into complex legal areas, but in a nutshell it is quite likely that the Commonwealth can over-ride State objections to an almost unlimited extent through, for example, the Commonwealth defence powers. Let us take an example. Section 32 of the Act is to be amended so that the Corporation must acquire property under the Lands Acquisition Act 1955-1966 if it wishes to acquire land or property at all. This means in the final analysis that the Corporation could compulsorily acquire land in Sydney and build on that land any type of structure or engineering work. This could be done despite all the objections of the State planning authorities and the State Government. The Further one looks into this Bill the more significant its implications become. If the off-shore area could be legally defined as Commonwealth territory, the Corporation could engage in the engineering works and construction activities related to mineral exploration in the off-shore areas of Australia.

The foregoing explains my earlier concern that the Government should indicate what its intentions are. Are my fears imaginary or are they real? That is the important question that needs to be answered. If the Government's actions are commensurate with the legal provisions of this Bill the position is a very serious one indeed. 1 believe it is necessary for me to highlight my concern and to give warning to those people who may not believe that there are any dangers inherent in this Bill. If the Government has certain latent socialistic views and intends bringing them into action, all I can say is that in the future this sort of legislation will have to be strongly opposed. The Opposition will take whatever action it can to see that those areas of the Bill which tend towards state and monopoly control and undue competition with free enterprise which could ordinarily undertake this work are removed.

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