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Tuesday, 9 May 1972
Page: 1450

Senator BYRNE (Queensland) - The debate which has been initiated by the Australian Democratic Labor Party on this very important matter has resulted in speeches being addressed to the Senate chamber by Government supporters and supporters of the Opposition. The approach of the Government on this matter has been one of cairn consideration. While not being prepared to accept the Democratic Labor Party's propositions, the Government has attempted to analyse them. This approach has been adopted by Senator Cotton, Senator Greenwood and Senator Rae. While Senator Rae can find merit in the general attitude and disposition which supports the presentation of this motion he can also find in it possibilities and implications that would be, to his mind, undesirable and which have not been plumbed in sufficient depth to allow him to support the motion. My colleagues and I respect that approach to the debate on this matter.

From the other side of the chamber - from the Australian Labor Party - on a matter which should be completely nonpolitical we have heard nothing but an intemperate attack on the good will, the good faith and the integrity of the Democratic Labor Party in bringing forward this matter. The Australian Labor Party is not able to, nor does it, disagree with the substance of the proposition or what is intended by the motion. Because the Australian Labor Party cannot say that the Democratic Labor Party is wrong, it says that the Democratic Labor Party is right but for the wrong reason. In other words, the Australian Labor Party is suggesting that the Democratic Labor Party is advancing this motion purely for political purposes and not having in mind any honesty of purpose or any real intent to handle the problem at issue. The Democratic Labor Party has been more interested in this matter than in any other group in the Parliament and it has been interested for a longer time. An examination of the record of my Party in this chamber over the last few years will reveal that this matter has been under the constant scrutiny and attention of the Democratic Labor Party. lt is all right for the Australian Labor Party to ask why the Democratic Labor Party moved today and not before. My reply to that question is: Why did the Australian Labor Party, as the official Opposition, not move first on this matter? 1 go back to 16th September 1969 . when the then Prime Minister, Mr Gorton, presented in another place the guidelines for foreign investment. They were almost simultaneously read in this place. The guidelines laid down on that occasion embraced a takeover code in most specific terms detailed by the then Prime Minister. After Senator Sir Kenneth Anderson had adressed himself to those propositions the adjournment of the debate was taken by the late Senator Cohen. In other words, at that point the Australian Labor Party had the carriage of the matter if it wanted to investigate it or examine it in depth. From then on nothing was done about it. To my knowledge this matter has not been debated by the Australian Labor Party since then. The official Opposition is so recreant to its trust, to the responsibility which it assumes and to the position and prestige which it claims in this Parliament that a matter which it now says is of vital national importance has not attracted its attention.

I can understand the embarrassment, concern and chagrin of members of the Opposition when the Democratic Labor Party takes the initiative and captures the imagination and support of the whole Australian nation in drawing national attention and parliamentary attention to this important matter. I can well understand the embarrassment of the Australian Labor Party because in this matter, as in so many other matters, the Democratic Labor Party has once again taken the initiative. It was my Party which moved for the appointment of a Senate select committee to consider the whole question of the foreign control of Australian assets. It was my Party which made particular reference of the Ansett-TNT takeover proposition to the Standing Committee on Industry and Trade. It is my Party which now brings this matter up and wants it to receive immediate attention.

Having disposed of the Australian Labor Party, which is completely in the rearguard of parliamentary initiative in this country, I turn now to the more important matters raised by Senator Rae. The action the Democratic Labor Party seeks will be more or less in the nature of an interim injunction. When one fears that a cetain situation is going to develop, one moves in quickly with some sort of a stay order until the matter can be examined in depth. When this matter was first raised and started to be a matter of public concern and when it attracted the attention of the Democratic Labor Party certain economic conditions were prevailing which, while they gave rise to concern that the present position might develop, were not of the acute nature which is now so apparent and so evident. Things have changed. With the rate of interest as it is in Australia today and with the exchange rate as it is there is every inducement and every opportunity for the circumvention of any action we may take to try and prohibit Australian assets passing into foreign control. That being the position there will be people who will try to take advantage of the situation.

The announcements have been made on this subject. First of all there was the announcement of the appointment of the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control. It is quite probable that that committee will in due course bring down firm guidelines to govern this matter. Those who are interested in coming in before the door is closed are likely to move now. We know that there is always great parliamentary reluctance to legislate retrospectively to handle a situation. The second announcement was by the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) that he proposes to lay down a White Paper on this matter. That again is going to alert those who want to circumvent any lines of economic and financial discipline that they must move now if they are going to move at all.

We have had recent manifestations of this type of thing. The matter which was raised publicly by Senator Kane in this place of the attempted takeover by the International Telephone anl Telegraph Corporation of one of the big food complexes in Australia is that type of exercise. When the alert has been given and the red signal is being raised it is likely that there will be a spate of this type of approach. It is therefore vital that the Parliament should at this time move as it can to try to impede those who in due time would circumvent what we have in mind.

Senator Rae - Takeovers, surely, but not share purchases as such.

Senator BYRNE - Ultimately it comes down to the same thing. If one purchases the share capital of a company to the point where one controls it surely that is a takeover. It is a matter of technical terms, but ultimately such action can result, in the complete ownership and control of the beneficial interests of a company. Whether it is a raid on the share market which results in virtually complete ownership and control or a firm takeover offer in the technical sense it amounts to the same thing in the ultimate. It is in an endeavour to try to stifle this type of procedure and to impede this type of assault on Australian resources that the Demoncratic Labor Party is moving on this occasion. The motion contemplates, to use the term Senator Kane used, a 'complete freeze'.

I do not want Senator Rae or the Government to examine this motion in the most technical terms. It is an intimation by the Senate of concern in principle. When it comes to a clear definition of what is meant by a 'public company' or other terms like that, I suppose a motion of this nature is somewhat ineffective and inadequate. But that is not the purport of an urgency motion of this character. The more specific delineation will come at a later stage. The intention of this motion is to draw the attention of the nation and the Parliament to the fact that the resources held by public companies in Australia are now vulnerable and there is a great possibility that they will be captured in a large measure by interests outside of Australia. I do not think one would expect the terms to be technically specific in this type of motion. It is for that reason that we have not sought for them to be technically specific. If the terms of this motion are considered by the Government to be rather harsh in that they contemplate a complete freeze of all proposals of this nature by prohibition, interruption or impediment, I ask the Government to examine - the Senate having intimated its deep and urgent concern in this field - as the motion contemplates, whether the appropriate legislative and administrative machinery is available or, if it is unavailable, whether it can be created. Once it is created, if it does not freeze the attempted takeover of all companies, at least it should give the power and authority to handle particular cases where malice is involved. That is an interpretation of our proposal which is available. We put the matter at the highest level and we will receive the support of the Australian Labor Party at that level. If the Government opposes this proposal and is not prepared to abide by the concern expressed in the Senate, in the fullest terms, at least it should look at particular cases, examine the legislative and administrative machinery to see what can be done and then operate in relation to those particular cases. That is an appeal, and I think Senator Georges at least would agree that we are entitled to ask the Government, if it does not agree with this proposal, to do what I have outlined. This debate has gone on for some hours. I merely say that the Democratic Labor Party has been interested in this matter for a long time. The allegations that this is some sort of a political manoeuvre to advance the candidature of a candidate or to obtain public acclaim are wrong. I draw the attention of the Senate to a speech I made on the Banks (Shareholdings) Bill 1971 which appears at page 261 of the Senate Hansard. I said in that speech:

This is an important Bill dealing with a matter which has been raised by my Party and by me in the Senate in more recent times.

My comment was sparked by the suggestion that money from Hong Kong would be used to obtain ownership and control of a hire purchase empire in Australia. This would have been an extraordinarily dangerous situation because the finance and economic empire is on a parallel with the banking empire, and therefore the credit resources of Australian could be vulnerable to external attack. I went on to say that the Democratic Labor Party had been interested in this matter for a considerable time, and I continued:

I know that it has been suggested that it is very difficult to take action in this area, but a few years ago the Democratic Labor Party in Queensland at a State conference put forward the suggestion that there should be a gradation in scales of company tax so that as a public company had more or less Australian participating equity, so the rate of company tax should vary. In other words, if a public company had SO per cent of Australian equity the company tax would be X per cent. On the other hand, if the Australian equity fell to 35 per cent the company tax would go up. . . .

So a long time ago there was evidence of the Democratic Labor Party's aversion to this problem in a most practical way with a very practical solution. It is an indication of our continuing concern in relation to this matter. We have raised it all along. We have taken the only practical steps so far taken. When Mr Gorton was Prime Minister the Government knew of (his problem and did nothing; the Australian Labor Party knew nothing and did nothing; we knew and we acted. I commend this proposal to the Senate. In order that a vote may be taken on this matter, I move:

That the question be now put.

Senator Cotton - I rise to a point of order. Under standing order 64 (2.) the time set aside for debating matters of urgency is 3 hours, and we have a senator yet to speak.

The PRESIDENT - Order! The motion that the question be put is an overriding motion which must be put without debate.

Question put:

That the question be now put.

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