Mr SLACK-SMITH (Barwon) [7.39 p.m.]: I move:
That this House disallows clause 4 (1) (a) of the Grain Marketing Regulation 2001 made under the Grain Marketing Act 1991, which was published in Government Gazette No. 117, dated 27 July 2001 at page 5631 and tabled in this House on 4 September 2001.
Clause 4 (1) (a) of the Grain Marketing Regulation should be disallowed. The people of New South Wales, especially the grain producers, not only should be accountable but should be seen to be accountable. I believe it would be irresponsible of the Opposition if it did not oppose the Carr Government—particularly the Minister for Agriculture—making regulations to protect itself from independent scrutiny. This clause gives the Minister for Agriculture the power to stifle any independent examinations of the role played by government agencies and Government members, including himself, in the $160 million New South Wales Grains Board collapse. The collapse was a catastrophe for agriculture and the grains that are produced in New South Wales.
Under the circumstances surrounding the $160 million collapse of the Grains Board, the Opposition believes that it is totally inappropriate for the Government to replace Australia's corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities Investments Corporation [ASIC], with the Minister. The regulation must be disallowed. Honourable members are aware of the sorry saga of the Grains Board collapse, which culminated in the appointment of Mr Murray Smith of KPMG as administrator in November 2000. Mr Smith should be congratulated on working tirelessly over the past 12 months. I am pleased to note that on 24 October the Supreme Court approved his scheme of arrangement to provide returns to creditors. At the time, grain growers throughout New South Wales were concerned that the Grains Board could be liquidated. I appreciate that paragraph (c) of clause 4 (1) of the regulation protected the levy paid per tonne by grain producers to the Grains Board. Because of the Supreme Court approval of the scheme of arrangement no liquidation will occur. As a consequence, paragraphs (b) and (c) are superfluous. The Opposition opposes paragraph (a) of clause 4 (1).
From the moment the financial difficulties of the Grains Board became apparent, the Opposition was concerned about grain growers throughout New South Wales who were owed money from the 1999-2000 Grains Board grain pools. We are particularly pleased that the administrator's scheme of arrangement will create more confidence and will pay farmers their outstanding pool payments. The grain producers, lending institutions and the communities in farming areas will benefit. As honourable members know, the agriculture industry is the biggest employer outside metropolitan areas. I emphasise that this disallowance motion in no way criticises the administrator's scheme of arrangement or puts payments to growers or creditors at risk. This disallowance motion is the result of a cynical attempt by the Government to restrict independent scrutiny of the Minister's involvement in the collapse of the Grains Board.
As part of the administration process, an administrator may conduct investigations into parties involved in the collapse of an entity. Under normal circumstances, the administrator would apply to ASIC for approval to hold such examinations. ASIC fulfils this role across the nation, and is highly skilled and independent in dealing with such matters. As previously stated, the result of clause 4 (1) (a) of the Grain Marketing Regulation is to replace all references to "ASIC" in relation to the Grains Board with references to "the Minister for Agriculture". That will get rid of an independent body whose core role and expertise was to deal with companies under administration. In its place will be the Minister for Agriculture, who was responsible for the collapse of the Grains Board.
Mr Martin: Come off it!
Mr SLACK-SMITH: You might learn something.
Mr Martin: How can I learn something listening to you?
Mr SLACK-SMITH: You are not the brightest crayon in the box, so if you listen you might learning something. Such a scenario cannot be viewed as representing appropriate levels of accountability as the administrator is now forced to seek approval from the Minister for Agriculture to hold examinations into the parties involved. Bearing in mind the Minister's involvement in overseeing the collapse of the Grains Board and the criticism of the Director-General of the Department of Agriculture and New South Wales Treasury by the Public Accounts Committee in its inquiry into the collapse of the Grains Board, this presents a clear conflict of interest. On the one hand, the Minister for Agriculture was responsible for the collapse of the Grains Board and, on the other hand, he is now responsible for granting approval to the administrator to hold examinations into the parties involved in the collapse.
Whether intentionally or otherwise, the Minister has the ability to influence the process of determining the reasons for and outcomes of the Grains Board debacle. That is not acceptable to the people of New South Wales, particularly grain producers. I have no doubt that the Minister for Agriculture will argue in this Chamber that the clause in question is legal and, as the explanatory note to the regulation states, "of a machinery nature". The Opposition does not dispute that clause 4 (1) (a) is valid under the Grain Marketing Act. However, the Opposition disputes that the clause is appropriate and that it is consistent with the concept of accountable corporate governance. The Opposition also believes that the Government had options other than to vest the Minister for Agriculture—the Minister who presided over the collapse of the board—with the powers of ASIC in relation to the Grains Board. On 24 October, the Minister for Agriculture wrote in a letter:
The Acting Chairperson of ASIC, Jillian Segal, also raised the possibility in a letter to the Leader of the National Party dated 9 October. Why has the Carr Government chosen to make a regulation and transfer ASIC's powers regarding the Grains Board to the Minister for Agriculture when ASIC could have continued to perform its functions as an independent expert? Has the Government got something to hide? The Labor Government's options do not end there. Section 4C (2) (c) of the Grain Marketing Act 1991 states that any regulation may "specify that a reference to ASIC in any provision of the corporations legislation that is the subject of the declaration is to be read as a reference to another person". The key words are "another person". In other words, there was no requirement for the Minister for Agriculture to be the person to take on the powers of ASIC in this matter.
… there is provision in the legislation for the Minister to appoint the ASIC as an agent in this matter, with the consent of the Commonwealth.
The Government's decision to appoint the Minister for Agriculture has created this conflict of interest. It has been left to the Opposition to address this imbalance and return some accountability to the Carr Government's handling of the Grains Board debacle. Accountability is a principle very strongly supported by members on this side of the House, but it is obviously actively avoided by members on the other side. This clause shuns independent accountability and goes hand in hand with the Government's attempt to devalue the role of the Auditor-General through the Public Finance and Audit Amendment (Auditor-General) Bill. Where will the Carr Government's erosion of independent scrutiny end? I challenge the Minister to tell this House that he has the same level of expertise in dealing with administrators as ASIC.
I challenge the Minister to guarantee that this clause will in no way influence the process of investigating the collapse of the Grains Board. Most importantly, I challenge the Minister to explain to the Opposition and the people of New South Wales, particularly grain producers, how the Carr Government can justify vesting such power in the same Minister who was ultimately responsible for the board's failure. There is a clear conflict of interest and a clear breach of accountability. The Minister should come clean and tell us exactly what he really means and what he is trying to do. This clause must be disallowed to restore the faith of the people of New South Wales in the accountability of their representatives and to ensure that the administrator of the Grains Board is not hindered in his attempts to determine the reasons behind the $160 million collapse of the Grains Board.
Mr AMERY (Mount Druitt—Minister for Agriculture, and Minister for Land and Water Conservation) [7.49 p.m.]: The Government totally rejects this disallowance motion. The shadow Minister for Agriculture generally rings my office or the department to seek a briefing on matters but, as is evidenced by his contribution to this debate, he has glaringly failed to do so. He must now wear the consequences of his contribution in relation to this disallowance being on the public record. I ask honourable members to consider this debate against the backdrop of the ministerial council meeting process. In this case, Attorneys General from around Australia investigated the transfer of Corporations Law.
The Opposition's motion to disallow clause 4 (1) (a) of the Grain Marketing Regulation 2001 made under the Grain Marketing Act 1991 demonstrates not only how little Opposition members know about protecting grain growers in this State but how they have failed to keep track of this matter. They have been virtually invisible on this issue and none of their publicly espoused views have been supported by anyone in authority. I will put on record a little background, mainly of a legal and technical nature, to help Opposition members understand the situation.
Mr Martin: Do it slowly.
Mr AMERY: I will, but I do not have much time. This is a very complex issue, but I will try to keep my language as clear as possible. Changes were made recently to the Grain Marketing Act 1991. These changes were required when the Corporations (Consequential Amendments) Act 2001 made changes to all Acts on the New South Wales statute books that create statutory corporations. The need for this regulation arose as a result of the introduction of Commonwealth Corporations Law to replace all individual State Corporations Law. Although the Commonwealth Corporations Law applies to public and private corporations automatically, a decision had to be taken in each case about the application of State statutory entities.
While most State statutory entities were brought under the ambit of the Commonwealth Corporations Law either in whole or in part, for various special reasons some State statutory entities were left under the continued State corporations legislation. I know this is technical stuff, but I want Opposition members to absorb it. These included, for example, the Garvin Institute—is that a hotbed of conspiracy?—the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology and, of course, the New South Wales Grains Board. Are there any disallowance motions applying to those other bodies? The Grains Board was not placed under the new Commonwealth Corporations Law because a process under State Corporations Law was already under way—that is, the liquidation application lodged in February this year. Do Opposition members follow that? The Government's legal advisers and Parliamentary Counsel suggested that it would be undesirable to change the overlaying legal framework—
Mr Souris: Just read it out; don't try to be smart.
Mr AMERY: The Leader of the National Party has been caught out. He has not bothered to telephone the legal advisers or Parliamentary Counsel; he has been caught out by a few articles that appeared in the Australian. Members opposite are dumb. I will go through the process for the record. The Government's legal advisers and Parliamentary Counsel suggested that it would be undesirable to change the overlaying legal framework midway through the current administration of the Grains Board, particularly when a liquidation application had already been lodged. The Government was not trying to change the situation for the sake of it but simply acting to preserve the status quo and maintain continuity. We began the process under existing State law and we wanted to complete it rather than change to the Federal arrangement.
The status quo involved a process of pursuing the best outcome for growers. The only problem with this approach is that, under the Constitution and the doctrine laid down in Queen v Hughes—which we have discussed before in the House—the State cannot require Commonwealth entities such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission [ASIC] to undertake investigations into such State statutory entities. In these circumstances it was necessary to specify some State entity or person to take the place of ASIC. The intention was for that entity or person to be able to enter into an administrative agreement with ASIC. Any such agreement would require Commonwealth approval—I am talking about the Grains Board not Luna Park—but would enable ASIC to undertake whatever investigations the administrator or the Government might seek.
Possible choices of State entity included either the Minister for Agriculture, the Director-General of New South Wales Agriculture or possibly the Director-General of the Department of Fair Trading. Given that the objective was to facilitate the process of undertaking investigations, the Minister—that is me—was the entity recommended by our legal advisers. Without clause 4 (1) (a) of the regulation it would be much more difficult to arrange for adequate, independent investigation of the Grains Board. If the administrator conducting his own investigations into the board believes it would be appropriate for ASIC or some other Commonwealth institution to investigate aspects of the board's past behaviour, it will be possible for me to arrange that under clause 4 (1) (a) of the regulation. Without the regulation it might not be possible for this to happen.
If the Opposition wants to prevent ASIC or any other Commonwealth bodies from undertaking investigations into the Grains Board it should continue to pursue this motion. The Leader of the National Party spoke on ABC Radio's Country Hour program today and alleged all sorts of conspiracies that make for a good story but are completely untrue. I think there were more laughs in legal offices around the place than in political offices. The Leader of the National Party should be ashamed for misleading listeners of Country Hour—a reputable radio program—and he should apologise. I repeat: the changes were proposed to us by Parliamentary Counsel; they were not dreamed up by anyone in my portfolio or by me as some sort of power grab or part of any conspiracy theory that National Party members invented after reading a couple of articles in the Australian—they did not bother to research the issue any further.
The Opposition's proposition is absurd. I reiterate that the administrator is free to seek whatever independent investigations he feels are necessary, and I believe it is my responsibility to facilitate, not obstruct, that process. The Government's record is clear: we referred the matter to ICAC. When the Grains Board went under we conducted investigations. What happened when the boards that created the Grains Board collapsed during the previous administration? Nothing. Those opposite simply introduced legislation; there was no investigation. To suggest, as the Opposition does, that I might consider a cover-up is beyond ludicrous.
If any members are interested in examining all the relevant legislative provisions, I refer them to the Corporations (Ancillary Provisions) Act 2001; the Corporations (Consequential Amendments) Act 2001; particularly schedule 2, sections 4B and 4C, of the Grain Marketing Act 1991; and the Commonwealth's Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001, particularly section 11. Honourable members will then be able to see for themselves the technical legal process that this Government has followed and the basis for it. But Opposition members do not want that and they do not want to hear about it. They want to wade back into the debate about who was responsible for the board's collapse. I am quite happy to do that and ICAC is doing a pretty good job in that regard.
The fact is that the Public Accounts Committee has already investigated the issue, ICAC is currently examining aspects of the case, and one of the administrator's key responsibilities—particularly on behalf of the board's major creditors, the banks—is to investigate responsibility for the board's losses and the potential for recovery action. In short, a fine toothcomb has been, and is continuing to be, applied to the board, and to date the clearest of all conclusions to be drawn from the board's collapse is that the Coalition's original legislation that established the board was deficient. As I have said before, that legislation—the Grain Marketing Act 1991—was proposed by the then Minister for Agriculture, the honourable member for Lachlan. At the time the then Minister said in his press statement announcing the establishment of the board:
The then Minister also said:
A major factor in the new board is that it will be truly a producer administered and driven board.
The onus of responsibility to make sure the board works lies with producers.
Coalition members now want to rewrite history from the relative safety of the Opposition benches. I have only 22 seconds left in which to speak. The situation is clear: we introduced the regulation in order to facilitate changes in the Corporations Law that were worked through by Attorneys General from around the country and enshrined in Federal legislation on 1 July this year. It must now be obvious to everyone that all these conspiracy theories are a load of nonsense.
I am certain that the new arrangements for the marketing of grain will ensure that the State has a much more efficient marketing system in place.
Mr SOURIS (Upper Hunter—Leader of the National Party) [7.59 p.m.]: Let me tell honourable members why the Government implemented this regulation. It was to save the hide of this grossly incompetent Minister and his grossly incompetent Director-General of Agriculture. Let us not muck about. This regulation requires the administrator to ask the Minister's permission if he wants to investigate the Minister's failure in relation to the prudential supervision of the Grains Board—an extraordinary power to include in a regulation in the hope that no-one will notice it, or in the hope that the numbers on the Government side will ensure that this regulation is enforced. How extraordinary!
One of the most culpable people involved in the collapse of the Grains Board is the Minister, who was supposed to be its prudential supervisor. We have heard plenty about prudential supervision and Corporations Law in this country. We have heard about the lack of prudential supervision in relation to the HIH collapse, One.Tel and all aspects of prudential supervision. We have heard about the role that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Australian Insurance Commission should have played in those corporations. What about the role of the Minister who has responsibility for this government trading instrumentality? The key words in this debate are "trading instrumentality".
One would think that this plod, this Minister for Agriculture, would realise that there was sufficient risk involved in an instrumentality within his portfolio—the board of directors all of whom are appointed by him—trading in international commodities and the vicissitudes of international prices, trading in futures and exposed to the ravages of international exchange rates. One would think that the Minister would say to himself, "I had better get some reports." One would think that the Minister's director-general would say, "We had better prudentially supervise this entity. We had better ensure that the Government and the entity are not exposed to international exchange rates and that the entity does not take risks."
When one has a trading entity in one's portfolio, that entity will take risks in the marketplace. Did the Minister not know about that? It would be akin to the Treasurer of New South Wales not prudentially supervising the Treasury Corporation of New South Wales. It would be akin to saying, "I appoint the board, therefore I can wash my hands in relation to this issue." The Minister has attempted to wash his hands in relation to this $160 million disaster fund. The Minister, the $160 million baby of this Government, is the worst Minister in relation to financial accountability.
The nutty professor on the Government benches knows nothing about prudential supervision, Corporations Law or anything else. It was bad enough earlier listening to a former plod telling us about Corporations Law and giving us a brief lecture. If the Minister has a trading entity within his portfolio he is obliged to ensure, through regular surveillance, that there are constant reports, an examination of financial and reporting statements, consultations with the board, cross-examination by the Minister's department, and a constant effort by officers in his department—and I do not exclude the Minister's director-general in this. The Minister is culpable in that he does not know what he or his director-general should have been doing.
The Minister should have ensured that this trading entity was not undertaking risks or breaching its fiduciary duties and that he, as a Minister of the Crown, was not shirking his ministerial obligation of supervising trading areas within his portfolio. The Minister would not have the faintest idea. He would not know what he was meant to be supervising. He has spent the entire time since the collapse of the Grains Board washing his hands of that disaster. The Minister is saying, "The collapse of the Grains Board had nothing to do with the Government of New South Wales or with the Minister for Agriculture. Some other government passed this legislation. A board has been in place for some time. I have received representations from other organisations as to whom I should appoint to the board; therefore my hands are completely clean."
The Minister is saying, "Do not look at me for any sense of obligation, liability or prudential supervision." This Minister is the antithesis of prudential supervision. He is the model that universities will study in the future—an example of how not to be a prudential supervisor. The Minister's performance will be a class performance. Professors will love him as he will be an example of how a Minister with a trading entity within his portfolio obliviously wandered about the streets not knowing that he had obligation in relation to prudential supervision. The Minister did not even know what his department was meant to do. His department did not tell him anything, nor did it exercise the prudent course of supervision and examination surveillance. Those are the things that a Minister should do. One of the things that this Minister should not do for a living is stand up in this Chamber and behave like a clown. One of the things that he should do for a living is protect the taxpayers of New South Wales and, in this case, protect grain growers in New South Wales from any incompetence.
We have been consulting. Government members should not suggest that Opposition members have not consulted with relevant parties. Opposition members have received many letters and have spoken to all sorts of people.
The Minister makes reference to the ministerial council. One ministerial council in which he was not involved was the ministerial council that dealt with the Corporations Law. The Minister did not consult with the ministerial council in which Minister Joe Hockey was involved, which dealt with the Corporations Law. The Minister did not circulate the regulation relating to that ministerial conference.
Mr Amery: You ought to be embarrassed.
Mr SOURIS: The only person who should be embarrassed is the Minister. He has been caught red-handed because of his complete and utter failure to become involved in what ought to have been seen by any Minister with a brain as a risk area involving the Government's prudential supervision or, in this case, its complete lack of prudential supervision. The Minister should be ashamed. The grain growers of New South Wales are down the tube to the tune of $160 million and the Minister has the hide to attempt to protect himself further. The Minister has been sucked in and conned by his own director-general, who said, "Here Minister, move this regulation and then if they want to examine your role or the role of the director-general"—who, by the way, has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee—"you will have, through this regulation, veto powers on any examination involving your failure in relation to prudential supervision."
Mr MARTIN (Bathurst) [8.07 p.m.]: I will depart from what I had intended to say, only because of that performance by the Leader of the National Party. The Leader of the National Party had the hide to make all sorts of accusations on ABC radio today. From the start it was obvious that the ABC radio presenter could see right through him. The radio presenter asked the Leader of the National Party:
Why bother? At the end of the day what is in it other than a bit of political point-scoring?
The Leader of the National Party replied, "No." Today I put it to the Leader of the National Party that that is exactly what it is. It is a veiled exercise in political point-scoring. What a pathetic attempt by the Leader of the National Party to give us a lecture about financial matters! The Leader of the National Party is the bloke who presided over all the disasters at Luna Park. How much money went down the drain?
Mr Souris: Point of order: The honourable member for Bathurst is speaking completely outside the scope of this debate. He is referring to all sorts of weird things. The issue before us is the $160 million debacle which was presided over by the Minister for Agriculture. I ask you to confine him to debate on the disallowance of this regulation.
Mr Amery: To the point of order: That is not the issue before the House. The issue before the House is a disallowance motion to change the way in which we manage the Corporations Law as a result of a ministerial council meeting at a national level. This debate is not about an audit or about the collapse of the Grains Board; it is a debate about how we deal with the Corporations Law as it has been changed at a national level. The honourable member for Bathurst is responding to contributions made earlier in debate by the Leader of the National Party.
Mr DEPUTY-SPEAKER: Order! There have been some references in the debate to ministerial incompetence. If the honourable member for Bathurst makes a passing reference only he may continue.
Mr MARTIN: The Leader of the National Party is using this cynical tactic to take up my time. Throughout the interview, the interviewer repeatedly asked the Leader of the National Party what it was all about. If members read the interview, they should look at the wonderful syntax and see what he does to the English language. I will go through some of the points that the Minister made. The facts, which have escaped members opposite, are that the jurisdiction for the regulation of standard companies operating under New South Wales law was transferred to the Commonwealth jurisdiction, as the Minister pointed out, on 15 July 2001. However, statutory corporations did not automatically transfer their jurisdiction to the Commonwealth under that arrangement.
The New South Wales Government drafted legislation which transferred certain areas of jurisdiction for individual statutory corporations under the Corporations (Consequential Amendments) Act 2001. I will reiterate this point, because members opposite need repetition. They work on the Goebbels principle: the bigger the lie and the more often it is told, the more people will believe it. People have come a long way since then, and that type of propaganda does not work. Under the Corporations (Consequential Amendments) Act 2001, each statutory corporation separately transferred certain areas of jurisdiction to the Commonwealth, depending on the nature of the statutory corporation. This ranged from no transfer of jurisdiction, as in the case of the New South Wales Grains Board, through to the transfer of limited areas of jurisdiction and the transfer of large slabs of jurisdiction for some statutory corporations.
The transfer for each statutory corporation is dealt with separately in the Corporations (Consequential Amendments) Act 2001, as each transfer of jurisdiction was individualised to reflect the differing circumstances of statutory corporations at the time. This was a complex piece of legislation. State statutory corporations would not transfer all jurisdiction to the Commonwealth; they could not remain State statutory corporations if they did. Government members understand that. As the New South Wales Grains Board was involved in legal proceedings at the time, a decision was made not to transfer any jurisdiction to the Commonwealth. That commonsense decision was based on sound legal advice.
The legal proceedings to which the Minister referred related to an application to wind up the board, which was lodged with the Supreme Court in February this year. When a State statutory corporation did not transfer jurisdiction under the Corporations Law and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission [ASIC] was involved, the Minister or registrar responsible for the legislation was routinely made the agency responsible for matters formerly the responsibility of ASIC. That provision overcame the problems posed by the finding in Queen v. Hughes. Section 24 of the Corporations (Ancillary Provisions) Act 2001 allows the Minister responsible for the legislation to enter into an agreement with ASIC for the performance of functions or the exercise of powers by ASIC as an agent of the State. This provision was specifically included to overcome the problems which would be posed for State statutory corporations by the finding in the case of Hughes.
Once again, the Government did its homework and this provision was included on sound legal advice. In certain areas the State will always retain control of jurisdiction. For example, Corporations Law companies are handled by ASIC in the area of registration and the naming of a corporation. As usual, the Opposition has demonstrated its complete lack of knowledge of these technical legal processes. This motion is clearly an attempt to divert attention from the positive developments that have occurred in relation to New South Wales grain growers. The growers were recently given the opportunity to determine the future of the board and the way in which its debts should be handled. They voted to approve the scheme of arrangement put forward by the administrator, together with all the other creditors of the board, including the banks.
This scheme provides for farmers who supplied grain to the board's pools to be paid out in full and for other creditors to receive approximately 60¢ in the dollar, depending on the final level of debts proved to the administrator. By facilitating this process, the Government has ensured that growers and other creditors enjoyed the best possible outcome. The Government is contributing by making available a special loan to the board to ensure that growers are paid in full without unnecessary delay. Without this loan, growers would have faced substantial delays in receiving payment. So much for members opposite saying that the Minister did not have his eye on the ball and did not know what was going on. The growers have already waited too long. The Government supports all attempts to uncover the reasons for the board's failure, and this regulation facilitates that process. That point has been lost on the Leader of the National Party.
Mr DEPUTY-SPEAKER: Order! The Leader of the National Party has had an opportunity to speak to the motion.
Mr MARTIN: I urge the Opposition to abandon its misguided and pointless attempt to disallow this regulation. The Leader of the National Party made other comments which show that he does not understand the regulation. Board members are selected by a select committee on merit of applications. They are not appointed at the Minister's whim, as asserted by members on the other side of the House. As to the assertion that the Minister is not involved and there are no checks, the board is monitored annually by the audit department and reports to the Parliament. Should the Director-General of Agriculture check with the chairman or chief executive officer of the board every week? Do we have to be in their pockets? The responsibility for the debacle with the Grains Board sits with the Opposition and its 1991 legislation.
Opposition members criticise the Government, but they should look back through their own record, particularly that of the Leader of the National Party, who held a junior financial portfolio. When his Treasurer went away for five minutes, suddenly the Leader of the National Party put $50 million down the drain. We keep reminding him of that because his memory is weak. Yet he has the hide to criticise this Minister, who is recognised around the State as possibly the best Minister for Agriculture that this State has ever had. People in country areas tell us that all the time. Those geniuses opposite were in my electorate last Friday. An invitation was sent out by the honourable member for Orange. They turned up, but they could not even field a cricket team. There was no-one to carry the drinks, so the Leader of the National Party had to have a cup of coffee.
National Party members talk about themselves as representatives of country people. They represent 2.5 per cent and are sinking fast. For whatever reason, members opposite believed that moving a motion to disallow the regulation would be a popular thing to do. Once again they have not done their research. As the former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said in January 1999, "These people went out for a long lunch." They are still out at lunch and are staying for afternoon tea. I support the Minister and his remarks. This motion for disallowance is a joke!
Mr PICCOLI (Murrumbidgee) [8.17 p.m.]: The Minister can do one thing to alleviate many of the Opposition's concerns: he can retain the same regulation and rather than appoint himself in place of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission [ASIC] he can appoint an independent person or body. That is the heart of the issue. The Minister, who is responsible for the oversight of the Grains Board, is now almost in control of any further investigations into the conduct of the board. Many people are suspicious of this despicable move. Why should the Opposition and the grain growers be suspicious? At the last estimate the Grains Board lost approximately $160 million in a three-month period. It is extraordinary for any organisation to lose $160 million, let alone lose it in three months, as the Grains Board would tell us.
The Opposition and others are suspicious. It is our role as the Opposition to raise these suspicions in Parliament with the Minister and to make sure that the Minister does not take the opportunity to exculpate himself from any responsibility. This whole issue of regulation is a question of oversight. The Minister has placed himself in a position where he can decide whether to allow certain examinations into the conduct of the Grains Board. We have to raise questions about that. We also have suspicions about other regulations and question their introduction. The Leader of the National Party asked why these regulations were introduced. They cover the mistakes of the Minister, the department and the director-general in their oversight of the Grains Board.
Many grain growers have lost substantial amounts of money over this debacle with the Grains Board, which has thrown the industry into disarray, and they want some answers. The financial institutions that have exposure to that $160 million would also like some answers to what has happened. Let an independent person take over the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. The Minister says it is important that an appointment is made. The Opposition does not mind who is appointed provided it is an independent person and not someone from the Government. The feeling of the Opposition and of the public generally is that at the time of this significant loss there may have been some impropriety, and grain growers and the voters of New South Wales would like some questions answered. It is not particularly appropriate that the Minister and his director-general should seek an opportunity to cover their own backsides. The Minister suggested there was no consultation with regard to this motion for disallowance. The first person consulted was the administrator of the New South Wales Grains Board, Mr Murray Smith. His letter to the Opposition stated:
That paragraph of itself raises sufficient doubt in the minds of the public and certainly in the minds of the Opposition. For that reason alone the regulation should be disallowed. If it throws any doubt on the examinations that the administrator might make into this significant financial disaster in New South Wales, it should be disallowed. Who else did we consult? We consulted the executive officer of the Rural Marketing and Supply Association, Mr Reg Kidd, who wrote to us in the following terms:
Provided that the Minister exercises his discretion to approve examinations by reference to the same criteria that the ASIC would have applied, the regulation to which you refer will not have an impact on my investigations. However, if different criteria are used, then there may be an impact on my investigations.
If the Minister thinks that only the Opposition has raised questions about this regulation, I would be more than happy to provide him with concerns expressed by a number of organisations in New South Wales.
Our members are outraged that the NSW Government is trying to put through a regulation which specifies that any further examination into the NSW Grains Board would require consent from the NSW Minister for Agriculture.
This is the same Minister and same Government that have come into question for their sordid handling of the whole NSW Grains Board debacle. The Government appears to be covering itself from further exposure and investigation, by implementing this regulation that will prevent full disclosure and will cover negligent parties from being held responsible for their actions.
Mr Amery: I can't listen to this any more.
Mr PICCOLI: The Minister says he cannot listen to it any more. He can accuse the Opposition of being partisan, but I am citing people who, by his own admission, are absolutely independent. Jonathan McKeown, the Farmers Association chief executive, wrote:
The Opposition has also been contacted by the Hon. Joe Hockey, the Federal Minister for Financial Services and Regulation. I remind the Minister for Agriculture of the following comments of Mr Hockey about the ministerial council:
We believe that the Minister's action in pushing a regulation through caused unnecessary hostility and suspicion.
The Minister may accuse Mr Hockey of being political, but his comments do not raise issues of politics. They raise questions of accountability to the ministerial council. The Minister for Agriculture said he relied heavily on this regulation because of the requirements of the ministerial council. The Hon. Joe Hockey's comments indicate clearly that the Minister did not even have the decency to advise the council that this regulation would be put through. That raises the question of why the Minister would not contact the ministerial council. If the Minister has problems with the Opposition's approach to this regulation, he should take on board the comments of people and organisations. He should get through his head that many are interested in what happens to the Grains Board and concerned about this regulation.
… the regulation was not circulated to the Ministerial Council for Corporations prior to it being made.
Under the new draft Corporations Agreement (to which the States and Commonwealth have agreed to abide pending its finalisation), generally a regulation which would significantly alter the effect or operation of the national law having regard to the operation of provisions to preserve the operation of State and Territory laws must be notified to the Council before being made.
It is not immediately obvious why the regulation in question would have been exempt from the requirement to notify the Ministerial Council.
The Opposition did not move this disallowance without due consideration. We considered very seriously the comments of many people and organisations, and we decided that any attempt by this Government to cover up its own mismanagement, or the potential for mismanagement, has to be brought to the attention of the public and Parliament. I support the disallowance motion. If the Minister wants to appoint someone independent, the Opposition will look at the regulation more favourably, but until that time the Opposition totally supports the disallowance motion.
Mr SLACK-SMITH (Barwon) [8.26 p.m.], in reply: Many accusations have been levelled by members on the Government side of the House, but the Opposition researched this matter deeply. We spoke to many people who voiced serious concerns. We consulted the New South Wales Farmers Association, the New South Wales Law Society and the Hon. Joe Hockey, who is virtually the chairman of the Ministerial Council for Corporations. The Minister for Agriculture must be trying to hide something, otherwise he would not be attempting to put Dracula in charge of the blood bank. His director-general was criticised by the Public Accounts Committee [PAC] for his handling of the issue. The director-general is responsible to the Minister, therefore the Minister should also wear the criticism that has been levelled at the director-general.
The Minister and the honourable member for Bathurst continually claimed that there was nothing wrong with the arrangement as the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology and the Garvan Institute have been involved in similar arrangements. I do not recall the Garvan Institute or the Centenary Institute of Cancer Medicine and Cell Biology losing $160 million of New South Wales grain growers' money. Panic stations set in and this regulation was pushed through quickly because of the fear of liquidation. That fear has now been passed to the Supreme Court.
Mr Amery: Everybody supported that arrangement.
Mr SLACK-SMITH: Fine.
Mr Amery: Everybody, including the farmers.
Mr SLACK-SMITH: Yes, but they did not support the regulation. They voiced their concern about it. The Minister cannot have it both ways. We do not want the fox in charge of the chook house. We want an independent person who both sides of the House will accept has no vested interest in this situation, someone who does not have responsible to him a director-general who has been criticised by the Public Accounts Committee. The director-general of the department is partly responsible for this situation, although not as responsible as the Minister. We do not want the Minister for Agriculture to take the place of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission [ASIC]. It is a total conflict of interest. He appointed members of the board and he has control over who can and cannot be investigated.
Will the Minister come clean and tell the public what he has to hide? I can assure him that we do not know. The Minister and Country Labor are so Sydneycentric that they really do not care what happens in rural and regional New South Wales. We are pretty fair dinkum on this side of the House and I assure the Minister that we have no problems with paragraphs (b) and (c) of the regulation. As I said earlier, the director-general should be under the control of the Minister; if he is not then the Minister should get another job. I suspect that the director-general has the measure of the Minister and that he tells him what to do in this portfolio.
The director-general is pulling the wool over the Minister's eyes. The Minister cannot see what is going on. The Grain Marketing Regulation 2001 should be disallowed. It is not beneficial to grain growers or to regional and rural communities in New South Wales. It is certainly not in the best interests of accountability for elected members of State Parliament. The Minister should be accountable as well as appear to be accountable. The Minister has been completely behind the eight ball in this sad and sorry affair, which has resulted in the loss $160 million by the New South Wales Grains Board.
Question—That the motion be agreed to—put.
The House divided.
Mr D. L. Page
Mr J. H. Turner
Mr R. W. Turner
Mr R. H. L. Smith
Mrs Lo Po'
Mr E. T. Page
Mr W. D. Smith
|Mrs Chikarovski||Ms Allan|
|Mr Collins||Ms Harrison|
|Mr Rozzoli||Mr McManus|
Question resolved in the negative.