Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021

17 March 2021

Mr HUSIC (Chifley) (17:08): I had not intended, initially, to speak on the Treasury Laws Amendment (2021 Measures No. 1) Bill 2021. But, in reading through the material that supports this legislation, listening to colleagues and understanding what is proposed here, I feel it's a responsibility of parliamentarians to get up and basically ask the Australian people whether or not they're in favour of a system that would allow—and not just in terms of mum-and-dad investors being potentially ripped off, which is a serious concern, as has been described already—this creep that is occurring, where we see the dilution of accountability and transparency.The creep that I refer to is occurring in behaviour within government, within the federal government itself. Whenever they are required to disclose what they are up to, how they make their decisions or the quality of their decision-making, they always now default to stonewalling, refusing to disclose information and making it harder for the public to understand. Look at the way that freedom-of-information requests are being managed. We'll see it potentially on display next week when the other place holds estimates and we count the number of times ministers or those representing them use the old technique of taking a question on notice—not answering a question but giving the default position, 'We'll take it on notice.' At some point down the track they'll reveal what's going on.


An honourable member: Within the same year.


Mr HUSIC: Within the same year, hopefully, but usually they'll attempt to hide the information. We see them claim, for example, that they want to bring in a national integrity commission. That claim was made two years ago. We still see nothing. When the framework is proposed, it is so weak it's probably weaker than the paper it's written on. We see all these efforts building up, and now they want to extend it to corporate Australia and they want to do it through this bill. They want to make it easier for directors to not have to be accountable for the decisions they're making.


Through the eighties—and we've also seen in recent times—we saw some major corporate collapses and we saw some pretty bad business behaviour. I absolutely do not believe that all corporate or company directors behave in that way. In fact, many are horrified by it. And, in fact, the propositions that are being put forward in this bill are being resisted by many in the business community because they know exactly what this will do. The reason I speak today is that I don't want to see those corporate collapses re-emerge in this day and age. Lessons are there to be learnt, not to be unlearnt so that we go back and make the same mistake. We cannot see that for those companies, those investors, those shareholders, those employees, those supply companies, those small businesses, those contractors—all those who earn their living from the proper functioning of these firms. We cannot see them affected because of a corporate collapse that may have resulted from the actions of a few directors who knew something was not right in what they were doing—who knew that, if how they had intended to operate was disclosed, it would not have met expectations within the business community. If those companies collapse, there are a lot of people who lose out, and they don't get back what they put in. We know it. We know what happens: the big creditors get looked after, but it's all the other, smaller ones, this whole string that appears after that collapse, who lose out—and it's particularly the employees, who I speak for today, the workers of those businesses, who will lose out.


We shouldn't have it that the government has to underwrite it through the mechanisms we have to cover those redundancies. The taxpayer should not be required to step in and fund those redundancies because those firms collapsed. The reason I speak today is that I feel strongly about these types of measures—the dilution of what the Howard government brought in. I don't make a habit of cheering on legislation brought in by that very conservative government, but, on this, they were right. They were right where they said that companies and company directors are required to disclose publicly any information that (1) was not generally available and (2) a reasonable person would expect to have a material effect on the price or value of a company's share price. Further, they were right where they said, if a company or a company director failed to comply with those obligations, they could face a civil penalty action; they would be held accountable for their action or, importantly, their inaction.



Again, as the Labor leader has said, we have sought to support, in the course of the pandemic, a number of regulatory and legislative measures designed to assist. We did that then, but we do not agree with—we actually oppose—any suggestion that this regime that was brought in temporarily be extended. We don't think it's good, and schedule 2 of this legislation would make that permanent. Companies and directors that fail to disclose price- sensitive information either at all or in a timely fashion are only liable to shareholders for that failure if the company or director acted with knowledge, recklessness or negligence. The thing is this: that is going to be very difficult to establish. It is very hard for people outside of the firm to know that.


The government's own explanatory memorandum says that this is about reducing the amount of time entities and officers must spend on an assurance that they have complied. They're basically admitting that they are watering down everything required for compliance, transparency and accountability. This is not good for corporate Australia. This is not good for working Australians. If this leads to corporate collapses—we have seen the type of behaviour that creeps in and sets in—it's not good, long term, for the economy. It will potentially stifle investment flow. It will potentially make it harder for companies to raise capital. It will potentially make it harder for companies to grow. From a business perspective, it's bad.


As I said, I don't think any working Australian should suffer as a result of the type of corporate collapse that might be triggered because of the bad behaviour that this is starting to let creep in. This is wrong, and they should not pay for that. All those people that we know who went through One.Tel, Ansett—


Mr Stephen Jones: Crown casino!


Mr HUSIC: Yes, Crown casino. It's not the government and their corporate crony mates who pay that price. They get off; they escape. But what about the mums and dads—not only the shareholders but the employees

—with mortgages, with families to raise, with bills to pay? This is so wrong. They should hang their heads in shame. It's one thing for it to be temporary; it's another thing for it to be permanent. It is not right at all.


We should speak strongly on this. We should say we can do better. We should indicate that there is something right in accountability and transparency, not just for the 'Aha, gotcha!' moment but because of the teachable experience, the fact that we can do better and the fact that people know that they can't break the boundary; they can't go beyond the boundary and break the rules. We cannot have the crony capitalism that this will trigger. I emphasise this: we have to draw the line now on the way this government is starting to continually default, refusing to be accountable, refusing to be transparent and allowing big government or big business to get away with that type of bad behaviour. It's not good for our community. It is definitely not good for our nation.