House debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020


Corporations and Financial Services Joint Committee; Reporting Date

9:47 am

Photo of Dan TehanDan Tehan (Wannon, Liberal Party, Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Leader of the House, I move:

That the reporting time for the inquiry of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services into litigation funding and the regulation of the class action industry be extended from 7 December 2020 to 21 December 2020.

Photo of Mark DreyfusMark Dreyfus (Isaacs, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

Litigation funding and class actions provide a vital path to justice for Australians trying to uphold their rights against governments and large companies with vastly greater resources, but on 13 May 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Attorney-General of Australia stood up in this place and warned us about the dangers of Australians exercising those legal rights. It was an extraordinary performance. The same Attorney-General who says it is impossible to establish a national integrity commission because the government is focused only on the COVID-19 pandemic still found time to smash the rights of ordinary Australians to have their day in court. The Prime Minister told us that he was 'not going to have one public servant diverted from the task of focusing on our whole-of-government approach to dealing with this pandemic'—not one public servant other than the dozens and dozens of public servants who have been diverted to focus on the Prime Minister's whole-of-government approach to attacking class actions and undermining access to justice! What a joke. The Prime Minister has no time and no resources available to tackle government corruption but he has endless resources at his disposal when it comes to undermining access to justice for ordinary Australians.

Such was the government's enthusiasm in attacking class actions that they did not even wait for the committee to hold its first public hearing, let alone finish its inquiry, before taking action. Just one week after the Attorney-General moved the motion to establish the inquiry, which is now being extended again, the Morrison government announced new regulations for litigation funders and class actions. In an extraordinary display of arrogance and incompetence, the Treasurer's announcement of new regulations pre-empted the predetermined outcome of the government's own sham inquiry. So you might well ask, 'Why is the government even bothering to extend the time for this inquiry to report?' This inquiry has been a sham from the outset. The government, I repeat, did not wait for this inquiry to be completed before actually making a whole set of new regulations. They are not, unhappily, fit for purpose.

The Treasurer's regulations are not fit for purpose unless the purpose is to deny ordinary Australians access to justice. Do not take my word for it. That is the ASIC view of these regulations. It's also the view of the Treasurer's own department. It was also the view of the Australian Law Reform Commission, which completed a comprehensive inquiry into class actions and litigation funding two years ago. The Australian Law Reform Commission's report, a report commissioned by this government, was ignored. It apparently didn't tell the government what it wanted to hear. Instead of responding to the Law Reform Commission, this government set up its own inquiry. That's the inquiry that we're dealing with here; the inquiry that's being extended for another two weeks to report.

One can only imagine that perhaps the government is going to respond to this inquiry which it's extending for a couple of weeks. Let's hope that the inquiry proves not to be a sham. Let's hope that the two weeks that we are going to give this committee to continue with its inquiry are going to be used properly to examine the regulations that the Treasurer has made without waiting for this inquiry to report. Let's hope that the inquiry is going to actually report on the disproportionate impact on Australians in the regions—Australians like property owners whose land has been poisoned by toxic PFAS chemicals, the group of Bundaberg growers who are planning a class action against the operator of the Paradise Dam, in relation to the lowering of the wall, or perhaps the households and businesses in North Queensland who are planning a class action against power companies over allegations of price gouging. It's not just those people who are going to be hit by the Treasurer's regulations that this inquiry ought to be looking at and that we hope that it spends the additional two weeks looking at; the regulations that the Treasurer has made will also hit the Australian Farmers Fighting Fund.

The Australian Farmers Fighting Fund, for members who might be unaware of it, is a not-for-profit litigation funder that is fighting for Australian farmers and has launched several actions on behalf of groups of farmers. Where is the National Party on this issue? They have been conspicuously silent. Why do they sit there silently while their coalition partner has ridden roughshod over farmers, over property owners, over households and over businesses in rural and regional Australia?

Labor will be moving a motion in the Senate today to disallow the Treasurer's regulations, and the question for the senators of the National Party is this: is playing nice with the Treasurer and a handful of Liberal donors more important to you than standing up for the rights of Australian farmers? And the question for Pauline Hanson's One Nation party is this: if you're going to side with the Morrison government on this issue, as you've done on virtually every other issue, what is your point? Stop pretending and just rejoin the Liberal Party.

Question agreed to.