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Beattie agreed with Fitzgerald in 1992, so where's the accountability now?

By Michael Lee - posted Friday, 6 December 2002

We can all, sometimes begrudgingly, accept that governments can change the law – that what today may be lawful, may tomorrow be unlawful. But how do we feel about the prospect that we could be punished for something we do lawfully today because next year the government might change the law retrospectively?

As ridiculous as it sounds, the Beattie government did something just like that that this week when it used it vast majority to ram through the Property Agents and Motor Dealers Amendment Act of 2002.

This legislation retrospectively took away the rights of some 540 people who had already lodged claims seeking compensation after being conned by a highly sophisticated scam. In doing so, it disregarded some of the fundamental recommendations of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.


The scam is well known and involves marketeers, dodgy lawyers, real estate agents and valuers working together to sell highly over-priced properties on the Gold Coast to unsuspecting investors.

So great was the scam that the Beattie government introduced legislation to try and stop it and Minister for Fair Trading Merri Rose took the unprecedented step of labelling one of the marketeers, Dudley Quinlivan, the “King Con” of Queensland.

Under the legislation, conned investors were able to take their grievance to the Property Agents and Motor Dealers Tribunal and, if successful in proving their case, were entitled to compensation from a government fund previously known as the Auctioneers and Agents Fidelity Guarantee Fund. The government would recoup costs from the scammers.

So what went wrong? Put simply the government legislation proved to be a lemon. Prosecutions against the marketeers failed and the District Court found that another marketeer, Chris Bilborough, was not liable under the law to replenish the fund.

In addition, the fund's $101 million in reserves in 1991 had been milked by successive governments to fund a variety of projects and it now has less than $2 million in reserves.

In her speech to Parliament, Rose stated that the current potential liability of the fund was $36.8 million. She also said the retrospective amendments were necessary because the original legislation never intended to compensate the claimants.


This, however, seems extremely disingenuous on Rose’s behalf, since after the first successful compensation case she had issued a press statement that said: “The Tribunal and the Claim Fund have been established to protect consumers by providing avenues for them to recover their losses." She also confirmed that "The Government underwrites the Claim Fund. We will also take the steps necessary to recover from marketeers the payments made by the Fund to consumers”.

As Liberal Leader Bob Quinn correctly pointed out, all other arguments being advanced were peripheral because the starting point should be whether or not the legislation was based on sound principles. One could amend the legislation prospectively but to amend retrospectively went against the grain of what good democratic government was all about. It set a dangerous precedent.

Quinn is not alone in this position.

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About the Author

Michael Lee is a Brisbane based consultant who assesses economic loss in litigation matters. His interests include human rights, American political history, and Native Title.

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Related Links
Department of Fair Trading
Property Agents and Motor Dealers Amendment Act of 2002
Scrutiny of Legislation Committee
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