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Wednesday, 26 February 1997
Page: 999

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats)(10.41 a.m.) —This week has been important in terms of the accountability debate and it has been interesting to observe the processes of this coalition government when it comes to making appointments. I want to put on the record that no-one is saying in this debate that no individual senator has lost the right to make a statement and to have a view on candidates for appointment.

As Senator Brown said, the issue is about transparency. I think transparency of process is really important. On the matter of the appointment of the new head of the NHMRC, it seems to me that this government has now erected a wall of denial around what was previously a fairly transparent process. That loss of transparency opens the way for nepotism. It opens the way for qualified potential appointees to be excluded on the grounds of their political or moral beliefs. It opens the way for them to be excluded on grounds of race or some factor entirely unrelated to their ability to do the job. The Democrats have said that we would prefer to see some kind of independent commissioner for appointments to take away this politicisation of the process, but I could talk about that at another time because I think there are other elements that I want to discuss here.

In the first instance, the chair of the NHMRC is meant to be an appointment based purely upon medico-scientific criteria. I think that the cabinet owes the Australian community and specifically the Australian scientific community an explanation as to why other factors apparently made their way on to the list of selection criteria, because it is clear that other factors did make their way on to that list. Why for a start did we have the extraordinary step of the Attorney-General (Mr Williams)—not a voting member of cabinet—actually requesting Professor Funder, through a third person, to set out and justify his position on abortion? There has been lots of to-ing and fro-ing on this matter and Senator Harradine has had a role in that. That is why we look forward to his tabling of this information in a moment. But we are entitled to know the reasons why cabinet rejected the recommendation of the Minister for Health and Family Services.

There is a wider concern here, too. Does this now mean that moral arguments and moral principles are going to become part of the criteria for appointments to high-level positions? Does it mean that anyone with a particular moral axe to grind can foist their views on the rest of the population through backdoor wheeling and dealing?

Senator Ferguson —You know more about backdoor wheeling and dealing than anybody else!

Senator KERNOT —No, you can examine the record. It is all on the record and documented.

Senator Campbell —I raise a point of order, Mr Deputy President. Senator Kernot is now shying an enormously long way away from the motion that she is debating which is to take note of the answer to Senator Brown's question. If she wants to have a debate about cabinet appointments to any positions, she should have the commitment to that cause and that debate on that issue by moving some sort of motion to have it debated formally before this chamber. There has been an informal agreement between parties in this chamber that we would limit the taking note of answers. In fact, the government and the opposition have both agreed not to take note of answers today so we could proceed directly to the estimates hearings. It is impossible, under those circumstances, for the government to stand by that informal agreement if it is going, under the guise of a taking note debate, to be attacked by Senator Kernot in relation to a motion moved by Senator Brown and where she is straying a long way away from the substance of that motion.

Senator KERNOT —On the point of order: Senator Brown's question was about the factors that were taken into consideration—including representations from Senator Harradine—in the appointment of the chair of the NHMRC. I am simply picking up on that and wanting to know what the factors were. I am asking questions about the process and I think that is entirely relevant.

Senator Campbell —This is time for taking note. You didn't ask the question in question time.

Senator KERNOT —I asked the question the day before yesterday.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! In relation to the last matter mentioned by Senator Campbell, it is quite open for a senator to move to take note of an answer. Informal arrangements are nothing to do with the chair. It is quite in order for Senator Kernot to comment further in relation to the motion which has been moved. There is usually a fair amount of latitude given in taking note of answers, but I do not think that latitude has even been approached by Senator Kernot. Senator Kernot is properly debating the process which was mentioned by Senator Brown. I call Senator Kernot.

Senator KERNOT —Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I ask this question: if Professor Funder's views on abortion were relevant to his appointment in this particular case, can we now expect that candidates have to state what their views are on contraception and euthanasia? Do they have to say whether they believe in sex before marriage or whether they believe in God? Where does it start and where does it end if you are required to write to the Attorney-General to explain your views on abortion? Are they relevant to your appointment to this position?

The other thing I would say is that it may not be a case of who is next but what is next on the hit list. The issue is where the influence is being exerted. If it is public, if it is part of the process, we can all make our own judgments. But the waters are really muddy when cross trading goes on behind the scenes. The whole thing becomes incredibly murky.

Senator Calvert —You'd know all about that!

Senator KERNOT —No, I do not, Senator Calvert. That is where you are wrong. You should talk to the Minister for Industrial Relations (Mr Reith) about this. I think this is very poor practice from this government.

I want to place on record the Democrats' disappointment that Professor Funder was not successful, but that in no way detracts from the qualities of Professor Larkins. That is the point. The wider issue is that the scientific body of this country is suffering from a lack of confidence in whether they can now give independent, fearless and honest advice to the government. That is what the repercussions of this are going to be.

Finally, I want to commend the Minister for Health and Family Services (Dr Wooldridge). He seems to have come out of this with a great deal of honour. He made a judgment. He went ahead with his recommendation. He had that recommendation overturned and, although he is disappointed, he has behaved honourably. It is for this parliament to ask the questions about the process. How is it appropriate that, when a cabinet overturns the health minister's recommendation, we do not even have a right to ask why? (Time expired)