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ESTIMATES COMMITTEE A - 21/06/1994 - DEPARTMENT OF THE PRIME MINISTER AND CABINET - Program 2--Government support services - Subprogram 2.1.2--Government business

Senator KEMP --I think this is the appropriate heading that this question comes under. If not, you may guide me. You will be aware that there has been a lot of discussion about Mr Keating's proposal to have a republic school kit. I assume it was discussed at cabinet level, was it? Was this a cabinet decision?

Senator Gareth Evans --You should not make any assumptions at all about anything.

Senator KEMP --Yes. I know.

Senator Gareth Evans --You will not get any information about what goes on in cabinet or cabinet committees, so there is no point in pursuing it.

Senator KEMP --It is certainly a matter of public record that Mr Keating has become very keen on having a kit on the constitution distributed to schools. I wondered whether you were aware that the Parliamentary Education Office has already produced a very substantial kit covering all aspects of the history of the constitution; the people who were involved with the drafting of the constitution; how the final conventions were arrived at; and the decisions which were made. They have also produced a commentary on the constitution. When Mr Keating made that statement, was he aware of all this work that had gone on in the Parliamentary Education Office?

Senator Gareth Evans --I think a number of us were aware--I cannot speak for Mr Keating--about the material that is in existence. I have a set of that material myself at home. It is quite useful; it is well done. The difficulty is, however, that most schools around the country do not seem to be utilising this kind of information, such of it as is in existence, in any very systematic form. Maybe some of that is just too elaborate and complex in its presentation, particularly given the existing school curricula around the place, to be as useful as some other forms of material covering similar terrain might be.

The issue at least deserves to be further discussed and investigated. The government has taken the view that it would be helpful in this respect to create an expert group to develop a plan for a nonpartisan program of public education and information on Australian government, citizenship and the constitution. The whole object of this is to deal with a concept of civics, which has been rather undeveloped in education systems in this country. It is intended to strengthen our democratic character by enlivening our appreciation of it, particularly at the school level but also in the wider community. None of this is designed to specifically promote the republican cause as such; that would be inappropriate for an exercise of this kind. The object of the exercise is as I have described it, but it is only in its early stages of development so far.

Senator KEMP --A lot of the material in here has actually been done in a way which I think would be very acceptable to people in schools. It is not complex and there is further material for those who wish to pursue these issues in depth. I put it to you, and through you to Mr Keating, that there is a lot of material in here which not only would be appropriate to schools but, as far as I am aware, is going into schools.

There is one thing that Mr Keating himself could even be prepared to look at: a picture history of the constitution. No in-depth reading is required, but there is a very interesting series of photos of the founders of the constitution and so forth, and it says how the constitution was written in Australia by Australians for Australians. That is something you may wish to bring to the attention of Mr Keating.

Senator Gareth Evans --I am indebted to you, Senator Kemp.

Senator KEMP --Who do you see being in that expert group?

Senator Gareth Evans --In announcing the intention to go down this path a few days ago, Mr Keating said that its composition and terms of reference would be announced soon. I have nothing to add to that at this stage.

Senator KEMP --In order to ensure that there is a nonpartisan approach to setting up this committee, presumably the first step would be to look at the material which has already put out and to distribute it. I assume that Mr Keating will be consulting with Mr Downer and Mr Fischer about that nonpartisan group.

Senator Gareth Evans --Mr Downer's grandfather may have had something useful to contribute. I am not sure that the current generation is in that category. It is a matter for Mr Keating's judgment.

Senator O'CHEE --Do you want it to be nonpartisan or not?

Senator Gareth Evans --When you lot get elected to government you can adopt a similar approach. He may wish to consult Mr Downer and he may think it inappropriate in the circumstances.

Senator O'CHEE --Do you want to be nonpartisan or do you want to be blatantly political, as you are?

Senator Gareth Evans --There are different ways of being nonpartisan.

Senator O'CHEE --Do you mean that if you get somebody from the right faction of the ALP and somebody from the left faction that is nonpartisan?

Senator Gareth Evans --If there was any sign of a genuine commitment to statesmanship and anything other than vulgar opportunism on the part of the current leadership of your party I do not doubt that the incentive would be much stronger.

Senator O'CHEE --We could learn a lot about vulgarism from your leadership.

Senator KEMP --I do not want to be provoked by Senator Evans, but after the opportunism of the Labor Party in the last election those words fit singularly ill in his mouth. I would suggest that he is in no position to lecture us.

Senator Gareth Evans --Your disappointment is probable but your policies stink.

Senator KEMP --To conclude this aspect of the republican kit and the constitution kit, I understand that you would be aware that the minister for education in South Australia has indicated that the material which goes into the schools is a matter for that government and not for Mr Keating. Do you have any comments you wish to make on that?

Senator Gareth Evans --I am glad to see that that spirit of national identity and national pride is alive and well and beating in the breast of the South Australian government. We may have a similar response from a number of state governments. Hopefully the power of rational persuasion will prevail in this situation.

Senator LOOSLEY --In a non-partisan way?

Senator Gareth Evans --Yes, because what we are talking about here is applying Commonwealth resources to assist the states to develop--in schools and elsewhere--an appreciation of the fundamentals of our system of government, which ought to work to the advantage of everybody.

Senator KEMP --What sum of money is the government thinking of?

Senator Gareth Evans --This will be the subject of an announcement in due course. I have just been reminded that there is $250,000 allocated in the budget, but that is simply for preparatory work, for the expert group to get started, and not for the program itself.

Senator KEMP --It might care to buy some copies.

Senator Gareth Evans --I am indebted to you, Senator Kemp, for reminding me of the existence of that. It is certainly a valuable exercise. I for one will be reminding myself of it.

Senator KEMP --Make sure you pass it on to Mr Keating.

Senator Gareth Evans --No doubt he will be enthralled to be reminded of all those things that he knows so well already.

Senator O'CHEE --Given that we are going to spend $250,000 in preliminary work setting up this advisory group, why did the government not decide just to give that money over as an additional appropriation to the Parliamentary Education Office? Does the government see it as somehow partisan?

Senator Gareth Evans --We are looking for a wider community base and a wider expert base. I repeat that the work that that group has done is obviously of value and will obviously be taken into account. If the material that is prepared can be utilised without more being done or in some fashion not involving further repetitive work in the same area, so much the better. It would be in the interests of all of us to do that. I am sure this material will be very closely studied.

Senator O'CHEE --But we will only find that out after we have spent $250,000 setting up an expert group?

Senator Gareth Evans --I am advised that that $250,000 is able to be spent not just on convening meetings of the group and so on but actually on material itself. One would expect that it would be utilised in a fully cost-effective way.

Senator O'CHEE --Does the government think the Parliamentary Education Office is partisan?

Senator Gareth Evans --The government has formed no view of that kind that I am aware of. It is not my particular corner of the government, anyway.

Senator O'CHEE --I would like you to state whether you think it is non-partisan or partisan.

Senator Gareth Evans --I myself have seen nothing to make me believe that that material would be partisan in character, but I will reserve my judgment until I have looked at it. I do not believe there would be any foundation for that.

Senator O'CHEE --I do not think there is anything partisan about it. That is why I am perplexed as to why you want to spend another $250,000 setting up another group of people to duplicate these people.

Senator Gareth Evans --It is a much wider brief than just the Parliamentary Education Office. What we are talking about is not just preparing material but working out a program for its dissemination on a much wider scale than has successfully been the case in the past. Preparation of material is an important component of that. If that can be done without reinventing the wheel, so much the better. It may well be the view of the group that that is so. We are not making any judgments of that kind. It is a much bigger task, which involves translating the material that is around into a much wider community appreciation of its substance. You would be kidding yourself if you took the view that any of this is widely entrenched in the community as a whole at the moment because manifestly it is not.

Senator O'CHEE --Are you talking about more than schools?

Senator Gareth Evans --Quite possibly, yes. That is one of the matters that we want to talk our way through.

Senator O'CHEE --Why do you not just ensure, to start off with, that the education which is prepared and which goes to schools is more readily accessible to them?

Senator Gareth Evans --That might be a very good suggestion. I will take it on board and pass it on.

Senator O'CHEE --The Parliamentary Education Office does very good work.

Senator Gareth Evans --I have heard that from Senator Kemp and I am conscious of it.

Senator O'CHEE --The problem is that there is a restraint because it has a limited budget and in many cases it has to charge for the material it prepares.

Senator Gareth Evans --This might be one way of meeting that concern. That is a matter for the expert group and then the government to decide. We are indebted to you for your suggestion.

Senator O'CHEE --Why can the government not make a decision on these things without Donald Horne or some group holding its hand?

Senator Gareth Evans --The government likes to be well advised on all matters and likes to tap into the community to get the widest range of inputs. You are constantly urging us to do that. When we do it, you complain. You are pretty hard to please.

Senator O'CHEE --The Prime Minister does not think he is well advised by you.

Senator Gareth Evans --Mr Chairman, this sort of schoolboy debate has just about reached its nadir. Can we move on?

Senator O'CHEE --If it is a schoolboy debate, it is a schoolboy debate on your side of the chamber anyway.

Senator KEMP --I asked Senator Evans a question in the parliament this morning on a referendum in relation to changing the flag if, indeed, the government proposed to go in that direction. I presented a private member's bill on that particular issue. Could Senator Evans state for the record the government's approach to that bill and whether the government will allow that bill to be debated in the lower house, assuming it passes the Senate, and the indications are that it will?

Senator Gareth Evans --I have been away for a couple of weeks, but to my knowledge we have not given any consideration as a government to that bill. We will no doubt do so before it comes on for a vote. I will tell you then.

Senator KEMP --You do not rule out at this stage that the government may be prepared to allow the bill to be debated in the lower house.

Senator Gareth Evans --Is it the same as all your previous bills on the subject?

Senator KEMP --It is the same.

Senator Gareth Evans --It is not any new contribution.

Senator KEMP --No, it is the same. A referendum--just a test of the Australian people and their opinion.

Senator Gareth Evans --A referendum requiring a majority in a majority of states--the whole bit.

Senator KEMP --No. Requiring the majority of people, not a majority of the states.

Senator Gareth Evans --That is a bit of backsliding, is it not?

Senator KEMP --No, it is not. As you said, it is the same bill.

Senator Gareth Evans --No, backsliding on the constitutional--

Senator KEMP --You never read the first one.

Senator Gareth Evans --We have said, and I have said again this morning in the parliament, that we have always contemplated there being some appropriate act of choice by the Australian electorate as between the current design and any proposed new design or designs that might be put up in due course by a process which has not yet even commenced. What that particular act of choice might be, how it might be best administered, what would be the most cost-effective way, among other considerations, of doing it are all matters that remain to be considered. It is quite an expensive business conducting a referendum.

Senator KEMP --I know that. You probably had time to check up after question time, but I did raise with you that a submission by Senator Bolkus about all these issues was going to cabinet in 1992.

Senator Gareth Evans --I may have had time, but I did not have the inclination. So I have no further information for you.

Senator KEMP --You certainly had the time. Has the government got any plans to set in process a system by which it would seek to change the national flag?

Senator Gareth Evans --Quite apart from anything else, this is a question for the Department of Administrative Services rather than a question for the PM's department. My own understanding of the situation is that there are no current plans to go down that particular track.

Senator KEMP --Is it still the government policy to encourage the flying of the national flag at all appropriate occasions from government departments, embassies and so forth?

Senator Gareth Evans --I am not aware of any change to the directives, guidelines or rules that have been evolved over the years for doing that--when you do it at half mast, when you put it up and when you take it down and all the rest of it. There are rules about that.

Senator KEMP --Even under the Hawke government, there was a very strong policy to make sure that the use of the national flag was encouraged on all appropriate occasions.

Senator Gareth Evans --And a good thing, too.

Senator KEMP --Could I get a statement from you whether that is the policy of the Keating government?

Senator Gareth Evans --The government is perfectly content with the notion of having a flag as a symbol of national pride and unity flying on all appropriate occasions. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the particular flag we have at the moment is the best way of communicating both to ourselves and to others what we are about as a nation. No doubt opinions will continue to be strongly held on that subject. On the question of flying a national flag as such, of course we are in favour of it.

Senator KEMP --Does Mr Keating still refuse to have the flag flown on his official car?

Senator Gareth Evans --I do not know whether he does or not. If he does, it might just well be another demonstration of that modesty for which he is well known--he does not wish to draw attention to himself.

Senator KEMP --Could you check with the officers of the department whether they know the answer to that question?

Senator Gareth Evans --I am just reminded that Prime Minister Menzies used to have his own personal flag. Would Senator Kemp like to remind me of the details of that?

Senator KEMP --When I am in that chair and you are over here, I would be very happy to answer.

Senator Gareth Evans --I suggest that you do some research on that subject.

Senator KEMP --I will have Dr Watt beside me as well.

CHAIRMAN --I am sure you will stick to the programs better too, Senator.