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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1738


Senator ROBERT RAY(5.48) —I am tempted in following Senator Teague merely to say that the defence rests. He has a very fertile imagination. In the 20 minutes available to him this afternoon he has been able to impute all sorts of motives for Senator Ryan's actions without adducing any proof or logical explanation. He asserted that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, acted out of motives that related to a relationship with the Department of Education and Youth Affairs, with the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke and to the way she wanted to treat Caucus, that she wanted to keep Caucus in the dark about issues. No evidence has been produced here today by Senator Teague to back up those assertions. All he has done today is prove that he has a very fertile imagination in building up motives that would not stand up anywhere else .

I think this issue would have been more appropriately dealt with first of all by the Estimates Committee. The Estimates Committee could have considered the letter and the transcript-if it were lucky enough to have one-and then, if the issue warranted it, brought this motion before the chamber if the Opposition still felt, given the Minister's explanation and discussion there that the Minister had misled Parliament. But instead we have had almost four hours of debate on what nearly every speaker on the other side has said is a very important issue. They then proceeded to trivialise the issue. I have not experienced many censure motions in this place but I would say that today's must rank as one of the all-time worst, unless they have all been at a similarly low level.

I think the critical aspect of the motion surely is that the Opposition says that Senator Ryan deliberately misled the Parliament, via the Estimates Committee. I do not accept that. I accept the fact that her letter the next day corrected any impression that may have been gained from the answers to the Estimates Committee. I would have thought that it was normal practice for officials and Ministers who appear before Estimates committees, if they have a defect in memory or judgment or inadvertently in any way mislead the Committee, to write to the Committee immediately and correct the record.

It would be interesting, if we are to judge people and their motives, to judge the motives of the Opposition. The Minister's letter is very critical to that judgment. The Opposition referred to events that occurred on 3 May. The Committee got the Minister's letter on 4 May. We have had various explanations as to why the Opposition did not bring up the matter on 4 May. Clearly, the most convincing argument is that it was through the Opposition's lack of diligence or laziness, either in not reading the letter or in not understanding it. So the matter was not brought up at the Estimates Committee. I would not have expected a Liberal Opposition member, having read the letter, immediately to jump to his feet and demand a discussion of it. However, I would have expected such an honourable senator, if he was diligent enough to have read the letter, to have indicated at some time during those Estimates Committee hearings that he would at least like to go into private session to discuss the matter. However, nothing happened on the Friday. On Saturday and Sunday we heard nothing. I do not know why. Surely honourable senators had the weekend to think about it. Probably honourable senators opposite had nothing else to do. If the issue is so important why was it not raised on Monday? If this is a life and death matter, a matter of integrity, why was it not raised on Monday?

Senator Peter Baume himself said that he read the letter on Friday afternoon. If it is the letter and evidence that is so important, why was the matter not raised yesterday? Why was it not raised at Question Time or on the adjournment? Why was the matter raised today by ambush? I agree that Senator Chaney made the matter the subject of a notice of motion. As such, on the face of it, honourable senators could argue that no notice of motion is an ambush. However, honourable senators know that any censure motion moved as a notice of motion is debated straight away. I think that the Opposition in its eagerness to ambush a Minister has lost a lot of credibility. Honourable senators on this side of the chamber have had no chance whatsoever to evaluate the evidence before them.

The point has been made before about the lack of availability of the Hansard. I think honourable senators would agree that hearing Opposition senators selectively quote has made it very difficult for us to make any sort of assessment. They selectively repeat the same quotes time and again. None of us on this side has the evidence available to judge. However, I noticed, when Senator Ryan proceeded to quote from the material in full, the embarrassed looks opposite. The point that needs to be made in this instance is that Senator Ryan was answering questions in relation to her own Department. I will quote from Standing Orders the purpose of Estimates committees. Standing Order 36AB (15.) states:

The Committees may ask for explanations from Ministers of State in the Senate, or officers, relating to items of proposed expenditure.

The clear implication is that Ministers and officials must answer questions about proposed expenditure relating to their own departments. If the expenditure relates to another department we cannot expect them to have that sort of expertise. It was clear to me, the first time I attended an Estimates committee, that some latitude was given in terms of questions. Estimates committees eventually become another extended Question Time with unlimited supplementary questions. It is only when the going gets tough, when Ministers have some problem in answering questions, that chairmen of committees-because they are government appointees, whether they be Liberal or Labor-enforce the Standing Orders to protect their Minister. That is what happens. That happened when I was on Estimates committees. The moment we started to get somewhere-the post-Budget survey was an example where pressure was put on a Minister-suddenly the relevant chairman would come in and close the debate.

If Senator Ryan has been guilty of anything it may be of showing some contempt for the Opposition. After today's performance I wonder how she could really hide such contempt. Traditionally, Ministers do not treat Estimates committees with as much openness as perhaps they should. That is true of either Liberal or Labor . To some extent Ministers regard Estimates committees as an adversary situation . They should not, but that has happened. It has happened under Liberal Governments, and Senator Ryan would have had her training under several Liberal Ministers in Estimates committees. Ministers and public servants tend to give about as much information as they have to. Recently in my own Estimates Committee hearings I have thought that some public servants have not given as full information as they should have. That is a question that the Senate Standing Orders Committee and the leaders of the Senate should consider at some stage. The presence of so many public servants at Estimates committees and the immense cost of that has been raised as a matter of concern. I agree with those criticisms. I agree that it is immensely costly.

I return to the more snide accusation allied to this debate that Senator Ryan has not been performing well in her portfolio. I have no axe to grind for Senator Ryan but I think she has done brilliantly in her portfolio, which is one of the toughest portfolios. It is clear from Question Time that she is on top of the portfolio. Every time we get sectarian-based questions on any issue coming from honourable senators opposite she has handled those with absolute ease. This nonsense being peddled around, which has come from newspapers, that the Prime Minister has had to step in and support the Minister has not been substantiated. Opposition senators have not adduced any evidence for that, except apparently one memo from a public servant expressing that public servant's opinion. There is nothing from the Government to suggest that it is in any way unhappy with Senator Ryan's performance.

In conclusion, I will be brief because I know we have the right to reply and Question Time yet to come. I say firstly that several honourable senators have started by saying that this is a serious issue. They have then selectively quoted from Hansard. They have not accepted that if there was any inadvertent misleading it was corrected in a letter the following day. There is absolutely no charity from those honourable senators opposite even though in the past their own Ministers have been caught in similarly embarrassing positions, when not the fullest information has been made available. That information has now been made available. There is no case to justify a censure motion. As I said before, the reason why we now have a censure motion by ambush is that over the weekend the Opposition decided: 'We have to lift our game, we have to look determined, we have to look positive'. Opposition senators are not fighting about whether they are going to win the next election; it is a points spread. It is how many seats the Opposition will lose at the next election. They have to look tough and act tough, but I am sorry to say that they just have not done that.