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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2266


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education)(8.36) —Senator Kilgariff's last rhetorical question really raises the whole issue of the role of Estimates committees. He said: 'Let us look into the administration'. I assume that is exactly what the Estimates committee was doing.


Senator Puplick —We are still doing it.


Senator RYAN —Obviously; that is why we are here. That is the answer to Senator Kilgariff's question. The comment of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs to the effect that it did not have some information relating to the affairs of the National Aboriginal Conference has been criticised and it has been suggested by the Committee that the explanation given by officers of the DAA was not satisfactory. The Committee said:

From the evidence before it the Committee finds it difficult to accept the Department's implication that the lock out of its officers by the NAC had prevented information being provided to the Committee. The lock out occurred six days after the Committee's hearings and the NAC has since asserted before the Committee that access to the relevant files would have been given to Departmental officers.

On behalf of the Department, I would like to clarify this matter of the lock-out. The Secretary-General of the NAC, in his letter to the Department on 26 April 1985 advising it of the lock-out of departmental officers who had been working in the NAC, gave no indication at all that access would still be available to officers, nor was this made clear in subsequent discussions with the Minister or the Department. Consequently, he wrote to the Chairman of the NAC on 30 April 1985 in response to the Secretary-General's letter of 26 April and said:

Now that the Department's officers have been locked out, they have been placed in a very difficult position in relation to their ability to discharge their side of that job responsibly. These are the circumstances that the NAC itself has created.

The consequence is that those administering the Arrangement on behalf of the Department will not be in a position to countersign or authorise any NAC expenditure. This situation will have to continue until the previously applying arrangements are restored.

The Minister also said:

In all the circumstances, I must say that the effect of the NAC's actions can only be that the Department's officers whose duty it is, and will remain, to give effect to the Agency Arrangement, are prevented from doing so. I suggest, therefore, that the NAC would be well advised to review the consequences of its decision and to reconsider its position.

From this it can be seen that I consider that departmental officers were unable to fulfil their duties under the agency arrangement, given the stance of the NAC. Mr Riley replied to the Minister on 6 May saying:

The Department's officers have not been prevented at any stage from carrying out any Agency Arrangement.

That was the first formal indication that this was the case although the Department had been asked to carry out selected duties after the lock-out was instituted. The Committee also contends that the lock-out occurred six days after the Committee hearings. However, the following points should be taken into account: The hearing was on Tuesday night, 23 April; Thursday, 25 April was a public holiday, and the lock-out was effected at 8 a.m. on Monday, 29 April. This effectively allowed only two working days for the Department to attempt to answer all of the questions taken on notice at the hearing of 23 April. Furthermore, the Department was not provided with copies of the Hansard record of the hearings until late on Friday morning, 27 April, further limiting the time available to ensure that it had correctly understood the questions that the Committee members had asked and that it had agreed to take on notice.

In summary, the NAC had not made it clear to departmental officers that relevant files were available on request and it was only after my letter of 30 April had been dispatched that the NAC had progressively sought agency co-operation on a wider range of issues governed by the arrangement.