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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 4395


Senator CROWLEY —My question is directed to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Minister, are you aware that the Prime Minister's Guide to key elements of ministerial responsibility requires that, amongst other things, ministers must be honest in their public dealings and should not intentionally mislead the parliament or the public; any misconception caused inadvertently should be corrected at the earliest opportunity; and any answer which may be found to be incorrect should be corrected as soon as the error is found using the procedures of the house concerned? Is it not true that Senator Newman sounded the alarm about the `Wright family' on 25 September, as Senator Newman just said in her answer? Why then, given the spectacular coverage of your scam by the media, did you not immediately set the public record straight? Why did you not set the parliamentary record straight last Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, or Monday or Tuesday of this week?


Senator VANSTONE —I thank Senator Crowley for that question because it gives me an opportunity to highlight one aspect of the Australian Labor Party which was completely rejected by the Australian people at the last election, and that is an element of hypocrisy.


Senator Robert Ray —Answer the question.


Senator VANSTONE —I am answering the question. This example closely parallels an experience of Senator Schacht—one of your ministers, Senator Crowley—who was inadvertently advised by his department and gave an incorrect answer to an estimates committee.

What did Senator Schacht do? Do you think that when he first found this out he immediately set in train the process to advise either the committee or the parliament of the error? Do you think he did that? No, he did not. How did the parliament find out about this error? Because somebody asked Senator McMullan a question and Senator Schacht had to slink in on taking note of the answer and admit that he had made a mistake before the estimates committee.

Opposition senators interjecting


Senator VANSTONE —Don't feign not knowing. This was referred to the Privileges Committee and you would remember it well. So let's not pretend you don't know about this.


The PRESIDENT —Order! There are too many interjections.


Senator Schacht —The Privileges Committee gave a very good report. We will put you there and see how you go.


Senator VANSTONE —Don't get oversensitive. Of course, reluctantly at the end of his speech in taking note of the answer, Senator Schacht said, `Yes, this thing was a tax and not a charge. And, yes, legislation will have to be introduced'—which was the opposite of what he told the committee.

This was sent off to the Privileges Committee. And what did that committee say? The Privileges Committee said that Senator Schacht was not at fault because he had not deliberately misled the estimates committee. They even concluded that he did not really mean to mislead the Senate, as they believed he had, in taking note of the question. They gave him the full benefit of the doubt and said that he was misinformed. They did say, however, that he should have notified the estimates committee—and he did not. He actually said, `We'll go through all of this again when the estimates committee next sits.'

What have I done? I have been notified and I make no secret of it. Senator Newman's office contacted my office and said, `Look, we think something is wrong here', and ever since then our offices have been sharing information trying to get to the bottom of the problem.


Senator Bob Collins —Rubbish!


Senator VANSTONE —It is true.

Opposition senators interjecting


Senator VANSTONE —I cannot get through this, Madam President, if you do not invite those who asked the question to let me answer it.


The PRESIDENT —Stop the clock. Order! Proceed, Senator Vanstone.


Senator VANSTONE —In relation to that matter, Senator Crowley, I did not deliberately mislead the estimates committee. I ask you to accept that. Although you so ungenerously last night—when I had written to the committee and apologised and, in response to a question, indicated that if an apology was required in this chamber I would give it—nonetheless went on PM and said that I still rejected that there had been some misleading. That is not the case.

I set about getting the facts. It was not an easy task getting all the facts. I will be making a statement after question time when I will give you a chronology of events and such documents as I can so that you can make your own assessment. But before you point the finger, why don't you look at what your minister did and judge me by the standards you judged him by?


Senator CROWLEY —Very little of that answer, Madam President, went to the question asked, so, in supplementary I ask: minister, notwithstanding all that you said then, would you have corrected the record in this place if Senator Carr had not asked his question yesterday? Is it true, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald this morning, that, `Within two days of Senator Vanstone's claim being made public, her department was referring all media inquiries to the minister's office, suggesting knowledge that the claim was erroneous'? Finally, if you yesterday said that you came into this place to give an unreserved apology, how does that sit with you saying at the end of your interview last night, `A day or two here or there, what's the big deal'? How does that sit with `immediately' correcting the record if it is wrong?


Senator VANSTONE —Senator Crowley, as I have indicated to you—and I am not even trying to make any secret of this—of course, when this matter received media coverage, which, incidentally, was not at my instigation—


Senator Robert Ray —Oh yes, it was.


Senator VANSTONE —No, it was not.


Senator Robert Ray —Yes, it was.


Senator VANSTONE —Well, you provide the proof of that.


Senator Robert Ray —Who asked the questions and who put out the media release?


Senator VANSTONE —Not me; I didn't put out a media release. Senator Crowley, what you need to know is that the matter was raised on the day that Senator Newman indicated. Since then we have been trying to get to the bottom of the matter. It is not appropriate for me, finding that there has been an error, to immediately accept—even if I get an answer immediately, which I did not—the information. It behoves me to properly check that information.

I actually find that, as late as last night, I have been given more information by the department. So perhaps I should have waited longer to get more information from the department as to the so-called Wright family that was put to me as being a good example of a family that was caught by your actual means test. So I would say to you that I have done everything I could. The error was pointed out. We tried to get to the bottom of what the errors were. Once I was satisfied of that, I notified the relevant committee. (Time expired)