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Monday, 3 March 1997
Page: 1073

Senator NEAL —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Health. Did the Minister for Health, Mr Wooldridge, receive a report on private health insurance from the Productivity Commission last Friday? Does the minister agree that the draft of this report that was issued last December was critical of this government's health initiatives?

Senator NEWMAN —I do not have any information from Dr Wooldridge as to what he might have received on Friday. In fact, I think I told you last week that I really am not responsible for everything he does—breathing, eating, sleeping, et cetera. I am very happy to pass your question on to him.

I have had a very interesting little exercise undertaken in the last few weeks as to the performance of the previous ministry about representational matters. It has been quite fascinating to see just who answered what. I think you might be interested to know—

Senator Faulkner —Madam President, I raise a point of order. We know how sensitive Senator Newman is about the issue of her absolute incapacity to answer any question in any portfolio she represents.

Senator Alston —Is this a point of order?

Senator Faulkner —My point of order is that she has been asked specifically about a question relating to her role as Minister representing the Minister for Health and Family Services.

Senator Alston —What's your point of order?

Senator Faulkner —The point of order is that Senator Newman is now embarking on some point of complete irrelevance about the previous government and apparently the number of questions that were taken on notice or given to ministers in that government representing other portfolios. Clearly, that is out of order in answer to the question that has been asked by Senator Neal. Madam President, you are required under the standing orders to call Senator Newman to order and not allow her to abuse the procedures of this place in this way—sit her down and, if she cannot answer the question, shut her up.

Senator NEWMAN —On the point of order: Senator Faulkner is obviously very sensitive to issues of this kind because of his own past record. But I draw your attention to the fact that the comments I was making, when rudely interrupted, went to the answer I gave to Senator Neal and that I was proposing to continue. It is perfectly reasonable that I make it very clear when I am answering on behalf of another minister—and it is only of recent times that this opposition over here was on the front benches on this side—and it is very relevant, as to the comparison between—

Senator Faulkner —Is this on the point of order?

The PRESIDENT —Senator Newman is speaking to the point of order for roughly the same length of time as you did.

Senator NEWMAN —For instance, I was asked 100 questions last year; 17 only did I take on notice; 83 were answered in full. Fifty-eight questions were asked of my portfolio, only two of which I took on notice.

Senator Faulkner —Very good.

Senator NEWMAN —Forty-two questions were asked of me in my capacity as a minister representing ministers in the other place, and 15 only were taken on notice.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Newman!

Senator NEWMAN —Let me compare that with the record of this lot over here.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Newman! Both the original point of order and this discussion in relation to it have gone into debating the issue.

Senator Robert Ray —Do it after question time.

The PRESIDENT —There is an opportunity to debate the issue after question time. There are still more than three minutes left to deal with the answer to Senator Neal's question. I draw your attention to that aspect of the matter before the Senate.

Senator Forshaw —I rise on a point of order, Madam President. At the very commencement of Senator Newman's answer to the question from Senator Neal, she clearly stated that she was not in a position to answer the question and she would refer it to the minister for an answer. On that basis, I do not believe that she has any further right to try to wax lyrical about irrelevant matters. She has indicated that she will take the question on notice and get back to the Senate. That is as far as she should be entitled to go and I would ask you to rule that way.

The PRESIDENT —The minister has four minutes to deal with the question that Senator Neal put to her. If she has anything further to add, she certainly is able to do so.

Senator NEWMAN —Thank you, Madam President. I would like to draw the Senate's attention to what Senator Cook had to say one day. He said:

I have absolutely no briefing on this question.

Is that not what I just told you?

Senator Faulkner —I rise on a point of order, Madam President. My point of order is that surely it is an abuse of question time for this incompetent minister to be answering a question directed to her by Senator Neal in her capacity as minister representing the Minister for Health and Family Services and starting to canvass some answer to a question that was given by Senator Cook in the life of the last parliament. Madam President, I put to you very seriously that you ought to rule this incompetent minister out of order and sit her down.

Senator Vanstone —On the point of order, Madam President: Senator Faulkner's gruff voice and appearance masks an extraordinary sensitivity to personal insult. I put it to you that the arguments he has raised with you are non sequiturs. Senator Newman is entitled to answer the question as she sees fit and she is entitled to use whatever arguments she likes to use to indicate the adequacy of that answer. That is exactly what she is doing. She is indicating the adequacy of the answer by reference to the adequacy of answers given in the past by those who now seek to claim the opposite. I think it is a perfectly respectable argument for Senator Newman to be raising as justification for the answer she has given. She is entitled to do that.

Senator Forshaw —On the point of order, Madam President: I return to the point I made a moment ago. Senator Newman indicated at the outset that she was not in a position to answer the question. She said she would take it on notice. How is it possible for her to then proceed to try to answer the question when she stated clearly that she cannot answer it? On that basis, she has completed her answer. Her answer is that she cannot answer the question and she will get some advice from the minister. On that basis, I do not think she is entitled to make any further comments.

The PRESIDENT —The situation is that Senator Newman did indicate that she would refer it to the minister. Whether it shows in the Hansard or not, I do not know, but there were interjections at that time challenging her on not being able to answer it now. On that basis, I can understand her responding, as she has, in wanting to deal with that issue. It has gone on for some considerable time, eating into question time at this stage. There are now two minutes and 59 seconds remaining in which this matter may be dealt with and it really ought to deal with the question asked by Senator Neal without interjections.

Senator NEWMAN —It is also relevant to point out that I not only represent the Minister for Health and Family Services but I also represent the Minister for Family Services, the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, I am the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women and, in addition, I am the minister for one of the biggest portfolios in the federal government, which now includes housing as well.

Senator Faulkner —If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Senator NEWMAN —Senator Faulkner was an abject failure as a minister so it ill behoves him to make those sorts of allegations. Senator Bolkus, for instance, said:

I have looked through the brief that has been made available to me and, even though a number of questions were anticipated today, one like this was not. I would like to take the question on notice . . .

Senator Faulkner —Sit down and shut up, you fool.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Faulkner, will you withdraw that comment?

Senator Faulkner —I withdraw the fact that I called Senator Newman a fool.

Senator Alston —On a point of order, Madam President: during the course of that delightful little exchange, he also referred to Senator Newman as a dope. I think you ought to make it clear that this sort of sledging should not be allowed to continue. It is about time he decided to reform himself and concentrate on real issues.

Senator Faulkner —On the point of order, Madam President: in relation to calling Senator Newman a dope, truth is my defence.

The PRESIDENT —From what has been a very good question time today, in the last few minutes it has degenerated considerably.

Senator West —On a point of order, Madam President: the question from Senator Neal related to a Productivity Commission report. I would ask you to ask the minister to remain relevant to that particular issue.

The PRESIDENT —If there is anything else to be added on the Productivity Commission report, Senator Newman, you may do so.

Senator NEWMAN —As has been a precedent with successive ministers representing ministers in the other place, I am very happy to get the details, such as are available, and bring them to the Senate, as I said at the beginning.

Senator NEAL —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I am well aware of the burdens carried by Senator Newman in relation to her ministerial responsibilities, but there is a very easy remedy for that situation. I can understand that there are circumstances where issues may be raised that you may not be aware of, but this particular issue relates to something that was part of your health policy document during the election, was canvassed in December when the draft report was issued—

Senator Hill —Madam President, I raise a point of order. This is an interesting little speech but, if it is an attempt at a supplementary question, then it is feeble. I suggest she be invited to ask the question or to sit down.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Neal.

Senator NEAL —I think, in the circumstances, an answer could be given. Given that the legislation dealing with private health insurance incentives is before the Senate at the moment, how can this minister justify not issuing the Productivity Commission report before we have to vote on it?

Senator NEWMAN —I have already said that I am not aware of the minister's situation with regard to receiving the report. Therefore, I am not able to answer any further comments that you might like to make by way of editorial.