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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4005

Senator BOB COLLINS(3.08 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs (Senator Herron), to a question without notice asked by Senator Bob Collins today, relating to the the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

Senator Alston —What a killer point!

Senator BOB COLLINS —I am pleased to respond to that interjection, through you, Madam Deputy President, if Senator Alston thinks that this is a matter of no moment. I want to refer to the Prime Minister's code of conduct for his ministers, which states, among other things, that ministers must be honest in their public dealings and should not intentionally mislead the parliament or the public—honest in their public dealings.

Clearly, the minister just told us that—hopefully, at least—he had read the contents but not the cover of this report. I refer honourable senators and indeed anyone else who actually watched the minister's performance last night on the 7.30 Report to the fact that he got stuck into Kerry O'Brien for `getting his facts wrong', and he thought he was very clever indeed.

Senator Ferguson —And so he should.

Senator BOB COLLINS —Thank you for that interjection, too, Senator. I want that in the Hansard as well, which is why I responded to it, and I want the minister's answer in response to my motion too. People should listen to the context in which this question was asked. Last night Kerry O'Brien asked the minister questions about why he could not make a more forthcoming response to the report. John Herron said:

Well, I'd be happy to come back on your program after you've read the report. There are 54 recommendations and 689 pages—

to which Kerry O'Brien replied—correctly and accurately, as we now know, and the minster knew—

You've already had it for seven weeks.

Minister Herron then aggressively went on the front foot, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and said:

I've had it for a week, Kerry. Get your facts right again, Kerry, get your facts right. It wasn't printed and available in print form until budget week.

I have been a minister myself and I know, as every former minister does, the normal protocols that apply. The minister deliberately used the word `print' last night. He gave himself away, because he put in the words—and I picked it up this morning—`available in print form'. It was designed to try to fox the interviewer and fox the audience. It was not in fact honest public dealing at all, and the minister stands condemned for it, as he has now in fact confessed in here.

Today the minister gave the extraordinary answer that, yes, he did have a copy of it. Of course he would have got it the same day that the Attorney-General (Mr Williams) got it. Indeed, the `office of insidious affairs' in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet got it on the same day as well. Indeed, he probably would have had, Senator Bolkus, a draft copy of the report before he even got that. He tried to skate through a question he could not answer by attempting to mislead people into believing that he got the thing only a week before.

I ask the minister for Aboriginal affairs to come in here and respond to this now. Is the minister saying—I will be pursuing this at a later occasion next week—that, in response to the question from Kerry O'Brien, the copy he got did not contain the 54 recommendations; that the photocopy non-print version had no recommendations in it? Is the minister attempting to fool the Senate into believing that the copy that he got from the Attorney-General, which he would have as the most relevant minister, did not contain the substance of the 689 pages the final report contained?

It reflects badly on this sorry, sorry minister who is not only not an advocate for Aboriginal Australia at all in the cabinet but also perfectly happy to slip and slide and attempt to use little words like `print' to in fact deceive the public watching that interview into believing that he had no prior knowledge of this report at all until a week before, when in fact we now know from his own words in here today that that was in fact utterly untrue. The minister stands condemned for it. He is not fit to hold the office of minister in this government. (Time expired)