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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4009

Senator CROWLEY(3.28 p.m.) —No matter how well and how nicely you pronounce it, Senator, you cannot cover the point of major concern that the opposition wants to raise here. The point is not whether or not the senator read a report in glossy paper or whether he read a photocopy. The question is whether or not the minister has been telling the truth in this place. There is now evidence that the minister was not, and that is the point that we are going to—not the distraction of whether it was glossy or a photocopy, but whether or not the minister has misled the Senate. I refer to the transcript of last night's interview on the ABC's 7.30 Report , which states:

KERRY O'BRIEN: I'm now joined by the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Senator John Herron. John Herron, how discomforted were you by Senator Lightfoot's expressions that Aboriginal people in their native state are the lowest colour on the civilisation spectrum?

JOHN HERRON: When I first saw the report, Kerry, I wondered in what context and what did he mean by that.

These are the first words that Senator Herron said last night:

When I first saw the report . . . I didn't know the context that they were given in, nor when they were said, nor had I seen it on television . . .

Later on, two questions further down, Minister Herron said:

. . . but in politics you've got to know what the truth is before you respond . . . I've seen the truth a bit elastic . . . I'm not going to reply to something that I have not evidence of nor have I seen.

The minister is saying, `I am not going to speak about something I have not seen', when the very first words he said on the 7.30 Report were `when I first saw the report, Kerry.'

So the contradiction is out of his own mouth. You saw the report, Minister, and then you say you cannot speak about it, because you have not seen it. Did you or did you not see the report, Minister Herron? That is the confusion, that is the question and that is the great worry we have on this side. This minister is either so bumbling and incompetent that he should go straightaway or he was misleading this place with his answers here yesterday and compounding that on the 7.30 Report last night.

It is to be remembered that almost before Senator Cook had finished his question—in which he did not name the Western Australian—Senator Herron said, `Poor old Senator Cook hasn't the guts to stand up and say it is Senator Lightfoot.' He knew it was Senator Lightfoot. He knew those remarks were attributed to Senator Lightfoot. Then he spent a lot of time saying that Senator Lightfoot had the right to say what he liked—that was free speech in this country. He went on to say, `I have not seen the report and I am not going to comment about it if I have not really seen it.'

Senator Herron has been obfuscating. He has been misleading this place. He has got it so wrong, so tortured and so knotted that he has to come in here immediately and apologise or cop the consequences. It is not a question of glossy-paged reports; it is not a question of photocopies; it is a question of whether or not the minister has been telling the truth. That is our major concern, because what we are talking about is the capacity of a minister to deliver, on behalf of the people of this country, very significant responsibilities.

In a government where the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, has set the bar for proper behaviour by his ministers at a very high level, we have seen how many ministers have fallen under the bar and we have seen how the bar has been dropped. But Minister Herron has managed to get even lower.

Senator Campbell —Madam Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I have been listening carefully to Senator Crowley. On a number of occasions, she has clearly and deliberately breached standing order no. 193 in relation to both imputations and personal reflections, and she should be asked to withdraw at least that last comment.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Crowley, would you like to defend yourself.

Senator CROWLEY —Madam Deputy President, I would never want to be unparliamentary, but this is very important. Are you suggesting that my statement that Senator Herron has lowered the bar or got lower than the low bar is unparliamentary? Is that the point you wish me to withdraw, Senator Campbell.

Senator Campbell —I am not sure what standing order Senator Crowley is now rising on. Is she seeking to debate the point of order? Did you make a ruling, Madam Deputy President?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —She was speaking to the point of order, Senator Campbell.

Senator Campbell —She was?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —It is not unparliamentary. Continue, Senator Crowley.

Senator Campbell —Madam Deputy President, are you now ruling that Senator Crowley's statements that the minister has misled this House and told mistruths; that the bar has been lowered and that Senator Herron has got even lower than that bar are not reflections on the minister? I suggest to Senator Crowley that, if she believes that, she would have to move a censure motion to be within standing orders.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Crowley did not say there was anything deliberate in the misleading. She said `misleading', but she did not say it was deliberate. `Lowering the bar' is a frequently used phrase on both sides in this chamber.

Senator Campbell —Madam Deputy President, is it within standing orders for me to say that you have lowered the bar in terms of upholding the standing orders?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order, Senator Campbell.

Senator CROWLEY —Thank you for your grace under attack there, Madam Deputy President. As I say, I do not intend to be unparliamentary, but it is perfectly proper in this place to make the points within the standing orders very fiercely. I know why you got up—you did not like hearing it. You have not liked hearing it at all. Secondly, your attack on the Deputy President is pathetic. But that is only another measure of the level of the bar on your side of this place.

Finally, we have here one of the most—if not the most—significant reports to come into this parliament. It is printed in very restricted numbers, and I hope you get that corrected. It is a most significant report, and we have a minister who is not able to tell exactly in this place the substance of the matters in close association with it. We want a minister for Aboriginal affairs who is going to see proper action on this and not a minister who can say that he and his Prime Minister (Mr Howard) have already decided there will be no compensation and then in the next breath say, `We want a duly considered response.' How can you duly consider a response, when you have already made up your mind? (Time expired)