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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4053


Senator CARR(7.17 p.m.) —I would like to draw attention to this Privileges Committee report as well. I was the chairman of the particular estimates committees where these matters were raised. I share the frustration of other senators, and I have witnessed it now from both sides of the chamber. The role of the chairman of an estimates committee involves you with one level of dialogue with the committee, and your function is very different from an opposition senator in an estimates committee, where you are seeking to actually probe. In both roles I found that dealing with Telstra was frustrating.

I say that in the sense that I think that Telstra has a lot to learn about the operations of parliament. I say that on the basis that, as a public corporation, Telstra has a particular responsibility in terms of its obligations to parliament. I say that in the context, even though I strongly oppose the privatisation of Telstra—or part-privatisation as some see it—that Telstra ought to understand that it has clear responsibilities to this parliament. As a consequence of that, it is important that the committees of this parliament be treated in a manner which reflects the importance of that relationship. I note the report's recommendations concerning statutory authorities, in particular, on page 9 of the report, which says:

. . . whilst it may be argued that Statutory Authorities are not accountable through the responsible Minister of State to Parliament for day-to-day operations, they may be called to account by Parliament itself at any time and that there are no areas of expenditure of public funds where these corporations have a discretion to withhold details or explanations from Parliament or its Committees unless the Parliament has expressly provided otherwise.

It strikes me that there is an attitude within some statutory corporations, Telstra being one, that suggests that appearing before parliamentary committees is a waste of time and it is an infringement upon the rights of management to determine what will be made known about the operations of that statutory corporation and what will not be made known.

Officers of some statutory corporations—I see it in regard to Telstra—believe that they have a superior right over those of the parliament. I do not say that officers of a statutory corporation have to endure deprivation of their rights as citizens, but I do believe that it has to be acknowledged that they have responsibilities to the parliament that place them in a separate category from other citizens when it comes to appearing before parliamentary committees.

Therefore, it is totally inappropriate to give wrong or misleading information. I also say that it is the responsibility of senators asking questions to make sure that questions are clear, focused and appropriate. I do not complain about officers giving answers to questions that are actually asked. If you ask the wrong questions and you get the wrong answer, I guess that is your problem as a senator. It is part of our skill to make sure that we ask questions in a manner which goes to the particular issues that are being asked.

But I am afraid that when it comes to subterfuge, that is an entirely different matter. While I do not support witnesses being hectored or intimidated before committees, I do think it has to be clearly understood by statutory corporations what their responsibilities are. That responsibility remains with Telstra today, irrespective of the changes that have occurred—while not having yet been implemented—in terms of the legislation that has passed this parliament.

I also note that when we dealt with officers of Telstra in the inquiry into the actual privatisation of Telstra, similar sorts of behaviour were exhibited. We commented on that in the report entitled Telstra: to sell or not to sell? It was clear in my mind that information put to the committee was inconsistent with the facts.

As I say, I wish to distinguish on the basis of questions asked that are inaccurate or are not appropriate. I am talking about clear findings of this committee that the Telstra officers, firstly, basically had a contemptible attitude towards parliamentary committees and, secondly, did not see anything wrong in providing information that was not strictly in accordance with the facts.

In that context, I think the Privileges Committee has dealt appropriately with Mr Krasnostein's case. I understand that Mr Krasnostein is no longer with Telstra; he has moved to the private sector. I would also say, however, that it is important for Telstra and officers of Telstra to undertake the necessary training in dealing with parliamentary committees, which is recommended in this report.

It may well be that I have misunderstood Telstra's attitude towards parliament. It may well be that the years and years of practice that this parliament has seen where Telstra has provided information that appears inaccu rate may be wrong. It may be that they just do not understand that they are required to answer accurately and honestly. And I have made this point privately to officers of Telstra: it is incredibly important that they undertake the necessary training to deal with parliamentary questions in an open and cooperative manner.

Question resolved in the affirmative.