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Wednesday, 21 April 1999
Page: 4028

Senator ROBERT RAY (3:15 PM) —We have reflected, I suppose, a little adversely on the performance of Senator Alston this week. Maybe we have not been fair to him, because what we have to do historically is look back at the people who have held the position of leading the coalition in this chamber. I can go back 18 years. We go back and look at Sir John Carrick, a very tough character, a very bright character and also, I have to say, which is rare for me, a very decent character. He led the Liberal Party here for many years. He was succeeded by Senator Chaney, who had all those avuncular and urbane skills that we came to at least respect, if not love. Finally we had Senator Hill, who often I think tries to answer questions. Senator Hill, for all the faults that he might have, especially at estimates committees and at question time, does actually try to understand and grasp what the question is and actually respond to the question, with the odd diversion and the odd bit of abuse.

But what do we have with Senator Alston? He approaches it in an entirely different manner. His view of question time is that he is here for an hour being kept out of his office and his job is just to totally avoid answering a question. The first technique he adopts is what I would call the `village idiot' approach. He pretends he does not understand the question and he just gives an entirely different answer.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I hope you are not reflecting upon the senator.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I said `approach'. I certainly did not refer to him in those terms and never would. I said that this is his technique of answering questions. The second approach is: if you can find a brief, just read it out. He needs about two staff members to bring all his briefs down these days, because over the years he has become rather notorious for never reading them before he comes in. So his normal technique is to sit where he is now and have the staff hand over a page, which he parrots out.

With Senator Alston having been promoted to leading this week, we have now got what we call the nine-foot syndrome. He cannot actually be given a brief, so he has actually got to find them for himself. This is a very difficult task for an indolent minister if you have never looked at the pack before in your life. That is the situation we have been in. Hence he plucked figures out of the air yesterday about 81 per cent being better off and no-one being worse off, implying that 19 per cent of people are in a dead-set neutral position. The mathematical possibility of that is 10 with many hundreds and thousands of noughts added to it in terms of odds if you actually ever tried to create that. So that is the situation we are in. A bit of abuse around the chamber is standard operating procedure for Senator Alston when he is trying to bluff his way out of a difficult question, pull a few figures out of the air, quote from Peter Costello's article and pick up your pay cheque at the end of the week.

This sort of intellectual torpor is absolute humiliation to the Liberal Party of Australia. That is what it is—an absolute humiliation for the Liberal Party. You can see his own supporters cringing at this lack of ability to represent them out front. But what you cannot see on their faces yet, I have to concede, is who is planning to replace him one day. I am sure they are there but, even with my experience in these things, I cannot quite read it.

But if ever you want to see something worth criticising it is Senator Alston's absolute cynicism in answering the question on Mrs De-Anne Kelly. If you actually disaggregate the answer, what do you find? Basically what he is saying is that Mrs Kelly holds those views because she is in a rural electorate and that is okay. What Senator Alston is basically saying is that it is okay for the coalition to be two-faced; it is okay for Mrs De-Anne Kelly to go up and campaign in the electorate of Dawson on non-coalition policy in order for her to win a seat. That is what he is arguing, that it is okay to work both sides of the street. He often goes on and talks about the plurality in the Liberal Party, yet what do we get the moment someone in the coalition disagrees? Let me quote Mr Ian Macfarlane, the member for Groom. Describing Mrs Kelly, he said:

She operates in a treacherous manner. She operates without respect for teamwork required to operate a successful coalition.

So in this modern-day Liberal-National Party, if you disagree, you are accused of being treacherous. Finally, when Senator Alston finds a newspaper reporter, Mr Seccombe, with whom he disagrees, he does not just say, `I disagree with the article,' but dismisses it as trivia and then questions why the Sydney Morning Herald employs that person. What a disgrace. (Time expired)