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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7484

Senator FAULKNER —My question is directed to Senator Alston, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Does the minister accept that what is at issue in relation to the government's administration of the $70 million FCHP Program is not the worthiness or otherwise of the 60 successful projects but the basis on which, on the eve of a federal election, the government chose to ignore the outcome of a rigorous and exhaustive assessment process in respect of 16 of the 60 successful projects? Does the minister accept that, where ministers choose to exercise their discretion in a way which is contrary to departmental advice, particularly in relation to discretionary grants programs, it is incumbent on ministers to explain why? Why won't the minister release the reasons why he and Senator Hill decided to fund 16 projects that did not meet the minimum benchmark that was recommended by their own departments?

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I am not sure where you start or finish pointing out the inadequacies and inaccuracies that Senator Faulkner wants to try and get up in the public arena on this issue. He chooses to say that the worthiness of these projects is not a major issue—in other words, $70 million worth of projects—and that `I do not really care at the end of the day whether they are good or bad projects; I just want to know that you have published reasons.' That is what the Labor Party say. In other words, they say, `We are not interested in outcomes.' That is what he is saying—`We are not interested in outcomes; we simply want to know as much as we can possibly get because we think there might be some political advantage to us.'

Let us be perfectly plain about what Senator Faulkner is about in this exercise. He has just conceded that the merits of the projects are irrelevant. They were not to us; that is why we exercised our discretion. That is not the same as ignoring outcomes; it is the very opposite. We were at all times concerned to ensure the best outcomes. We did not ignore the advice we got; we took it into account. We did not act contrary to advice, any more than those opposite act contrary to advice when someone suggests you do something. We have given you a lot of free advice over the years; you are free to accept or reject that. Others might give you contrary advice. Your task is to choose. And that is exactly what we did.

To say it is incumbent upon us to explain why is simply code for saying that the Labor Party are absolutely bankrupt—had no idea what they were going to run with this week. Because they think they have got one journalist in the press gallery who is interested in the subject, they think they might as well give it another run to disguise the fact that there really is not anything else around. The economy is in good shape. You are industrial relations bankrupt. You have no alternative policies, so you have to find something like this.

We did not act contrary to anything; we did not have a set of minimum criteria which were not achieved. We simply got a points score put along projects, and we chose the best ones.

Senator FAULKNER —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Isn't it true that ministers agreed to the assessment guidelines and procedures that were developed by departments on 9 July 1998? If so, why did the minister and his colleague Senator Hill decide to overturn the process and ignore its outcomes in relation to 16, or more than 25 per cent, of the 60 successful projects? If the minister and you, Senator Alston, are so confident about your own counsel—that it is superior to that of the two departments concerned—in relation to the 16 projects, why don't you submit reasons—your reasons, the reasons of you and Senator Hill—for public scrutiny? Front up with the reasons for overturning your department's advice.

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —These are just more pejorative expressions, Madam President. `Overturning advice'? If, every time you made your own judgment, you were overturning departmental advice I suspect the department would not have been terribly impressed. They would have said, `We offer you this advice in good faith. Take it on board; accept it or reject it. Don't treat us as though somehow you are rejecting our advice, because you are not.'

The question suggested that somehow there had been no guidelines or procedures which we had decided to overturn. Once again, we did not. We accepted the procedures. We followed them. We took the advice on board. We made our decisions and we have given reasons for them. You cannot do much more than that. When you have got nothing else to run on, you try and keep going over the same old ground. This must be about the fourth occasion. If you really want long running records, why don't you get up and apologise to the Baillieus? Let us get back to something that really does have a few legs.