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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7489

Senator FAULKNER —My question is directed to Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Does the minister recall defending his decision to fund 12 projects which had not met the 15-point assessment benchmark by stating that he took advice from not only the departments but also the National Council for the Centenary of Federation? Does he further recall that, when I asked his department how many of these 12 projects which had not been recommended by the department had in fact been recommended by the national council, I was told that there were only two? Can the minister inform the Senate how many of the additional four projects that we now know ministers gave a leg-up to had been recommended by the National Council for the Centenary of Federation?

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —If I am being asked what advice Senator Faulkner was given in the estimates committee process some months ago, then clearly I am not in a position to provide that advice today. But I can say that, in relation to the original advice in relation to 12 projects, there was an error of misunderstanding about the nature of the information that had been sought. At the time it was considered that Senator Faulkner had sought the number of funded projects that did not receive a high ranking in the departmental assessment, of which there were 12, and that continues to be the correct figure. On reviewing Hansard , it became clear that Senator Faulkner had actually sought the number of funded projects that received a rating in the departmental assessment of less than 15. The answer to that question was 16 projects, and that was made clear in the subsequent letter that was sent to the committee.

Senator Faulkner —Madam President, I raise a point of order. My question went to the issue of advice from the National Council for the Centenary of Federation. It went to advice that was given at estimates regarding the then supposed 12 projects. In relation to what is now 16 projects—an extra four—I am asking for the same information that I was keen to know in relation to the funding for those projects. It is a specific question; I think the minister should be directed to answer it.

The PRESIDENT —The minister is responsive to the question that was asked, and he still has another three minutes if there are other matters that need to be dealt with.

Senator ALSTON —If I remember correctly, the question was: do I recall that sort of advice being given at the Senate estimates process? The answer is no.

Senator FAULKNER —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I am not surprised that Senator Alston dropped the ball; he probably was not concentrating at the time.

The PRESIDENT —The question, Senator?

Senator FAULKNER —Given that the minister cannot even recall what happens at the Senate estimates when he is the minister at the table—what I would have thought is an amazing admission in question time today—could I now ask him to take the question on notice, given that he is not able to answer it or remember these events? Again, I ask the minister to acknowledge that there could be no possible grounds for refusing to provide this information to the Senate, given that it was previously provided in relation to the other 12 projects of the 16 which ministers have now admitted they selected in spite of their being ranked below the 15-point cut-off. He might check the record and he might also provide the Senate with an answer on this important information today.

Senator ALSTON (Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —Once again we have this proposition that there was a 15-point cut-off, in other words, that it was simply not open to ministers to choose projects that were below that level. That is why you came to tell Mike Seccombe, presumably, that these had failed to met the minimum criteria. We have pointed that and a number of other serious inaccuracies out, but of course the letter has not been published.

Senator Faulkner —Madam President, I raise a point of order. The minister is again deliberately attempting not to answer this question. Given that he cannot even remember this information having been provided when he was a minister at the table, I have asked him to take the question on notice. I think the Senate is entitled to hear a commitment from the minister that he will do just that and come back to the Senate with this important information.

The PRESIDENT —The minister is entitled to answer the supplementary question as he sees fit, as long as he is related to the subject matter and responsive to it.

Senator ALSTON —The question seems to be: what is the Senate entitled to? The Senate is entitled to hear Senator Faulkner's view on whether these projects deserve support or whether they do not, whether Senator Faulkner is now prepared to concede that he has made a number of fundamental inaccuracies and mis-statements about the process, and whether he understands that there was not a cut-off point and that there was simply advice given about the number of projects that happened to exceed 15 points out of a 24-point score, but at all times it was left to ministers to make their own decisions. That is really what the Senate is entitled to and the sooner the Senate gets that advice, the better. (Time expired)