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Tuesday, 25 September 2001
Page: 27779

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government) (3:22 PM) —I have to say that it is unlike Senator O'Brien to use a series of innuendos and suggestions to try to make a political point against a minister in the government. Some outrageous suggestions were made, Madam Deputy President, which I could have taken a point of order on. I had hoped that perhaps you might have of your own accord stopped Senator O'Brien, but that was not to be. He has made allegations and raised innuendos without one skerrick of evidence in support of them.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Not a scintilla—thank you, Senator Chapman—of support for those particular allegations. The Senate is again being used in the weeks before an election by Senator O'Brien to try to make a very cheap political point when the minister is not here to answer, a point which I happen to know is completely without foundation. Senator O'Brien alleges, quite wrongly, that Mr Anderson is blocking access to information—an absolutely outrageous suggestion. Senator O'Brien indicated that he has got the information for the last series of questions that he raised.

Senator O'Brien spoke at length about black spots. He mentioned that the Federal Road Safety Black Spot Program is a very good program, and I certainly agree. If Senator O'Brien agrees with that, and I think he does, I would have preferred him to have spent some of his time in his speech explaining why the Australian Labor Party actually cancelled that program when it was in government. It was a good program and the Labor Party cancelled it. Perhaps the Senate and those people who might be listening to this debate would have been better served had Senator O'Brien explained why the Labor Party cancelled—got rid of—the black spots program.

Fortunately, when the Howard government was elected in 1996 the black spots program was reintroduced. It has been a great program. It has saved a lot of lives. It has been universally supported around the countryside and around Australia generally. Senator O'Brien is pinpricking and nitpicking about a particular incident. I am not aware of it, and I do not think anyone else is. Senator O'Brien, go and ask the residents in the area that you are talking about—was it at Tumut or Cooma?—whether or not this was a good program. I am sure you would get an overwhelming yes vote from those people.

It would be interesting to ask the Labor Party candidate in that area—I think it was in the electorate of Eden-Monaro—whether he supports the black spot road funding there. We can tell the Labor Party candidate and certainly all of the people there that Senator O'Brien does not support it, and I assume that means that the federal parliamentary Labor Party do not support it. But it would be interesting to ask the candidate whether he supports it. I might suggest that we will find out—I will look at the Hansard—where this particular black spot is and arrange for the Labor candidate to be asked the questions: `Do you believe in black spots? Do you like this program? `Is it saving lives?' That should be an interesting exercise.

Madam Deputy President, back to the debate in hand: you have ruled that the debate can be about anything. I do not agree with that, so I will confine my final remarks to the issue before us—that is, the reason we have been unable to answer these questions. For those that might be interested—and I suspect there are not too many—to get this information required a great deal of research. We had to go back a number of years and get files out of archives. We also had to get some assistance from the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority.

Madam Deputy President, as a New South Wales senator, you will know that the Roads and Traffic Authority is an authority of the New South Wales government. You would also be aware that the New South Wales government currently is controlled by the Australian Labor Party—that is, one of Senator O'Brien's colleagues in the state sphere. I am informed that one of the reasons we have not been able to answer questions is that the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority have taken some time to gather material. Even last Friday—just a few days ago—we were still getting material from the Roads and Traffic Authority. So, as I have indicated, we will work on that. A response is being prepared.

Madam Deputy President, you are aware that the Department of Transport and Regional Services is a very efficient department, well run and organised. But it has so many questions of the sort—without being too personal, Senator O'Brien—

Senator Forshaw —You don't like questions, do you? You don't like information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —They are written by a very good adviser to Senator O'Brien but they are voluminous, they go on forever—like Senator O'Brien's speech: written by a very good adviser but goes on forever. All of these questions go nowhere and mean nothing. For all of the work the department goes through to give the answers, I would almost love it if you got here in this chamber, Senator Forshaw, and used that information —

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Address the chair, please, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —to bring down the government! At least you would think that it was a worthwhile exercise of the whole process. We get these enormous numbers of questions, and my department—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Forshaw, would you please cease your interjections. Senator Macdonald, address the chair, thank you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The department is a very efficient one, but under the weight of the questions that are put on notice by Senator O'Brien it might take longer than other departments to get these things answered. I might also mention, while I am on the subject, that, as Senator O'Brien would well know, the whole department, particularly the transport section of the department, has been working diligently seven days a week—I would hazard a guess, and I think I would not be proved wrong, that it has been working almost 20 hours a day, seven days a week—in the last two or three weeks on the issue that is of major importance to the people of Australia, and that is the collapse of Ansett Australia.

We have been trying to get people back to their places of origin. We have been trying to get passengers in the air. We have been trying to ensure that country services are operating. They are certainly not operating to the extent that we would want, but in a short period of time the department, at Mr Anderson's direction, has been doing a fabulous job in conjunction with the administrator. Mr Anderson is a very efficient and capable minister, and one who has really taken on transport issues with an enthusiasm and energy that has not always been seen in that area. He is doing a great job. The response to Senator O'Brien's questions is in the course of preparation. As soon as possible, we will get it to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.