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Thursday, 22 September 1983
Page: 1215


Mr BEAZLEY (Minister of Aviation and Special Minister of State)(8.49) —The honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steele Hall)-


Mr Newman —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. I am probably usurping the position of the Leader of the House but I thought that we had agreed to an hour's debate on these estimates. It appears that the Minister is cutting 10 minutes off the agreed time.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —I think the honourable gentleman might be speculating that the Minister's response will close the debate. I understand that that is not the case. I call the Minister.


Mr BEAZLEY —The honourable member for Boothby raised a number of matters that I think deserve a response. He relied very heavily on the estimates committee of the Senate and the Senate Hansard. I would have thought that that type of Hansard raiding would have been no longer necessary by the front bench members of the Opposition, given the very generous way we have treated them since we have been in government compared with the way in which they treated us. I notice that those sections of my Department's estimates that relate to those matters have drawn virtually no comment-in fact no comment at all-from honourable members on the other side of the chamber.

The honourable member for Boothby started off by raising a point concerned with the increase in staff in certain divisions of my Department. He commented in particular on the increase from 76 to 172 in the resource management branch. That difference of 96 is made up of 52 personnel from the Department of Administrative Services for the automatic data processing program, 15 extra ADP jobs and 29 other possible positions that the Department of Administrative Services thought might be needed but at which we are looking critically. If we think we need those positions we will take the matter up with the Public Service Board. So the concern that the honourable member had in regard to that increase in the number of staff really need be no concern at all.

The honourable member for Boothby went on to express some concern about the National Media Liaison Service and wondered whether there were any differences between that Service and the Government Information Unit. It is a very legitimate question to ask. I do not think any government could come into this place and possibly justify an organisation that operated in the way in which the Government Information Unit did under the previous Government. The operations of that Unit severely discredited government information services. It effectively operated as an intelligence branch for the Ministry and, beyond that, as a body devoted to assisting with the campaigns of the Liberal Party of Australia. All that was adequately revealed at a time in the Parliament. On the other hand, we have set down a disciplined series of criteria for the operations of the National Media Liaison Service. As the honourable gentlemen opposite are Hansard raiders I will not need to detail them here. They will find them on page 457 of the Senate Hansard for 16 September. But I will mention two essential criteria. There are many others, which illustrates the very detailed and disciplined way in which we have gone about ensuring that that body is a genuine information unit and not either an intelligence operation or a government-subsidised branch of a political party's operation. In the points outlined in the Hansard point (e ) states:

Representatives will not work with local or State ALP branches and will not be involved in party programmes or campaigning in electorates.

Point (d) states:

State representatives are to provide local members of all parties with details of government programmes.

In fact, when those representatives are put in place they will be available to be used not only by honourable members on this side of the chamber but also by honourable members on the other side of the House in securing information on Government activities. There are other points. Honourable gentlemen can read them in the Senate Hansard if they want to do so. What those two points clearly establish is that the National Media Liaison Service will not be utilised in the haphazard, lackadaisical and deeply doubtful form in which the previous Government Information Unit was utilised.

The complaint was also raised that we have increased from 21 to 23 the numbers of staff of the Government Information Unit in the formation of the National Media Liaison Service. The additional two positions are provided for Townsville, which is a demonstration of the fact that this Labor Government takes north Queensland and other such regions very seriously. The fact that we take that area seriously is reflected in our preparedness to ensure that adequate information on the Government programs is available to the people of that area in the politically sanitised way in which this Unit will operate. I should also say that another principal difference between us and our predecessors is that we can be confident that the Government Information Unit will actually operate as an information unit because we in fact have something to say to the people. The other side did not have much to convey to the electorate. I think honourable members will be able to see from that that we are being every bit as serious in our intentions in the creation of this Unit as we need to be.

Another reason why the Unit has not come into operation to this point is that we have gone through a very careful selection process involving both the Director of the Unit and, on occasions, representatives of the Public Service Board. We are picking highly capable journalists in the hope that we will be able to overcome, both with the Press services in this country and with the general public, the difficulties experience with the previous Government Information Unit-difficulties which it imposed upon those who were serious in their intent to get government information to the general public.

The honourable member for Boothby raised one other item that I think requires an answer. It concerned the requirement that the previous Minister be advised of any requests for Australian Federal Police assistance on politically sensitive matters. The honourable member did not go on to mention that the previous Minister had been questioned on that matter and pointed out that the advice he gave on that matter merely repeated instructions of the previous Government dating from November 1979 and was in recognition of the considerable potential for media and public interest in many areas of police activity. The letter simply requests that the Minister be advised of the AFP's involvement in matters of a politically sensitive nature so that the Minister is able to make informed comment if he is requested to do so. I do not think there is any more sensible constraint under which a Minister who is responsible for a police force ought to operate. It would be absolutely absurd to assume that a Minister for police in any State, a previous Minister here with responsibilities for the police or anyone else would operate on any basis other than that. If the honourable member wishes to sustain the case that there is a degree of political interference involved I think he is obliged to come into this chamber with evidence.

So all the matters raised by the honourable member for Boothby have answers. One matter raised by the honourable member for Cook (Mr Dobie) does not. That is the question related to the use of government cars by electorate staff. I will have a look at that matter and see what might be done about it.