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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1726


Senator COLSTON(4.34) —The motion before the Senate this afternoon is:

That the Senate censures the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator the Hon. Susan Ryan, for deliberately misleading Senate Estimates Committee 'D' on 3 May 1984 by falsely claiming no knowledge of a survey on public attitudes to funding of government and non-government schools.

I reject the idea that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) deliberately misled Senate Estimates Committee D. I reject the idea that the Minister falsely claimed that she had no knowledge of a survey on public attitudes to funding of government and non-government schools. I reject the whole motion, because it does not say anything about 4 May-the day that followed -which is particularly relevant.

This is a serious matter. Any time a Minister is censured in this place, or indeed in any other place, it is a serious matter. But I am afraid that the seriousness contrasts with the attitude of the Opposition during the actual hearings of Estimates Committee D on Thursday and Friday. The attitude of some of the members was trivial. The Committee dealt only with trivia. I will refer to the Hansard transcript in a moment and say something about it. If honourable senators want to look at about four or five pages past the pages that have been quoted so far they will find a great many questions were asked, such as: Who flies Ansett? Who flies TAA? Who flies East-West Airlines? What proportion fly Ansett and TAA and East-West Airlines? Why are you not going to get onto East- West Airlines, because it is cheaper? When the questioning was going on I was starting to wonder about the attitude of the people who were trying to subsidise a particular airline. This is the sort of trivia that we heard all throughout the hearing, not only this hearing, but also the other hearings of Estimates Committee D. From conversations that I have had with my fellow chairmen this was reflected in all of the other committees throughout the hearings. Let me get back to this document. No, I will get back to the document in a moment; I would like to say this-


Senator Chaney —Get back to it sooner, go on.


Senator COLSTON —Senator Chaney, who very much likes to interject in this place in a sotto voce sort of way time after time, would know that I have said this to him and I have said it genuinely: When I am in the chair that you, Madam Acting Deputy President, are in now, or when I am performing the Chairman's role in this place I take an impartial role. I certainly did that during the recent hearings of Estimates Committee D. That is the type of behaviour I adopt.


Senator Teague —I can confirm that.


Senator COLSTON —I thank Senator Teague. I will accept that. I think that an occasion even arose when Senator Teague and I had to speak about this sort of thing, either last Thursday or last Friday-I think it was last Thursday.


Senator Teague —The complaint is not with you, it is with the Minister.


Senator COLSTON —I am developing a point. I take a non-partisan role. But because of the motion that has been brought before the Senate today, I am not taking that role at the moment. I have been forced to do otherwise. I am going to defend the Minister and defend her with all the vigour that I can muster. What I would like to say now about this particular document is that it is amazing that, even though I am the Chairman of Estimates Committee D, I received my copy of what is partly relevant for the discussion this afternoon at 3.45 p.m ., less than two hours ago.


Senator Withers —It shows you are not very smart.


Senator COLSTON —I am a bit smarter than you, Senator Withers. I have not been deposed from my position yet. You were deposed within two years of my coming into this place.


Senator Chaney —What position? Senator Colston falls off floor.


Senator COLSTON —I might fall on you, and that would flatten you, Chaney.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Coleman) —Order! Senator Colston, I ask that you to direct your remarks through the Chair. I ask honourable senators on my left to cease interjecting so that I can at least hear Senator Colston's contribution.


Senator COLSTON —I will be asking the President of the Senate why, if transcripts are made available-I do not see why they should not be made available-they are not made available at the same time to the Chairman of the Committee concerned. We are looking at a document now which really has no standing. I have already picked up a few errors in it. I am sure that as this proof copy is read by other people they will pick up errors in it too. But that is not my particular worry at this stage. My particular concern is not for myself but for any Estimates committee chairman-that he or she should be given a copy of that transcript if the copy is made available elsewhere.


Senator Teague —Have you any examples?


Senator COLSTON —That can wait until after this motion is disposed of. I think some points should be mentioned. The Minister mentioned some of these points and they are pertinent, but either they have not been taken up on the other side of the House or they have been deliberately let slide because they are facts that interfere with a good story. These are some of the facts: Estimates Committee D first sat to hear these particular estimates on Thursday afternoon. It sat until about 10.35 p.m. There was a break for dinner at some stage. During that time the Department of Education and Youth Affairs had its estimates under scrutiny. It was the first department to be examined. Later the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, the Department of Home Affairs and Environment and the Department of Science and Technology had their estimates considered. By the time we concluded that evening we had not considered the estimates of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In fact, as those honourable senators on the Committee would know, I, as Chairman, had considered at one stage that we go right through and consider the estimates of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. It would have meant starting at about 10.30 p.m. and, as it turned out, we probably would not have finished until about 1 o'clock in the morning because on the subsequent afternoon it took us about two hours to 2 1/2 hours to complete them. The Committee finished at 10.30 that night.

I do not want to make too much of what is in the Hansard record because I have not had a chance to examine it as closely as I would like. However, I would like to say that when questions were being asked of the Minister it was my opinion-I think it was an impartial opinion-that the Minister was trying to give the answers of which she was aware. Senator Baume was certainly persisting with a particular line of questioning. In fact, the questioning about this alleged survey is in two parts in Hansard: An earlier part where Senator Teague asked some questions and a later part where Senator Baume came back and continued the questioning. During one part of the hearing I said that Senator Baume should be able to continue his line of questioning even though there was a query about whether it was correct. I am stating this to indicate that I was trying to be an impartial chairman. As impartial as I could be that afternoon, it was my genuine opinion that the Minister and the officers were trying to answer the questions. It is easy to read a transcript; it is different to be there. From the transcript it looks as though everything is cut and dried, but when one takes into consideration the flow, the counterflow and the confusion that is probably present at a hearing, one gets a much different impression from what is in a transcript.

I would like to quote the final part of what was said in relation to this survey. Senator Ryan said:

As I have told the Committee, there is a survey of youth attitudes being carried out, I think as a part of a more general survey within the Department of the Special Minister of State. I have had general discussions about youth attitudes and the youth attitudes we are most interested in investigating are those to do with secondary participation rates in unemployment. We are very interested to find out why it is that so many young people choose not to complete their secondary education. I have had general discussions along those lines with somebody from ANOP. I have not discussed specific questions relating to youth attitudes or anything else. The survey, I understand, has not yet been completed, so I certainly have not seen any results or been briefed on any results of it. I think it is about all I can tell the Committee at this stage.

Senator Baume was the next questioner and he went on to talk about another matter. That was the last we heard of that matter that day. All that is probably of no interest to Senator Macklin, so I will not rehash anything that happened there. What happened the following day may be of interest to Senator Macklin. Some time early in the morning of the following day-I cannot quite recall what time it was but I think it was well before the time that the Senate met that morning; I am not exactly sure of the time-Senator Ryan came to me and said that she would be sending me, as Chairman of the Committee, a letter outlining some matters in relation to the question on the survey. That is all she said. It was not much later that I actually received the letter and this is the letter that has been circulated in the chamber today. I think it is important that we look in detail at the first paragraph-we certainly should look at it all but at least the first paragraph in detail-because it states:

After reflecting on yesterday's hearing by Senate Estimates Committee 'D', it appears to me there needs to be some clarification on responses made by Departmental officers to questions about a survey or surveys commissioned by the Department of the Special Minister of State on youth attitudes.

I think it would be helpful to the Committee if I were to outline the way in which the original survey was set up and of developments which occurred subsequent to this.

If one takes those two paragraphs which I have just read and has a look at the censure motion that we have before us today it seems pertinent that we should have spoken about the Estimates Committee hearing of 4 May as well as that of 3 May. On 4 May the Minister, realising that the explanation that was given within the Estimates Committee might not have covered the point satisfactorily, actually wrote to me, as Chairman, outlining in greater detail what she then perceived the situation to be and asking me to pass the matter on to members of the Estimates Committee. This is evident from the opening paragraph of the letter where she said:

After reflecting on yesterday's hearing of Senate Estimates Committee D . . .

I received the Minister's letter well before the lunch break on the Friday and determined that it would be best to present this information to the Estimates Committee that day as additional information. Estimates Committee D met at five minutes past two. I opened the meeting and mentioned the departments the Estimates Committee was obliged to examine. I noted that we had examined all the estimates except those of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and that we would start on that Department. But before starting on the estimates for that Department-I wish to quote now from a document that I do not think has been quoted from before; I had to ask for this document this afternoon-I said:

Before proceeding to the consideration of the estimates for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs I would like to mention to Committee members that this morning I received a letter addressed to the Chairman, Senate Estimates Committee D, Parliament House, Canberra, from the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Susan Ryan. The letter is in relation to some questions which were asked yesterday and I intend to accept it as additional information. In that way it will be compiled with the additional information for that particular Department and will be easily found when that additional information is presented to the Senate. However, I shall make a copy of the letter available to honourable senators at this stage, so that they may be able to peruse it. I shall now proceed to the consideration of the estimates for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

The estimates for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs were duly proceeded with. I point out that it was not my preference to have the letter incorporated in Hansard at that stage-it would have been up to the Committee to decide otherwise -because if it had been incorporated in Hansard it would have been incorporated in a section between the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and therefore, perhaps, difficult for honourable senators to find. I thought it was much better to treat it as additional information and then it would be able to be found quite easily in the additional information in relation to the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. Shortly after, copies of that letter were made and distributed to all members of the Committee who were there. I cannot quite recall who was there at that stage but there were two members of the Opposition present, Senator Baume and Senator Teague. From memory , Senator Martin was not there that afternoon.


Senator Teague —And no other government senators-only yourself.


Senator COLSTON —I cannot recall who was there at that stage but there were certainly two Opposition members.


Senator Peter Baume —When you tabled the letter? I was certainly there but we did not receive it for about 10 minutes.


Senator COLSTON —I would not have thought that it was so long. Senator Baume may be correct but I would probably have put it at about five minutes.


Senator Robert Ray —When did you first read it?


Senator COLSTON —The point that Senator Ray raises is quite pertinent. I saw one of the Opposition members of the Estimates Committee read the letter at one stage or at least glance at it to see what it was all about. I have an idea-it is only an idea-that both Opposition senators at one stage read the letter or at least looked at it enough to know what the contents were.


Senator Lewis —We did not realise she was telling us that she lied.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Lewis will withdraw that remark.


Senator Lewis —I was waiting for Senator Colston to respond but I will certainly withdraw. They did not know that she was saying in the letter that she had deliberately misled the Senate. How could they possibly have picked that up by glancing at a letter at the table?


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Colston has the call.


Senator COLSTON —The point I want to make-I point out that I am not responding to the uncouth interjection we have just heard-is that the letter was probably in the hands of Opposition members at about a quarter past two at the latest. We had started sitting at about five past two. The letter was probably in their hands earlier than that. I definitely saw one Opposition member looking at it. I think I saw both do so but at this stage, from recollection, I can only say I think. The point that should be made is that no mention was made to me as Chairman whether that letter could be debated at that time, when we finished the estimates for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs or at a private meeting later on. It was never mentioned to me as Chairman nor was I asked whether we could debate it. The Minister will be able to confirm that on occasions-I suppose honourable senators opposite would be able to confirm this also-during my chairmanship I allowed senators to go back to items that had been discussed earlier. In fact, I incurred the wrath of the Minister by doing so. There would have been no reason for any senator who was there not to raise with me whether the matter could be discussed that afternoon. They did not do so. They knew the attitude I had towards senators going back to items.


Senator Martin —When it was the same department.


Senator COLSTON —It was the same department but I am making the point that no person on that Committee even raised the matter with me--


Senator Peter Baume —So what?


Senator COLSTON —I think it is important. No senator said: 'We have received this letter. We do not like the look of it. We want to ask some further questions about it. Can we do so?' At this stage I do not know what my response would have been because the question was not asked. Nobody said to me at that stage: 'Can we have a private meeting after this meeting so that we can discuss it?' The matter was not raised. It was possible for it to have been raised but nobody asked for the matter to be debated. They were too interested in getting away for the weekend to Thredbo to bring back their threadbare arguments such as they have brought up this afternoon.


Senator Macklin —You can recall the Estimates Committee tomorrow night, on request.


Senator COLSTON —I can recall it if it is requested.


Senator Peter Baume —I request you.


Senator Teague —I request you.


Senator Martin —I request you.


Senator COLSTON —Honourable senators should put their request in writing. Mr Deputy President, this is a serious matter and the behaviour of honourable senators should not degenerate to this level. A Minister is facing censure. I am trying to point out that as the Chairman I was given information. I brought it back to the Committee. Until 30 seconds ago no members of the Committee were interested in having another meeting to discuss it on the Friday or at any subsequent stage.


Senator Teague —That is not true. You said until 30 seconds ago. I was thinking of it yesterday.


Senator COLSTON —No person raised the matter with the Committee Chairman. The matter we have before us today rose out of a great amount of trivia that was brought forward before the Estimates Committee. The Minister, in my opinion, did not deliberately mislead the Estimates Committee. By bringing back that letter to the Committee, through its Chairman, explaining the position the Minister was being more helpful than some of the Ministers I have seen in my time in opposition when I have been on Estimates committees. This matter should be dismissed.