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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1734

Senator COATES(5.20) —Today the Opposition has done nothing more than to devalue resort to motions of censure in this place. It has been a pathetic performance by the Opposition. One continually asks oneself what the Opposition is on about. What is the Opposition continually complaining about? It is very difficult to find anything that Opposition members have said that one can get one's teeth into in response. Mainly, they have said-it has been repeated by speaker after speaker-that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, was being cagey, or smart, or words to that effect. I do not accept that she was adopting such behaviour; but apparently that is what members of the Opposition have objected to. However, that is hardly a matter for a censure motion. It is ludicrous that this debate is dragging on for as long as it is. One must ask why speaker after speaker on the Opposition benches is dragging on the debate in this fashion. Perhaps it is to enable the very heavy lobbying of the Australian Democrats that has been taking place-by Senator Martin earlier, I noticed, and by Senator Chaney not long ago, talking hard at the Democrats, presumably to try to get their votes on this motion. But I assume that Senator Chipp and the Democrats will be able to sort the truth from the rubbish being sold to them by the Opposition.

This whole censure motion is a waste of the Senate's time. I shall certainly not contribute to that more than a little. I presume that because of this motion there will be no Question Time today. That is a great shame. I had a very good question lined up, and I presume that the Opposition, too, had questions, which they will have to forgo. Opposition senators have spent most of the time rereading into Hansard a Hansard report of the proceedings of Estimates Committee D on Thursday and Friday and the other Estimates Committee that was handling the Department of the Special Minister of State, so we shall be having a very incestuous Hansard containing mainly Hansard quotations. I shall not follow that course, mainly because I do not have a copy of the relevant Hansard transcripts. I was given three or four pages of the Hansard for the Estimates Committee dealing with the Department of the Special Minister of State, but even though I am a member of Estimates Committee D I still do not have the Hansard which the Opposition was able to obtain much earlier than anyone else-copies of the proof sheets, apparently, which one does not normally get from Estimates Committees.

Having been a member of that Committee and having been present during most of the exchange that has been discussed in this debate, I should like, briefly, to give some of the background to our meeting on Thursday. As has been acknowledged during this debate, a very broad line of questioning was allowed in this Estimates Committee hearing. The Chairman gave the Opposition very reasonable treatment. Opposition senators cannot complain about that.

Senator Robertson —They abused it.

Senator COATES —I think that it can be said that they abused the privileges that they were given. They certainly went far beyond normal Estimates committee procedure of concentrating on actual Estimates, administration of the Department and so forth. The Opposition attempted to cross-examine the Minister as if the hearing were an extended Question Time in the chamber instead of an Estimates Committee hearing. But Opposition senators were, as I say, given this very reasonable line.

Senator Teague —It was just the same as every year for years before.

Senator COATES —That is not so. That is one of the problems about Opposition senators not accepting that they are being given an extraordinarily reasonable go. When I objected at one stage during the hearing on Thursday to the freedom that they were taking in the debate, Senator Peter Baume said: 'Senator McLaren did this all the time'. But Senator McLaren always asked questions on specific matters of Estimates and did not try to abuse Estimates committees by being very broad in the questioning of Ministers. I have had to sit through Estimates committee hearings when in opposition when Senator Messner was the Minister and when he would refuse to answer the most elementary question asked of him, the answer to which he ought to have known, saying: 'Oh, that is a matter of policy; I am not going to answer that at all'. Yet Opposition senators have the effrontery to complain about the Government's reaction to their questioning in the Estimates Committee.

If Senator Ryan, as the Minister, was a little testy and brief in some of her answers, I do not blame her. Who would not be so in response, in some cases, to distasteful questioning by Senator Baume and Senator Teague? In their own way, they were both pains in the neck in the way in which they approached the Estimates Committee. They would drive any normal person up the wall. I think that Senator Ryan was being amazingly tolerant of the Opposition's questions. The Opposition was not exactly being polite in its tone of questioning on Thursday. Its aggression could not be said to be conducive to the friendly volunteering of information, which is what Opposition senators are complaining did not happen on Thursday but did happen in the letter on Friday.

What is the reason for this censure motion? Basically, the Opposition, whether before Estimates committees or in the chamber as a whole, cannot cope with getting open, honest answers. Opposition senators get continual frankness from Ministers of this Government. They could not cope last year with the frankness of the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), who was being quite open and quite different in comparison with Ministers of the previous Government, who continually clammed up and denied everything until it was finally dragged out of them. Opposition senators get openness and frankness from this Government-and this motion is what we get in response.

Opposition senators also cannot cope with such a competent Minister as Senator Ryan. They know that she is competent. They especially cannot cope with a competent woman Minister. She is one of our best Ministers. Her performance has been top class and outstanding. In any other government, she would be described as the very best; but this Government is overflowing with good Ministers. She is well and truly on top of her portfolio, continually visiting educational institutions, delivering multitudinous speeches with her usual flair, and achieving more in 15 months than Senator Baume and other former Ministers opposite could achieve in 15 years. She has been patiently and thoroughly explaining government policy and the reasons for it. She is a most assiduous Minister. At the same time as conducting the primary part of her portfolio, education, she has ensured the passage of the Sex Discrimination Bill and is developing policies for Australian youth.

Senate committees normally report to the Senate. The Committee with which we are concerned will do so. What has happened is that part of this Committee has taken this action about the Committee's operations without any consultation and without attempting to see what it could do with the Committee as a whole. This has thereby upset the Estimates committee traditions in a most improper way.

As I said, I shall not delay the Senate any longer than necessary by prolonging debate on this ludicrous censure motion. I urge rejection of the motion and I express my full support and admiration for Senator Susan Ryan as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. She does not deserve censure by the Senate, and I hope that she does not receive it and that we can get on with the business of the Senate.