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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1740

Senator HARRADINE(5.57) —The censure motion is very serious because it deals with a matter of grave concern to many people in Australia-the Government's policy on the funding of schools, both government and non- government. The matter before us which exercised the minds of the Estimates Committee was first brought to attention in the Age of 13 March 1984. An article written by Margot O'Neill, headed 'Ryan drops plan to survey guidelines', stated :

The Government has decided against spending $50,000 to help head off criticism of this year's financial guidelines for non-Government schools, due in July.

The Education Minister, Senator Ryan, asked for the extra money in a letter to the finance Minister, Mr Dawkins, in January.

In the letter, Senator Ryan said that the Government had experienced serious problems in putting its policy across and that this was of vital concern. The letter says: 'Because of the controversy surrounding this area of policy, we need to try to ascertain why our message is not getting through.'

Senator Ryan proposed that outside experts be commissioned to research public attitudes 'so that we can develop a better public relations strategy in time for the crucial 1984 guidelines decisions'.

She told 'The Age' that the money would have been used to finance a survey which in part would have tried to identify how far some principles at non- Government schools and some Catholic parish priests had co-operated with those lobby groups which had spread misinformation about the Government's policies.

Of course, that is a matter of grave public concern. It is not big brother who is watching us; in this case it is big sister watching us. It is a matter of concern to the Senate and to the Estimates committees to see how the taxpayers' money will be spent in this exercise.

This is not an exercise in democracy; it is not an exercise really designed to obtain practical information upon which policies can be based. We have a censure motion now because of the concern of members of Estimates Committee D that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) was not directing her answers to the area which was clearly in the minds of the questioners. On an examination of the material and of the draft Hansard-admittedly it is a draft Hansard it is not the final Hansard-it is clear that were a judge to examine the material he would not hang the Minister as charged; the judge would probably give the Minister the benefit of the doubt. To any layman reading the document and on the evidence that has been presented by those who were present at the Estimates Committee who knew what area they were talking about, it is clear that the Minister has not acted in accordance with her duty, as she should have done, before the Estimates Committee. The censure motion is as follows:

That the Senate censures the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator the Hon. Susan Ryan, for deliberatly 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.

Despite what the Government may think, I was not consulted about the draft which was put down by the Opposition, nor am I entitled to be consulted on it. It is entirely up to the Opposition what it wishes to do in respect of notices of motion in this place. However, I did receive a copy of a letter which went to the Chairman of Senate Estimates Committee D, Senator Colston, attached to which is the draft Hansard of Estimates Committee D and Estimates Committee E, the Committee dealing with the estimates of the Department of the Special Minister of State. I assumed that the letter to the Chairman of Estimated Committee D by Senator Ryan included these documents. In the absence of anybody denying that these documents are not accurate-I have studied the document-I would say to the Opposition that I would certainly support a proposition which would be in slightly different terms to the one that is currently before us.

I do not know whether one could say that the Minister actually falsely claimed in a positive way no knowledge of a survey on public attitudes to funding of government and non-government schools. It is argued by the Minister that she was addressing herself to whether or not a survey had in fact been undertaken by her Department. Of course, the answer that she had given to the question-not the question that was posed, but the question that she chose to answer in the way that it was translated in her own mind-was that no survey was undertaken by the Department of Education and Youth Affairs in respect of such a question. But, of course, that was begging the question and begging the issue entirely. The Minister knew perfectly well that the Department to run this particular survey was the Department of the Special Minister of State. It was clear to any thinking person the information that the questioners-Senator Baume and Senator Teague in respect of Estimates Committee D-were seeking.

I suggest that Senator Ryan deserves the strongest condemnation by the Senate for failing to perform her duty as Minister before Senate Estimates Committee D. She failed to do this in two ways: First of all, she failed to understand-that is clothing it in the most charitable way-the area that was being addressed by the questioners. Secondly, she deliberately failed to address those particular questions and translated them in her own mind and spat out answers which were not relevant. In either event, she failed to perform her duty as Minister before the Senate Estimates Committee. There is no gain saying that at all. She also failed to perform her duty by not alerting Dr Taloni to the area of questioning which was obviously meant by Senator Baume and Senator Teague, and which, as I say, was perfectly clear to anybody reading the transcript. She failed in her duty as Minister before this Senate because, in my view, an Estimates committee has the standing of a Senate because the members of Estimates committees represent us here in the Senate. It is not possible for all of us to question all of the departmental estimates; it would be an impossible situation, and that is why Estimates committees are established. So the Senate expects Ministers to be open and frank before Estimates committees. They should give reasonable responses to reasonable questions, particularly questions that are of such importance to so many people within Australia, as this one is.

We have reached a situation where, if the Senate allows a Minister to treat Senate Estimates committees with such disregard as Senator Ryan has treated this Estimates Committee, we are failing in our duty to uphold our proper role and proper function in the system of democratic government in this country. Part of our role is an audit and control function. We have an audit and control function which is exercised in many ways. It is exercised specifically through the committee system. When it comes to Additional Estimates, as in this case, or the Estimates we will be discussing after the Budget, Senate committees, on behalf of the Senate, do exercise audit and control functions. If we allow Senator Ryan or any other Minister to get away with failing to perform her proper duty as a Minister before such committees, we are failing in our duty. However, as I said earlier, it is difficult actually to hang a censure motion on the Minister by accusing her of a positive, deliberate misleading by falsely claiming no knowledge of a survey on public attitudes to the funding of government and non- government schools.

Senator Peter Baume —But she did claim it.

Senator HARRADINE —Yes, we can say that. That is a judgment that honourable senators can make. Were we judging this situation we would have to give her the benefit of the doubt that, somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she could not understand the plain questions that Senator Baume and Senator Teague were directing to her. If she did not, of course, she failed in her duty as a Minister. She either falsely claimed certain things or she is incompetent. To give her the benefit of the doubt one would have to say that a judge would not hang her but a Prime Minister would sack her for failing to perform her duty as a Minister. A Senate would surely express its strongest condemnation for her failure to perform her duty as a Minister.

I certainly would go along with a proposal to replace the words from and including the word 'censures' in the motion with the words 'expresses its strongest condemnation of the manner in which the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs failed to perform her duty as a Minister before the Estimates Committee'. That is how we should go about it. I will not move that as an amendment. I imagine that that also would be the concern of other honourable senators on this side of the chamber who are not members of the official Opposition.

I take this opportunity also to state that the Minister still has failed to let the Senate Estimates Committee, or the Senate, know precisely for what she wants the extra $35,000, which is now to be tacked on to the estimates of the Department of the Special Minister of State. Is she still going on with this witch hunt against principals and Catholic parish priests which she proposed before? If so, that is a far more serious matter for the Government to consider. Surely it is a matter on which honourable senators are entitled to expect an answer from the Minister and from the Government?