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Wednesday, 30 May 1984
Page: 2114

Senator COLSTON(10.39) —Mr Deputy President, I note that Senator Baume has not spoken at length on this matter and I do not intend to do so either. I do not wish to hold up the proceedings of the Senate. However, I would like to mention some historical aspects in relation to the motion before the Senate today. Estimates Committee D met on 3 May and 4 May. On 3 May the following departments were examined: Education and Youth Affairs; Sport, Recreation and Tourism; Home Affairs and Environment; and Science and Technology . On 4 May the estimates for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs were examined. The only department in contention at the moment in relation to the motion that is before us is the Department of Education and Youth Affairs which was heard on 3 May. On page 131 of the Estimates Committee D Hansard for 3 May the following question from Senator Teague appeared:

Has the Department commissioned any public opinion surveys since 5 March 1983?

Dr Taloni answered: 'No'. From that place onwards in the Hansard it may be seen that a fair amount of discussion and questioning ensued. It ended on the same page with Senator Teague going on to ask some additional questions. If we turn to page 137 of the Hansard, however, it may be seen that Senator Peter Baume took up this matter again. He said:

May I return to the question of surveys that might have been done. Did Dr Taloni tell Senator Teague that there were no surveys done which related to Department of Education and Youth Affairs policy?

Dr Taloni-I did say that, yes.

Senator Baume then asked a series of questions about this matter. They appear on pages 137 and 138 of the Hansard. The Committee then went on to other matters. On the morning of 4 May, in my capacity as Chairman of Estimates Committee D, I received a letter from the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan). This letter has previously been mentioned in debate. It in fact appears in the Senate Hansard of 8 May on pages 1709 and 1710. I will take the Committee 's time to reiterate something in the first and second paragraphs of that letter . The Minister wrote:

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.

The letter goes on to outline how there may have been some misunderstanding at the Committee hearing the day before. When the Estimates Committee met that afternoon after I had received that letter I notified the Committee that I had received it. At the Estimates Committee D hearing on 4 May I first opened the hearing and mentioned some matters of a technical nature. As reported in Hansard , I then 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.

I did not try to incorporate the letter in Hansard at that time because then the letter would have been included in the Hansard record for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. What I did was accept it as additional information so that it could be compiled with the additional information for the Department of Education and Youth Affairs and thus found easily if required. Copies of the letter were made at the time. Those honourable senators who were present were provided with a copy. I regret that I found out later that some of the honourable senators who were not present at the time did not receive a copy of the letter until some time later.

Following the receipt of that letter, I received a letter from Senators Baume, Martin and Teague. That followed an interchange which we had in the Senate and which has been mentioned, but I wish to carry it a little further. In the course of my speech on 8 May on the censure motion this exchange, part of which has been mentioned previously, occurred:

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

Senator COLSTON —I can recall it if requested.

Senator Peter Baume —I request you.

Senator Teague —I request you.

Senator Martin —I request you.

I must admit that the request of those honourable senators was made with much more vigour than I have just indicated. The exchange continues:

Senator COLSTON —Honourable senators should put their request in writing.

That was probably also said with a little more vigour on that occasion. Subsequently I received a letter--

Senator Peter Baume —Very shortly after.

Senator COLSTON —It arrived shortly afterwards and was short but pertinent. That is the way I like to receive letters. The letter was handwritten and was quite legible. It has been incorporated in Hansard by Senator Baume. The letter said:

In view of the debate in the Senate today and the significant issues raised about the conduct of Estimates Committee D, we request that the Committee be reconvened to seek further information in relation to the Estimates for the Department of Education and Youth Affairs.

We suggest that 8 p.m. on Wednesday, 9th May would be an appropriate time.

That letter was signed by Senators Martin, Baume and Teague. At that stage I considered that the proper course of action for me-this is probably open to debate-was to call a private meeting to discuss the request. A private meeting was called for 9 May. The request was considered and there was debate from, I think, all members. I did not contribute very much because I believed that, as the Chairman of the Committee, I should not make too much of a contribution. After the request was considered the Government members were not persuaded that additional hearings were required. That is the matter that is open to debate at this stage. Senator Baume mentioned that when a vote was taken the vote was three-all on party lines. I suppose that it was on party lines on both sides. One cannot just say that there was a party line on the Government side. There was a party line on the Opposition side as well. Senator Baume said that I exercised my right to make a casting vote. Having had a look at the Standing Orders since then, I am not sure that I needed to exercise a casting vote because if the vote was three-all the motion was lost and I would not have had to exercise a casting vote. The Standing Orders state that the chairman of a committee shall have a casting vote. As far as I am concerned, it is a moot point as to whether the vote should have been made. Irrespective of whether it was--

Senator Peter Baume —You did use a casting vote.

Senator COLSTON —I did. What I am saying at this stage is that I am not quite sure that it was absolutely necessary. Even if it was not necessary, the vote was lost because the Government members were not persuaded that an additional hearing was necessary. When the answers came back from the departments, there was also a letter from Dr Taloni. I was not quite sure whether it should have been regarded as correspondence to the Committee or as additional information. But as I had taken Senator Ryan's letter as additional information I thought it proper to include Dr Taloni's letter with the additional information which was tabled this morning. I would like to read Dr Taloni's letter. It has been mentioned but its contents have not been canvassed today. Dr Taloni said:

I wish to make a personal statement to the Committee in order to explain my answers at hearings on 3 May 1984 as recorded in Hansard, pages 131-133, 137-138 .

My impression at the time of the hearing was that there were three surveys (and the associated funding) under discussion. Whether valid or not, these perceptions affected the quality and clarity of responses.

The three surveys which I thought were under discussion were:

1. An independent survey proposed by this Department but not proceeded with.

2. A well publicised survey on youth attitudes being conducted by the Department of the Special Minister of State (SMOS).

3. An add-on survey to the SMOS survey on behalf of this Department.

I was aware that the Minister considered that, as the survey combining 2 and 3 above was being conducted by SMOS, questions relating to it should be addressed in the context of that Department's bids for additional estimates. I was aware that additional estimates had been sought by SMOS for the add-on survey.

During the final phase of the questioning recorded on page 131 I mistakenly believed that questions were being directed to me on details of the add-on survey. In that context I was replying to the effect that I had no detailed knowledge. This was correct. I was aware of general aspects such as agreement by the Minister to the add-on survey and to the fact that discussions were taking place between officers of the Departments and ANOP but that was the extent of my knowledge. I did not have details nor was I required to have them. I was not involved in discussions on the areas to be covered by the add-on survey, let alone on the details of questions to be included.

To the best of my recollection I have not had any meetings with departmental or interdepartmental staff or of staff of external organisations to discuss the add -on survey. The survey questions and the reasons for them were of no direct concern to me in my present position.

For the record, I had two discussions with ANOP staff. The first lasted a matter of minutes and concerned the preliminary findings of the Youth Attitudes survey in the context of the production of a Participation and Equity Program ( PEP) publicity film. The second was a meeting arranged to again discuss publicity for the Participation and Equity Program. Neither discussion related to the add-on survey. This meeting is referred to on the bottom of page 137 of Hansard.

I felt concerned after the conclusion of the Department's hearing about the possibility of there having been some confusion and immediately on my return to the Department, no later than 7.15 p.m., I advised the Permanent Head of this. I advised him that the Committee should be informed of this and that the matter should be clarified.

The Minister was advised by the Permanent Head and agreed to write a letter of clarification to the Chairman of the Committee. I add this statement on my own behalf, to explain the circumstances pertaining at the time and the apparent inconsistency in information presented during the hearing.

As I said, that letter from Dr Taloni was just tabled with other additional information. I think it does explain to some extent the confusion that prevailed at the time those questions were asked. Those of us who have been involved in Estimates committees for some time know that confusion does arise from time to time. Usually the confusion can be resolved at the time of the Estimates Committee hearings. Confusion arises because not all officers know about every matter. Sometimes it occurs because one matter is confused with another. It seems to me that that is what happened on that occasion.

Along with my fellow government members on the Committee, I was not persuaded at the time we held the special meeting that there should be another meeting of the Estimates Committee. In contrast with what Senator Peter Baume said, after receiving Dr Taloni's letter I am even more convinced that we do not need a further hearing of Estimates Committee D. I am a little confused about part of the motion moved by Senator Baume. I guess this confusion can be resolved later. The motion states in part that the particulars of Proposed Additional Expenditure for the service of the year ending 30 June 1984 contained in Divisions 270 to 284 be recommitted. Again, I this will probably be resolved later but it seems to me that the main area of contention centres around this survey and the answers concerned with the survey. Perhaps we could have narrowed it down. We might even be able to do so. I reiterate that the Committee, and I believe the Government, is still not persuaded that a further hearing is required. I have been here long enough to know that although I have the argument , I do not have the numbers, and I suggest that we put the motion to the vote.

Question resolved in the affirmative.