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Friday, 1 June 1984
Page: 2337

Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Youth Affairs)(9.47) —Because so many misrepresentations, false allegations and scurrilous comments have been put on the record I feel I have to take a short time in this debate to put a few other things on the record. What we have been involved in with Estimates Committee D and subsequent debates in this place, and last night and today, is a cheap political stunt aimed at me. It had nothing to do with the genuine desire to get information about expenditures of money on the Supplementary Estimates and everything to do with the hope of Senator Peter Baume of creating some little crisis of criticism against the Minister.

As other senators have already commented this morning, we politicians expect this to happen. After all, Senator Baume has spent 12 months running around the countryside engaged in the grossest of misrepresentations about me and our Government's policies. That sort of thing is to be expected and, I guess, tolerated. What is not to be tolerated-here I express my appreciation for the comments of my colleagues this morning-is the manipulation and use of a public servant in one of these political stunts. We accept that the Opposition, particularly as it is at the nadir of its public support-perhaps not the nadir; perhaps it will go even lower-will use every trick in the book to try to attract some attention to itself and some criticism to us. We understand that that is what is going on. We on this side of the chamber understand that the cheap political stunt in which Senator Baume and his colleagues on the Estimates Committee D have been involved, was not only a stunt but a premeditated stunt. We understand that Senator Baume approached Senate Estimates Committee D with the intention of so bullying and confusing public servants and so creating confusion that he could rush off to persuade his colleagues to mount a censure motion-of course, unsuccessful-against me. We understand this; after all, we are experienced politicians. What we were shocked by and what we refuse to tolerate is the way in which public servants, in particular one public servant, were drawn in and abused in this process.

Senator Chaney has just said that this is not one of the Senate's finest committee exercises. It is the first thing I have agreed with him about for a long time. It was a disgraceful episode. I just remind honourable senators of a few facts. It was the case that there was a long series of questions about certain matters at the first meeting of Senate Estimates Committee D. It was the case that Dr Taloni gave what information he had available, that he knew about, to the Committee. It was also the case that I gave the Committee the very limited information I had. It was not the case that either Dr Taloni or I had information that we were keeping from the Senate Committee. It was certainly the case that there existed more information to be had but neither Dr Taloni nor I had it at the time.

Senator Peter Baume —I do not believe you.

Senator RYAN —The playground bully has arrived fresh from his excesses of yesterday when, from a powerful position, he was able to behave like a playground bully against a public servant who was unable to answer back. Obviously, the adrenalin has gone up and we are going to see another bullying performance from the playground bully this morning. The fact of the matter is that I gave to the Committee what information-slight, I admit-I had about the matter with which it was concerned. Dr Taloni did likewise. To my knowledge there was no more information available at that point in time. Subsequently we discovered, being anxious to assist the Committee in its deliberations, that there was a little more information. That information was volunteered by me to the Committee.

This is the telling point: I volunteered that extra information as soon as was humanly possible. As soon as the Committee adjourned that evening I met with my public servants and we discovered a little more information on the subject the Committee was interested in. We wrote to the Chairman. The Chairman gave that letter to the Committee when it met. At that moment, if the Opposition members of the Committee had been genuinely interested in pursuing the matter, in getting further information, they would have said: 'Thank you for this further information. We now wish to resume questioning on this matter'. What did they do ? Nothing. There was absolute silence because at that stage they already had their little political stunt planned and they certainly did not want any information or facts to get in the way of what they intended to do.

The fact that there was no murmur from the Opposition members of the Committee, no desire to comment on or seek elaboration of what I had volunteered during the proceedings of the Committee, is ultimate and unarguable evidence that they were not interested in gaining information. They were interested in a political stunt which they proceeded with. They were not able to succeed in this chamber with the censure motion, which was obviously an absolutely ludicrous exercise. They then got the support of the Democrats, who had not been at the Committee meeting and had not even read the evidence, to force the Committee to sit again. At the two sittings of the Senate Committee yesterday there was the most appalling abuse of power and the most appalling treatment of a public servant I have ever seen.

Senator Baume in particular, the great bush lawyer of this place, attempted to cross-examine and interrogate one of my public servants as if that public servant was on trial for murder or some major crime. Instead of the exercise being what it has traditionally been in this place, one of seeking information and of accepting that that information may be incomplete and can be supplemented on another occasion, all the conventions of Senate Estimates committees with which we are so familiar were overturned and we were subjected to the appalling sight of one of my senior public servants being treated as if he were a criminal in a court trial. It was a totally disgraceful exercise and one which I hope we will never see repeated in this place.

I must express at this point too my appreciation of the efforts of my public servants over the last few weeks. Not only Dr Taloni but also the other officers involved in assisting the Estimates Committee have been under a most unjustified cloud and have been subjected to enormous strain. Every time they volunteered or tried to assist the Committee their attempts were treated by Opposition members in bad faith and those attempts used for further interrogation. Dr Taloni, desperately anxious to please and to assist the Committee, to clarify anything that may have been unclear, volunteered a statement. Now we have heard that being used, discussed and analysed this morning as if there were something wrong with it, as if it was some demonstration of guilt. Words such as guilt, inappropriate though they are for Senate committees, seem to be what the Opposition is engaged in.

I recognise that this matter will not be resolved properly because, as I said, it is not essentially about the responsibility of public servants to give information. It is not about the conduct of an Estimates committee by the chairman or the extent to which a Minister is able to provide information. It is a matter of the Opposition having planned and premeditated a political stunt and deciding to go on with it, despite having no factual evidence to support it and despite the fact that, in the course of doing so, it has embarrassed and caused great difficulty to public servants.

In conclusion, all I say is that I hope we never see such an exhibition again. My expectation, though, is that we will see it on the part of some Opposition members. I apologise to my public servants for what they have had to endure and express-I know I do so on behalf of Government members of the Senate-my appreciation of their co-operation, frankness and perseverance in this matter.