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Friday, 1 June 1984
Page: 2340

Senator PETER BAUME(10.03) —I have two matters of substance which I wish to raise in relation to the expenditure of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. Before I do that I respond to the matter that has been the subject of discussion before the Committee. When the facts are against one, one shouts. What we have heard this morning is a lot of shouting which is not supported by the demonstrable facts. I am delighted that the Parliament produces a Hansard. I am delighted that a Hansard is produced of Estimates committees. I invite anyone who wants to have demonstrated to them the total falsity of what the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) has asserted merely to read the Hansard. It is all there. The total falsity of Senator Ryan's assertions and case is contained in the Hansard record of Estimates Committee D. There was neither bullying nor hectoring. There was, in fact, a proper use of procedures. There was an attempt to extract information and the obtaining of that information was resisted, particularly by the Minister who did not want to let the Committee know what she should have let it know. There was a resistance for the release of information by some officers.

Let us be quite clear: The matter under contention concerned some surveys. Let us say something about those surveys. They were initiated by Senator Ryan. She sent 'Dear Mick' letters to her colleague the Special Minister of State (Mr Young) to set up the add-on survey. Senator Ryan wrote these letters and sought the survey and the add-on survey. Her Department and her departmental officers advised her of the need for an add-on survey. There were officers present at the Estimates Committee hearing. We learnt yesterday that some of them knew, and one of them acknowledged-I refer all honourable senators to the Hansard-that he should have come forward on 3 May and given the information which he knew. He said in retrospect that he had made an error.

Let us have no doubt about it. Senator Ryan had been involved in these surveys from the beginning. She had been a prime mover, yet she resisted the release of information which was within her knowledge to a committee which wanted that information for the proper discharge of its duties. When I asked her for information about the add-on survey, and I refer honourable senators to the Estimates Committee D Hansard of 3 May, at page 138, I believe Senator Ryan actually said: 'There is no such survey'. Of course, events subsequently have shown that that answer from the Minister, which is to be found in the Hansard, was on the best construction misleading the Estimates Committee, and on the worst construction was quite an adequate ground for us to move our censure motion.

I will go through the absolutely clear facts on this matter. On 3 May a series of questions were asked in Estimates Committees D and they are recorded in the Hansard between pages 131 and 138. A series of answers were given to those questions. The Hansard will reveal that several attempts were made by the Minister to prevent answers being given. There was a refusal to release information of which we now know she was aware. A clear implication from a reading of the answers given on 3 May is that the Department had, at least at officer level, a limited role or no role in a youth attitude survey or in an add -on survey of attitudes to government and non-government schooling. That is what a reading of the Hansard will reveal.

Subsequently, on 4 May a letter was received from the Minister which gave infomation not proffered the day before. We believe this information was in the possession of the Minister and she knew about it. It corrected some of the wrong answers given the day before. So we know that wrong information was given to this Estimates Committee. We know that three weeks later, on 24 May or thereabouts, material provided to the Committee included a personal explanation which gave further details from one of the officers present at the Estimates Committee hearing.

On 31 May at a reconvened hearing questions were put again to the officers. On this occasion some of the questions were answered in the same way; for some questions the same answers were given, but on this occasion with additional information which clarified considerably what had been withheld before. To some of the questions which were asked again different answers were given and it was acknowledged that the answers given at the first hearing were wrong. On 31 May the officers agreed that more information could have been offered to the Estimates Committee when it first met.

On several occasions the defence was offered that the questions may have been misunderstood. Well, I am willing to agree that some questions may have been misunderstood, but I point out that at least some of the questions were quite explicit. The questions meant what the words said. When the questions were re- asked and when the words were read, it was clear they had been answered incorrectly. Further, because we wanted to be quite sure of the answers, some of the questions were repeated and rephrased and pressed, and still wrong answers were given. In the end we have one point to make, and that is that when witnesses appear before Estimates committees or when Ministers come to present their estimates, we expect the answers to be accurate and to be comprehensive, and we expect them not to be answers which will mislead the Senate or the Parliament. If officers are uncertain or ignorant of the answers, the correct thing is for them to say so and to seek to get the information, which of course they do on a number of occasions. But on this occasion definitive answers were given which in fact proved to be incorrect. It is my expectation that this kind of event will not recur.

As I have a little more time I will go on to mention some of the other matters which were raised. One of the questions which I asked of the Estimates Committee and on which information was provided to us, concerned the Canberra College of Advanced Education. I asked for information on allegations that students assessments at the Canberra College of Advanced Education were being affected by considerations other than academic merit so that the College had found it necessary to conduct an internal investigation into those allegations. I can think of no more serious charge in the conduct of higher education in Australia than to have a situation where students go in to obtain qualifications and where the assessments on which they live or die academically can be made on any grounds other than academic merit. I raised these allegations before the Committee, and quite properly the officers said: 'May we come back with information on this question?'. In fact an explanation has been provided, and it is contained in the additional information tabled from Senate Estimates Committee D. It is quite apparent from the tabled information that such an event did occur, that in fact a student of the Canberra College of Advanced Education had cause to complain about an assessment of his or her work based on other than academic merit.

Senator Watson —What faculties?

Senator PETER BAUME —I will try to see whether it is indicated. I will quote from part of the tabled information. It states that students may appeal if certain things happen, and then it goes on to say:

Very few appeals have been received by the Academic Board against results but in 1983 there was one appeal from a student in the School of Education where an allegation was made by a student in the terms of this question.

So it is quite clear that within the Canberra College a situation arose where a student believed that his or her assessments were being affected by considerations other than academic merit. This appeal was thoroughly investigated and was resolved to the student's satisfaction. The information goes on to indicate a number of procedures which were then instituted within the Canberra College, which seems to me to be appropriate and proper. I believe we should be concerned as a Parliament, that anywhere within higher education in Australia, for whatever reason, there should be any attempt to bring considerations other than academic merit into the assessment of students, whether they be political considerations, social considerations, or any other considerations. The particular allegation has been canvassed within the Canberra community in a number of publications, and I hope that the Canberra College, having instituted these new procedures, can prevent this kind of thing happening again.

I must also say that I have been told by students directly-not as a matter of hearsay-of situations which have faced them in the higher education institutions in which they have been involved in my city of Sydney in some of the most-

Senator Robert Ray —That did not happen when you were a Minister.

Senator PETER BAUME —I invite Senator Robert Ray to consider that this is not a political complaint against the Government. It is a complaint about events which occur within the system about which I would have thought that Senator Robert Ray would have as much concern as I do. I have not put any political gloss on this. I am expressing it in terms of the educational rights of students. I believe it is not an isolated case. It is not isolated to the particular institution in Canberra. It is a situation which must not be allowed to develop on campuses in Australia. It is one we are going to watch very closely.

I am very grateful to the Canberra College for having provided this information . I am grateful to the College for advising me of the procedures which are now in place to try to prevent this happening. We will be watching very closely to see whether there are any more complaints. I indicate that I do not believe that this is isolated. There is a problem on Australian campuses generally about which we must be very concerned. I will rise later to speak briefly about one other matter.