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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2114

Senator VANSTONE(6.31) —I do not intend to keep the Senate here long. This speech seeks to expose three specific examples of where this Government's alleged commitment to open government is, in my view, lacking. I want to progress to three areas of criticism. They relate to basic requests for factual information, firstly, from the Public Service Board, secondly, from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations and, thirdly, from the Department of Foreign Affairs. These delays experienced either represent a lack of ministerial awareness of the bureaucratic slow pace or are indications of the Government's deliberate abandonment of open government.

The first example I cite is the Public Service Board. On 3 April I wrote to the Chairman of the Public Service Board requesting details of the number of applications and approvals for public servants to hold directorships in companies and business undertakings during the financial years 1982-83 and 1984-85.

The second example relates to the community employment program, the CEP. On 1 April I wrote to the Regional Director of the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations in Adelaide seeking details of CEP approvals for South Australia alone during the year 1984-85. I am aware of the objectives of the CEP and I applaud a number of the community projects that have been assisted under this scheme. No one in this chamber would not wish to support schemes which have as their objective the assistance of unemployed people in a way that is useful both to those people and to the community. That is not to say, however, that there are not aspects of the CEP, as with any widespread public project, that are beyond criticism.

As a senator for South Australia I wanted to have an appreciation of the totality of CEP activity in my State during the current financial year. I imagined that the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations would maintain an extensive computer records section and I thought that it would not be a major task to provide me with the information I requested. Some two weeks after my letter my office received a telephone call from the regional office of the director indicating that the information I requested would be difficult to provide and that reference would have to be made to the department's central office in Canberra to see whether it was physically possible to extract that information from the computer. Another two weeks passed and on 1 May I received from the Regional Director of the Department a letter restating the telephone advice that the reference had been made to Canberra. I make just a few points. Firstly I consider the delays in the Department responding to my request to be quite unreasonable. Secondly, I cannot believe that the Department's computer capacity is so primitive that I cannot be provided with the extract that I have requested, which is a very simple amount of information.

I have left to the last what I consider to be the most outrageous example of inaction to a simple request from a member of parliament. I refer to my experience with a request for information from the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden). On 8 February I wrote to the Minister asking for departmental advice as to what the International Year of Peace was and how Australia was going to mark this year-pretty simple stuff, one would have thought. No great question of policy or complex case study was required. Weeks, in fact months, elapsed and I was not favoured even with the courtesy of an acknowledgement, let alone a reply. On 2 April, some seven weeks later, my office wrote to the Minister's senior private secretary enclosing a copy of my original letter and asking when an acknowledgement or a reply could be expected. Not a word was heard.

At the end of that month, on 26 April to be exact, bearing in mind that the original request was made on 8 February, I wrote again to the Minister enclosing copies of my original letter and the letter following that from my office and asking him for a response. Just to make sure that the vagaries of Australia Post were not to blame, I sent this letter to the Minister's electoral office. The weeks passed and still the mail brought nothing. Then last week my office here in Parliament House received a phone call from an officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs, indicating that a response to my letter of 8 February was being drafted for the Acting Minister. When my office responded with some understandable incredulity at the delay, the departmental officer ventured an opinion that the delay was normal for Foreign Affairs and, in any case, it was having problems with the word processors. It would appear that high tech or even basic tech rests uneasy with our government departments. When the Department was asked why it did not at least acknowledge parliamentary representations, I am told that it advised my office that, due to the delays and problems with the word processors, the Department did not send out acknowledgments.

Yesterday I at last received a written response to my basic question of 8 February. It took over three months, or a quarter of a year, for that reply to arrive. I realise that there are those people within the ranks of the Public Service mandarins who find it difficult to accept that mere elected members of parliament, back benchers, should occupy any of their self-designated important time, but I suggest that it is not a view compatible with parliamentary democracy and not one that sits easily with the sentiments of open government so freely voiced by honourable senators opposite.

I would go further and submit that a number of Ministers need to take a careful look at the manner in which their departments respond to reasonable requests by members of this Parliament. I need hardly add that I look forward to a speedy finalisation of the other two matters: My requests for information from the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations and the Public Service Board.