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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 2916


Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(6.24) —I would like to make some general remarks about the complaints of Senator MacGibbon and Senator Newman. I have committed many sins in this place but one of them is not a belief that senators are not supposed to be given proper answers at Question Time, in questions on notice or at Estimates committee hearings. Senator Newman has given some examples of questions for which she received unsatisfactory answers on anybody's judgment. Senator Michael Baume did the same this afternoon. Senator Sir John Carrick has been trying to get an answer for three months on a certain matter. I would not be too pleased if that happened to me and I dare say that we will hear about this matter in the next few days.

Part of the problem-and this is the matter that Senator MacGibbon raised-is the way in which Estimates committees have been conducted. Over the last 14 years that I have been in this place there has been a sort of cyclical change. When I first became a member of this place a few public servants would be brought along to Estimates committee meetings. People would ask questions. When they received answers that were not satisfactory they would demand that more staff attend the meetings. More staff would attend the hearings the next time the Estimates Committee met but the answers of necessity did not get better. People lost interest. So there has been a cyclical attendance and varying standards of answers.

I believe that there is a belief in some sections of the Public Service-and I am not necessarily singling out the Department of Defence-and I dare say by some Ministers from both sides at various times that we are better off if senators and members do not get the information or if the information is obscure and confusing. They are wrong. Ministers, the Public Service, members of parliament and the whole community will be better off if answers are straight and clear and we do not have the nonsense that goes on in this place sometimes.

I must say that one of the problems-and I think Senator MacGibbon touched on this-is that sometimes the questioning and the line of questioning apparently has no purpose. Some honourable senators engage in a huge fishing expedition. Some honourable senators always ask about the cost of postage, the rental of flowers and God knows what. As a result, pages and pages of tedious trivia, which is never used, is recorded. I must say, to be critical, that some honourable senators ask the same question every year and get the same answer. But they never seem to be able to remember the answer that was given the previous year. As a result I suppose people get disheartened.

I think there is need to reform the system. I think suggestions that have been made about Estimates committee hearings being attended by a smaller number of people who have a general knowledge, about specific questions being asked and about questions being placed on notice are fine. If Senator Newman's experience of questions on notice is anything to go by, that is not fine at all. I think we really have to come to grips with this matter. By and large, Opposition senators ask all the questions and the hearings go on and on and government senators do not ask questions because they want to see the hearings concluded. That is not satisfactory at all. I will seek proper answers to the questions that Senator Newman asked.


Senator Durack —Unfortunately that didn't happen with our back benchers when we were in government.


Senator GRIMES —Sometimes it did; sometimes it did not. Senator Hamer raised the matter of the Dibb recommendation of centralising defence procurement planning under the Chief of the Defence Force. In fact, a study has been made by the Chief of the Defence Force. The Minister, the Secretary to the Department of Defence and the CDF are in the process of looking at it. We will have to wait and see what the report recommends. Maybe we will be able to avoid the trouble that the Americans got into a couple of years ago when, on the same day as the navy sold 50,000 excess tyres of a certain size for a tenth of their price, the army bought the same number for twice the price.

I will not comment on the practical and sensible remarks that Senator Hamer made about the explosion at senior levels in the Army and particularly the Navy.


Senator Hamer —All Services.


Senator GRIMES —I have heard this matter debated before. The sort of spurious justification that I have heard in the past is that this is a result of the integration of the civilian and military sections and the necessity to maintain the hierarchical structures. But I will not use that argument here today because I fear the derision I would get from Senator Hamer if I did so. I will refer that matter to the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley).

Senator Mason spoke of the conversion of container ships to helicopter carriers. He got very technical and at that stage I am afraid I lost his argument a bit. I am told that Defence is aware of the need to keep abreast of overseas studies in this area. As a result of this, the study of the conversion of merchant shipping for helicopter operations has been undertaken and will continue to be undertaken. But I do not know any details about it and I will have to refer the matter to the Minister and the Department, as I will, I am afraid, the details of the very important matters raised by Senator Newman about housing. I am very interested to see what will happen as a result of the report by Ms Hamilton in the defence service housing area.

I am informed that one of the reasons for the tailing off in apprentices employed by the Department is the change to a more electronic and technological type service in respect of which apprentice type training is not used. In fact, this year some 50 more apprentices have been employed than was the case last year. I understand that this trend will continue in the future.

I am disappointed that the Scottsdale establishment was unable to supply the Antarctic Division with the food that it needed. Obviously the answer that Senator Newman received was appalling. I hope that in the future that establishment and other sections of the armed services in this country can be used in the way the armed services of some other countries, including the United States of America, are used. I hope they will be in the vanguard of the development of processes like freeze-dried food, as the Scottsdale establishment is in this country, and even the developments in some areas of civil engineering.


Senator Newman —They are the only ones doing it.


Senator GRIMES —That is right.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.