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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 713

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK(3.57) —I rise to support the motion moved by Senator Chaney to suspend Standing Orders. The urgency is abundantly apparent. Every day in this place Ministers come in with some hundreds of briefs prepared and speak from those briefs purporting to tell the Senate that those briefs are the statements, the facts, and the policies of the Government. There has never been any suggestion in this place before today that any brief read from in this chamber was other than the accepted statement, belief and policy of the Government. Suddenly, because something has gone wrong, one brief is picked out and said to be disregarded because it was done by some junior officer and should not be taken account of. If the Australian Democrats, who of course have left the chamber, have their way-and they say that there is no urgency-in future any reading from any brief by any Minister is likely to be simply discarded by the Government as simply the trivia of some junior officer. That is what is being said today. But that cannot be so.

There is another important point. The Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, quite rightly and I think quite reasonably and ethically, said that she understood the Westminster principle. Many of us who have sat in that seat have understood that. But, as I understand it, out on the steps today she said that the brief came from the Minister for Housing and Construction, Mr West. Then the Westminster principle slips. It cannot be said that this brief can be explained away because a representative Minister got a second-hand brief here and made an accidental error. The Government cannot have it both ways. If Senator Ryan continues to say as she said on the steps, which I invite her to deny, that the brief originated from the Minister for Housing, Mr West, and that it is his responsibility-and everyone knows that Mr West would be fully cognisant of all the economic debate and up to date with the Government's most modern thinking on housing interest rates-quite clearly every card in the pack falls down. The Minister cannot hide behind the assertion that the information is stale. How can it be stale? This morning the Minister made it as fresh as a daisy. She said it came from the Minister himself, the Minister who of all people in the whole Cabinet has the most up to date knowledge. So let us reject straight away any suggestion that it cannot be true. All this stuff that Senator Evans has talked so garrulously bit by bit falls down. This material was not prepared by some junior officer. What a denigration! It was prepared by a very senior officer. What a denigration of the Westminster principle it is to hide behind the statement that an officer was responsible and not the Government. I know of nothing that is more corrupting of the Westminster system than to blame an officer, great or small, for an error.

Senator Robert Ray —Fraser blamed a royal commissioner and what did you say about it? Nothing.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I have never blamed a royal commissioner in my life. I can understand that Senator Ray is getting agitated now because we are getting to the very principle of this situation. Under the Westminster system ethical Ministers and governments do not come out behind the name of some public servant, great or small; they do not try to denigrate a public servant by saying that he is a junior. They say: `It is our paper and we stand by it'. Senator Ray cannot have it both ways. Either every one of those briefs read from every day is Government policy or every day the Opposition is receiving a lot of twaddle in what Ministers read out to us. The Government can hide behind the excuse that it is not true; some junior officer gave it the brief or it is a stale brief. But we cannot have it both ways.

The Minister is in the hot seat. Yesterday she did what every other Minister has done. Her only mistake-I sympathise with her-was that she did not plead that it was a confidential document. I say in fairness to her that she could have done that and not tabled the document. That was her only mistake. There was no mistake on her part in reading from a brief from the responsible Minister, whom she represents, and stating that as Government policy. If we move from that situation we get to the ridiculous situation that never can we accept an answer at Question Time from representative Ministers. Either they speak purporting to give the words of the Government-as the Minister did yesterday quite rightly-or the whole thing becomes a charade and ought to be cast aside. We want to get behind the charade. The urgency is that this Parliament cannot go on with Ministers reading briefs if from now on we will never be able to believe and accept-and the public outside will not be able to accept-that those briefs give the views of the Government and not some stale thing that has gone wrong a few weeks ago. After all, if it were stale and went wrong that is not Senator Ryan's fault; that is Mr West's fault. It is not some officer's fault.

The Australian Democrats, in their petulance because they did not get their toys, are not worrying about the merits of this situation. Because they did not win a trick some time ago they have left the chamber. Senator Vigor is here. Unless we approach this as a matter of urgency every brief that is read in this place can be downgraded as being from a junior officer and of no importance to anybody and not to be taken seriously. Is that what the Democrats are saying, that in future they will accept this rubbish that is being put to us?

Senator Vigor —No, we are saying: `Do it at the right time'.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I ask, therefore, whether the Democrats will support us on 17 March when we move for this inquiry.

Senator Vigor —We will discuss it.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —This is again running away from the question. Senator Vigor has said that we should do it at the right time, meaning to imply: `Yes, we will support you then'. I ask the Democrats whether they will stand up and be counted. They have the evidence now. Will they support us on 17 March?

Senator Childs —Address the Chair.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —I will be very happy to address the Chair. I am asking questions rhetorically through the Chair, as Senator Childs should know. Every day in the history of this Parliament, in its 86 years, Ministers have brought briefs into this chamber as representative Ministers. They have told this chamber that views they have read from those briefs represent the views of the Government. Today, sadly, the poor Minister for Education is being forced to say that that is not the case. The Government has been caught in a trap and it is pretending that there has been some kind of accident which it is trying to blame on some junior public servant. It is saying that what was in the brief is not Government policy.

The urgency is that in future we do not know whether we should take for granted that a brief read out by a Minister represents Government policy or is some excuse or escape route for the future. Senator Ryan has blown the gaff. She said the brief came from Mr West, the responsible Minister--

Senator Watson —An honest reply.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —A perfectly honest reply. He is responsible. It is no good saying that the brief is stale stuff and that because the dollar has gone up it does not apply. I wonder what the Government would say on this kind of nonsense tomorrow if the dollar goes down. It is not stale stuff. It cannot be claimed that the officer did not know or that the Government has altered its policies, the situation has changed and there will be a mini-Budget. The Government did not know that until we chivvied it day after day to get the mini-Budget. There is no question of talking about stale stuff. Everything falls down now except the examination of the credit of that document. Is the Government going to leave a senior public servant isolated? It is saying that the brief represents his views alone and that other representative people, highly equipped academics, would not hold that view. Will the Government let the Senate do the right thing today to find out whether the brief contained the true view? Does the Indicative Planning Council hold that view? The Democrats are holding up that investigation. Hundreds of thousands of Australian families are paying more in interest rates because of the crazy policies of this Government. We are trying to probe into this situation, to get interest rates down, and the Democrats will take a holiday for a fortnight, think about it and look at their philosophical navel. After all, Senator Haines said there is no urgency in this. The Democrats should tell the hundreds of thousands of people who are paying $40 to $50 a month extra because of the interest rate policies of the Government that there is no urgency, that the Democrats are entitled to their fortnight's holiday while they liaise with the Labor Party to see what type of treaty they can now get, as Senator Haines did. This is an absolute nonsense.

The situation is very serious. The Minister for Education has done what every Minister in 86 years has done; she has properly relied upon a brief given to her by the responsible Minister. She has read it in this place as Government policy. The Government has now said: `Oh, it has grown stale'. But that cannot hold because the responsible Minister has the most up to date knowledge of the policy. The only test now is what is the truth of this situation because the Prime Minister in another place-I am not allowed to call him a little man--

Senator Chaney —Yes, you can; you cannot call him Bob Hawke.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —The Prime Minister has said that his style and title is Bob Hawke. I am allowed to say that he is arrogant; I am allowed to say that he is a little man, and I am allowed to say that he says that his style and title is Bob Hawke. My goodness, what nit-picking goes on in this place when the great issue is that the people of Australia are paying huge interest rates. Honourable senators opposite grin at that. We must test what is correct. Is it the evidence given and incorporated in the document or is it what the Prime Minister, who is running scared, says? Is there no urgency--

Senator Vigor —That is not what your motion says. That is not what you seek to do.

Senator Sir JOHN CARRICK —For the benefit of Senator Vigor, let me say this: If he had been in here and had listened to Senator Chaney as to what we seek to do, he would have found that that is exactly what we want to do. We want to find out, through a Senate committee, what all those people who put the document together-members of the Indicative Planning Council, officers from the Reserve Bank, and others-think now in terms of interest rates. We know what they thought then; we want to know what they think now. That is a vital matter. That is what the Democrats are running away from, because they have made another bargain.

I plead with the Senate. This is a matter of enormous urgency. Unless we can accept, in Question Time, the authority, if not the accuracy, of ministerial briefs, Question Time becomes a charade. We must test the authority of the Westminster system, which passes through the Minister. She has been left, quite wrongly, to carry the baby in this. If the Westminster system means anything, it means that the Minister in another place is the person to carry this. If the Minister feels mea culpa, let me simply say that that applies to the fact that she did not read the top of the document. If she had seen that the document was marked `in confidence', she could have resisted tabling it. If she had been a little more garrulous and a little more active, as Senator Evans was today, she could have pleaded that the document was confidential, and put it away. That is her only sin in this. The sin that runs through the alibi invented by the Prime Minister and others is something that the Senate has an absolute responsibility to investigate urgently. I commend the motion.