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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 716

Senator RYAN (Minister for Education)(4.13) —I rise simply to express my opposition to the motion to suspend Standing Orders because I do not believe that the motion of the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) should be proceeded with. My reasons are similar to those given at some length by the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans), so I will not take up the time of the Senate by repeating them. It is a unique experience for me to sit here and listen to the state of my soul being discussed by honourable senators opposite. Senator Chaney has taken the line that I am poor but honest. Senator Sir John Carrick has referred to sins that I have committed. I will not be making my confession to Senator Sir John Carrick; I do not think that that would be appropriate.

I have confessed to an error and, having confessed to that error, I now put to the Senate that there is no basis at all for the motion that Senator Chaney seeks to bring on via his motion for the suspension of Standing Orders. As Senator Evans has pointed out, the terms of Senator Chaney's motion are spurious. There is no need to inquire into the authorship of the document under discussion, the sources from which the advice was obtained, nor its current status, because all those matters have been clarified. They have been clarified by me in public statements to the media; they have been clarified by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), by the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) and by Senator Evans.

The authorship of the document has been amplified in discussions and comments in Question Time today. Until Question Time today I was aware only of the name and the position of the officer in the Department of Housing and Construction. Now I am aware of his academic record, other activities, and so forth. So we do not need any further information on the author of the document; we have received a great deal of information on the author of the document. It is most unusual for the Senate to have such lengthy information available concerning the background and academic attainments, and so on, of public servants who give advice. So the authorship of the document is not in any doubt at all.

Senator Archer —His reputation is.

Senator RYAN —I will get to that in a moment, Senator. That is the most distressing aspect of the whole performance that the Opposition is putting on. The status of the document is not in any doubt. The status of the document can be revealed by anyone who cares to look at it, since I did respond to Senator Chaney's request to table a document yesterday. I believe that the Senate ought to have been able to see from where the document came and judge its status for itself. Its status was clearly a piece of advice offered to the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr West) by an officer in his Department. As Senator Chaney and all honourable senators know, public servants regularly offer advice. Their advice is informed as a result of the data available to them.

Senator Chaney —It is a Question Time brief.

Senator RYAN —Senator Chaney knows that Question Time briefs are not prepared personally by Ministers; they are prepared by public servants. So the status of the advice is that it was advice offered as part of the Question Time brief.

Senator Archer —It was accepted by the Minister.

Senator RYAN —It was not accepted as Government policy. My error-I have made it clear that there was an error on my part-was that I assumed that, since it did appear in the Question Time brief, it did in fact reflect current Government policy; it did not. I should have been alert to that prior to reading it. I was not: Hence the confusion arose. That error does not call into any doubt the status of the document. The status of the document is clear.

It has been pointed out by Senator Evans and other Government spokespersons that the advice was formulated prior to a number of decisions taken by the Government, in particular the decision to have a May economic statement. There is no suggestion that the officer could possibly have known about that when he formulated that advice. There is no suggestion from the other side of the chamber that the decision to have a May economic statement would be irrelevant to the kind of advice being put forward. Of course the decision will affect interest rates and the Government's capacity to bring them down. There can be no sensible argument about the status of the document.

The reason I rose to speak-I guess I have said nothing that is not already on the public record by me-was to say that it is most spurious of Senator Chaney, Senator Sir John Carrick and other honourable senators to suggest that there is a matter that needs to be treated urgently because the Government is in some way denigrating a public servant. That has never happened. It has not been done by me; it has not been done by any other Minister, and it has not been done by the Prime Minister. What has been done is that attention has been drawn to the position of that public servant and to the fact that he is not in one of the main economic departments.

No one can say that it is denigratory to say that; of course, it is not. It is simply appropriate to draw attention to the fact that the advice was formulated by an officer who is not an officer of the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Finance or the major co-ordinating department; namely, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In drawing the attention of journalists, who are inherently sloppy about these matters, to that fact there was no attempt to denigrate that officer and no attempt has been made to do so. It is entirely the action of setting up a hollow man to be knocked down in a subsequent debate to make those claims. Neither Senator Chaney nor Senator Sir John Carrick can point to anything that I have said or that any other Minister has said which is denigratory of that officer.

Senator Archer —You inferred that he was a mug.

Senator RYAN —That is the wrong use of the word `inferred', Senator. There is no need to carry on in this fashion. It is quite clear who was the author of the document. The date of its being written is also quite clear. Its status has been clarified by me. An error has been admitted by me in that I read out the document on the assumption that it represented current Government policy. It does not. That matter has been corrected. There is no need for the Senate's time or the taxpayers' money to be wasted in the totally unnecessary inquiry which would follow the successful passage of Senator Chaney's motion.