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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 717

Senator WATSON(4.20) —I rise to support Senator Chaney's motion to suspend Standing Orders. The matter at issue is whether to refer to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations the briefing note on interest rates which was tabled by Senator Susan Ryan on 25 February. It is quite obvious from what we have heard in this chamber today that the Government is rather concerned that the matter could be put to more open debate and scrutiny by a committee of this chamber. The Government does not want public servants brought before the Committee to tell the truth. It does not want information tabled before the Committee. That is the issue at present. The Government wants closed government. Government members talk about open government but when they are put to the test, as they have been today, they fold up, as Senator Evans folded up. He claimed confidentiality of a document which he read to this chamber today.

The Government does not want scrutiny of public servants. It does not want witnesses called from the private sector. What would the private sector tell the Government? It would say that business is taking a beating from high interest rates. It would tell the Government about the effect of high interest rates on profits and the results of low economic activity. The Government would be told about the devaluation benefits that are lost because of high interest rates and inflation-all factors of which Dr Hawkins is very cognisant. The Government says that Dr Hawkins is not from one of the top departments, but he is from an operating department, from the grass roots level. He knows what he is talking about.

Senator Ryan —Mr Acting Deputy President, I take a point of order. Nobody as far as I know on our side of the chamber has referred to `top departments'. What has been said is that Dr Hawkins is not from one of the main economic departments.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Townley) —Order! There is no point of order.

Senator WATSON —Again, the sensitivity of this matter is coming through. The eminent doctor is from an operating department. What is the problem? The real problem is that Senator Susan Ryan has been carpeted by the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh) and by her Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) for her actions. Surely this is not in keeping with the high ideals of the Parliament. To censure a senior Minister, one of the most senior Ministers, for presenting information which underlines and underscores the true state of the economy is, I believe, quite offensive and repugnant. I ask the Senate: Where is our Westminster tradition? Ministers are walking away nowadays from the concept of ministerial responsibility. They are blaming other people. They are not taking responsibility for the consequences of their own actions, for their own mistakes, and sometimes for their own honesty. That is one of the tragedies of this place.

One of the spin-offs of this matter is the belittling of a senior public servant, which is dreadful. In this place we are not allowed to refer to the Prime Minister as a little man, but we are allowed to refer to one of the most senior Government advisers, who is academically trained and who has occupied a high post in government and in the outside world, as a `junior officer'. What could be more belittling? What could be more humiliating? But the tragedy is far wider than that because we are starting to blame other people. We are getting to a Yes Minister situation.

Senator Ryan —Mr Acting Deputy President, I take a point of order. Senator Watson is not speaking to the motion for the suspension of Standing Orders.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There has been a very wide-ranging debate on this motion. Latitude has been allowed to both sides. However, it is almost time for the honourable senator to return to the motion which is for the suspension of Standing Orders.

Senator WATSON —The question at issue is whether the Standing Orders should be suspended to enable this matter to go before the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, a Senate committee. But the Government does not want this information exposed. It does not want the officers involved presented to the Committee. The unfortunate feature that will result will be the naming of senior public officials, senior government advisers, in this place. That would be a new thing. It will result in a dangerous situation because public servants in future will be loath to put their names to documents. The heavy hand of government will be imposed on senior officials to tell the Government on a piece of paper exactly what the Government wants to know. This man told the truth from his background, from his professional reputation and from his experience in the real world. But the Government did not want to know. The status of the document is that it came through the Minister for Housing and Construction, Mr West, the relevant Minister. It was passed on. We are now told that it is out of date. The only difference between now and a few days ago, or a fortnight ago when it was prepared, is that the Prime Minister has tried to put up a smokescreen. The smokescreen is to try to allay our fears that things are not going to improve. We are going to have a May economic statement but we do not know what is going to be in it.

Senator Ryan —No, you don't know. You won't know until it comes out.

Senator WATSON —Yes. But the Government is trying to maintain that the situation has changed from the situation which prevailed when the paper was prepared. I would like to submit that the position today is exactly what it was when the document was written and presented. I would like to challenge Senator Ryan to present a more up to date statement from this officer which brings the situation up to date following the Prime Minister's announcement regarding a May economic statement. I challenge the Minister to table that up to date statement. In so doing she might also help to restore the integrity of the Minister--

Senator Ryan —Mr Acting Deputy President, I take a point of order. Senator Watson has challenged the integrity of a Minister. I do not know which Minister but I ask him to withdraw.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —If he named the particular Minister would that be satisfactory or would you like him to withdraw?

Senator Ryan —I would like him to withdraw the reflection on whichever Minister he is attacking. I am not prepared to sit here and listen to my ministerial colleagues being accused of a lack of integrity.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I ask Senator Watson to withdraw.

Senator WATSON —As the honourable senator well knows, I was referring to the integrity of the officer. I am not criticising Senator Ryan.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Have you withdrawn?

Senator WATSON —It is an effective withdrawal because I have said that I was referring to the officer.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —You did say `Minister', Senator Watson.

Senator WATSON —I withdraw if the implication was taken to refer to the Minister. However, I was referring to the officer, and the Minister well knows that. I am not criticising Senator Ryan for tabling the document. She has done the right thing. She might not do the right thing in not answering her correspondence to people but she has confirmed what all the commentators around Australia have been telling us. There have been problems in relation to housing interest rates. The housing bodies have been telling us what has been happening. Let us consider the interest rate on Bankcard, the interest rates on savings banks home loans, prime interest rates and small overdraft rates. These interest rates are embarrassing to the Government. They are driving young couples out of their homes. As Minister Walsh has told us, bankruptcies are rising at an alarming rate because of interest rates. The Government is trying to mislead us on this question. It is trying to stop Senator Chaney getting a more open examination of the matter by referring it to a Senate committee. I support Senator Chaney's motion and I believe that in the interests of open government this issue should go to a Senate committee for open inquiry.