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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 720

Senator PUPLICK(4.37) —On 5 November 1985 Senator Peter Walsh gave a very prescient answer to a question asked about free lunches. He said:

I do not dispute that a great deal of alcohol is consumed at these so-called business lunches and, to the extent that indulgence in the business lunch is reduced, instead of tycoons coming back to the office at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon half full, they might come back at 2 o'clock . . . and do some work.

Yesterday at 2 o'clock Senator Ryan came back from a lunch, which was well recorded in this morning's Sydney Morning Herald as a celebratory lunch, and she came back to do some work. The work she did was to answer honestly and straightforwardly a question which was asked of her about housing interest rates. The point that needs to be emphasised is that we are not dealing simply with the question of general interest rates. The question she was asked was about housing interest rates and the brief from which she read was from the Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr West), supplied to the Minister for Housing and Construction by the First Assistant Secretary in the Industry Policy Division of that ministry. It is not possible to put up the canard that this man is not close to the centre of the debate-that he is not part of a major economic portfolio-when in fact the issue which was raised with Senator Ryan and to which she replied was the question of housing interest rates.

How can anybody say that there is somebody better qualified to deal with advice to Ministers about housing interest rates than a person in the Department of Housing and Construction who is responsible for industry policy and for advice on that matter? The officer concerned, Dr Hawkins, has worked as an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and, I understand, has worked in the Reserve Bank of Australia. He is not a junior officer but, as my colleague Senator Watson identified, a very senior officer. Indeed, he is probably being paid about the same salary as the Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh, the Minister who has sought to denigrate and to demean Dr Hawkins and his status by saying that he is really a junior officer, that he is not part of a major economic department and that he is not close to the debate on things.

Is this an admission that a First Assistant Secretary in the Department of Housing and Construction is not close to the major economic debate about housing interest rates? If it is, it means one of two things: Either he is reflecting on the competence of the officer to give advice or he is deliberately misleading and covering up the truth of the matter by trying to say that this is an officer not well placed to know the facts in this matter. The question that was directed to Senator Ryan appears in the Hansard under the heading `Housing'. It was asked by the shadow Minister who carries the responsibility for matters of housing policy. It was directed not to the Minister representing the Treasurer (Mr Keating), not to the Minister for Finance, but to the Minister representing the Minister for Housing and Construction. It was a question about housing interest rates. She answered it, and she answered it accurately. She answered it by quoting from the document headed `Question Time Brief' from which she read the first three paragraphs, which are basically reproduced in her answer which appears in the Hansard. When she was asked to table this document she is recorded as saying `Happily'. I do not know whether it is quite happily that she addresses the debate today. It is a matter which is of concern to a very large number of people.

Senator Ryan —I am not very happy listening to your rubbish-foul little man.

Senator PUPLICK —I am not in the least bit upset if Senator Ryan finds that the only way she can respond to these matters is by the use of personal invective. I do not mind that.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! In view of the fact that Senator Puplick has now taken note of Senator Ryan's remarks, I ask her to withdraw them.

Senator Ryan —I withdraw.

Senator PUPLICK —I was saying that this was a matter which related specifically to the question of housing interest rates and that the Minister tabled a document which dealt precisely with that. The brief says, in part:

At this stage it appears that any reductions in market rates that may occur over the course of 1987 will not be sufficiently sustained or pronounced to result in reductions in housing loan interest rates in 1987.

That is clearly the issue on which we are focus- ing, the issue of housing interest rates. This whole attempt to say that Dr Hawkins is not qualified to give advice on that matter falls to the ground.

When I first started working in Canberra, back in 1969-70, I was on the staff of a Minister and I had the responsibility, as I am sure many other members of ministerial staff have had, of preparing and transferring from the House of Representatives Ministers to Senate Ministers the briefing notes which are provided to them for Question Time in this chamber. There has never, to the best of my knowledge, been a situation in which material has been sent from Ministers in the House of Representatives to Ministers in the Senate to assist them with handling matters at Question Time which did not, in effect, state the position of government as government understood it, or which was not transferred by Minister to Minister for the purpose of reflecting the Minister's view and the Government's view. If anything of that nature had occurred in this case one would expect the qualification to have been attached by the Minister for Housing and Construction that this was some sort of personal opinion on the part of a senior officer in his Department but somehow did not reflect Government policy. That has never occurred within that framework, as I understand the procedures that are followed in this regard.

This document has now been attacked for being out of date. If it was out of date, what responsibility does the Minister bear for coming into this chamber and providing the Senate with information which was not accurate, up to the minute information, about the question which was being addressed to her? Her responsibility is to have accurate, up to date information. That is her responsibility in this place, and she has failed to discharge that responsibility, if her feeble excuse now is that the document represented something that was somehow out of date and therefore can no longer be taken as current. If that excuse were to be used, presumably every Minister would get up in this place and retreat-as the Minister is now retreating from the chamber-behind the wall and say: `This is no longer operative. It is no longer current. It is no longer valid because it is out of date'. Yet her responsibility as a Minister is to provide this chamber with up to date information in response to questions which are addressed to her.

I will now comment on the defence put up by Senator Coates. He said that we were not getting on with the business of the day. I think there are five Bills listed for passage through this chamber today, four of which the chamber has disposed of. Four of the Bills listed on today's Notice Paper have been passed. At the moment we are taking the time which would otherwise be spent debating Senator Messner's motion. There is no excuse possible out of Senator Coates's mouth to say that this is in any way interfering with the Government's program or, indeed, that the reference of this matter to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations would interfere with the Government's program. The interesting thing about Senator Coates's intervention is that he said that a couple of weeks ago he would have bet large sums of money on there being a May economic statement.

Senator Robert Ray —It is not legal to bet on that.

Senator PUPLICK —Yes, it is. It is perfectly legal to bet on that. Senator Coates, I am sure, could have picked up the phone and spoken to an SP bookie at home, where it probably is legal. He said that he was prepared to bet on there being a May economic statement when all of the senior members of the Government were telling us that there was no need for such a May economic statement; no need for a mini-Budget. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) told us, the Treasurer told us, the Minister for Finance told us, the Minister for Resources and Energy (Senator Gareth Evans) told us and the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Button) told us that there was no need for a May economic statement. But Senator Coates, in all his wisdom, said that he was prepared to bet money on there being a May economic statement. He knew, when the Ministers were attempting to conceal it, that there would be a May economic statement, because the Government's policy was in ruin, was a shambles, and clearly needed a major financial statement midway through the year to correct the failures and the damages that were being done.

We have said that this matter should be referred to the Senate Committee to investigate the authorship of the advice and the sources from which it was obtained. That seems to me to be a most important part of Senator Chaney's motion. We want to know whether this document represents the best available evidence that the Government had before it when it came to make a series of decisions, a series of announcements, about the future of housing interest rates. Was this the information, for instance, upon which the decision was made that the ceiling on housing interest rates would be maintained? When this matter was debated in Caucus, in Cabinet, in the Ministry or anywhere else, was this the information upon which that decision was made? If it was, are those decisions open to be re-examined on the basis that this is now out of date, irrelevant, or no longer to be taken as having any particular value or any particular status?

It therefore seems to me that the case which Senator Chaney has made out is a very formidable one and that there is in fact plenty of justification for this inquiry. It will allow everybody to establish that, in terms of the document's authorship, there are very few people, if any, better placed than Dr Hawkins to give advice to the Government and through the Government to give public advice on the future of housing interest rates. Who indeed is better placed? Let the Minister and speakers for the Australian Labor Party indicate who is better placed.

What are the implications in terms of the forthcoming meeting of the Indicative Planning Council? Is Dr Hawkins to be lent on to retract or withdraw the advice which he will be giving to that body, which that body will then give to State Ministers and to Commonwealth Ministers, on the future of housing interest rates, on the future of the housing industry and on the impact of housing interest rates on the construction industry, which is also dealt with in the minute. All of those matters, it seems to me, need to be addressed. We need to address the question of why it was that the Minister used this document if in fact it was not a current and up to date document which should have been produced to keep the Senate in possession of current and up to date information. Does it reflect upon the whole status of these briefing documents? Are we to be told that ministerial briefing documents are no longer statements of government policy but simply the personal opinions of advisers who write them and send them to their primary Ministers who then, presumably without any input of their own, forward them on to their representing Ministers to be trotted out at Senate Question Time? That matter can be examined. The question of the sources from which this advice was drawn can also be examined.

The spurious comments made by Senator Coates are matters with which I have already dealt, in exactly the same way as I dealt with the comments made by Senator Ryan in self- defence. Indeed it is a shame, I suppose, that Ministers in this Government feel that they have to defend themselves against the charge that they told the truth. This is probably a pretty low ebb when what the Ministers have to do is say: `I made a mistake; I told the truth.' Senator Gareth Evans was not going to be caught in that trap because when asked to table a document from which he quoted he, for the first time in my recollection since this Government has been in office, declined to table the document on the basis that it was confidential. He was a little too smart on this occasion; he did not want to be caught telling the truth. To that extent we shall undoubtedly watch the Government's record with a great degree of fascination in the weeks and months ahead as this Government struggles through, as it attempts to answer questions in this place and tell us that the answers which Ministers give to the questions we ask are not to be taken as statements of government policy but simply the personal scribblings of officers who will then be traduced by Ministers such as Senator Walsh in an attempt to prevent the people of Australia knowing what Senator Coates knew when he was prepared to make the bet that there would be a May economic statement-that the Government's economic policies are in ruin and a shambles; they need correction. Something urgent has to be done. That message is already out and about in the community and everybody paying off their homes, everybody struggling to get homes and everybody being oppressed by the interest rates for which this Government and this Government alone is responsible knows the truth of this matter.