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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 725

Senator Dame MARGARET GUILFOYLE(5.08) —I rise to support the motion for the suspension of Standing Orders moved by Senator Chaney. I do not wish to reiterate many of the points that have been made by both sides of the chamber but perhaps I could be of assistance to Senator Cooney by explaining to him that the interest of the Senate in this document is that it is the property of the Senate. It was tabled in the Senate, but it was repudiated by the Government that tabled it. Therefore, we have a motion before the Senate to determine the status of that document, the authorship of it and the sources of advice which is quoted in that document.

The reason that I wanted to speak earlier in the debate was to point out that there seems to be some confusion in the minds of all those who have spoken for the Government about the brief that was prepared and tabled today with regard to Government policy and the document that was tabled yesterday. It is said in the `talking points' to the answer to the question today that was tabled:

Document tabled in the Senate was not an accurate statement of government policy.

It seems to me that there is great confusion in the minds of those who are putting forward this information as to the difference between Government policy and the outcomes of Government policy. That is why there is the interest of the Senate in this particular document. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), before tabling it yesterday, read from the earlier part of the document that the Government's policy and economic strategy `is directed at providing an environment conducive to achieving lower interest rates'. This document, which was written by the public servant concerned, quoted within it:

The Report of the Indicative Planning Council to be presented to the March 1987 meeting of the Australian Housing Council will contain an assumption that any reductions in market rates that occur this year will not be sufficient to allow reductions in housing loan interest rates in 1987.

That is not in any way in conflict with government policy, which of course is seeking lower interest rates, but it is pointing out that government policy is not going to achieve lower interest rates. So the Government is disclaiming the document that was tabled yesterday, and may be reasserting that its policy, particularly in an election year, is to achieve, as the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has said, prospects for falls in the general level of interest rates in 1987. That might be the policy, but we have, as the property of the Senate, a document that says that will not be the outcome. That is the interest of putting that before a Senate committee, to determine the way in which those matters, that will be put by the Indicative Planning Council before the State Ministers in March, were achieved and the basis of that information.

It is said by the Government that this was written prior to the Government's announcement of a mini-Budget in May. I can only suggest that the statements of Senator Evans today foreshadow that there must be very substantial changes of direction in this statement that is to be produced in May by the Government, if it is to uphold its policy and to allow the Prime Minister to continue to say that there will be falls in interest rates in 1987. The advice of the Indicative Planning Council-I think we have today traversed the number of committees that this public servant sits on and works with-shows that this is not the outcome that will be achieved. I feel that when the Government says that that which was tabled yesterday was in error, it is confusing what might be its own policy objective and what will be the outcome from the best advice that can be given by those who are planning housing during the forthcoming year.

It was said somewhere, I think by one of my colleagues, that the learned doctor has given advice to the Indicative Planning Council. I would rather put it that he receives advice from the Council, because those who sit on that Council represent the industry; they represent all sorts of people in the community who are involved in the provision of housing, in the financing of housing and all of those matters. So it is not the personal view of a particular public servant that was put in the Senate yesterday and which has now become a document of the Senate, it is the advice of the Indicative Planning Council that will go before the Government.

Whilst the Government might find it uncomfortable to have advice in a document or a report of that kind that obviously will come forward in March, governments have to live with that. In a matter as important as housing policy and interest rate policy I think the Government ought to be prepared to subject itself to an examination of the way in which the Council came to that view: That although the Government might have that policy to reduce interest rates this year, that will not be achieved. So I think our interest in the status of the document does raise that difference between what might be a government policy and what might be the outcome of it.

I do not want to make any comment at all about the reputations of public servants or about any of the matters that, during yesterday and today, have been matters of public comment. I do not think that is the point. I think the point of it is that the Government really cannot manage the news by saying that what was put down yesterday as an authoritative comment by an indicative planning council on housing is not government policy and therefore is in error. That is just managing the news, and it is probably the worst time of all to start managing the news when there are such grave matters of concern about the economy. So it would not hurt if expert advice were different from what the Government's objectives might be. But I think it would be fair enough for the Senate, now that the document is its property, to examine it to see what the basis of that advice was and how that can assist us to understand the concern that there is in the Australian community about housing matters.

As I understand it, from public report, that was a matter that was also expressed in the Government Caucus this week. The Government Caucus itself, being interested in the matter of housing, took a recommendation that I assume it will work upon, and that is to retain the interest rate ceiling for those existing loans. I wonder what advice was given to Caucus about the likely outcome of interest rates this year to lead Caucus, as I read it, unanimously to decide that that ceiling ought to remain. Was it that the Government or the Prime Minister was able to say to it: `Don't worry about it. Housing rates are going to fall this year'? Or was it that Caucus had a proper review of the seriousness of the situation and the many economic indicators that really do make it almost impossible to suggest that there will be a fall in interest rates in this forthcoming year?

I know there are other speakers, but I rose simply to make those two points: Firstly, to explain to Senator Cooney that it is not unusual for the Senate to determine the status, the accuracy or the content of a document that comes within its own purview and which has been tabled in the Senate. Our particular interest in this document is that it was tabled and then disclaimed as being in error. So there is a special interest in that document and not just as a document that could be tabled at any other Question Time. The second matter that I think is of interest is that there has been this confusion through all the public statements of government policy and what I believe ought to be addressed, and that is, the outcome of government policy and the likelihood that government policy will be achieved in this election year.