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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 730


Senator WALTERS(5.32) —I would like to read Senator Chaney's notice of motion, which I certainly support, because both Senator Coates and Senator Robert Ray, who has just sat down, did not indicate the truth of this motion or even speak to the words of it. It reads:

I give notice that, on the next day of sitting, I shall move:

(1) That there be referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations the briefing note on interest rates tabled in the Senate by Senator Ryan on 25 February 1987 and that the Committee inquire into and report on its authorship, the resources from which the advice was obtained and the current status of the document-

not interest rates generally but just the authorship, the sources from which the advice was obtained and the current status of the document-

(2) That the Committee report to the Senate on or before 26 March 1987.

Of course, that was not what Senator Robert Ray said the motion was in any of his speech. In answer to Senator Vigor, who spoke earlier and who said that he did not understand the urgency of this motion, I say that the urgency is that the Committee should report to the Senate on or before 26 March. If we put off this inquiry until we come back in another fortnight that would be an unreasonable date to expect the Committee to report by. So of course there is an urgency for that to be done. I come back to the briefing notes which the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, read at Question Time yesterday. They read:

The report of the Indicative Planning Council to be presented in March 1987-

that has not yet been presented; it is to be presented next month, so it cannot possibly be considered old hat, old news, an old report-

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. Whilst reductions in housing rates may occur in the first half of 1988, it is unlikely that any such reductions would have any significant impact on building activity until the second half of 1988.

That was said by the Government's chief advisory body on the housing industry. It is not some ratbag little group. It is not, as Senator Walsh tried to say, some small department. It is not an opinion of one man, as Senator Robert Ray tried to claim just a few moments ago when he said that we would never get anything out in the Committee because it is all the opinion of one man. This is not the opinion of one man. Indeed, it is the opinion of Dr R. G. Hawkins. Let me give honourable senators a little information about this particular officer. Senator Walsh said that he was a junior officer. Let us hear how junior Dr R. G. Hawkins is. To begin with, he is the First Assistant Secretary of the Industry Policy Division of the Department of Housing and Construction. As he is the First Assistant Secretary of that Division, that would keep him completely up to date on information coming to the Department. He is also secretary of the Construction Industry Council. He is on the Indicative Planning Council for the Housing Industry and, as I said, that is the main advisory body to the Government on housing. He is also a member of the Joint Venture for More Affordable Housing. Some junior officer! He is also Chairman of the Construction Forecasting Committee. That being so, surely he is up with all the latest information that the Government can possibly have. He has a PhD in economics. He can hardly be referred to, as Senator Walsh did, as a junior officer. It was claimed that he was a junior officer and that the brief was one man's opinion. That is not true and Senator Walsh, in his typical way, tried to distort the facts for his own convenience.

Senator Ryan, in an interview she gave some time this morning, said that that particular officer or that brief drew conclusions that were different from the conclusions of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). That is really a wonderful statement! I do not doubt that the officer drew conclusions different from the conclusions of the Prime Minister because the Prime Minister was making a political statement while the officer was giving advice to the Prime Minister, and of course they are very different. One is factual and the other, from a Prime Minister who is noted for his arrogance, is just a political statement which we have no way of trusting.

Senator Robert Ray said that Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle had to be questioned a tremendous amount during the Estimates committee hearings to get information from her. He spoke at length on and made quite a play about the Estimates committees. He said that when he was on Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle's Estimates committee there was something like 30 hours of questioning. Mr Acting Deputy President, may I tell you what happened when Senator Gareth Evans was dealing with the Appropriation (Parliamentary Departments) Bill and the Supply (Parliamentary Departments) Bill before an Estimates committee? Senator Kilgariff asked the departmental officer a question which he was not able to answer. Senator Kilgariff, in his very polite way, said that perhaps he could get the information and bring it to him at some later time. When the officer said that he would get the information Senator Evans, who was sitting at the head of the table in this chamber, whispered to the officer beside him: `Don't try too hard'. The Committee did not hear that direction from the Minister because it was a whispered one. However, unfortunately for Senator Evans it came over the intercom system into all our rooms, loudly and clearly. I happened to be sitting in my room when I heard Senator Evans whisper that instruction to the officer beside him. When I came upstairs and told Senator Evans that he was not acting in accordance with the tradition of the Senate, that information gathered at Estimates committees should be freely available, he remonstrated with me. But, of course, there was no denying that he had instructed his officer not to get the information for the honourable senator. Senator Evans, who has just walked into the chamber, will know that that was one of his other big gaffs in the Senate.

Honourable senators opposite should not talk to me about open government, about accuracy and about information given by the present Government; they are absolutely non-existent. Senator Cooney said that we ought to be able to get information at Question Time. I agree with him; it would be very nice if we could get it at Question Time. It would indeed be very nice if Ministers would answer our questions. It would have been very nice if, in answer to the question today, Senator Ryan had been able to say that she did not know the author of the document from which she quoted. Indeed, what she said was: `I don't know a thing about him'. In 24 hours, she had not sought any information on the curriculum vitae of the officer who had written the information she gave us. She had decided not to tell the Senate anything about it. Senator Cooney knows as well as I do that there is no use the Opposition trying to get the truth of a matter in Question Time; we so rarely get it that it is not worth it.

There is tremendous concern in the community about interest rates. Many houses are for sale because people are unable to meet their mortgage repayments. The Government has wreaked havoc on the housing industry. There is a need for this inquiry. I support Senator Chaney's motion and ask honourable senators to pass it. Senator Vigor has just entered the chamber. Earlier he asked: `What is the reason for the urgency?' As he was not present when I explained it, I will do so again. If Senator Vigor looks at the motion he will see that the Committee is asked to report by 26 March. That is the reason for the urgency. If it is left for a fortnight until after we come back, the Committee will be unable to report by 26 March.


Senator Vigor —What is the significance of 26 March?


Senator WALTERS —Let me explain the urgency. Senator Vigor says that there is no urgency. If there is no urgency, in every Question Time we have in this place everyone will be wondering whether the information given to us by Ministers is accurate or whether it is just the opinion of one officer of a department who has presented something that is not government policy but just his own opinion. That is what Senator Ryan has told us today. It is not government policy; it is just the opinion of one officer, and it really has nothing to do with her. If the honourable senator wants that situation to continue past 26 March, I would be very surprised. That is the reason for the urgency motion. We do not want that situation to continue. We are not asking for open slather on interest rates. The motion is very clear. It asks for the authorship, the source from which the advice was obtained, and the current status of the document. It asks whether briefing notes given to Ministers are government policy or whether they are just the opinion of one person, as stated by the Minister. If Senator Vigor does not think that that is urgent, if he does not think that our answers in Question Time deserve better than just one person's opinion-we deserve to hear the policy of the Government-I would be most surprised. That is why the motion needs to be passed today-so that by 26 March we can have a proper opinion on what is coming to us in Question Time.