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Thursday, 26 February 1987
Page: 734


Senator VIGOR(6.03) —At this stage it is worthwhile, as the Australian Democrats will be in a critical situation in the vote on this motion, making some comment on the debate which we have heard today. I believe, from what I have heard today, that the Senate does have a right to know what represents a Government view and what does not. If a Minister's answers cannot be taken at face value, when do we know that a Government view is being put forward and when do we not know? If the Government is claiming that an error has been made, it has a duty to explain why up to date information was not available to the Minister, to put forward relevant factual information about how that information has been superseded, and to let the Parliament know as soon as possible that that information has been superseded. This is at the heart of ministerial responsibility within the Westminster system.

The Opposition has put that view very strongly and I support it thoroughly. However, I do not believe that there is any reason whatsoever for the urgency motion which Senator Chaney has put forward. That motion is weak. I make no apology at all to this Senate for putting that view. The Finance and Government Operations Committee, on which I am the Australian Democrats' representative, would be able to look at some real and substantial reference of how we could solve this problem in the long term. Senator Chaney's motion is quite unsatisfactory in that it is a backward looking motion which wants the Committee to inquire into and report on the authorship of the document. I am quite convinced by the Government's statement, which has been repeated many times, that the author is Dr R. G. Hawkins, whose curriculum vitae has been extolled to us by the Opposition and whose juniority has been expressed to us trenchantly by Senator Walsh. We have learnt enough about that and I do not believe that there is anything to be gained from that. The sources from which the advice was obtained are fairly obvious from the document itself. If we are to look at this information in an effective way, we need to look into the alternative information which might have been available to the Minister and which might have been better information, had it been conveyed, on what the Government's position was. If the Committee is to do its job properly it should have much broader terms of reference in that sense.

Secondly, the current status of the document is quite obvious. It is a Question Time briefing note and its status is that the Government is basically denying that it relates to its policy. It brings into question why it was presented to us in this Senate as a ministerial answer. I believe that is something that we have a right to know.

The Opposition has made a lot of noise about the present high interest rates, particularly high housing loan rates, and wishes the problem to be examined urgently by a Senate or parliamentary committee. This reference does not do that. I believe that it might be useful if a multipartisan agreement on urgent action in this area were able to be drawn up. However, no such attempt was made before this urgency motion was brought up, as far as I know. I share the concerns of the Opposition on this matter. High interest rates are crippling Australian industry, bankrupting Australian farmers and eroding the incomes of wage earners and home buyers to the extent that recent home buyers are poverty stricken and young people can no longer afford to buy their own homes.

Overall, the whole economy is afflicted by a drop in demand as take-home pay slumps. These are all real problems, but Senator Chaney's motion to refer to a committee a minor slip, as I see it, by Senator Ryan which may have revealed a whole can of worms does not go to the substantial point which this Senate should spend its time on. Yesterday the Australian Democrats sought leave to refer the urgent problem of media ownership and control to a Senate committee. The Australian Democrats believe that media ownership is an even more urgent problem that this. The current domination of the print media ownership by one major foreign owner, Mr Murdoch, whose borrowings exceed $5 billion, is of enormous concern to the economy because of the vested interest in inflation, high growth and high interest rates in Australia as a consequence of that high borrowing. The Senate should be considering these things.

In place of this matter, the Opposition had intended to debate General Business Order of the Day No. 366 in the name of Senator Messner, which deals with some of these economic problems. The Democrats had prepared an amendment to that motion proposing solutions to the problems. I believe that had more urgency than the type of weak motion which Senator Chaney wanted to suspend the operations of the Senate to consider. That is why the Democrats are not in favour of allowing this type of thing to come in, on the hop, on the spur of the moment, without proper consultation with the parties. It is important, if possible, to have tripartite approaches to solving these problems. If we can get that type of approach the Opposition will get its references to committees, and the committees will be proud to follow them through. As a member of this Committee I feel that this particular reference would be somewhat of a waste of time and would need to be redrafted. We will be looking at this matter at our next party meeting.

A tripartite approach is needed to get to the bottom of this problem, to enable the Senate to work better than it has this week and to allow real business that will help Australians to come forward. Then we will achieve something from the type of debate that is going on now. It is vital that Australians preserve an open parliamentary system and governments provide this Parliament with information that can be relied upon. My trust in the information we are given in Question Time has been severely shaken by this debate and I will be raising this matter in my party room for consideration. I hope that we can come up with a constructive solution so that this Parliament can work effectively.