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Thursday, 2 April 1987
Page: 1800

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(11.08) —Mr President, I had thought not to intervene in the adjournment debate because it seemed to me that Senator Gareth Evans was doing his best to put an untidy situation right. But it seems to me that he got it completely messed up at the end and that Senator Tate is equally confused. What we have is a Minister who again has given apparently incorrect information to the Senate and who, understandably, to protect her somewhat fragile reputation sought to make a personal explanation. She did that and apparently corrected the misinformation that she had given the Senate earlier in the debate. That then involved Senator Watson seeking leave to make a statement. It is my understanding that one can do anything in the Senate by leave. If leave had been given, Senator Watson would have been entitled to make the point that he was seeking to make.

I just want to say to the Manager of Government Business in the Senate (Senator Gareth Evans) and to Government senators that it is all very well for Ministers contemptuously to criticise Opposition senators when they raise points and then later to come into this place on the adjournment and correct their errors. The Opposition is not terribly impressed when an attempt to make a statement by leave by one of the Opposition senators involved is then denied. All I can say is that co-operation is a two-way street. If leave is going to be given to Ministers in these circumstances, I think leave should be given to members of the Opposition.

We have had to put up with a good deal from Senator Ryan. She gave us an answer on interest rates recently which she then told us was incorrect. She told us that there was no prospect of a reduction in housing interest rates through, I think, to the middle of 1988. She then, in the most extraordinary series of answers, withdrew from that position. She told us that there was no way that the Government was a party to paying the tertiary fee that she introduced--

Senator Ryan —Be careful. You are on dangerous ground. What I said was absolutely right and you were seeking to mislead.

Senator CHANEY —Here we go. Here is the Minister who presides over an administration which issues explanatory notes to senators as a guidance; she has not read them; she has not authorised them; and she has to crawfish her way out of it--

Senator Ryan —You were seeking to mislead the Senate.

The PRESIDENT —Order! I would ask Senator Ryan to cease interjecting and I would ask Senator Chaney to make his remarks through the Chair, and not in reply to interjections.

Senator CHANEY —Mr President, I thank you for your protection. The point I was making--

Senator Gareth Evans —Is this on the point of order?

The PRESIDENT —Order, Senator Evans. I call Senator Chaney.

Senator CHANEY —The point I was making is that Senator Ryan seems to be blissfully unaware that there seems to have been a substantial move, in the administration of which she is at least partly responsible, to pay this fee on behalf of public servants.

Senator Gareth Evans —Is this a point of order or are you making an adjournment speech?

Senator CHANEY —I am speaking on the adjournment.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Chaney is speaking on the adjournment.

Senator CHANEY —Thank you, Mr President, for your protection yet again. The point is that Senator Ryan has shown herself to be completely ignorant of what is going on in her Department. One must question the situation we have arrived at when documents are provided to the Senate, and answers are provided to the Senate, which Ministers then feel free to come into the Senate and tell us we cannot rely on.

What is the record of Senator Ryan? Senator Ryan's record is that she stood up and told us in the Senate that a certain state of affairs existed with respect to interest rates. She then went out of the Senate; she was spoken to by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke); she came back and recited the Prime Minister's account of what is going to happen to interest rates. But the critical thing for the Senate is that it is quite clear that what she has told us is that we are not entitled to rely on her answers if they are taken from a briefing note which she has read if she subsequently decides that the briefing note-even though it is a briefing on facts-does not represent Government policy. That is a pretty extraordinary proposition, because it really means that the whole basis of Question Time, and the whole basis of believing that it is the ultimate parliamentary sin to mislead the parliamentary chamber, is being undermined by the actions of this Minister. She has, it seems to me, displayed an extraordinary capacity to depart from accepted parliamentary standards and to be quite unblushing and unashamed about it. I think that for a Minister, who has misled the Senate as substantially as Senator Ryan has over recent times, to then have her colleagues preventing Opposition senators from making statements by leave when she herself has been given the leave of the Senate, is pathetic and, on behalf of the Opposition, I would simply like to record my strongest possible objection to the Minister's refusing leave in those circumstances. I think that it is entirely inappropriate and it is typical of the conduct that is, I think, making the Senate a very difficult place to manage.

Senator Coates —He did not ask for leave to make a personal explanation.

Senator CHANEY —The fact of the matter is that, in a situation where the Government has admitted to misleading the chamber and where the Minister herself has admitted to misleading the chamber, not for the first time, I would have thought that sensible give and take would enable the Opposition to have something to say on this matter, rather than leave being refused. I came in here and though that it might be appropriate to move for the suspension of Standing Orders to enable the debate to be resumed now. I think, on the other hand, since it is the fourth sitting day of the third week, since all senators are beginning to look very tired and since we are sitting again at 9 o'clock in the morning we can take up the debate then and that will do.

All that I want to say is that if we get a continuation of the treatment that is being meted out by the Government, then we will respond in kind especially when we get the sort or petulance that was shown in the Parliament today. We put up with Senator Walsh taking 10 minutes to answer the first short question that was asked in this place. The Leader of the Government then sought leave to incorporate an answer at the end of Question Time because it was lengthy and, because he was refused leave, he petulantly refused to give a second reading speech. All I can say is that any suggestion from the Manager of Government Business that it is the Opposition which ought to be extending some co-operation is farcical.

We have put up day after day with rubbish from the Minister for Finance, whose approach to answering questions and to the Opposition is utterly offensive and totally outside the traditions of this House. I put the Government on notice that, if we are to continue to put up with that, it will be repaid in kind. I do not mean that we will try to emulate the boorishness of Senator Walsh. I do not mean that at all because, unfortunately, we do not have that capacity, but we will use the forms of this place to ensure that it is not an easy place for the Government to work in. I say that with regret because it is my view that the Parliament as a legislature has significantly declined over recent years. I suppose that none of us is guiltless in that respect.

Senator Aulich —Exactly.

Senator CHANEY —The senator who said `exactly' has contributed nothing to this place since he arrived and I do not appreciate his contribution now. However, I do want to say that unless there is some return to a reasonable level of manners in this place from Government senators, the place will become unmanageable and unworkable. I suggest that, in particular, the Government should ensure that Senator Walsh adopts rather higher standards in this place in future than in the past and that if he fails to do so, all I can say is that this chamber will be a place where the achievement of government business will be a very slow matter indeed.

Senator Gareth Evans —I rise on a point of order. I acknowledge the force of something, at least, that Senate Chaney said, and that is that this Senate can grant leave to a senator to say anything, whatever might otherwise be the case in the Standing Orders. If Senator Watson, for example, were to be granted leave now, he could canvass an issue that was raised in the Committee stage. The reason why he was denied leave earlier was that it was all too evidently clear that Senator Watson, and I suspect quite a few on his team, were all too anxious not just to correct a particular point but to embark upon a full scale repetition of the debate. If it is the case that Senator Watson simply wants to put something on the record to clarify something which he thinks may have been a misstatement and he seeks leave in order to do so now, that leave will not be denied. I hope that that particular--

Senator Kilgariff —When didn't you do that before?

Senator Gareth Evans —I am explaining that I hope, Senator Kilgariff, that that particular small gesture of conciliation and co-operation-I have no confidence that it will make any difference to some members of the Opposition-will succeed in finally clearing the air at least on this particular matter tonight and enable us, after a reasonable night's sleep, to approach the last day of our third week of sitting with a little more sanity than seems likely at the moment.