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Friday, 3 April 1987
Page: 1810

Senator PUPLICK(9.18) —There are two things arising from that. The first is: In relation to the Freedom of Information Act matter, I say to the Minister for Education that her answer breaks some very interesting new ground in this regard. As a person who was on the first Senate inquiry dealing with the Freedom of Information Act back in 1978 and as a person who has been sitting on the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, which has been reviewing the operations of the Freedom of Information Act in the last three years, I say that if the Minister is attempting to say to this Parliament today that documents will be made available to a Government commission of inquiry which are not discoverable and which are specifically exempted in a freedom of information inquiry made by not only an honourable senator, but any citizen of Australia, the Minister is either giving this chamber some information which will come as a total bomb- shell or giving information that is a total contradiction of all the advice received by the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee. If that is correct, it will be a total perversion of the Freedom of Information Act.

If the Minister's advice is that the Commission of Inquiry will have access to material already denied under a proper Freedom of Information Act request made by an honourable senator, then I certainly indicate that there will be some very close scrutiny of this matter by the Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs. If necessary, I will press my colleagues for a reopening of the public hearings on that matter and start calling some of these officers to give an explanation of why, in the past, they have given us contradictory advice. If, however, the Minister is saying that some special legal arrangements will be made to provide to commissions of inquiry documents which are not discoverable to members of the Australian Parliament in the pursuit of matters which are before the Parliament by way of legislation, then I indicate to the Minister that a very interesting debate will be opened in due course. We were given assurances in regard to the Freedom of Information Laws Amendment Bill which we debated last year and in which certain new charges were raised, largely to inhibit people from making use of that Act.

I wish to make one other comment relating to the remarks made by Senator Coates when he was attempting to respond to the point put by Senator Watson about the use of the Advance to the Minister for Finance and this attempt to say that the funding for operations such as the Commission of Inquiry to be established under this legislation could not be provided for in more substantive pieces of legislation and had to be financed by some under the table arrangement from the Advance to the Minister for Finance. Senator Watson drew attention to the way in which the initial funding for the planning, research and development of the Australia Card was handled. I think that wise people could have presumed that the Australia Card was unlikely to get through this Parliament, almost from day one. Nevertheless, well in advance of the drawing of the legislation, appropriations were sought to advance the planning and research on the Australia Card. They were put into a piece of legislation which, if my memory serves me correctly, was called the National Health Amendment Bill towards the end-

Senator Sanders —On a point of order: Senator Puplick is entering into a second reading stage speech on the Australia Card. We are discussing the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests (Commission of Inquiry) Bill and the functions of that Commission. I ask the Chair to examine closely the relevance of his contribution to this debate.

Senator Puplick —Also on that point of order: We are discussing clause 8, which relates to the functions of the Commission of Inquiry. Presumably, in order to function, the Commission needs money. Presumably Senator Sanders believes that one functions in government departments by bringing money out of the air.

Senator Sanders —What has that to do with the Australia Card? You have already bored us to tears with the Australia Card. You have spent hours and hours, days and days discussing it and disrupting Parliament.

Senator Puplick —I am making a point about the functioning of the Commission which is being established under clause 8, and I believe the method by which the operation is proposed to be financed is a matter which is appropriate to this debate.

The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN —I believe that Senator Puplick's remarks flow from the answer that was given by the Minister, Senator Sanders. There is no point of order.

Senator PUPLICK —Thank you. I was saying that what happened in that instance was that in the National Health Amendment Bill funds were sought to establish and finance a secretariat within the Department of Health and the Health Insurance Commission to undertake certain planning. When the Bill came to the Senate we said that we would not pass that appropriation until such time as a joint select committee had been established to look at the question of the Australia Card and we then allowed the matter to proceed. The Government, in its dealings with the Australia Card, could have used precisely the same argument as Senator Coates and Senator Ryan have been attempting to use here-namely, that in the absence of a piece of legislation one has to get the money under the heading of the Advance to the Minister for Finance. If that becomes the norm, the Advance to the Minister for Finance will be used to fund all of the things which the Government believes it could not fund by proper legislative appropriation through the Parliament.

That, again, is an equally dangerous precedent to be established because it removes from the Parliament the capacity to scrutinise the way in which government funds are spent, the way in which public funds are spent, in what is a substantive legislative enactment of the Parliament. Under those circumstances, one would see the use of the funds provided in the Advance to the Minister for Finance for all of those things which the Government believes that the Parliament would not otherwise tolerate. As a matter of principle, it is interesting to have the Minister tell us today, in answer to two specific points-one raised by Senator Watson and the other raised by Senator Newman-that whole new areas of approach to the way in which the Government will operate are being cobbled together in a piece of legislation which ought to be specifically designed to address environmental matters. A perversion of the Freedom of Information Act and a perversion of the Advance to the Minister for Finance and its proper role within the financing of Australian Government operations is being carried out in exactly the same way as the violence to the Constitution is being done under the heading of some sort of environmental legislation. If this is allowed to continue as a matter of precedent, the Parliament will be very severely compromised in fulfilling its proper legislative role.