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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 578


Senator VANSTONE (10.53 a.m.) —I would like to make a contribution to this debate. Sometimes we used to refer to the Leader of the Australian Democrats as Senator Sanctimony, but Senator Spindler might have earned himself that title today.


Senator Spindler —You are happy not to get the explanation.


Senator VANSTONE —Senator Spindler has had his shot. He raised this with me last week and I told him our position, and that remains our position—that we support in principle finding a way to make sure that the Privacy Commissioner is independent. And pardon me, but I was listening and I did not think I heard an acknowledgment of that. Then, on Monday morning, Senator Spindler was looking for me. He finally found me on Monday afternoon. I went in and said, `Yes, what is it?' He actually chased someone and said I was avoiding him. I went flying into his office and said, `Don't you tell someone here I'm avoiding you just because I haven't had the time to put aside everything else I'm doing to come and listen to what words of wisdom come out of your mouth.' At that time the amendments were not available, so I could have saved myself a trip—and I got them later that day.


Senator Spindler —Within 20 minutes, actually, Senator.


Senator VANSTONE —I got them later that day. Senator Spindler makes the argument—and I think it is a good argument—that when legislation comes before this place and we want to act as a proper house of review, we should have the time and the facilities to get proper advice on the legislation. It is just a shame that he does not think the same time and facilities should be available with respect to his own amendments. His lot can meet in a phone box—they can have a party meeting, a shadow ministry and shadow cabinet meeting any day any time. They can just pop together and have it in the front room of one of our individual offices.

  Senator Spindler has been here long enough to know the processes of this place. He knows when my shadow ministry meets and he knows when my party meets. The practice of the Democrats more often than not is to come out with amendments specifically designed to be available after those meetings in order to get people to reject them on the basis that they have not had an opportunity to consult with their party room.

  Quite frankly, we do not have the capacity to call together a party room meeting of up to 90-something people every time a bright idea—which I acknowledge they do occasionally have—enters the heads of the Democrats. Senator Spindler knows the system. Is he incapable of getting his amendments ready in time for us to give them proper consideration? That is the essence of his argument here in relation to the Privacy Commissioner. Senator Spindler wants to be able to give things proper consideration. He wants to have proper advice. I support him on that. I just wish that he understood that everyone else wants the same opportunity with respect to his amendments. That is recorded. I think I will start a book, actually—

  Senator West interjecting


Senator VANSTONE —Yes, I will start a book, but not the sort of book Senator West is obviously familiar with. I have no idea how to draft up such a book. If Senator West knows how to do it, she can keep that knowledge to herself and not disseminate the capacity for people to perform illegal activities. But I will start a book on the delivery of amendments by the Democrats and just see if what I say has happened on this occasion is as common as I think it is. Senator Spindler knows when the parties meet and he knows that when he comes with an amendment after the meetings he is running the risk of a no answer being given—not because people do not support either the principle or the detail of the amendment but because they have not had the opportunity to go to the party room and discuss it.

  Senator Spindler is elected here with the same percentage of votes as I am. I just remind him that his party has been incapable of winning House of Representatives seats.


Senator Spindler —We are dealing with this chamber.


Senator VANSTONE —People in the other chamber are elected with a 50 per cent plus majority.


Senator Spindler —Why don't you deal with the substance of the bill?


Senator VANSTONE —Members of the House of Representatives have a task to represent their people as well. If I come in here with a coalition view, it is my job to put the coalition view. That does not mean my view and it does not mean that a few senators have got together in a huddle out the back. This is not the way taxpayers, who pay for the people in the House of Representatives, expect those people to come to their decisions. We do not want to see a parliamentary situation where members of the House of Representatives—called the lower house with good reason—come to decisions because we say to them, `Look, you will have to decide this because Vanstone et al met in a huddle outside when the Democrats whipped an amendment in at the last minute. So, irrespective of what you think, we are taking away your right to speak on it in the party room. The decision has been made by a few people meeting in a back room because the Democrats whizzed it in after the meeting. Bad luck, guys, you have no capacity to have input into this.' It means that if members wanted to send out newsletters to their electorates they cannot say, `I said this' and `I said that.' We just remove their right to have a say.

  Senator Spindler has been interjecting here and there saying, `We are talking about this place, not the other place' and `Why don't you talk about the substance of the bill?' How to get the substance of a bill changed requires an understanding of the processes. I am just indicating that, whilst Senator Spindler may understand the processes, he has not exhibited that understanding in respect of this one. Goodwill was offered with respect to trying to find something. Goodwill has been offered by the government. I have had discussions with the government and I have said, `Look, you cannot continue to allow the Privacy Commissioner to masquerade as being independent, and then when we want advice we are told, "I am sorry, I have advised government."'

  I have made it quite clear to the government that if that is its view with respect to the advice offered to it by the Privacy Commissioner, a little unit should be set up for him in the Attorney-General's Department because he is no different from any other civil servant working in that department. We cannot get advice from those other civil servants either. In that case the Privacy Commissioner is not acting independently. The government understands that.

  There may be different ways to handle this. I do not know whether Senator Spindler has thought of the different ways. We could have a debate.


Senator Spindler —We put one forward.


Senator VANSTONE —Senator Spindler put one forward. That is a fabulous way to legislate. I am glad Senator Spindler is being paid what he is. Senator Spindler says, `I have got one idea. Let us consider that. Let us consider it in a hurry. Let us not waste our time and have anybody else coming up with alternative suggestions and making sure that we have the best idea. For heaven's sake, let us not bother with all that. Let us not bother with all the expense that we have involved with the civil service where we could get some good advice on this.'

  Senator Spindler is saying, `Let us not listen to the people in the House of Representatives. Let us not listen to what anyone else wants to say. Let us just have a vote on whether or not we will go along with this idea now.' This is not the way to run a country. Thank heavens the Democrats do not have seats in the House of Representatives and have two chances, Buckley's and none, of ever running the place.

  We are in agreement that we should find a way for the parliament to have the benefit of the Privacy Commissioner's advice. We are not satisfied that Senator Spindler's offer is the most appropriate way. We accept the advice given to us—the minister and his staff can indicate whether the government stands behind it—but the government is prepared to look at that and work with us in finding a way to satisfy the requirements.

  Senator Spindler may not know that there is an internal inquiry into the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at the moment. I would be interested in the interrelationship there and whether it might be better to wait to see if there is a bill dealing with all of those problems.

  In seeking to give the impression that everyone else thinks the position is fine and dandy and that only the Democrats have spotted the problem and want to deal with it, Senator Spindler is misrepresenting the situation. A lot of people acknowledge that there is a problem, and I believe there is goodwill in wanting to fix it. People are merely saying, `Let us not do this off the bat now because that is not the right way to go about it.'

  I note Senator Spindler's remarks and certainly hope he was not wanting to politicise the situation of the clerks by saying, `Well, the clerks were able to get on top of this in a short period of time; it is a wonder you lot couldn't as well.' I hope that all Senator Spindler was saying was that he went along to the clerks and asked for an amendment to be drawn up and that they gave him an amendment to cater for his needs.


Senator Spindler —Of course.


Senator VANSTONE —But they did not advise Senator Spindler that this was the best and only way to go, they did not advise that there were no other alternatives and they did not advise that he should proceed now, irrespective of the HREOC inquiry. They did not advise that he should proceed immediately, without listening to other people.


Senator Spindler —That was my decision, senator.


Senator VANSTONE —I thank Senator Spindler. I wanted to make sure that was on the record because the clerks in this place, in my view, have a longstanding reputation of being completely unbiased, as I am informed by the people on my side who were in government going back a long way. Of course, if someone asks for an amendment, the clerks will draft it as quickly as they can. I detected in Senator Spindler's remarks a tinge of an indication that might was right and that the clerks were on his side.


Senator Spindler —No, no, no!


Senator VANSTONE —I understand all he is saying is that they were capable of drafting an amendment as quickly as he wanted it. The clerks are so efficient that they have been able to do that for me any time I have asked, and I have no doubt they are able to do it for anyone else. Senator Spindler's attempt to juxtapose their capacity to do that with the reluctance of the government and the coalition to come to a decision on the merits of the matter—


Senator Spindler —No! I didn't say that.


Senator VANSTONE —You did juxtapose those. Senator Spindler should not argue with me; he put the two together. On the one hand, he said that the clerks could do this in a day or two but that, on the other hand, the opposition and the government do not seem to be able to. Now he agrees, with embarrassment, when the stupidity of his argument has been outlined, that that juxtaposition is quite unfair. There were two separate tasks. He was not asking the clerks to come to a political decision; he was not asking them to consider all the different alternatives at all. He was simply asking them to draft the amendment which would come up for debate.


Senator Spindler —Absolutely.


Senator VANSTONE —I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to put that position on record as well.