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Wednesday, 8 June 1994
Page: 1469

Senator COOK (Minister for Industry, Science and Technology and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Science) (11.40 a.m.) —Senator Reid has asked me a specific question. I have asked my advisers to provide specific notes so that I can clearly and in detail answer the points of that question, which I will do in a moment.

  I wish to take this opportunity to say a few words on the debate thus far, not in the interests of prolonging it unnecessarily but in the interests of clarifying the position of the government on where we are up to. Firstly, I confirm that Senator Watson has asked me whether, if he submits some technical and complicated questions and we answer them later, we can seek to have them regarded as part of this debate and, for the purpose of the Acts Interpretation Act, have answers that would be on the record in addressing the meaning of the act. I think that is what he is seeking. I notice his acknowledgment. We will do that.

  Secondly, I acknowledge that Senator Harradine has indicated a number of questions. These are quite detailed questions. I will leave it to him to take up his part of the debate, but for the purposes of the government now, and for this hopefully one-off intervention by the government, I indicate that we have supplied answers. I have no objection at all to having those answers incorporated in the Hansard as a record of this debate. I think those answers should clarify the situation in so far as the questions Senator Harradine has foreshadowed to me are concerned. Thirdly, it has been indicated to the chamber that amendments proposed by the coalition, under the name of Senator Watson, have been withdrawn.

Senator Watson —Not proceeded with.

Senator COOK —I acknowledge that. It is often the case in this chamber that we debate these things and the parliament is seen, external to this chamber, as a fractious and disruptive place in which none of us can ever agree on anything. I acknowledge about Senator Watson's action that, when he put forward his amendments, he did so based on the information he had at the time and on the obligation that information imposed on him as an opposition spokesperson on this bill to seek those amendments. That was done honestly in recognition of the concerns he saw of his constituents.

  Since then, as he has reported to this chamber, he has had access to further information—more specific and better particulars—and, as a consequence of later information, he wishes to change his position. I acknowledge that. Often, consistency is seen as the bugbear of small minds. This is an example of someone who is intellectually rigorous and honest enough to recognise that circumstances change cases and better information can change outcomes.

  It is not always the case that those who answer the calling of politics are as courageous and honest in recognising change when the circumstances require that change to occur. But it has to be said—let me pay the compliment—that that is not true of Senator Watson. He has had the intellectual courage to recognise that there is different information. While that does not mean to say that he supports the government case in all respects—indeed, he is a scathing critic of the government's case in some respects—at the point of outcome, nonetheless, he is prepared to not proceed with his amendments. I acknowledge that as a dignified, graceful and honest effort to reconcile himself to the circumstances. I pay tribute to it.

  Not surprisingly, also, the Australian Democrats, who now feel abandoned because of that action, seek to exercise their political right to make political capital out of it. Senator Bell has done so at some length. I still maintain my position with him that, while he has been consistent about HECS, in these circumstances the appropriate thing would be to have consensus in this chamber and join the majority view of both the opposition and the government. However, he will persist in his course as he sees fit.

  During the remarks of Senator Watson, he posed to me a specific question following discussions with a student leader at, as I recall, Adelaide university. I have carefully taken note and have had careful notes prepared for me as to the precise answer to that, so the record can be immaculate. Let me turn to that question—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Childs)—Order! We have to go to other business, so I suggest to the committee that we report progress.

  Progress reported.