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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2006


The PRESIDENT —by leave—I will respond very briefly. I notice that the motion moved by Senator Hill based itself completely on press reports and not on the paper itself. I am prepared to be judged by honourable senators on a full reading of the paper, and I would enjoy debating it with any senator or group of senators.

  In the paper I have attempted to be objective, analytical and balanced. I am fully aware of the position that I hold, and I am not crass enough to break that position. When people say that I was not being balanced about estimates committees, let me quote from page 9 of my paper where I say:

Estimates committees have played a major role over the last twenty years in improving the quality and volume of information that the bureaucracy provides to parliament. They have also educated the Public Service in the obligations of accountability. The estimates committees have become linked to program evaluation in the public service with portfolios' program performance statements including ever increasing amounts of performance information.

At page 10 I say:

In general the committees have provided a forum in which the findings of the Auditor-General's reports may be followed up and the Audit Office has been keen to cooperate with the committees. In specific instances the committees have also been the vehicle for exposing misuse of funds or other maladministration.

I also go on to talk about the role that the Department of Finance has played and the support that it has given to the estimates committee process. In the article I quote Senator Short, former Senators Bishop and Puplick, and Senator Coates. I quote some of them at length, notwithstanding that some parts of what they say are critical of the process.

  The presiding officers and clerks conference that was held in Darwin last week is a forum in which it is expected that issues will be debated; where we will say challenging things and get challenging responses and discuss issues of common concern for parliaments around Australia and in the region close to us. I would hate to see a situation in which I or the clerk would be hogtied by concerns for what might come out of it in some garbled press report. Taking note of my answer may well be a neat opportunity to raise a number of questions, but this really underlines the very point that I was making: any understanding of the estimates committees and of this parliament has to appreciate that this is a political house and that this is a political chamber within that political house. I suggest that most of the comments that have been raised are for political purposes and not out of any great interest in the way that estimates committees or any other committees are operating.

  Senator Harradine asked me a few direct questions. He asked how I came to know that members of the minor parties, the Democrats, the Greens and the Independents, were involved in the process. I thought that was common knowledge; it was not something that I claim to have got from any insider source. I was also aware of the fact that Mr Dawkins had made a comment to the effect that they would be involved in future; he had made a commitment to that course of action. I make no comments on individual senators. I will not be drawn into doing that now, except that I can say in general terms that I am impressed by Senator Harradine's commitment to committee work in this parliament. I will go no further than that.

  Finally, I repeat what I said in the initial answer to the question that was put to me in question time. It will be a very sad day if presiding officers, or any other senators, feel constrained in their capacities to comment objectively and analytically on parliamentary matters for fear of selective media reports and political redress.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.