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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2080

Senator PATTERSON (3.13 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Family Services (Senator Crowley), to a question without notice asked by Senator Patterson this day, relating to the parliamentary handbook of the Department of Human Services and Health.

I was somewhat surprised by the Minister for Family Services (Senator Crowley) appearing not to have a working knowledge of the contents of the Department of Health and Human Services parliamentary handbook, which is described in its introduction as `an important day-to-day reference for all staff of the department.'

  The parliamentary handbook covers a wide range of topics, such as ministerial correspondence, briefings, minutes, possible parliamentary questions and other matters relating to the department's responsibility in advising and assisting ministers and the parliamentary secretaries in their parliamentary and ministerial responsibilities. One would imagine that it is not only an invaluable guide for departmental officers but that responsible ministers would be completely familiar with it—especially since hundreds of copies have apparently been printed and, as it states at the beginning of that handbook, `widely distributed to ensure that everyone has ready access to a copy.' Senator Crowley said:

I have absolutely no evidence that there is any substance to that implied claim by Senator Patterson.

From her intonation and her demeanour in answering that question it was as though I was casting aspersions on the government that it would have such a highly partisan and biased statement in this parliamentary handbook. I was appalled to learn that this parliamentary handbook contains such a blatantly partisan entry which effectively denies the opposition equal access to information on taxpayer funded initiatives and grants.

  I was first alerted to this when a parliamentary colleague of mine from the House of Representatives told me that he had rung the state office of the division of aged care inquiring about recipients of the aged care funding round in his electorate. That information had been withheld from him: he was asked whether he was a Labor or Liberal House of Representatives member and he was told to contact the Labor duty senator for his electorate.

  When I questioned departmental officers about this recently in Senate estimates hearings, I was told that this was not the correct response, that he would not have been denied this information, and that although the information is provided to the duty senator it is also available to anyone else who has a direct interest, and further, no departmental officer had a right to withhold the information. This House of Representatives member could not get that information from the department. It was a calculated response on behalf of the department to my answer and it implied that all senators and members had equal access to the information. I find the answer not acceptable.

  The section in the Department of Human Services and Health parliamentary handbook dealing with how funding decisions should be announced expressly instructs departmental officers that:

A standard advice letter to the Federal MP or Duty Senator will need to be prepared by the relevant action area for signature by the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary. The letter will invite the MP or Senator to notify the beneficiary organisation of the grant and to make use of the attached Media Release. Under no circumstances should advice letters to opposition MPs be prepared.

That is not the answer that I was given, which implied that opposition senators and members have equal access. Moreover, the handbook provides that:

Relevant letters to MPs and or Duty Senators should be included with the relevant Media Release attached and with any further details. Duty Senators and Duty MPs are written to when the MP for the electorate to receive funding is not ALP.

So in marginal seats or in seats that are held by the Liberal Party the duty senator or the duty Labor MP is written to. It is clear from the entries that there is an official departmental policy which effectively ensures that coalition MPs and senators are not notified about Commonwealth grants. This occurs because often duty senators who have been informed about the grants are reluctant to provide information about them to coalition senators and members.

  Two of my parliamentary colleagues rang the Department of Human Services and Health for details and they were told to contact their duty senator, because the department could not give them an electoral breakdown. Despite the arguments put forward by my colleagues, they were told that that is what they had to do. One of my colleagues managed to get the information, after some persistence, from the duty senator and the other did not get the information at all. They are not the only examples of this sort of thing happening.

  This is another example of the Labor Party denying the opposition access to important information about taxpayer funded initiatives. It also illustrates yet further politicisation of the Australian Public Service. I would like to state on the record how absolutely disgusted and appalled I am by the entries in this parliamentary handbook.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.