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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 185

Senator SCHACHT (Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction) (11.16 a.m.) —I think Senator Harradine and Senator Bourne actually gave more good reasons why this amendment should not be proceeded with than they did for why it should. The particular point is that, in estimates committees, ministers have the ultimate responsibility for answering questions. If a minister at an estimates committee chooses to take every question personally, that is fine.

Senator Hill —I don't know that that is a correct interpretation of it. It has always been yours, but it is wrong.

Senator SCHACHT —I have to say that it is not mine personally; it is the government's view. As I understand it, it has always been the view of those opposite when they have been in government that the minister takes the question. If he chooses to make arrangements to have the officers present to answer on his behalf or provide information, that is fine, but if the minister chooses to say, `No, I'll take that question. I'll answer it,' that is the responsibility of the minister, and so be it. That is the ultimate of the estimates committee process.

Senator Teague —Ultimately, you are right but only ultimately. In practice, its purpose is to call persons and documents.

Senator SCHACHT —In relation to Senator Hill's interjection that the view I have expressed on behalf of the government is not correct, I have to say that I believe his view involves a much wider debate about the functioning of estimates committees and their operation than has ever been envisaged by the government. As I understand it, going way back to when the estimates committees were first established, it was clear that, firstly, the government would have a majority on estimates committees and, secondly, ministers were there to answer the questions. That is the way it should be. If we take Senator Hill's view that officers can answer questions of their own volition and they get it wrong, who is responsible? In the end, the responsibility has to stop somewhere. As Harry Truman said, the buck stops ultimately with the minister for good, better or indifferent reasons.

Senator Hill —The buck has not stopped there too often with this government.

Senator SCHACHT —In the end the ministers may choose to use a lot of excuses. When those opposite were in government, their ministers did that. I do not think my ministers in my government have ever done that; we are dead straight and accurate with our responses. The procedure has always been accepted that the minister is ultimately responsible and has the right to say to the other officers, `No, I will answer the question. That is the answer. Full stop.'

Senator Harradine —You've already moved in (6) that the estimates committees can ask officers. That is your motion.

Senator SCHACHT —Anyway, that is the position and I do not think the government wishes to move from it. I have to say that, in the long run, I do not think the opposition would want to move from it either. Opposition senators would rather get the scalp of a minister than that of a public servant, I suspect, while they are in opposition; in government, they would believe the world had changed 180 degrees. In that sense, the government believes that the amendment is redundant.

  The other point that Senator Harradine makes—being a good old trade union official from way back he knows how to count—is that the government under the structure of these committees has the majority. So, ultimately, government members will have to accede to the request to call officers, documents and so on. There will be a debate about that in relation to ministerial responsibility. In my brief period in estimates committees—and there have been some highlights there, as Senator Ferguson would know—

Senator Hill —He gave you a hiding; you were lucky to survive.

Senator SCHACHT —He did not give me a hiding. Being thrashed by those opposite is like being hit by a piece of damp lettuce. In fact, damp lettuce would make a bigger impression. In my brief experience, all requests for information taken on notice overwhelmingly are complied with; and if they are not complied with there is usually a debate back in here about the documents and information. So, in effect, the procedures and processes are already operating in this way. That is why the government opposes the amendment. We understand that the opposition will support it. I am told by Senator Ray that we should not call a division, but we had to put our view on the record.

  Amendment agreed to.