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Wednesday, 26 September 1973
Page: 1586


Mr COOKE (Petrie) - I wish to take the opportunity in this debate on the estimates for the Parliament to raise a point which I raised early in the last session. As a new member in the House I was of the belief - apparently mistaken - that if I came into the chamber and sat here long enough I would be told what the Government was doing. After a few weeks here I discovered that that impression was completely false. Unless one bought practically every national newspaper in this country and scanned it carefully from page to page it was impossible to be reliably informed of what the Government was doing from day to day. As a result, I directed a question on notice to the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) asking him whether he would ensure that policy statements, both by himself and his Ministers, would be made in the House before they were released to the Press so that members of Parliament would be informed immediately and at first hand without having to wait for the next day's newspapers. In answer to the question the Prime Minister said that he would make every endeavour to ensure that that course was adopted. Of course it did not happen. The weekly Press conferences continued.

Another question was placed on notice by the honourable member for Wakefield (Mr Kelly;, who was also concerned about this practice. As I recall, the Prime Minister in answer to that question said 'Meax culpa, meax culpa' and confessed that he had breached the convention by which Parliament becomes informed of what the Government is doing. A couple of days after that - when it was apparent that the Prime Minister, although he had confessed his guilt, was still not moved with sufficient purpose of amendment - I placed another question on notice asking whether he would take steps to remedy the situation. With his usual nimble footwork he completely sidestepped that question. A similar question was asked the other week by the honourable member for Wakefield. The honourable member was lucky enough to attend one of the Prime Minister's Press conferences. Not every member of Parliament is able to go to a Press conference. Although we may generate articles for newspapers we do not always do it in a professional capacity so we cannot go to the Prime Minister's Press conferences. The honourable member for Wakefield asked the Prime Minister why he did not make the statements on Cabinet decisions in the House as he does at his Press conferences. The Prime Minister in reply said that every member of Parliament has the right to ask questions and that if we asked questions similar to those that the Press asked we would be supplied with the same information in reply. Of course, that begs the question.

The Press conference starts off by having a list of Cabinet decisions announced. Members of the .Press are supplied with Press statements by the Prime Minister's Press office and they can peruse them before they go to the Press conference. They know what the Government has done and therefore they are able to frame questions to elicit in more detail information which might be of interest to the general public. It is fatuous for the Prime Minister to say that members of this House have an equal opportunity to ask questions. As has been pointed out by other speakers in this debate private members of Parliament find it extremely difficult to catch the Speaker's eye to ask a question. A private member might ask 2 questions in a session if he is lucky. The other difficulty is that one does not know what the Government has decided to do. If we are to have a strong Westminster type of government in Australia with the concept that the Government is responsible to this House, the House must be informed of what the Government is doing. Ministers make information available to the Press outside this House but they are not prepared to tell the House because they know that if they make a statement in the House it might be subject to adverse comment and debate.


Mr Clyde Cameron (HINDMARSH, SOUTH AUSTRALIA) - You should have been in Parliament last year. You have no idea what it was like.


Mr COOKE - The Minister for Labour (Mr Clyde Cameron) is one of those people who is very prolific at issuing Press statements. Private members of Parliament receive bundles of papers periodically, I do not know whether weekly or monthly. They receive a great bundle of statements that are as stale as last week's bread. The Press has taken the Press statements apart by the time we receive them and on many occasions the Minister's statements have been reversed by Caucus or the trade union movement and they are no longer any indication of the current policy of the Government.


Mr MacKellar - One of the Prime Minister's decisions has been reversed by the Minister for Labour.







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