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Wednesday, 17 October 1973
Page: 2252

Mr GORTON (Higgins) - Before the House is a matter of public importance raised by the Opposition, and the matter of public importance is the apparent undermining by the Council for Aboriginal Affairs of the principle of ministerial responsibility to the Parliament and the Government's administration of Aboriginal advancement. I would like to say, at the beginning that as far as I am concerned I have, in regarding this as a matter of public importance, no thought of regarding one side of the House as taking one position and another side as taking another position. I believe that it is a matter of public importance to all members if the allegations which have been made are correct. To emphasise that, may I say this: If there is a wrong administrative set-up, as there appears to be, then it is not the fault of the Government that there is a wrong administrative set-up, though it will be the fault of the Government if it is continued because, as the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) pointed out before the sitting was suspended, there was a Council for Aboriginal Affairs at the time when Mr Holt was Prime Minister, although there was no Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and the head of the Council reported directly to Mr Holt. Subsequently, in my time as Prime Minister, there was a Council for Aboriginal Affairs and a chairman of that Council, but then there was a Minister placed with responsibility, and that Minister was the only person who reported to me because he bore the responsibility for what the Council did or recommended. Under the regime of the next Prime Minister the present Department of Aboriginal Affairs was set up and the present arrangements were made, and they are now being continued. So I am not casting aspersions at anybody or any government or any House when I say that this is a matter of such public importance that it ought to be investigated by this Parliament.

The genesis of this approach was a speech made in another place by a senator. It was not a wild speech. It was not made by somebody who had heard at third hand some things which he thought were wrong. It was a carefully documented speech made by a man who was in a position to have first hand knowledge of what was happening in some aspects of the administration of this Department. If there is any truth whatever in the statements made by that senator, then it should attract the attention of this House to see whether we can improve matters for the sake of the public, for the sake of the public purse and for the sake of the Aborigines who may not be benefiting as much from expenditure from the public purse as they would be if we had a Minister whom we could hold fully responsible for everything that was done.

We were informed - it may or may not be true, but the information seemed to be well documented - that a great amount of money has been wasted over the terms of office of more than one government on one particular project for farming turtles in the Torres Strait. We were told also that that project was to continue even though the former Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, the present Minister for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr Bryant), was unhappy with what was being done, even though he doubted the efficacy and the propriety of the way in which the money was being spent. Therefore, having these doubts, the former Minister called in Senator Georges to be chairman of various companies involved in the project. But, even in spite of that, apparently public money was to continue to be spent on this over the objections or the doubts of the former Minister - he can correct me if I am wrong - because there was an outside council to which the head of his Department could go for advice, and if that advice conflicted with what the Minister felt should happen, after he had spoken to his departmental head, that outside man could go directly to the Prime Minister without the Minister even knowing, let alone being there, and give different, advice from that which the Minister would have given.

In these circumstances can anybody think that this Parliament can properly hold the Minister responsible should it turn out that the money being spent on this project was wasted and that money being put into other projects was wasted? I do not think so. Surely any proper administrative arrangement under our system must be that a departmental head gives his advice to one person and one person only, and that is the ministerial head, and the ministerial head makes the decision yea or nay and then stands up an can be blamed for any wrong decision or praised for any right decision, but held responsible. If it is true that this is happening and if we are to continue with a system whereby a head of a department - the Department of Aboriginal Affaire - is responsible apparently not only to the Minister but also to the Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, and if the Minister can be by-passed and the Chairman can have direct access to the Prime Minister, which the Minister himself cannot get, then we are flouting completely the concept of parliamentary responsibility and ministerial responsibility. We are asking for further mistakes to be made, and it will be the fault of each single one of us if we allow this to continue in this way.

I am sure that no one can say that that is not a matter of public importance. If the situation is as it was stated, then it ought to be changed. Let me not hear anyone say: 'But your side brought it in in the first place*. Let us accept that. It still ought to be changed. It is not within the capacity of the Opposition to change it; it is within the capacity of the Government to change it. How would we be if, say, in education there was a body to which the head of the Department of Education was responsible and the chairman of that body could by-pass the Minister and go direct to the Prime Minister and say: 'I do not agree with what the Minister is doing. This is what I think should happen in education'? How long would it be before the whole Government became a complete and utter shambles?

Mr Hunt - Not long.

Mr GORTON - Not long. How unfair it would be to each individual who happened to occupy the post of Minister in that sort of situation. This is the main reason why I believe that this is a matter of public importance, not a matter of political conflict. This is a matter of public importance to which each individual in this House should give his attention, particularly those individuals who can influence it more than we of the Opposition can. Let us be told at least that there has been a reorganisation and that in future the chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs will follow strict instructions that he will speak on official matters only to his Minister, that when his Minister disagrees with him he will not have an opportunity to go elsewhere.

I had some experience in these matters when the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Wentworth) was appointed as MinisterinCharge of Aboriginal Affairs. I very quickly made it clear that I would speak only to the Minister and that if advice came from the Council for Aboriginal Affairs it had to come through the Minister. That practice should be followed again. We are not talking about peanuts in the way of expenditure. This year $180m is to be spent on Aborigines, not all of it for projects of the type to which I have been referring, but a great proportion of it. I have hoped that in time a growing proportion of the expenditure will go to such projects. Undoubtedly some of them will fail but they have a much greater chance of failing if the Department thinks that it does not have to do what the Minister wants it to do. There will be a much greater chance of their failing when the expenditure on Aboriginal affairs appears as a one-line entry in the Estimates without any indication of the projects on which the money is to be spent. That it was a one-line entry when we were in office has nothing to do with whether it should continue in that way. Should the expenditure of that money not be subject to audit by the Auditor-General?

Mr Cross - But it is.

Mr GORTON - I did not think it was. I would be astonished if the sum of $155,000 spent on offices to run the turtle project got past the Auditor-General without some comment which this House could have noted. If it did, I doubt that the Auditor-General is doing his work properly, but I do not believe that those sums are subject to audit. They ought to be spelt out. Any one of us could have looked at the Estimates and could have seen that $155,000 was to be spent on rent. I suppose it would be listed as rent. (Extension off time granted) I thank the House. I will not take more than another two or three minutes. I have raised the points that I believe should be raised here, the first of which is that a Minister must be responsible, without anybody being able to go behind his back and give advice different from that which he would accept. That is essential in any department.

Mr Cross - It is fundamental.

Mr GORTON - That is so. Secondly, when funds are provided for specific projects there ought to be an auditing of those projects and a report to the Parliament on their progress year by year so that we can discuss them. That is so not only for the sake of the public purse but also for the sake of the people who benefit from the expenditure. We are spending $1,000 for every man, woman and child in the Aboriginal population. For their sake we need to see that full benefit, or at least as full a benefit as human fallibility can give, is available for the expenditure. There will be no cavilling from me or, I believe, from anyone on this side of the chamber if this matter is put straight in the way it ought to be. Rather will there be praise, because it is not the fault of the Government that the present situation obtains, but it will be the fault of the Government if it is allowed to continue. I did have much more to say but because of the pressure of time I will conclude.

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