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Wednesday, 13 May 1987
Page: 3106

Mr HOLLIS(4.15) —Continuing what I was saying earlier-(Quorum formed) I thank the honourable member for Wakefield (Mr Andrew) for calling the quorum and giving me such an attentive audience. In speaking to Supply Bill (No. 1) 1987-88, I would like to devote some of my comments to the allocations to the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Like most honourable members, I have many veterans in my electorate and I always listen very carefully to their representations.

A few months ago the honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp) stirred up the sub-branches of the Returned Services League in my electorate by saying that this Government was going to abolish the Department of Veterans' Affairs. He engaged in some political gimmickry by sending telegrams to the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), demanding that the Department of Veterans' Affairs not be abolished. He claimed to be receiving 80 letters a day on the issue. As well, he called on me to state where I stood on the issue. I must say that I also received dozens of individual letters and letters from each of the RSL sub-branches. I wrote back to each of them, quoting a reply from the Minister for Veterans' Affairs (Senator Gietzelt) which stated:

The Prime Minister has given a firm assurance, not only to me personally-

that, is the Minister-

but also to the Parliamentary Labor Party that the Department of Veterans' Affairs will be retained.

I suggested to each letter writer that he also write to Liberal members seeking an assurance on the future of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Mr Lee —How many did?

Mr HOLLIS —I do not know how many did; I am coming to that. But what have we seen in the latest reshuffle? There is no separate shadow Minister for Veterans' Affairs in the Liberal Party of Australia. Senator Austin Lewis has had that tacked on to his responsibility for local government and Territories. Even the National Party of Australia has given the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Tim Fischer) the portfolio of veterans' affairs as well as immigration and ethnic affairs and Aboriginal affairs. There is no doubt that in the unlikely event of the Liberals ever gaining office-we know that they will not-they would amalgamate the Department of Veterans' Affairs with the Department of Social Security. Such a change would drastically affect the benefits and rights of veterans.

Of course, what the conservatives are planning to do is a result of the pressures being exerted on them by the forces of darkness, that is, the forces of the New Right in this country which in various ways have published documents and made statements that there ought to be drastic reductions in the number of departments and in the role of the Public Service. Some have gone so far as to suggest the abolition of the Department of Veterans' Affairs. Late last year a deputation from the RSL met with the honourable member for Bennelong who, according to the national newsletter of the RSL, refused to give a commitment that the Department of Veterans' Affairs would be retained.

When there is disarray in the ranks of the conservative parties, documents seem to have the capacity to fall off the back of trucks with greater rapidity than in normal times. A document published in the Australian Financial Review suggested that the Department of Veterans' Affairs would be amalgamated with the Department of Social Security and would operate under one Minister. These policies coming from the conservative side of politics create a great deal of confusion and concern in the ranks of veterans. I might add that the honourable member for Gilmore has been very silent on the issue lately. Why is it that he is now so silent on the issue of the future of the Department of Veterans' Affairs? He was not so silent a few months ago. I repeat that the Hawke Labor Government-we can see it in the allocation for the Department in this legislation-will retain a separate Department of Veterans' Affairs while ever there is a need for it.

I now turn to the allocation for the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment. One of the real difficulties in this House is the dilemma faced by young, ambitious members who are keen to get publicity. Such an example is the honourable member for Mayo (Mr Downer), who is now the shadow spokesperson for arts, heritage and environment. No one in this chamber has been more critical over the past two years of grants to the arts, especially community arts, than the honourable member for Mayo. He must now be burning the midnight oil reading his speeches. Time and again he made speeches just to get a bit of cheap publicity. Let me assure the honourable member that he is not the only one going through all the speeches he made in this chamber on the arts. Many honourable members on this side and many people in the arts community are going through his speeches and will be repeating them to him.

Mr Downer —I'm flattered.

Mr HOLLIS —The honourable member who claims that he is flattered at this attention might answer one question: What is the Opposition's approach to arm's length funding? Is it in agreement with that or not? Many people in the community want to know the Opposition's approach to that. Of course, the famous Waste Watch Committee, of which he was a member, wanted to direct attention away from the Liberals' lack of policies; just as they have no taxation policy, they have no arts policy. Perhaps if they came up with a policy and released it for public debate we would know where they stood on these issues.

I now turn to some of the criticisms made by the famous Waste Watch Committee. Professor Scott, the Chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, said that perhaps a project entitled `Uninformed criticism of ARGS grants 1987-88' would be a high priority for future funding so that these criticisms can be exposed for the shallow understanding of the world of research that they are. How can one judge the merits of a project by its title alone? Does one select a book to read purely by its title? If so, one is in for a shock. As You Like It would, no doubt, be a soft pornographic play; Sleeper Awake, possibly a book on religious meditations; and Paradise Lost, the sequel to a recent John Mortimer television series. Ludicrous it may be, but it appears to be the basis on which one per cent of the grants was labelled wasteful. Was any attempt made to discover the real nature of the despised projects? I suspect that the only reason that some of the scientific projects were not also categorised as wasteful was that the Waste Watch Committee could not understand the titles. A recent critical editorial stated:

Australia's standing depends on the quality of our academic work, not just the subjects under research.

How true that is. Every one of these despised projects has been assessed by experts in the field, often from overseas. The competition for grants is immense. A high proportion of applicants fail and the quality of the work of the successful is internationally recognised. The inference may be that such projects should be funded by research workers at their own expense. This is, alas, impracticable. Therefore, it must be presumed that the projects should not be attempted. Is Australia then to opt out of all research judged as irrelevant by groups such as the Waste Watch Committee? It is to be wondered whether Australia gets more credit from having the recognised world expert on the Greek vases of southern Italy quite literally feted wherever he goes and awarded dozens of prizes for his work, or from the disappointing performances of an athlete supported by tens of thousands of dollars of government subsidies.

Mr Downer —You hate sportsmen, don't you?

Mr HOLLIS —As was written, a research project must be judged by its quality, by a detailed examination of its merits and expert assessment, not by a political snap judgment based on its title alone. The former is what the Australian research grants scheme attempts to do. It would be tragic for the future position of Australia as a country of genuine influence in the world if this were the only type of research sponsored by government. The Waste Watch Committee's denunciation of research and, by implication, teaching, in classical studies would particularly upset Australians of Greek or Italian origin. Those groups in our community can rightly take a pride in the contributions of their forebears to the world's cultural heritage, and they strongly support the opportunities within our education system for the study of Greek and Roman civilisations.

In conclusion: The honourable member for Mayo interjected that I must be opposed to sport. That is absolute rubbish. All we are asking for is a fair allocation of the resources that are available. If people, such as members of the Waste Watch Committee, are to criticise projects, they should at least get their facts right. They should do a little bit of research before they criticise research projects. They would benefit from doing so. There may well be room for criticism, but at least it would be justified.