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Wednesday, 24 October 1984
Page: 2353

Senator HARRADINE(5.28) —I move:

That so much of the Standing Orders be suspended as would prevent my moving a motion, arising out of matters contained in the Report of Estimates Committee A, dated October 1984, and in the Hansard record of that Committee's proceedings, relating to misleading information provided by the Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Geoffrey Whitehead, as follows:

That the Senate-

(a) take note of the Report of Estimates Committee A, tabled on 9 October 1984, which indicates that information which Mr Geoffrey Whitehead, Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and senior officers of the Corporation, undertook to provide to the Committee at hearings in both May and September 1984, when finally received, was 'less than adequate';

(b) takes note of the failure of Mr Whitehead to provide to the Senate, in accordance with his undertaking, the guidelines to be used by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in implementing its decision to extend entitlements, including relocation expenses, and privileges appropriate to spouses and families of staff members to homosexual partners;

(c) takes note of the failure of Mr Whitehead to discharge his undertaking to provide the legal basis for his affirmation before the Committee that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's decision on homosexual partners of employees was based on an assumption of legal responsibility; and

(d) condemns Mr Whitehead, as Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for the inadequate and misleading information provided to that Committee, and the Senate, in derogation of his responsibility as the executive officer of a statutory corporation, funded by the Parliament.

I believe we have reached a stage at which this Parliament is being treated with contempt by the ABC. I quote from the report of Estimates Committee A which was tabled--

Senator Peter Rae —The unanimous report.

Senator HARRADINE —I quote from the unanimous report of Estimates Committee A which was tabled in this Parliament on, I think, 9 October:

The Committee's experience in examining the 1984-85 Estimates of the Corporation in September lead it to question whether the Corporation has undergone any change of attitude. Information which the Managing Director, Mr Whitehead, and senior officers undertook to provide as a result of questioning at the 30 May hearing was not sent to the Committee until 9 July, and what was received was, in the Committee's view, less than adequate. Additional information sought at the September hearing, while this time received promptly, was again considered by the Committee to be less than adequate.

At the hearing itself, the Committee considered as less than satisfactory a number of the answers given by Mr Whitehead . . .

Unless there is an improvement there will come a time when this Committee will have to recommend to the Senate that it do more than merely draw the attention of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to its obligations to the Parliament.

I am forced to move for the suspension of Standing Orders now because no opportunity was provided to the Senate to debate the report of Estimates Committee A when it was tabled on 9 October 1984. At that time when I rose to speak I was told by members of the Government that the appropriate time for me to raise this question was during the Committee stage of Appropriation Bill (No. 1). We can now see exactly what has happened. We have seen the guillotine come down and, despite the guarantee given by the Leader of the Government in the Senate (Senator Button) last night that there would be at least a half-hour Committee stage debate, we have seen the gag come down and we have had our hands tied so that we had no opportunity to address ourselves to a matter as important as this and, I remind the Senate, as vital as this. The matter is vital because it goes to the heart of our responsibilities to and the rights of the people of Australia, the taxpayers of Australia, who are funding the ABC to the tune of $ 350m a year. What I have stated in my proposed motion is clearly of vital concern and must be dealt with now. It may be thought by honourable senators to be couched in rather strong terms. It is deliberately so couched because there is no other way in which to describe the attitude adopted by Mr Whitehead before the Committee, his failure to provide key information and his supply of misleading information. I direct your attention, Mr President, and that of members of the Senate--

Senator Robert Ray —Mr President, I take a point of order. Senator Harradine, in developing his argument in favour of the suspension of Standing Orders, must of course go part way to addressing the substance of the matter to prove the importance of suspending Standing Orders. But it seems to me that he is going a second time round and canvassing those issues now rather than when speaking to the motion he will move should this motion be carried. I think that is entirely out of order.

The PRESIDENT —I am listening to Senator Harradine very carefully. I take note of the point that Senator Robert Ray has raised and I remind Senator Harradine that he is at this stage debating his right to seek the suspension of Standing Orders, not the gravamen of the motion that he seeks to move ultimately. I ask him to restrict his remarks to the proposed suspension of Standing Orders.

Senator HARRADINE —I accept that, Mr President. It is difficult, as Senator Robert Ray pointed out, to make a case for the suspension of Standing Orders without referring at least in some way to the motion for which a suspension is required. I will desist from arguing the merits of the motion itself. I believe, in short, that the suspension is required because there has been misleading information. That is accepted, I believe, by all concerned. It is accepted, after I have examined it, particularly in the sense that it relates to the failure of Mr Whitehead to provide the legal basis of his affirmation that there was some legal obligation on the part of the ABC to take the decision that it has and his failure-I will not go any further than this-to provide the guidelines which were requested, as reported on page 167 of Hansard, for the implementation of this decision.

The report of the Committee is a serious report. It indicates that the ABC has failed in its obligations to Parliament. I do not mind whether Mr Whitehead's personal attitude to the Committee was as he expressed it. He said to the Committee:

I have been before other hearings and I find this a rather interesting chapter for my future memoirs.

I do not mind whether he takes that attitude but we in this Senate have a responsibility to protect taxpayers' funds. We have the responsibility to exercise an audit and control function over the Executive and over statutory authorities. If this motion is not able to be put now we are being denied that right and that responsibility which is truly ours as a House of review.