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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2253

Senator PETER BAUME(5.47) —I wish to refer to some evidence we received in relation to the Estimates for the Department of Education, specifically estimates relating to the Commonwealth Schools Commission. The matter I wish to raise is one of proper practice by statutory bodies. I understand that it is not unknown for departments of state to take decisions over the years which favour one political party or another in terms of information, but I am not aware that this has been a decision taken by independent statutory bodies until now.

In March this year I asked the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) in this place whether, when grants were made to schools under programs administered by the Commonwealth Schools Commission, it was the Government's policy to provide information about any grant to each member of the House of Representatives within whose electorate the school receiving the grant was located. It was a perfectly simple question. I received an answer in the following terms:

I do not know whether it is a question of Government policy, but it has certainly been my practice since I became Minister for Education to ask the Schools Commission to inform the honourable members of any grants going to schools in their electorates. I am not sure whether that it is done absolutely systematically, but it is certainly my intention that honourable members will have that information available to them. It is in everybody's interests, including those of the local member, to know exactly what the Commonwealth is spending on schools in each electorate.

That was the advice of the Minister for Education to the Senate. Of course, the Minister would do nothing but tell the truth to this chamber and therefore it was with some concern that I made available to the Minister a minute which had been circulated inside the Commonwealth Schools Commission and which had come into my possession--

Senator Walsh —It was what Mr Fraser called a stolen document.

Senator PETER BAUME —Nevertheless, it is the content of the document which should concern Senator Walsh, as a parliamentarian of some years. The document was headed 'Information on Grants to Members of Parliament'. It started:

At the request of the Minister's office, in 1985 changes will be made to the procedures followed in informing Members of Parliament of grants made under Programs administered by the Commission. In 1985 information will be provided to Government Members and Senators only.

It goes on to say how that will be achieved. The first matter that arises is whether the Minister will confirm that the answer she gave in the Senate in March was, in fact, true and that it is her intention, as a matter of her personal policy, that it is good practice that all members should be informed of grants as she told the Senate. I ask the Committee to turn its attention to the Hansard for Estimates Committee D of 18 April 1985 when we examined this matter. It emerged that the Commonwealth Schools Commission acknowledged immediately that this document was genuine and that the internal minute that I have read out was the document that was circulated within the Commission. I am grateful to Commission officers for that acknowledgement. We then established that there is no power of general ministerial direction under the Commonwealth Schools Commission Act. We then learnt from officers, who admitted when pressed, that a request had come from the Minister's office. I refer to the bottom of page 175 of the Hansard. I asked Mr McNamara:

Is that what the request from the Minister's office was?

Mr McNamara, a very excellent officer of the Commission, answered:

That was the request from the Minister's office regarding the automatic provision of information.

So we have established that the Minister's office did issue this minute and that the Minister herself had a different policy which she set out to the Senate. It then emerged, after further questioning of the Commonwealth Schools Commission representatives that the officers in the Commission had themselves taken a decision as members of an independent statutory body-that decision, which was reflected later in this minute-that information on grants would be provided only to Government senators and members. I quote the minute again:

In 1985 information will be provided to Government Members and Senators only.

When I asked Mr McNamara who took this decision he said:

Following the request from the Minister's office, the matter was discussed by what is loosely called 'the executive group of the Commission', which consists of the full time Commissioners and the First Assistant Commissioners, and it was agreed that the procedures would be implemented as requested.

His answer is recorded on page 176 of Hansard. I am grateful that the Minister is here. I ask her: Will she stand by the answer she gave in the Senate earlier this year that not only was it good practice but also that it was her intention that all members of parliament should be informed for the very reasons she set out in this place? Will the Minister also agree, as a first step, that the request from her office-it may not have been from the Minister herself-is not consistent with the advice she gave the Senate in answer to a question?