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Tuesday, 21 May 1985
Page: 2257

Senator PUPLICK(6.06) —I would like to mention a number of matters arising from this Estimates Committee report. I do not believe it is satisfactory for the Minister for Education, Senator Ryan, to attempt to say that this is a matter of concern expressed by Opposition senators only. I refer her to the actual report of Estimates Committee D which states, in part:

The Committee is concerned that statutory bodies could be seen to be compromising their independence by taking party political judgments into account in decision making.

The Committee noted that this matter had revealed that considerable difficulties can arise for statutory bodies if their independent exercise of judgment is compromised by such decision making, and it is particularly concerned that such actions could lead to further encroachments by statutory bodies into areas where such decisions should more appropriately rest with Ministers or the Parliament.

If Senator Ryan wants to be accurate on this matter let her acknowledge that the concern about the behaviour of the Commonwealth Schools Commission was not simply expressed by Opposition senators but was expressed in the formal report given to the Senate by Estimates Committee D with a government majority-three government senators, and a Chairman's casting vote-agreeing that that is the sort of report that the Committee should put into the Senate. Three government senators, three of her own supporters, agreed to report to the Senate their concern about the behaviour of the Schools Commission.

Senator Zakharov —What you read did not say the 'Schools Commission'.

Senator PUPLICK —The section of the report is headed 'The Commonwealth Schools Commission'. Senator Zakharov is a member of this Committee. It stated:

During the examination of the Additional Estimates for the Commonwealth Schools Commission, the Committee was informed that a considered decision had been taken by senior Commission officers . . .

Do I have to go on, Senator? The point surely is made. That is about as helpful as Senator Aulich trying to buy into the debate and asking us whether it was standard practice in the previous Government for Opposition members to be informed in advance and being told that yes, it was.

Senator Grimes —It was not. That was an inaccurate answer. I can guarantee that.

Senator PUPLICK —An inaccurate answer from Mr McNamara?

Senator Grimes —There is no question about that.

Senator PUPLICK —I am interested that Senator Ryan and Senator Baume appear to be in agreement that Mr McNamara is an excellent officer who undoubtedly would not give inaccurate answers.

Senator Grimes —He can be wrong, like you.

Senator PUPLICK —Senator Grimes does not apparently agree with that. The point I make, therefore, is simply that although the matter was raised by Opposition senators initially, it was considered sufficiently serious for the Committee, as a committee, to report to the Senate its concern about the behaviour of the Schools Commission. I accept the Minister's assurance that that matter is now in hand and that the system will be different. I have no problem-in terms of the operation of Government-in understanding that if the Government, through the Minister, wishes to make an announcement first it is a perfectly fair thing for the Government to claim the credit for the funds which have been expended. I think it is entirely a different matter as far as the Commission itself is concerned. I hope the Commission's procedures are streamlined. I wrote to the Commission on 19 April asking for information to be made available to me. I did so on the invitation extended to me by Mr McNamara, which is recorded at page 177 of Estimates Committee D Hansard of 18 April. I wrote to the Schools Commission the next day, April 19, making the request. I appreciate that things move fairly slowly but more than a month has passed and no response to my letter has been received. Undoubtedly the Commission will have the matter in hand in due course.

I now proceed to a couple of other matters which were raised in the Estimates Committee report to the Senate. Senator Reynolds has already moved a motion, which the Senate has passed, referring to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations the way in which the appeal and legal judgments on the determination of the Australian status or otherwise of the film The Return of Captain Invincible were handled. This raises a considerable problem. We have been informed in written answers to requests by Estimates Committee D that a very expensive piece of litigation was entered into which resulted not only in the costs of the litigation but which may very well involve considerable cost being awarded against the Government for an appeal which was taken. The matter was initially before Mr Justice McGregor sitting as a single judge of the Federal Court. The Government lost the case. Mr Justice McGregor's judgment is lengthy, detailed and clear. The Government then decided to appeal against the judgment. It became clear in evidence given to the Committee that this appeal was undertaken despite the fact that it was thought unlikely that the appeal would succeed. The response to questions which I put, which appear on page 169 of the written material supplied to Estimates Committee D, includes the following statements:

It is emphasised however that no-one gave legal advice that the appeal was likely to succeed . . . it was never expected that the decision or Mr Justice McGregor, insofar as it rested on non-observance of natural justice, would be overturned.

In terms of the expenditure of public money there is a very considerable burden upon the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment to explain why it felt that the only way in which it could clarify certain matters was to take an appeal, in the full knowledge or belief that it would fail. That is what it did. It lost a case before a single judge. It had advice-this was in its written response to Estimates Committee D-that it expected the appeal to fail, nevertheless it incurred substantial costs, both its own costs and the costs it had to pay for other parties. It proceeded on the expectation that it would lose the appeal. I think that is a scandalous waste of public money. I do not intend to go into matters touching the National Aboriginal Conference and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs because as you know, Mr Chairman, they have been referred to a further meeting of Estimates Committee D, which motion was agreed upon when Senator Reynolds brought in the report of Estimates Committee D.

I refer finally to one criticism it has made of the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism on the question of inward duty free shopping at Australia's international airports. A considerable amount of toing and froing has taken place on this matter. The Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, in its annual report for last year, indicated that it had prepared a report and sent it to the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism (Mr John Brown). I then sought from the Minister, under the Freedom of Information legislation, a copy of that report. The Minister wrote back to me and said that there had not been a report. He said that some information was provided but it was not really a report. I raised that matter in the Estimates Committee and I asked the officers of the Department whether a report had been submitted to the Government. An officer of the Department said:

The report has been furnished to the Government.

I asked:

There is a report being furnished to the Government?

The officer said:

No, it has been.

When we come to the material supplied to Estimates Committee D we find that it was not really a report. Estimates Committee D, in its report to the Senate, criticised the Department for indicating, in a form that was likely to mislead both the readers of its annual report and senators participating in the Estimates Committee, the status of the documentation dealing with this matter that was given to the Minister.

The Minister for Education will recall that there was a great deal of uncertainty over whether inward duty free shopping would be introduced prior to 1 July. The Department indicated that legislation was pending. It was then indicated that there might have been some shelving of the legislation pending the Industries Assistance Commission report on passenger concessions. An announcement was made on, I think, 1 or 2 May that Cabinet had reversed its position and legislation would be coming into Parliament so that inward duty free shopping would be operational by 1 July this year, which was the date promised in the original announcement made by various Ministers. I saw a report last weekend or the weekend before in, I think, Business Review Weekly stating that although inward duty free shopping was going ahead it would not be introduced until the Budget session and that there had been problems in terms of the amount of material put before the Industries Assistance Commission and criticism from the Australian Small Business Association Ltd. In fact, we have a series of indications that legislation for inward duty free shopping will or will not be introduced in the course of this session or in Budget session. I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate to me which of those two suppositions is correct.