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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1620

Senator PANIZZA —I direct my question to the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. Will the minister confirm, as was reported in yesterday's Melbourne Age, that he told the Labor caucus that restrictions on parliamentarians meeting CSIRO scientists did not apply to Labor MPs and senators, because they were not likely to disrupt research, as were politicians from the other parties.

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator COOK —When the cacophony dies down, I will answer the question. It is not my function to canvass the internal workings of the ALP caucus, as it is not the function of members of the opposition to canvass the internal workings of their forums. Those opposite should not expect me to answer questions about what one member of my party said to another member of my party. I do not expect them to canvass what one member of their party said to another member of their party.

  As I have indicated all along, there has been abuse of the rights of access to the CSIRO. The reputations of CSIRO's scientists and their professional opinions have been held up to ridicule under parliamentary privilege in this chamber by people without the professional qualifications to make the judgments to gainsay the opinions of those scientists. The names of officers of the CSIRO have been put on the public record when they were simply passing on information in an appropriate way, as if their standing is able to be attacked and their reputations damaged. For those reasons, the normal conventions of the Westminster system and access to the Public Service or public authorities such as the CSIRO need to be applied, and that is what has happened. It has applied across the board.

  I have a transcript of an interview with the person who at that time was the shadow Treasurer, Mr Alexander Downer, on the PM program of Wednesday, 18 May 1994. On this point, it may be very instructive if I read into the Hansard what Mr Alexander Downer said on a subject like this:

Well, I have periodic meetings with the State Premiers, the State Liberal Premiers anyway—not with Mr Goss—

Senator Alston —Mr President, I rise on a point of order.

Senator COOK — and I don't issue transcripts of those meetings, and I'm not getting into the game of denying—

Senator Alston —Oi! Oi! Oi!

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Alston has a point of order. Please be seated, Senator Cook. Senator Alston, make your point of order.

Senator Alston —The question was a very simple one: did he or did he not tell caucus? If the minister wants to tell us he has some special deal going with caucus, let us hear about it. This cannot possibly have anything to do with what Mr Downer and Mr Gross might have said on other occasions.

Senator Robert Ray —Mr President, on the point of order: Senator Alston has asked Senator Cook to disclose what happened behind the closed doors of caucus. What Senator Cook was going on to do, and I admit that I drew this to his attention, was to point out that Mr Downer endorses that sort of activity—not to disclose. Therefore it is a relevant point as to the credibility of those opposite when they expect a different standard of behaviour from Senator Cook to Mr Downer.

The PRESIDENT —Order! There is no point of order.

Senator COOK —Thank you, Mr President; I admit that I did not hear your ruling a moment ago because of the background ambient noise in the chamber and particularly the shouting of Senator Alston, which I think was unseemly and unbecoming. Let me continue with the quotation:

—not with Mr Goss. . . I don't issue transcripts of those meetings, and I'm not getting into the game of denying or confirming anything that we discussed on any topic whatsoever.

That is an affirmation by the now Leader of the Opposition that intra-party discussions remain intra-party—the same principle I observe. I say again that any rulings I have given about access by politicians apply across the board, and I have always made that clear.

Senator PANIZZA —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Because the minister has gone round and not given a reply and because he has not put a libel suit on the Age, I presume that he pleads guilty to having given that directive. I therefore ask: does his directive forcing CSIRO to act in such a blatantly partisan way simply serve to undermine the integrity and professionalism of that organisation and the scientists and officers who work in it?

Senator COOK —The CSIRO is in charge of its own affairs and has indicated to its own staff how they should conduct themselves. I for my part as Minister for Industry, Science and Technology have to supervise the contact of parliamentarians with the bureaucracy, both departmentally and in terms of this agency.

  Senator Panizza interjecting—

Senator COOK —You should conduct yourself properly, Senator. All governments one day will be in opposition, so the rules and conventions of the Westminster system should apply and they have been applied by me. The only reason why the senator opposite is complaining is that he wants a system of open abuse to apply. He wants to be able in this place to denigrate the reputation of scientists if their professional opinion does not conform with his subjective judgments and preoccupations with parochial and narrow-minded self-interest. If he wants access to the bureaucracy, there is a proper way of conducting that access and he will observe it. (Time expired)

Senator Panizza —I rise on a point of order, Mr President. I take offence at being told that I have a narrow self-interest. I believe the minister should withdraw that comment.

The PRESIDENT —Order! You might well take offence, but if you wish to talk about it, you can make a personal explanation later.