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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2106

Senator COONEY (5.02 p.m.) —Senator Calvert has made a good effort at producing a case in a very difficult area in one sense but an easy area in another sense. It is a difficult area in the sense that it is hard to come up with any new ideas or new concepts that are aimed at taking a debate such as this by the throat and making something of it. It is easy to come up with sums of money which may or may not mean something depending on the context in which they are put.

  Senator Calvert in his remarks instanced the Lodge and mentioned items such as dining room tables, billiard tables, plants and so on. He then claims that such expenditure is extravagant without putting the matter into context. The Lodge is a place that is of great significance to the way Australia conducts its business and its government. There could be examples of extravagance in the Lodge, but expenditure cannot be made to seem extravagant by an honourable senator simply saying that such and such a sum has been spent and then leaving the matter there. He or she has to explain why such expenditure is extravagant.

  Senator Calvert obviously has been going around getting little snippets of information. He is hoping to get on to an issue that will run if broadcast and something that people can pick up and say `Oh, that sounds bad' and off the issue goes. But in my view such an approach does not get down to getting something done with what is alleged to be wrong. It is difficult to work out what is wrong. Clearly somebody who steals $1.76 million has done something wrong, and that is a matter to which Senator Calvert drew attention and of course it should be remarked upon.

  However, in other areas Senator Calvert has experienced difficulty in proving his case. Let us take, for example, the question of government credit cards. We see in the Auditor-General's report No. 41:

The extent of misuse of the Australian government credit card, identified during the audit work supporting Audit Report No. 21, was extremely low when compared with the total value and number of transactions. However, as noted in that report, "this must be qualified because inadequate control systems and ineffective reporting mean the full extent of misuse is not known".

Any misuse is bad, but on the other hand against that background it is another matter to claim that there is a crisis.

  One example of where things can go quite wrong is contained in the example given in the report by John Taylor, the Auditor-General, relating to the Department of Defence. Report No. 41, which was tabled yesterday on purchases by use of the AGCC, mentioned a case study concerning the purchase of sunglasses and wristwatches. Those items were required for a United Nations sponsored deployment of Australian troops in the Western Sahara giving communication support for a forthcoming referendum. The item of wristwatches just left in the air, with no further explanation, might sound a little unusual, but when one examines the context in which those wristwatches were purchased one accepts the item more readily. Indeed, one would have to praise the fact that they were supplied in certain circumstances.

  We see from the report that the items were purchased as previous experience had shown there was a need to provide personnel with quality accessories because of the harsh conditions. When the detachment returned from duty in the Western Sahara, the items were withdrawn from issue and are now located in an army supply company store at Randwick. That is an example of what I mean by describing the full circumstances in which particular events take place. Simply to throw such items in the air, whether they be from the Lodge, the army or any other department, does not take the matter any further until the circumstances are set out.

  The Australian National Audit Office had written to Defence seeking comment on the matters raised in the draft report, including the purchase of sunglasses and wristwatches. In relation to the subject purchases, Defence responded essentially along the lines that I have outlined. Other documents were also made available to ANAO staff. Despite all this, the Auditor-General has, for reasons unknown, decided to report the purchases in an extremely mischievous manner. Defence has endeavoured to assist the Auditor-General throughout the investigations where particular matters have been brought to the attention of the department. It is of great concern to Defence when, having been asked to comment on matters raised, the advice submitted was ignored.

  I set out these matters because they illustrate what is required when this chamber debates matters of this sort. It is easy to get up in this place and to quote figures and mention types of goods and then leave the whole matter in the air. It is easy to give the impression that something bad has been going on. But when one takes such examples and puts them in context, the story takes on a very different meaning. I repeat that it is unfortunate that particular items are quoted in debate and are taken quite out of context. Somebody may say that so and so was wearing, for example, a jewelled watch—

Senator Calvert —I didn't mention watches.

Senator COONEY —Perhaps not, but I am saying that it is easy to make the situation appear to be particularly bad. However, when one looks at the circumstances in which the wristwatches were used, I know that Senator Calvert, being the decent man he is, would agree that all is well.

Senator Panizza —Just look at page 13, case study No. 3.

Senator COONEY —I hear what Senator Panizza says, but I hope he will let me continue with my argument. Some results of investigations of transactions were believed by the ANAO to warrant further scrutiny. One sees an example given in the report relating to the Australian Taxation Office. Then there is the RSL Citizens Club at Nambour. One thinks `What have they done there?' Then there is an item relating to food and venue for a tax agents seminar. Another item relates to a florist regarding the purchase of a wreath for an ANZAC ceremony. Then there is an item relating to a jewellers in Townsville, which is up in Senator O'Chee's territory. That sounds a juicy item, but in fact they were looking for two batteries for an electronic diary—and so it goes on.

  The matter of public importance that is being debated here is:

Waste and extravagance in Labor administration resulting in substantial loss to the Australian taxpayer.

The Department of Administrative Services in 1992-93 is almost unrecognisable when compared with the 1987 fledgling department. Whilst the department has gone through some difficult adjustments to its staffing profile, I have no doubt that DAS's pursuit of a commercialisation model has made it a more effective business operation. Its business planning processes and financial information systems have been developed to provide an effective management control and accountability framework. The department's goals are clear and unambiguous, and its progress towards them is tracked regularly by DAS and ministers.

Senator Panizza —Page 13 of the report—

Senator COONEY —Those opposite can dig things out of page 13 if they want to. When the administration of this government is looked at in the overall context it has much to be proud of. I would be interested to hear what Senator Campbell and Senator Ferguson have to say—not in terms of throwing confetti in the air and hoping that the colours might blind us, but in analysing how significant issues really mean something in the context of what we are talking about today.