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Monday, 24 November 2003
Page: 17626


Senator HARRADINE (11:09 PM) —Earlier this month the Department of Education, Science and Training attempted to cover up its failure to honour a firm commitment given to me and to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee in June last year. At that meeting, senior public servant Dr Peter Shergold gave an unequivocal commitment that the Major National Research Facility buildings would not be used to harvest embryonic stem cells from human embryos. Dr Shergold declared:

I am able to confirm that harvesting activity will not take place in either facility.

This unequivocal declaration to the committee was made after his staff had returned with a `definitive answer'. My complaint is that just over 12 months after the commitment was made I received a letter in June from the Minister for Science telling me that in fact the government had decided to do exactly the opposite of what it had told the committee.

During this month's estimates committee hearings I finally had the chance to talk directly to the public servants from the education department who were involved in giving advice to the minister. In fact, in the tradition of Yes, Minister they invented a new strategy for breaking commitments. I am publicising the strategy not to endorse it or to suggest to others that they use it but to warn the public and senators that they should beware. The strategy is quite simple. You say that, at the time, your statement was accurate. You then say the situation has changed—perhaps citing changed commercial arrangements and changes in legislation—then you follow that up with superfluous advice that the minister has written to advise of this change. So what could be wrong with that? The departmental officials told me, without the hint of a smile, that `Basically, the situation has changed but Dr Shergold's statement was certainly accurate in the light of the information he had at the time.'

By this shaky standard any commitment can easily be disregarded. The great benefit in using this strategy is that you can also pretend that the matter was out of your hands and that you could not have taken action to avoid it, even if you wanted to. But this is a very serious matter; it goes to the very heart of this chamber's responsibility of review and scrutiny of executive government actions. The biggest disappointment to me is that the Minister for Science was dragged into this deception. He was not willing to challenge the departmental advice and apparently decided that human embryo research should take priority over a commitment to colleagues. The interesting question is: did his senior minister, the Minister for Education, Science and Training, also agree to this action? Trust is an important social good. The currency of political life and negotiation is trust. Without trust I will find it very difficult to deal with this portfolio. In the interests of saving time, I seek leave to incorporate the speech I have prepared on this issue.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Earlier this month the Department of Education, Science and Training attempted to cover up its failure to honour a firm commitment given to me and to the Senate Employment, Workplace Relations and Education Legislation Committee in June last year. Those more cynical than me may think such an experience is par for the course for politicians. Those with low opinions of politicians may also think it is some justice. But strange as it may seem, I think it's unusual.

I'm used to Ministers and public servants being careful, obtuse, and even evasive with their answers. But I'm not used to being misled.

Last year during routine questioning of officials from the Education, Science and Training portfolio I sought and was given a commitment by the then Secretary of the Department, now head of the public service, Dr Peter Shergold.

As you might imagine, public servants do not give commitments easily to non-government senators. Especially wily public servants like Dr Peter Shergold. But after his officials checked, and after two hours consideration, Dr Shergold made a commitment to me that “harvesting activity will not take place in either facility”. That is, he made a commitment on 5 June 2002 that human embryos would not be destroyed in experiments to extract human embryonic stem cells in two buildings the government is funding.

Now I should go into some background to demonstrate what a firm commitment this was. Early on in the questioning I asked Mr Grahame Cook, Group Manager for the Science Group, to confirm what he had told me at an earlier estimates hearing.

“Are you then ruling out completely the use of that building for anything other than the multiplication of stem cell lines, as understood at the time of the last estimates committee?”

Mr Cook replied: “that would be my understanding”.

I then asked “could I have that confirmed by Dr Shergold? Could I have that absolutely confirmed, because that is not my information from elsewhere”.

I then asked Professor Vicki Sara, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council “... would you confirm what Grahame Cook said a moment ago—that is, the building would not be used for the purposes that I mentioned?”

Professor Sara said cautiously “what I can confirm is that the building will not be used to conduct any research that does not fall under the legislative framework which the government will put forward.”

By mentioning the legislative framework she made it very clear that the Department was aware of the qualifications they might have to make in any commitment to the Committee and to me—qualifications Dr Shergold did not make.

I replied to Professor Sara: “that is not answering my question, with due respect. Are you able to confirm that the facilities of the building would not be used for the purpose of harvesting stem cells from so-called surplus IVF embryos—human embryos?”

Mr Cook then volunteered that one of his staff “has just gone to get a definitive answer”.

A definitive answer.

Approximately two hours later, just before a short break for afternoon tea, Dr Shergold made his commitment, saying with prompting from Professor Sara, “I am able to confirm that harvesting activity will not take place in either facility”.

Immediately after Dr Shergold's statement Professor Sara took the opportunity to clarify an unrelated point with me, but she did not take the opportunity to clarify Dr Shergold's statement. Remember this is the same Professor Sara who had earlier raised legislation as a possible issue before Mr Cook offered to get me a “definitive answer”.

I could go into some detail about human embryo research and the activities of the National Stem Cell Centre using buildings financed by the Australian Government to the tune, in the case of this particular grant, of $5.5 million on top of $46 million of scare government funds they already received, but that is not relevant to my complaint.

My complaint is that just over 12 months after the commitment was made, I received a letter from the Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, in June telling me that in fact the Government had decided to do exactly the opposite of what it had told the Committee. It would allow human embryo harvesting in the two government-funded buildings. A succession of correspondence followed, but the Minister was not willing to stand by his Department's commitment.

I am not aware of any attempt by the Minister for Science or the Department to inform the Committee of their decision to break a commitment.

During this month's estimates committee hearings I finally had the chance to talk directly to the public servants from the Education Department. Dr Shergold had moved on to a more senior position, but the public servants who did turn up demonstrated a high degree of skill, imagination and front in explaining their actions.

In fact, in the tradition of Yes Minister, they have invented a new strategy for breaking commitments. I am publicising this strategy not to endorse it or to suggest to others that they use it, but to warn the public and senators that they should beware.

The strategy is very simple. You say that at the time your statement was accurate. You then say that the situation has changed—perhaps citing changed commercial arrangements and changes in legislation. Then you follow that up with superfluous advice that the Minister has written to advise of this change. So what could be wrong with that?

The departmental officials told me, without a hint of a smile, that “basically, the situation has changed but Dr Shergold's statement was certainly accurate in the light of the information he had at the time.” By this shaky standard any commitment can easily be discarded.

The great benefit in using this strategy is that you can also pretend that the matter was out of your hands—that you could not have taken action to avoid it even if you had wanted to.

But of course they could have taken action. And they didn't want to.

Quite simply, this change brazenly breaks a commitment given to a Senate estimates committee and to myself. What the Department fails to make clear is that it had the opportunity to put a provision in the funding agreement to make good its commitment, but it chose not to. It pretends that the fact that commercial arrangements and legislation changed, obliged it to take a particular course of action. The commercial arrangements were not binding on the government. The legislation allows some embryo research, but does not oblige the government to fund it.

There is also the pretence by the Department in the estimates committee earlier this month that Dr Shergold and his department may not even have been aware of the draft Research Involving Embryos Bill. Remember Dr Shergold made the commitment on 5 June 2002 and the bill was introduced into the House two weeks later.

One week earlier than Dr Shergold's commitment, on 30 May 2002, the Australian Government had announced $46 million in funding for Alan Trounson's National Stem Cell Centre. This involved funding from the Australian Research Council in Dr Shergold's portfolio area. Dr Shergold was also a member of the ARC's board. The funding announcement was controversial and attracted media attention because it was made ahead of Parliament's decision on the Research Involving Embryos Bill. Dr Shergold and his department were certainly aware of the bill. They could not have failed to be aware of the legislation.

The controversy also meant that Dr Shergold would have to have been particularly aware of the implications of what he was saying to me at the Senate estimates committee the following week. Shergold's department, while considering my question for two hours, must also have been aware of the sensitivity of the issue before advising the secretary.

And of course Dr Shergold was present when Professor Sara mentioned the government's legislative program as a possible qualification.

But after all that, Dr Shergold's answer was unequivocal. He said “harvesting activity will not take place in either facility”. He did not say “harvesting activity will not take place in either facility, provided current legislation and commercial arrangements do not change”. He could have said that but he didn't. In fact, in a controversial area like this you would expect him to be careful.

The only significant thing that appears to have changed between Dr Shergold's commitment and the Minister for Science notifying me that they had gone back on their word was the convenience of the commitment. Quite simply, a commitment was made to the Committee because it was convenient to placate me. The commitment subsequently became inconvenient and it was discarded. No government should operate that way.

The biggest disappointment to me is that the Minister for Science was dragged into this deception. He was not willing to challenge departmental advice and apparently decided that human embryo research should take priority over a commitment to colleagues. Did his senior Minister, the Minister for Education, Science and Training also agree to this course of action? Trust is an important social good. The currency of political life and negotiation is trust. Without trust, I will find it very difficult to deal with this portfolio.