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Thursday, 14 November 1974
Page: 2400

Senator GREENWOOD (Victoria) - I rise in regard to one matter. It relates to the National Gallery. It is the subject of a reservation which I made in the report of Senate Estimates Committee A to which I do not desire specifically to refer except for the implications of the reservation. Very shortly, what happened was that I sought information why $4.6m was being made available for purchases for the National Gallery. We know that purchases recently made have been highly controversial. We know that questions have been raised whether the amounts which have been paid are fair amounts. It was apparent that Mr Mollison, the Director of the Gallery, who was present, was very conscious of the problems which would arise if publicity were given to what were the matters which he was interested in for the Gallery for the next year. He indicated doubts he had about revealing these matters. He is reported in Hansard to have said:

To disclose publicly a list of works in which we are interested at the present time would certainly raise the eyebrows of my colleagues working in other museums throughout the world and make them rather wonder about our processes. I would, if this is your wish, supply this information to you on paper.

The point I make is that the concern which Mr Mollison expresses is a reasonable concern. I do not think anyone would say otherwise, whether it be in this area or whether it be in any other area. Where there is a degree of confidentiality to be preserved by a Government officer the matter is prudent to be raised. Ought there not be some means by which an inquiring senator, an inquiring Senate or an inquiring House of Representatives can ascertain the purposes for which the expenditure is sought? What if the amount is not $4.6m but $400m? Are we to say that because some confidentiality is involved no information is to be given as to the areas in which the money is to be expended? I raise this point because I think it is important. On the day preceding the discussion of the Estimates the Senate had passed a resolution in terms which confirmed an earlier resolution of the Senate when a different government was in power. Part of that resolution states:

That whilst it may be argued that Statutory Authorities are not accountable through the responsible Minister of State to Parliament for day to day operations, they may be called to account by Parliament itself at any time and that there are no areas of expenditure of public funds where these corporations have a discretion to withhold details or explanations from Parliament or its committees unless the Parliament has expressly provided otherwise.

That principle has the unanimous acceptance of the Senate. I think it applies not only to statutory corporations but also to departments, to Ministers who have the responsibility for the departments and to those persons who have information which is the subject matter of an inquiry.

Senator Murphy - And I accepted and stated that myself, did I not?

Senator GREENWOOD - I fully accept that the Attorney-General moved the motion on that occasion in this chamber.

Senator Murphy - But I also accepted its extension to departments and so on, not only statutory authorities.

Senator GREENWOOD - I do not question that the Attorney-General would argue that way although I have no recollection of him doing so. The point I make is that if a committee in its discretion says that this matter ought not to be looked into we are opening the way to the complete negation of that principle which has been upheld by the Senate. On this occasion a committee decided that it did not wish to find out how the money was to be spent. It is the principle which I think is of fundamental importance. Once it is accepted that the committees will have some discretion to prevent questions being asked in an area the committees can do it for all purposes. I think it is a matter which ought to concern the Senate because if we are to have this type of questioning it seems to me we should be able to get the information which is sought. It was not as if the person directly concerned was seeking to withhold information. He was concerned only not to prejudice his position publicly. In the course of the consideration of the proposed expenditures the Attorney-General stated that although Mr Mollison was prepared to give this information it should not be givenfull stop. I simply ask the Attorney-General whether on reflection he has changed his mind. Why should this information be withheld? Why should we not be told? Having regard to the willingness of Mr Mollison to give the information and having regard to the willingness on the part of everybody to have regard to his position, why should not this information be forthcoming?

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