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Thursday, 26 August 1982
Page: 545

Senator BOLKUS(12.15) -I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.

I wish to make the point that I do not think an annual report like this ought to go through this chamber without some comment as to why the Department has been set up and some comment on the operation of the Department. The Department of the Vice-President of the Executive Council was set up on 7 May 1982 because of a crisis in which the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) then found himself. It was a crisis which arose because the then Minister for Defence was to be shifted , demoted or removed one way or the other. It was generally recognised by the Prime Minister and by commentators at the time that a move had to be made. Having made that decision, the Prime Minister then had to find some way to shelve the then Minister for Defence. The idea that he and his advisers came up with was one of creating the Department of the Vice-President of the Executive Council and appointing a full time Minister. It was an $80,000 per annum answer to a problem that the Prime Minister was not strong enough to contend with and as a consequence we now have a Minister essentially without a job to do, without portfolio, and, as this annual report shows, without any purpose or function.

Senator Coleman —But he is spending a lot of time in the House of Representatives now.

Senator BOLKUS —As my colleague says, he is spending a lot of time in the House of Representatives.

Senator Coleman —He is keeping an eye on things.

Senator BOLKUS —He is keeping an eye on things. Maybe he could lend his background expertise to some of the Ministers in the Senate who seem at the moment to be much in need of it.

When we look at this report we find that it does not answer questions which annual reports normally answer. In fact, it raises more questions than it answers. If we go through it section by section, on page 1, under the heading ' Responsibilities and Functions' we are told that one of the functions of the Department is:

. . . Formal and ceremonial matters including in relation to the Parliament and the States.

That is a rather general statement. It does not give details of what formal ceremonial matters are involved, how many are involved, what number per week, and what in fact are the character of the functions. Are they more than tea parties? Are they organising matters of importance or otherwise? If we go on further in this section we are told that the Minister is responsible for:

summoning meetings of the Executive Council and presiding over meetings which the Governor-General is unable to attend.

One could be uncharitable enough to say that in this respect this current Minister may have been a better stopgap for a previous Governor-General than the present one. That statement once again leaves many questions open. It does not tell us whether the Minister is acting as anything more than a typist or a clerk in sending out notices and summoning meetings of the Executive Council. It does not tell us how many meetings are held. It does not tell us the degree to which the Minister is involved. We are told that he chairs the Legislative Committee of Cabinet. Once again we are not told how often the Committee meets. We are not told how often the Minister has had to chair that Committee. The Minister has to give advice on parliamentary matters generally. That probably explains why he spends so much time in the House of Representatives. The report goes on to say:

The Prime Minister has also announced his intention to call on the Vice- President frequently to act in place of or represent other Ministers . . .

He seems to be the twentieth man of the Cabinet. Once again, we do not have any details as to the actual functions performed. The next section raises questions and leaves them unanswered. It states:

By arrangement, advice and additional administrative support for the Vice- President are provided by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

We are not told to what degree and to what extent, both financially and otherwise, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet is involved in propping up this Department. However, we are told that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet advises the Vice-President on parliamentary matters and has provided for him the assistance of a parliamentary liaison officer. What this section shows is that the system of government, the Cabinet system, can continue quite well without this $80,000 indulgence. It shows that the mechanism is already there. The advice already goes to the leaders of the Government in the Parliament. We do not need this $80,000 diversion.

The final unanswered question which I have about this report concerns the actual cost of the report itself. When one looks at the finance section of the report one finds that an amount of $1,475 has been paid by way of salaries and $ 612 by way of administrative expenses. That seems a very small sum to be paid for salaries. We do not know whose salaries are involved. We do not know which officer is involved or his level. We do not know what the administrative expenses are. We do not know the cost of this report. It may well be that the cost of the report will be more than the actual finance provided from the Minister for Finance for the period of operation of this Department. As I said earlier, a number of questions arise out of this report which it does not answer . I think it is scurrilous that a government should set up such a mechanism to solve a ticklish problem for the Prime Minister. I give notice at this stage that when this Department is examined before Senate Estimates Committee A my colleagues and I will expect answers to the questions. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.