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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1711

Senator PETER BAUME(2.58) —It is quite clear now that Senator Ryan, the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, has misled an Estimates committee last week and that she did so deliberately, knowingly and persistently . She was, however, caught out, because the officers in another department told the truth-unlike the Minister and unlike the officers assisting her. She misled those of us on the Estimates Committee, not once but a number of times, and she continued to mislead us on this matter. However trivial the matter is, it is not good enough for any honourable senator, for any Minister before an Estimates committee, to mislead the committee, because that is to mislead the Senate and to mislead the Parliament.

Once Senator Ryan realised that she had been caught out, that people realised that her story would not wash, she then composed a letter. That letter was made available to the Committee on the following day, when another Department's estimates were about to be considered, and it was not available to members of the Committee until we were into the estimates of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. There was no chance to go back and question the Minister-until now. The letter which the Minister circulated contained not a single word of regret, not a single acknowledgment that she owed an apology to the Committee for her untruth. There was not a single admission that she had misled the Senate, and the Minister compounded her error today by misleading the Senate in what she has just said in her own defence. What we were asking about was a matter of substance and we were correct to be asking about it. Senator Ryan, before an Estimates committee, sought to avoid answering and, when she was forced to an answer, she answered untruthfully. Let us now identify quite clearly how we knew that such a survey had been carried out. If we go to the estimates of the Department of the Special Minister of State, available to everyone, we will find written there on page 14:

The Information Co-ordination Branch required an extra $95,000 to assist in funding the Youth Research Project (a survey of the attitudes of young people to Commonwealth Government policies and programs) and to research attitudes of Australians generally on the Government's policy on the funding of government and non-government schools.

It was because that was there that we sought to get some information from Senator Ryan about this survey, which was identified in another Department's estimates and about which we wished to have some information. Senator Ryan attempted to avoid answering. Her officers attempted to avoid answering. They gave incorrect information not once but on a number of occasions and, when pressed, Senator Ryan not only allowed incorrect information to be placed before the Estimates Committee but also herself placed incorrect information before the Estimates Committee. I asked directly:

Has this Department given any advice to any other department on survey questions to be added on the attitudes of Australians to the Government's policy on the funding of government and non-government schools?

All they had to do was to answer yes, instead of which Dr Taloni, the First Assistant Secretary of the Department answering on behalf of the officers, said:

I am not aware of it.

Senator Sir John Carrick —And the Minister was silent.

Senator PETER BAUME —I will come back to that. I then asked the Minister:

Did you have any input into that survey?

Honourable senators should remember that my question referred to the survey on the attitudes of Australians to the Government's policy on the funding of government and non-government schools. The Minister said:

There has been no such survey . . .

That is not true. The Minister was telling an untruth in response to a specific question to the Senate Estimates Committee and, therefore, to the Parliament, and she knew it was untrue. The question was specific and there was no need for her to take that course. It went further. The Minister sat at the table when I asked a question which followed a question from Senator Teague. The question my colleague Senator Teague asked was this.

Has the Department requested public opinion surveys through a statutory authority or one of the commissions?

Dr Taloni said:

There is a survey on youth attitudes being conducted by the Department of the Special Minister of State which might have some relevance to our departmental function.

A follow-up question from me a moment later asked:

Did the Department request some questions to be included in the survey?

Dr Taloni said: 'No'.

Senator Sir John Carrick —And the Minister was silent.

Senator PETER BAUME —And the Minister was silent while Dr Taloni said no. It is quite clear from the Minister's letter that the survey was initiated by her and that its conduct and establishment were associated with her officers and her Department. It is quite clear that she met the Australian Nationwide Opinion Polls Pty Ltd people and it is quite clear that she knew that that answer from Dr Taloni was wrong. The Minister sat silent in front of the Estimates Committee and allowed that answer to stand. I believe she did that deliberately and wilfully. It was part of a day's evidence when the Minister did all that she could to avoid answering questions on this matter. In fact she appealed to the Chair, not once but several times, about whether or not she could take the protection of some point of order to avoid answering the question, and the Hansard will bear that out. That is simply a fact. All we wanted to know was whether a survey was carried out and, if so, what advice they were given.

From looking at the estimates for the Department of the Special Minister of State we knew there had been such a survey and we were obviously interested, knowing that, to find that the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and her officers denied any knowledge, refused to admit anything and gave answers which they knew were untrue and which they subsequently, when forced to, came to us and admitted were untrue. It was not a question of some 'confusion' as Senator Ryan said in opening up what must have been the most pathetic defence ever given by a Minister in response to a serious charge. It was not a confusion; it was in fact on the Minister's part a deliberate misleading, a continued misleading and a deliberate misrepresentation of a committee of the Parliament.

Senator Ryan's defence, such as it was, was based upon an answer which she asserts that I gave. What she avoided telling honourable senators is that my answer was incomplete. As the Hansard proof will show, I was interrupted by the Minister. The sentence was incomplete. Other senators may care to see it. The whole point on which she made her whole defence was some answer which was incomplete.

The questioning of Ministers and the questioning of officers is a central part of the process of the Westminster system of government. Estimates committees are established to allow this Parliament to question officers and to question Ministers on matters relevant to their portfolios. It is central to the honesty and accountability of Ministers and their officers. Central to that process is an understanding that officers will tell the truth and that they will tell the whole truth and that Ministers will tell the truth and that they will tell the whole truth. We have an occasion here when the Minister and her officers have failed in their duty to the Parliament and they have failed in their duty to the Westminster system because they have not told the truth. They have tried to hedge and they have certainly not told the whole truth.

We know that this area of expenditure existed. We cannot conceive why the Minister was so foolish as to try to avoid discussing it or to try to hide it. Of course she understood that the matter was politically sensitive. Perhaps she thought that if she tried to brazen through with untruths she could avoid having these matters brought out. She gave wrong answers to Senator Teague and to me, and the questions were not asked once, they were repeated and repeated to give the Minister an opportunity to retrace her steps and correct her position. But she chose not to. Dr Taloni, speaking on behalf of the officers of the Department about surveys which were initiated from the Department in which the Minister's Department had a major input, denied any knowledge and denied anything but the most superficial acquaintance with the facts. The answers did not accord with the explanatory notes given. The answers certainly did not accord with what the Minister provided next day.

However, let us look at the letter which Senator Ryan produced on the next day for the Senate Estimates Committee. That letter says, in so many words: 'I misled this Committee yesterday and I misled it on almost every matter which was raised in relation to this question'. The letter makes it quite clear that the surveys were carried out at the Minister's request and this is the Minister who could not give us information. The surveys were started at her request. She suggested to her colleague, the other Minister, that this survey should be carried out to cover a number of things. Her Department was on the steering committee. Her Department helped establish the survey and establish the question , and we have nothing but the most grudging admission of that.

While the survey was progressing it was put to Senator Ryan by her Department that further funds should be sought to investigate public attitudes on the question of schools funding. That was not something that came out of the air; it originated within the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. That is the same Department whose First Assistant Secretary, in speaking to a parliamentary committee and representing the Public Service and all its honourable traditions, chose not to impart to us information which he should have known. It is information which the Minister should have known because it was subsequently contained in her letter, information which she chose not to pass on to the Parliament. The letter makes it quite clear that the Minister was caught out. The penultimate paragraph of her letter states:

I have today been advised that discussions took place between ANOP and officers of my Department on issues which might be addressed in the extended survey but neither Dr Taloni nor I were aware of the details.

I find that impossible to believe. It is not consistent with the rest of what has been told to us. It is not consistent with the history of the matter. In any event, when those questions were put to the Estimates Committee, is the Minister going to tell us that no one who was there-none of the 30 or so officers-knew what the facts were? Did the whole group of public servants sit silent, some knowing that wrong information was being given to the Parliament and the Estimates Committee? If so, it is an indictment of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. It is certainly an indictment of Dr Taloni as First Assistant Secretary. The Senate now has to ask itself a question. We know that Senator Susan Ryan misled the Estimates Committee. That is a matter of fact now. It is something which she has acknowledged in her letter. That is not at issue. She misled the Estimates Committee and acknowledged it in a letter the next day. The question we have to ask is: Was it deliberate or was it inadvertent? There is nothing in what the Minister has told us today which might have suggested that it was inadvertent.

Senator Walters —She said we got it wrong.

Senator PETER BAUME —The Minister continues to assert that she did no wrong. I refer anyone to the letter she wrote. I am forced to conclude that this Minister did this before the Committee deliberately, knowingly and with an intention to deceive the Committee, and she hoped she would get away with it. Senator Susan Ryan's explanation is not credible. We do not believe it. Senator Ryan initiated the project. In relation to the extra questions, Senator Ryan's Department initiated the movement. Senator Ryan pursued it. When rejected by her colleagues she pursued the matter through other avenues. She intervened. She talked to ANOP and other people herself about the kinds of questions. Her Department was quite clearly involved. Not one of those facts emerged clearly and unequivocally in the answers which she chose to give the Senate Estimates Committee. I can accept that a Minister could do things by inadvertence. However, on this matter I am forced to conclude that the Minister's wrong answers were deliberate and persistent. We know that her Department was involved as an initiator from the beginning. We know her officers were involved.

We now have two alternatives to look at. Either the Minister and her officers are incompetent and were not able to give the Committee correct answers, or else they are competent enough but deliberately misled the Parliament and the Estimates Committee as a planned and deliberate tactic. I do not mind which conclusion people reach. I have some regard for Senator Ryan's intelligence. I believe that she did it deliberately with the intention of misleading the Parliament. Of course, in terms of parliamentary practice, procedure and tradition that is what is called a hanging offence. To mislead the Parliament is grounds for resignation. I shall remind Senator Ryan of what one of the authorities says. If we look at House of Representatives Practice, which I happened to look at just before I came into the chamber, we will find at page 82 , in quoting a former Speaker states:

In cases where the Minister has misled parliament . . . resignation or dismissal is the appropriate action.

That is the tradition which, over the years, has applied in the Parliament. What kind of accountability do we have when a Minister such as Senator Ryan can come before an Estimates committee determined to conceal, obscure or mislead and, when she is found out, then come into this chamber and not expect to be taken to task? We already know from other leaked documents that some of her own officers have already pinpointed Senator Ryan as one of the problems which the Government has in selling its policies in the area of government and non-government schools . We already know that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) has had to provide his mantle of protection over the Minister for a problem that is too hard for her to handle. I suggest to this Minister that the least she can do is come clean with the Senate in Question Time, in debates and before Estimates committees. She has not done so on this occasion. She has misled the Senate-

Senator Chipp —What do you mean by that?

Senator PETER BAUME —I mean that she has got to tell the truth.

Senator Chipp —No, about the Prime Minister.

Senator PETER BAUME —The Prime Minister made it public that in matters affecting government and non-government schools he would, from the date he spoke, be taking a personal interest in all the negotiations. He promised all the interested groups that he would be dealing with it. I just regard that as a prime ministerial mantle of safety over a Minister who cannot cope. We have demonstrated today that Senator Ryan is in fact guilty of the misleading and misrepresentation of which we have accused her. On that basis, this motion of censure deserves support.