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Tuesday, 8 May 1984
Page: 1749

Senator PETER BAUME —I ask the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs whether she has seen a letter on school funding which is circulating widely and which contains the following short sentence:

The Schools Commission has ignored the primary obligation of the Commonwealth to provide and maintain government schools of the highest standard.

Senator Ryan —Who is the letter from?

Senator PETER BAUME —It is from teachers in government schools to members of parliament. Whether or not the Minister has seen the letter, has the Commonwealth Schools Commission ignored any of its obligations, as alleged in the letter? Will the Minister reject completely this accusation made against the Commonwealth Schools Commission and its commissioners?

Senator RYAN —I think it is a bit tough not only that Senator Baume and his cohorts over there have wasted the time of the Senate for about six hours on a non-event but that he also now asks whether I have seen a letter. Senator Baume, having at one time been a Minister for Education, will appreciate that Ministers for Education receive quite a lot of letters-several hundred a day, in fact. My Department advises me that the volume of correspondence has increased about four times since I have been the Minister. If Senator Baume really wants to track down my response to an individual letter, he could send me a copy of it in the normal way and I could make a response in the normal way. I cannot respond to his particular request. Then he raised the issue, which is apparently raised in this unnamed and unidentified letter, about the Schools Commission's treatment of the primary obligation of government schools. Let me make it quite clear that it is the Government which acknowledges a primary obligation to government school systems. Of course, that acknowledgement is embedded in legislation, indeed in the Schools Commission Act which Senator Baume himself had the responsibility to administer for a period and which he never sought to change, as far as I am aware, in respect of the primary obligation it sets out. So, certainly from the Government's point of view, the primary obligation of governments to government schools is a matter of legislation and will remain so.

As to the report of the Schools Commission and the manner in which it responded to my invitation to address that issue, among many others, the Government is currently considering its response to the Schools Commission report. Our response to that report will be made public when I issue, on behalf of the Government, the guidelines for the funding of schools and higher education. Senator Baume is perfectly well aware of these procedures and I am not quite sure why he has raised the question at this time. We acknowledge the primary obligation of governments to government schools. That obligation is in legislation and will continue to be met by our Government.

Senator PETER BAUME —Mr President, I wish to ask a supplementary question. The Minister is quite correct to take me to task. The letter is a form letter of which many copies have been received. That is why I brought it to her attention. I ask the Minister again: Has the Commonwealth Schools Commission ignored any of its obligations in the report that it has brought down?

Senator RYAN —I have no intention of anticipating the Government's formal response to the Schools Commission report by way of reply to Senator Baume, but I should say that I have a constructive and proper relationship with the Schools Commission.

Senator Grimes —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.

The PRESIDENT —I now call on the consideration of Government papers.

Senator Teague —Mr President, I raise a point of order. I was on my feet when Senator Grimes stood. We have had only half an hour of questions. It has been usual to have an hour of questions every day in the Senate while I have been here. May I ask my question? He has only requested this. I would like to ask a question.

The PRESIDENT —Are there any more points of order? There is no point of order. When the Acting Leader of the Government in the Senate rises he gets priority of call. There is no point of order.

Senator Durack —I take a point of order in relation to this sorry episode that has just been perpetrated by the Acting Leader of the Government in the Senate, who simply could not take it when one of his colleagues had to face a censure motion. His object obviously is to punish the Opposition for exercising its rights in this place. Mr President, I put it to you that the rights of the Opposition to ask questions cannot be terminated on the arbitrary decision of the Acting Leader of the Government in the Senate in a fit of pique and that the Opposition is perfectly entitled to continue asking questions. Even though there will be no answers, which is not an altogether surprising or unusual episode, the Opposition can still continue to ask questions.

Senator Grimes —Mr President, if I can just put this into perspective, I remind honourable senators that this afternoon we spent almost 4 1/2 hours debating a censure motion introduced by the Opposition. We wasted, therefore, 4 1/2 hours of Government time, or 2 1/2 hours had a matter of public importance been considered. I make a second point: Of course this has happened in the past, and Senator Durack knows that it has happened in the past. In fact, had it happened in another place there would have been no Question Time at all. Thirdly, I point out to Senator Durack that his Leader in fact asked me, 'Are you going to have a Question Time at all?', and would not have been surprised if in fact we had had no Question Time at all. I said to the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) : 'Yes, we are going to have a Question Time and it will last half an hour'. Mr President, as you have ruled, for me to ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper is the practice in this place. I do not think it unreasonable, and neither does anyone else think it unreasonable, after spending 4 1/2 hours in this place on a censure motion, that Question Time should be attenuated in this way.

Senator Walters —Mr President, I take a point of order.

Mr PRESIDENT —On the same point of order?

Senator Walters —Yes, Mr President. Senator Grimes said that this had occurred before. I ask him on what occasion it occurred before without negotiation between the two parties. My question is to you, Mr President. I ask you to tell this chamber on what occasion this has occurred before on the arbitrary decision of the Leader of the Government or the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate.

The PRESIDENT —I remind the honourable senator that I am not here to answer questions. There is no point of order. It has been the practice since I have been a member of the Senate-a period of nearly 22 years-and I understand that it has been the practice of the Senate since Federation, that when the Government asks that questions be put on notice, Question Time ceases. I now call on the consideration of Government papers.