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Thursday, 31 May 1984
Page: 2207

Senator COLEMAN(10.49) —I think it appropriate at this time that I draw the attention of the Committee to a situation that arose in the Estimates Committee. It has disturbed me that over the years I have been a member of the Senate I have found it sometimes extremely difficult to obtain simple pieces of information during the Estimates committee hearings. I want to give an example of something that occurred during the hearing of Estimates Committee A dealing with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, on 9 May. I directed questions to officers of the Office of National Assessment and advised them that it was my intention to seek information in relation to the furnishing of the office of the Director-General of the ONA. I was advised by the officer at the table, Mr Denning:

The cost of refurbishing does not come under the departmental head. It is under another head of expenditure for works funded by whichever ministry is responsible.

On page 350 of the Estimates record Mr Denning is reported to have said:

It will be the National Capital Development Commission which is under the Department of Territories and Local Government.

I raised the point at that time as I felt, with the Office of National Assessment coming under the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, that that would have been the logical place to find all of those matters that were of concern to me. Given that Estimates Committee F had concluded its hearings, I wrote to the Chairman, Senator Georges, on 9 May following that meeting and expressed my concern that I was unable to get information in relation to the refurbishing and furnishing of the Director-General's office. I advised him of sections for which his Estimates Committee was responsible that I felt it may be included under but that I had some doubt as there was insufficient information under the NCDC appropriation to provide me with the necessary information.

In short, I asked Senator Georges three questions under the National Capital Development Commission, Division 959, sub-division 4. The first was, how much of that appropriation is for the Office of National Assessment? Second, how much of that appropriation is for the office of the Director-General of the Office of National Assessment? Third, in itemised form, what is the cost of the furnishings and fittings of the Director-General's office? On 22 May I received a copy of a letter from the NCDC addressed to Mr Nimmo, who is the Secretary of Estimates Committee F, providing me with certain information but informing me that work undertaken by the NCDC on behalf of the Department of Administrative Services would have been only refurbishing work of the office. He went on to advise that the estimated cost of those units was of the order of $5,000, that there were no loose items of furniture or fittings which were provided by the Commission and that it was understood that the Office of National Assessment was responsible for the provision of those items. I remind you, Mr Chairman, that I had requested from the officer of the ONA information in relation to those items of furniture. He advised me that they came under another department.

On 29 May from Mr Denning, the Chief Executive Officer of the Office of National Assessment, I received a letter which itemised the furnishings in the office of the Director-General of the ONA, the information that I had sought on 9 May from that same officer at the Estimates Committee hearings. That raises another matter of concern as to how much information is actually derived from Estimates committee hearings and whether in fact there is an attempt to hide some figures that might cause some concern, perhaps a little heartburn or a hiccup here and there, because in the itemised list provided in answer to part three of my question, which related to the furniture in the Director-General's office, I find that the response comes from Mr Denning:

The following is the itemised cost of furniture and fittings purchased by ONA for the Director-General's office, which incorporates a small conference area for internal meetings and high level visitors: Desk, $3,005.80.

My mind boggles at the thought of a $3,005.80 desk. I doubt very much whether the desk in the Prime Minister's suite, which I understood is the one Mr Fraser had, would have cost $3,005.80.

This morning I asked an officer of the Department of the Senate to ring one of the furniture suppliers in Canberra to find out the cost of an executive desk. Let me tell honourable senators that a top of the range desk, made of European oak and leather inserts, purchased from one of the leading distributors in Canberra would cost $1,776. I do not want to concentrate too much on the desk itself, but I have to express a concern when furniture purchased for heads of departments and officers, who after all is said and done, are only working people, costs the taxpayer a substantial amount of money. That is point one. Point two, which is my major concern, is that frequently these items are being hidden because of the generalisation of matters dealt with by Estimates committees and the way in which the votes are presented to us.

On numerous occasions in the 10 years I have been a member of this Parliament, we have proposed to departments that they provide the Senate with very comprehensive and detailed explanations of their estimates. No matter what happens, it never appears that we can have before us at the time of Estimates committee hearings people who are either capable of or prepared to provide information. It could be presumed that there was a reluctance on the part of the officer who appeared before Estimates Committee F, but I will not make that presumption. I hope that that would not be so. It could also be presumed that because the hearings of Senate Estimates Committee F had already concluded there would be no follow-up. Once again, I would not like to make that presumption. However, those are all questions that are in the minds of individual senators at the Estimates committee hearings.

I do not have a proposal to put before this Committee as to how this information can be made available. At this stage I do not have a motion which could be dealt with in this place. I would suggest, with due respect, that there is a lack of information, or perhaps a lack of expertise, in the way in which Estimates committees are presented with material prior to the hearings. As a result, the Estimates committees are not able to avail themselves of information which may be of concern. I am sure that a number of members not only of Estimates Committee A but also of other Estimates committees have expressed that concern in the past and, I should think, will express it again in the future. If we are to make the Estimates committee system work for the benefit of the Senate itself, there has to be an understanding on the part of departments that they are answerable to this chamber and, therefore, to the people of Australia. There has to be an acceptance that when departmental officers appear before an Estimates committee they should provide any information which can be obtained. They should not decline to provide this information on the basis that what is being asked appears under the estimates of another department.

I would like to reiterate that the officer who answered my question about furniture during the deliberations of Senate Estimates Committee A was the Chief Executive Officer of the Office of National Assessments. This was the same person who eventually provided me with the itemised information I had required. There can be no excuse for him not being at least aware that his Department has purchased those items, any more than there can be an excuse for him not offering , at the time I raised the questions, to provide me with that information at a later stage. As I have said, I do not have a motion to put before this Committee . I am putting this matter on record so that the Office of National Assessments, as well as every other department which appears before Estimates committees, will recognise that they have a responsibility to the Senate through Estimates committees to provide us with information we request at the time or as soon as practicable after the time of an Estimates committee hearing.