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Friday, 11 October 1985
Page: 1085

Senator CHANEY —Mr President, I had a question to ask, but as it was to the Leader of the Government in the Senate and he does not seem to be with us yet, I would prefer to wait until a little later in Question Time. Here he is. How nice. My question is directed to the Minister representing the Prime Minister. I refer him to the tabling in the House of Representatives yesterday of a letter from Mr Eddie Visbord, the acting head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Does the Minister agree that, whatever the actions of public servants, the Prime Minister must ultimately assume responsibility for what they do as well as for his own failings? Does the Minister further agree that in the Prime Minister's continual search for scapegoats he has failed to live up to the standards of ministerial responsibility put forward by members of the Australian Labor Party in recent years?

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney referred to the letter from Mr Visbord, and tabled by the Prime Minister, which adverted to a number of matters relating to the Australian Bicentennial Authority. I have always put the view that ultimately a Minister must accept responsibility for the advice which is given to him by his Department and for actions which are taken upon that advice. In respect of this matter the Prime Minister has accepted responsibility for actions taken on advice given to him by his Department.

One of the great concerns in the Bicentennial Authority issue-as it has now become known-is to what extent there was ministerial responsibility at all under the arrangement set up by the former Government for the administration of the Bicentennial Authority, and that was a view which was specifically put by Mr Reid, the Chairman of the Authority.

In accepting, as I do, the general concept of ministerial responsibility, if people want me to read the extracts from the lengthy discussion which has taken place on this topic in Australia over many years-particularly during the last five years of the previous Government, when the issue arose on many occasions in relation to a great variety of issues-I will do so.

The fact of the matter is that the fundamental issue which touched off the Visbord letter was the question of a missing letter in a file in the Prime Minister's Department. If honourable senators have read any of the statements which have been made in respect of ministerial responsibility they will know that I certainly do not accept the view that it is the obligation of a Prime Minister of this country to go through 800 files in his office.

Senator Durack —You expected me to go through a hundred thousand.

Senator BUTTON —No, we did not expect the honourable senator to go through 100,000; we just expected him to get one out of the bottom drawer of his desk where it had been for five years. We expected him to get all those call girls out of his office, and things like that. That is the sort of thing we expected of him. My answer to the question is that I do not see it as an issue in terms of ministerial responsibility for the Prime Minister of this country to perform the operation of a filing clerk in his Department.

Senator CHANEY —Mr President, I was fully prepared to comment on the slippery answer of the Leader of the Government. I ask a supplementary question. Does the Leader of the Government deny that the Prime Minister sought Dr Armstrong's resignation, over the objections of Mr Reid? Does he deny that Mr Reid sought and obtained the Prime Minister's approval for settlement terms? Does he deny that the Prime Minister urged Mr Reid to be generous in this matter?

Senator BUTTON —I do not deny-in fact I assert-that the Prime Minister sought Dr Armstrong's resignation on the basis of advice from his Department, and the Prime Minister accepts full responsibility for that fact, and has from the commencement of this matter. I do not deny that the Prime Minister, by arrangement with Mr Reid, saw that Mr Reid supervised the terms of settlement with Dr Armstrong. Mr Reid always asserted that that was his right and the Prime Minister believed that that was his right in respect of the negotiations of terms of settlement.

It is a matter of public record that the Prime Minister said in some conversation or other-I cannot identify it at the moment-that Mr Reid, in looking at the total package, should err on the side of generosity. I do not dispute any of those things. What relevance they have to the particular question the Opposition is seeking to put in issue, I am not sure.