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Friday, 11 October 1985
Page: 1100

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(3.25) —Most of the angst in the speech of the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney) occurred in his last sentence when he referred to the shameful behaviour of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in seeking to hide behind Senator Richardson's comments, or something like that. I will deal with that matter in a minute.

Senator Walters —You will have to be good.

Senator BUTTON —I am good; that is one of your difficulties. I do not make that comment in any serious peer group sense; I make it just here, confronted by somebody like you. The problem the Opposition has with all this is that the Government does not seek to avoid responsibility in respect of this issue. It accepts responsibility for what has occurred and, importantly, it has taken actions when deficiencies have been exposed. I just want to identify, because it is important to do so, the areas in which the Government accepts responsibility and the areas in which, in a sense, it does not accept responsibility. The Government and the Prime Minister accept responsibility for the decision to seek the removal of Dr Armstrong as Chief Executive of the Australian Bicentennial Authority. The Prime Minister had advice about that and that advice has been published.

Senator Chaney —He said that was a matter for Mr Reid.

Senator BUTTON —He did not say that that was a matter for Mr Reid. He has said that he accepts responsibility for the advice and he asked Mr Reid to get rid of Dr Armstrong. That is not a matter of concern. Honourable senators ought to check that in the record. But the second point-

Senator Walters —What did he say?

Senator BUTTON —The honourable senator should not be impatient. The second point, for which the Prime Minister does not accept responsibility, is that of speaking to Dr Armstrong and negotiating the terms of settlement of his retirement.

Senator Sir John Carrick —He told Mr Reid to do that.

Senator BUTTON —Yes, he did.

Senator Sir John Carrick —And he accepted the terms.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Tate) —Order! As this is a very important debate the Leader of the Government in the Senate should be allowed to develop his argument without help. (Quorum formed)

Senator BUTTON —Opposition senators expressed concern about the fact that Government senators were not here. I assume that the reason Government senators were not here is that they are not particularly concerned about this. They listened to Senator Chaney's speech on the radio and decided to stay away. They were not concerned about the allegations made by Senator Chaney. The real difficulty which the Opposition has with this matter is that the Government does accept responsibility for a wide range of matters which have happened in respect of this recent bicentennial matter.

There are two areas in respect of which responsibility is not accepted, and they have been identified. The first of those areas is that the Prime Minister was advised-and he accepted the advice of his Department and he accepted the advice given to him by Mr Reid, the Chairman of the Bicentennial Authority-that it was Mr Reid's responsibility to negotiate the terms of settlement with Dr Armstrong. That is an area in respect of which the Prime Minister does not accept full responsibility because it is an area of somebody else's responsibility. Honourable senators opposite, when in government, made it that way. They set up the Bicentennial Authority.

Senator Short —It was bipartisan.

Senator BUTTON —Oh, no, Senator, just a minute. The legislation was certainly bipartisan. But as the honourable senator ought to know, Mr Reid's evidence was that he particularly sought a whole set of arrangements in the legislation from the Government and he got them.

Senator Missen —Mr Hayden signed it as well.

Senator BUTTON —It does not matter. If a point I make eludes the honourable senator I will say it again, but I do not think it is worth it. The second point on which there must be some lack of acceptance of responsibility relates to the particular issue of the lost letter of, I think, October 1979-Senator Short can correct me if I am wrong-which dealt with the conditions of appointment of Dr Armstrong.

Senator Chaney makes a great point of putting two things together. Firstly, Mr Visbord, a respected and admired Deputy Secretary to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister giving an explanation of why that--

Senator Chaney —What led to that letter being written?

Senator BUTTON —That letter arose from the Prime Minister seeking an explanation in relation to the evidence given before--

Senator Chaney —Did he send Senator Richardson round to see him?

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney makes accusations against me when I am on my feet, but that interjection is getting a little worse than anything I ever said. But let me get that clear because I want honourable senators on the Opposition side to understand it. Mr Visbord, a respected Deputy Secretary to that Department, wrote to the Prime Minister giving an explanation of what had happened in respect of the lost letter in reply-there is no doubt about that, not in reply to a request for a letter-to a request for an explanation from the Prime Minister as to why that letter had not been drawn to his attention. Any born to rule Liberal administrator would tell honourable senators that that is the first thing they do if somebody does not give them an appropriate document-they seek an explanation.

Senator Chaney —You asked for the document.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney clearly has not even read the transcript. One does not ask for a document which one has been specifically told is not relevant.

Senator Short —He was not told it was not relevant. Nobody told him it was not relevant.

Senator BUTTON —If Senator Short wants to quibble with the words `not relevant' he may. If the honourable senator had studied all the discussions which emerged between the Prime Minister and Mr Reid and all the correspondence from Allen, Allen and Hemsley, the Australian Bicentennial Authority's solicitors, it would have been quite clear that that letter of October 1979 was not regarded as being relevant to Dr Armstrong's settlement. Honourable senators should read the letters and study the discussions which have taken place.

Senator Short —How is it not relevant?

Senator BUTTON —The details of the letter were not relevant. It was represented to the Prime Minister that there was a contract between the ABA and Dr Armstrong which had to be paid out.

Senator Chaney —And provision for four months notice.

Senator BUTTON —No, it was not represented as a contract with a provision for four months notice.

Senator Short —Yes, it was.

Senator BUTTON —Does the honourable senator allege, as Senator Chaney does, that it was a contract with four months notice in it? He does not allege that because he knows better than his colleagues here Senator Chaney, who has just led the debate on this matter for the Opposition. Senator Chaney should check with his colleague Senator Short and find out the truth of the matter. It is in respect of those two matters that the question of responsibility has to be qualified. The first matter is the area in respect of which the Prime Minister was advised that the responsibility lay with Mr Reid and in respect of which the Prime Minister was advised by Mr Reid that it was his, Mr Reid's responsibility.

Senator Sir John Carrick —When was that advice given?

Senator BUTTON —If the honourable senator wants to study the documents-

Senator Sir John Carrick —Was it given on the 15th?

Senator BUTTON —The 15th, the 19th-on a number of occasions. Read the transcript of the Senate Estimates Committee. It is all there.

Senator Sir John Carrick —I have.

Senator BUTTON —The honourable senator ought not to be asking that question then because he ought to know. It is in respect of that area of responsibility that the Prime Minister cannot be held fully responsible and it is, of course, also in respect of this missing letter that he cannot be held responsible.

Senator Short —What about the failure to seek advice on the critical letter of 19 August? That is the critical letter.

Senator BUTTON —With the greatest of respect, it is not the critical letter and the Prime Minister replied to that and evidence was given about the nature of that reply.

Senator Short —He has never replied to that letter, other than over the phone to Mr Reid.

Senator BUTTON —The honourable senator started off his interjection by saying that the Prime Minister never replied and then finished it by saying that he replied only over the phone. He cannot have it every conceivable way. I propose to continue with what I am saying and not to listen to any more interjections because honourable senators opposite are all getting very excited about this issue. They are in a State of bliss founded on ignorance. The reason for this whole performance today is that over the seven years of the Fraser Government we saw an appalling performance of ministerial charades relating to a whole range of matters and appalling hypocrisy about appropriate ministerial standards and so on. Of course this occasion is the Opposition's first big go on the question.

Senator Sir John Carrick —Tell us about Mick Young.

Senator BUTTON —The honourable senator can tell me about Mick Young. What did the Prime Minister do about Mick Young? Does the Opposition complain about that?

Senator Sir John Carrick —Yes, the Prime Minister let him off the hook.

Senator BUTTON —All right. For Senator Sir John Carrick's benefit let me make some comparison between these two periods of government. The burden of the Opposition's complaints today is that Senator Richardson-this is a very tenuous connection-who is a senator elected to this Parliament and who has his own views, which he is entitled to state, was working for the Prime Minister in expressing his own views. I will say a lot of things about Senator Richardson, but one thing honourable senators opposite ought to be clear about is that he is a very independent minded man and he did not need to be told by the Prime Minister what he had to say about this issue. But the Opposition seeks to make a connection between a letter from Mr Visbord and a comment by Senator Richardson, and there it is, the whole cowardly abdication of ministerial responsibility by the Prime Minister! All Senator Chaney's windy rhetoric from his school days comes out about this appalling and cowardly incident by the Prime Minister. I understand what this is all about from the Opposition's point of view. It has an appalling record. It is not the question of a lost letter in the Prime Minister's Department which has stirred up the Opposition about all this; it is the memories of the former Minister for Primary Industry standing trial before a jury on a criminal charge. A royal commissioner commented on Mr Nixon:

I am bound to record my view that the Minister did not deal with allegations adequately and effectively.

That was from a royal commissioner-it was not just the question of a lost letter. Mr Nixon remained in his job. Mr Sinclair remained in his job throughout the Australian Dairy Corporation scandal and Senator Durack remained in his job and offered a fair commentary, which I accept, about his own position in relation to that matter. Senator Durack said a lot about these things.

Senator Chaney —That is because Senator Evans kept standing up and giving him lectures.

Senator BUTTON —That is what the Opposition is doing today; it is a role reversal. Senator Durack said:

How on earth does anybody believe in this day and age--

as honourable senators will recall, Senator Durack was a modern Minister--

with departments as large as they are and enormous activities of Government, that Ministers can know or ought to know all of the ramifications of the actions of their Departments.

That was Senator Durack's defence to leaving a file in the bottom drawer of his desk for five years.

Senator Chaney —I take a point of order. That is a total misrepresentation of the position once again and it should be withdrawn by the Minister.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Townley) —Do you seek withdrawal?

Senator Chaney —Yes, I seek withdrawal.

Senator BUTTON —I have some other things to say. Senator Durack did not leave the file on tax avoidance lying in his desk for five years.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Is that satisfactory?

Senator Chaney —That will do.

Senator BUTTON —I refer next to Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, who was criticised for not taking responsibility for the actions of her Department in relation to the Greek conspiracy case. There was no question of her resignation as Minister. Here the hounds are baying because of this incident of a lost letter and the efforts to put together two situations-the Visbord letter and the comments made by Senator Richardson. As I said at Question Time today, the question of improving the performance of the Bicentennial Authority is a matter for the Prime Minister. He will take steps to do that, I have no doubt, but that is a matter within his ministerial responsibility.

Senator Chaney sought to tie all of this to the question of ministerial responsibility, so we had to hear all quotations again. I think the important point Mr Malcolm Fraser made-which is applicable to Senator Chaney-in discussing all the authorities on ministerial responsibility was that this question is often misrepresented. There is often grave misrepresentation as to what ministerial responsibility means. That is something which Senator Chaney was guilty of in the course of his remarks today and I have no doubt there will be more of that in subsequent speeches in the debate, but it is not a matter that is of fundamental concern to the Government.