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Tuesday, 26 November 1985
Page: 2257

Senator COLSTON 4.29)-At the outset of the consideration of this group of estimates I would like to make some comments about matters which were raised in the report of Estimates Committee D. There are quite a few matters which I think should be brought to the attention of the full Senate, even though these are mentioned in the Committee's report, as I consider they should be highlighted.

The first matter deals with the Department of Education, and specifically the Commonwealth Schools Commission. During the Committee's consideration on 18 April 1985 of the Additional Estimates, questions were asked relating to the early special education program and payments made to New South Wales. The Committee did not receive any response to that request on 18 April. Subsequently, questions on this matter were again asked at the hearings of 12 September. At that stage officers were unable to provide information. The Committee regards such a delay in responding to questions as quite intolerable. The Committee remarked in its report as follows:

The Committee believes that, as a general principle, when questions asked at an Estimates hearing have not been satisfactorily answered, officers should expect they will be followed up at subsequent hearings and be briefed accordingly.

The Estimates Committee believes that that should be the case and it will look forward at subsequent Estimates Committee hearings to officers being so briefed.

With regard to the Australian Capital Territory Schools Authority, the Committee was quite dissatisfied with responses provided by the Authority to a series of questions which had been made available to the Authority prior to the public hearings and which related to the use of corporal punishment in schools administered by the Authority. Whilst the Authority undertook to provide more detailed information-information that it should have had available at that time-the approach adopted by the Authority indicated a marked lack of respect for the Committee. The Committee would not expect this to recur.

Comments were made about the Australian Film Commission, within the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment. The comments related to the unsatisfactory format of the explanatory notes provided. The Committee notes that, subsequently, a complete dissection of the items was provided by the Commission with its written replies.

With regard to the National Library of Australia, there are some comments which indicate that the Committee had previously been given incorrect advice. When an Estimates committee asks for information it expects that the advice given to it is accurate; otherwise, the holding of Estimates committee hearings becomes a farce. Misleading and erroneous advice was given by the National Library of Australia on a previous occasion and this was discovered in the recent hearings that we held. I quote what the Committee said in this regard:

The Committee views most seriously this provision of erroneous and misleading advice and cautions the National Library that it will be paying close attention to future evidence and activity of the Library before the Committee.

I just stress again that if committees are not to be given correct advice there is not much point in holding public hearings of Estimates committees.

With regard to the Department of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, it is important to comment on the Commonwealth Government Directory. This directory is widely used within the Public Service and by those outside the Government who have dealings with various government departments. The Committee at its hearings was concerned about the lengthy delay in publishing Volume 1 of the Commonwealth Government Directory for 1985. Since those hearings that directory has become available, but at that stage it was not available. The Committee was informed that the delay in publication resulted from a combination of factors, one of which was late submission of copy. Seventeen departments were listed as not having met the deadlines which were set between 1 and 28 February 1985. It is important that these departments be mentioned in the Senate because they were neglectful of their duty to provide information at a proper time. Those departments were: Arts, Heritage and Environment; Communications; Community Services; Defence; Education and Youth Affairs; Employment and Industrial Relations; Health; Industry, Technology and Commerce; Primary Industry; Prime Minister and Cabinet; Resources and Energy; Science; Sport, Recreation and Tourism; Territories; Transport; Treasury; and Veterans' Affairs.

Senator Puplick —It would have been easier to list the ones that complied.

Senator COLSTON —The comment of Senator Puplick is quite pertinent: It may have been easier to list the departments which replied on time. The Committee made this remark:

The Committee regards this situation as most unsatisfactory and would expect that in the future departments should meet copy deadlines to ensure a more timely, and therefore up-to-date, publication of the Directory.

It seems that departments should take care that-I use a word sometimes used in the Public Service-slippage does not occur in replying to requests such as this. Replies must be on time; otherwise the information being provided by the Government for its use and for the use of people outside the Government is not available.

The Committee recognises that the Department of Aboriginal Affairs has made some effort to rectify problems by issuing departmental guidelines. The Department has produced two documents, `Departmental Guidelines' and `Departmental Financial Guidelines for Grants'. All that I have said so far has probably been critical of certain aspects of departments. At this stage the Committee wishes to commend the Department of Aboriginal Affairs for its timely initiative in the production and publication of these guidelines. It is nice to be able to make a comment such as that when some of the other comments have been critical.

Finally, I wish to make some comments about the scheduling of hearings of Estimates committees. The Committee was concerned that its consideration of the Estimates was interrupted by a variety of occurrences which were outside its influence. The Committee therefore believes that consideration should be given to reviewing the scheduling of Estimates committees to allow maximum time for public hearings, unfettered by the restraints imposed by operating subject to sitting periods of the Senate. By that we mean that definite times should be set aside for committee hearings-times when we will not be concerned about when the House may rise or when Ministers may be called away for Cabinet discussions. The Committee believes that consideration should be given to that so that Estimates committees can work in the way in which they are supposed to work.