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Thursday, 25 May 1989
Page: 2706

Senator ROBERT RAY (Minister for Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs)(3.20) —Senator Newman has achieved the distinction of moving the weakest censure motion in the history of the Senate. I will start with the first problem with the motion. We are acting under a sessional order. I think it was first moved by Senator Macklin. Senator Newman was given permission to move her censure motion on the basis of that motion. The motion is in several parts. I will read part (c) for the benefit of the Senate:

In the event that the Minister does not provide an explanation, the senator, may, without notice, move a motion condemning the Minister's failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.

Senator Hill —Why don't you read it all?

Senator ROBERT RAY —The reality is that Senator Richardson provided an explanation. He may not like the explanation and will always argue about whether it was the best possible explanation or whether it excused the Department of Defence. Nevertheless, under the sessional order under which we operate, part (c) is triggered only when a Minister does not provide an explanation. I think it is always of slight concern that, having provided an explanation, somebody can be censured, without notice, and then have to defend the matter. That is the first point to be made.

Secondly, Senator Richardson, in his explanation, indicated that the answer would be provided tomorrow. One has to be rather unkind and say that this was all pre-planned. It did not matter what Senator Richardson's explanation was, he was going to be censured. It was not in accordance with this sessional order, either in the letter or the spirit. It was a pre-devised tactic to move a censure motion on Mr Beazley and Senator Richardson. Senator Richardson said that the answer would be provided tomorrow. Yet we have had to have this particular motion.

Senator Newman —How often do we believe him-every day?

Senator ROBERT RAY —We get this heckle and jeckle from Senator Newman. I am going to give this explanation whether she intervenes or not. It was ironic that I was approached during Question Time and asked whether the rest of the questions on Estimates Committee D could be answered. During Question Time we were endeavouring to relay messages to try to get those answers.

We have a situation where, firstly, I argue very strongly that this motion is not in accordance with the sessional order. Secondly, the motion censures Senator Richardson and others for not providing answers. Here we have the classic case of Liberal amnesia. Maybe I was lucky or maybe I was unlucky to be in opposition in this chamber. Many of my colleagues have not been. I remind Senator Schacht-Senator Foreman was here with me-of the amount of unanswered questions we used to get when we were in opposition. It was far worse than anything that exists today. I used to put many questions on notice but my colleague Senator Bolkus used to put in many more. Most were never answered. That was not the fault of the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Sir John Carrick, who always tried to chase up Ministers to get their responses in on time. In relation to Estimates committees, there has been a quantitative change and hundreds more written questions are put on notice now. I will be in the same position as Senator Richardson one day because there are certain questions I will refuse to answer when it amounts to a massive cost to the taxpayer.

Senator Newman —There is no cost in this.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I am not saying that there is. I am saying that in certain circumstances I will refuse to make the taxpayer pay for the cost of answering some of these questions. I only wish that one was not bound to Senator Newman by the privacy of discussions with her own colleagues about the relevancy of her questions at Estimates committees. One must have some honour in politics. I cannot repeat them here.

Senator Chaney —That is the cheapest shot in the book.

Senator ROBERT RAY —It is a true one-cheap, but true. We are now facing, without notice, this monumental censure motion of two Ministers over one question, the answer to which will be provided tomorrow. Big deal! All Senator Newman is doing is devaluing censure motions by bringing up a trivial one like this.

On the substance of the question, certain serious matters are raised. Not on all occasions do even those opposite expect questions to be answered within a month but they expect an explanation as to why they are not answered. Given the difficulty we had today in getting the questions answered by the Defence Department I would have thought that a more prudent course would be to allow Senator Richardson and others to pursue them with more vigour. I acknowledge and place on the record that Defence is not the best department for providing answers. That is my own experience. It has also been Senator Richardson's experience. It is very difficult when one is a Minister representing another department to be continually chasing matters up like this while doing one's other duties. The Defence Department will have to lift its game in answering questions on notice, either at the Estimates committees or those asked in the Parliament. I hardly think that fact allows for the successful carriage of a censure motion.

In conclusion, Senator Hill asked me to read the whole of the motion. I have read it but I still do not believe that a motion moved under part (c) can be justified when an explanation is given. It was not as though we did not do it because we were too busy. A full explanation was given as to where the question was at and it was stated that it would be answered tomorrow. I would understand it a little more if the Opposition, having raised the matter today under this sessional order, had pursued it if it had not got the answer by tomorrow.

I do not wish to detain this chamber any longer on this trivial matter. I believe that in the context in which it has been raised and on the basis that the answer was to be provided tomorrow it is not only trivial but also a waste of the Senate's time. It debases and devalues the purpose of a censure motion. If someone is to be censured I would have thought it should be taken seriously. We on this side of the House cannot take this matter seriously. This does not deflect from the fact that answers should be provided as quickly as possible. I concede that it is desirable to answer all questions as quickly as possible. I exempt from that category ratbag complex questions the answers to which would cost the taxpayer a fortune. We were as guilty of asking these questions when we were in opposition as the present Opposition is. I am not trying to moralise from that point of view. Maybe Gordon Scholes had the right idea. When he provided answers he also provided the cost of answering the questions. Some of those questions quickly evaporated in those circumstances. I see my colleague, who is about to be reprimanded here, has come back to the chamber.

Senator Alston —He can't take it. He pretended he was not even listening yesterday when he was getting a serve. Don't you remember that?

Senator ROBERT RAY —Senator Richardson would never have to go to see his Deputy Leader and say, `It is time to march on because I have the numbers'. Senator Alston was so weak that he was bluffed out by Senator Lewis. He was so weak that he was done over by the old bull from Richmond-the bloke whose father taught him everything he knows because he learnt his lessons in the Labor Party. That is why we like him so much. That tough old bloke over there did Senator Alston like a dinner. He should not start calling Senator Richardson a wimp. He would have to be the biggest wimp in history to try to pull that trick. I really should not be sucked in by mediocre interjections from those opposite. I was trying to keep my comments relevant, but now I am falling into Senator Newman's trap of irrelevancy.

To summarise the arguments, firstly, I still maintain that this is not a proper motion. It has not been moved under a proper head of power in respect of Sessional Orders. Secondly, on the basis that Senator Richardson was going to provide the answer tomorrow, one could have well delayed such a motion. Thirdly, I have at least put on record-and I have done it seriously-that there can be criticism of the Department of Defence in its response to questions. Senator Richardson had the matter relating to the Estimates Committee brought to his attention again today in the middle of Question Time. He has addressed and pursued that matter to such an extent that 153 out of the 156 questions have now been answered. I am sure that he will be pursuing it with ever greater vigour because when one is a Minister representing another department one does not want to get stuck with the blame for its failure to deliver. I am certain that Senator Richardson will be having a word to the defence forces in general and the Department, telling them to hurry up-as I had to do when I represented Defence in this chamber-and to get the answers in on time and to ensure that they are satisfactory. I thought I saw some improvement in that regard.

Senator Newman —They have slipped back since you left.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I do not know about that, but I thought we saw some improvement in that regard for a while. If it is not up to the mark, we must ensure that it gets up to the mark, simply so that we do not have to go through these boring, dreary, trivial, nothing censure motions.