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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 709

Senator TIERNEY —I refer the Minister for Transport and Communications to a statement he made in June 1984 when he was leader of the Northern Territory opposition, regarding ministerial responsibility. He stated:

. . . any Minister who would have just blithely said "approved" at the end of a memo like that deserves to be sacked.

When will the Minister apply his 1984 view of ministerial responsibility to his own disastrous handling of the pay TV situation as Minister and, at the very least, stand aside?

Senator COLLINS —I will ensure that that memo is tabled in this Parliament. I remember the memo very well; it related to Mr Dondas, the then Minister for Housing.

Senator Ian Macdonald —Why don't you take some notice of it now?

Senator COLLINS —I will tell Senator Macdonald; he should have read the memo. When a Minister receives specific advice from his department that he should not do something and then goes ahead and does it, which was the case, I think he does have something to answer for. I might mention, as I pointed out earlier in the Senate, a huge brawl involving a previous Liberal Minister for communications—and we have to go back a fair way to find the last one of those—a person for whom, despite protests from elsewhere on the front bench, I have a lot of respect, and that is Mr Staley.

  Mr Staley was censured in the Parliament and was called upon to resign. Why? Because he got specific written legal advice from the department of the Attorney-General that the ABT, under his direction, was acting unlawfully and, having got that advice, he ignored it. He was censured in the Parliament and called upon to resign because of that. As one of my colleagues said afterwards, `Did he resign?'. The answer was no, he did not.

  There is no question in my mind that if a Minister does receive specific advice from a department alerting him to a problem and recommending that he should do something about it, and the Minister does something contrary, he at least needs to be able to explain why he has done that or, perhaps, consider what action he might take. What Senator Tierney would earn himself a great deal of credit for is if he actually read in full the debate he has just referred to and understood the problem, because a subsequent Minister in the Northern Territory Government repaired the damage that that particular Minister did.

  As I said before, I do not accept that in the responsible system of government that we have—that is, where Ministers also have to be elected members of parliament, to look after constituents and to campaign in elections—it is reasonable that I as a Minister should be expected, as, to my total disbelief, Senator Alston has suggested here today a Minister should be, to pick up a piece of arcane legal drafting at the time it was first put in front of me in a determination at the time I signed it, when all of the legal advice given by Mr Gyles QC and the AG indicated that this was a matter which even confused some of the lawyers.

Senator TIERNEY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. We were not talking about the memo; we were talking about the Minister's reaction to the memo. That is what we were quoting. Let me quote it again:

. . . any Minister who would have just blithely said "approved" at the end of a memo like that deserves to be sacked.

It really comes down to a question of the understanding of the memo and, in the case before us, Senator Collins's understanding of the documents in front of him. As he has signed documents he has obviously not understood, should he not take the responsibility now and resign?

Senator COLLINS —The memo in question laid out to the Minister, as ministerial memos do, a course of action which clearly, in the view of the Minister's department, should not have been followed. At the end of it, it said `approved/disapproved', and the Minister said `approved'. I will get the memo, to see just how relevant this is to the debate. I make the obvious point, which Senator Tierney seems to have lost, that to even suggest that a statement taken in relation to a memo tabled in the Northern Territory Parliament nine years ago is not relevant to the memo itself is a piece of nonsense.