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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 733

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Transport and Communications) —by leave—During Question Time today Senator Tierney referred to a debate in which I had participated in the Northern Territory Parliament nine years ago. I chanced my memory—and I confess it—and I am pleased to say I came up trumps. Senator Tierney quoted what I had said about ministerial responsibility in relation to a memo, which I correctly recalled had been signed by the then Minister for Housing, Mr Dondas, currently the Speaker of the Northern Territory Parliament, and asserted that the comments I had made about ministerial responsibility in terms of this memo did not relate to the memo. I chanced my memory, as I have said, and I have come up trumps.

  I have the documents. I must give credit for this to the Clerk of the Northern Territory Parliament, a former officer of this Senate. They are pretty efficient up there. In about half an hour he has dug out the memos and the complete records of this debate that occurred in the Territory Parliament nine years ago. All I have to say is that Senate training of Clerks at the table must be pretty good. I am indebted to him. I will table this as a bundle of documents. It is fascinating—even after nine years—to read this.

  The memo, as you will see when you read it, Mr Acting Deputy President, offered to relieve the Minister of his discretion in waiving interest penalty payments from public servants who had bought their own houses, to relieve the Minister of the problem of `the irritation to you of signing instruments on an almost daily basis'. What the memo went on to say was astonishing. I suggest to Senator Alston and some of his colleagues that they read this, because the Minister did not actually resign. In the final paragraph the memo said, `Whilst not strictly in accord with the letter of the Act . . .'. The Minister's department gave him a memo which proposed relieving the Minister of all of his discretion and having it exercised by the department—and this was a brand new Act of parliament that had only just been passed.

Senator Loosley —That is unlawful.

Senator COLLINS —It is unbelievable. The memo advised the Minister that the action they were proposing for him to take was unlawful. I knew there was something extraordinary about this memo. It is a pity Senator Tierney is not here. It is that old story—and he is an educational expert—that a little knowledge truly is a dangerous thing. This is fascinating stuff because the Minister, despite this, did not resign. I give this undertaking to Parliament now: the day that I receive a memo from my department proposing a course of action to me which the department advises me in the memo is unlawful and I approve it, I will resign.

  I would like honourable senators to refer to the memo from the old Minister—I am indebted to the Clerk of the Northern Territory Parliament for providing this—and also to refer to the first direction issued by the new Minister. It is worth reading, particularly the clause in response to the Minister's earlier discretion, which reads:

It seems that people who could be described as being `without influence' have penalties imposed on them whilst people who might be described as influential get them waived.

I commend it. I table this afternoon as a bundle the memos referred to by Senator Tierney, for the extraordinary evidence they display about true ministerial impropriety and lack of responsibility, along with a number of pages of Senate Hansard of the time which honourable senators opposite who are baying for blood might do very well to read.