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Thursday, 20 May 1993
Page: 927


Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (12.07 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the statement.

I apologise for not being here at the commencement of the remarks made by the Minister for Transport and Communications (Senator Collins), so to that extent I may be partly misinformed. Nonetheless, I am sure that the Minister will take every opportunity to correct me if I am misinformed.

  As I understand it, what the Minister has said is that he will be tabling the Pearce report shortly but that he is refusing to comply with the order of this chamber yesterday that he table documents by 12 noon.


Senator Collins —Less than 24 hours.


Senator ALSTON —It has nothing to do with 24 hours. The Minister has had two weeks or more to get all this information together. When the motion was moved and debated yesterday, he did not in any way indicate that he would have difficulty in meeting that request. He rabbited on about 113,000 pieces of paper. As we both know, that was completely irrelevant because by that stage I had narrowed my request down to what I would have thought is probably going to be no more than half a dozen to a dozen documents.

  If there is voluminous advice—legal, technical and other—then I would have thought that the very least the Minister could have done was to have come in here today and said, `This is what we have identified'. Presumably people have been working on this for at least the last 24 hours.


Senator Collins —We've got the Pearce report in four days ahead of schedule.


Senator ALSTON —I am not interested in that. I am talking about the Minister's attitude to a motion which he did not contest. He did not in any shape or form demur, let alone vote against that motion. In other words, the Minister accepted a solemn obligation to table all of those documents. He did not say that it was an impossible task. The very least he could have done was to have tabled a quantity of documents by the appointed hour. I am amazed to hear, as I think I am hearing, that there are so many bits of advice—


Senator Hill —It has always been the case—Senator Bolkus last year, Senator Collins.


Senator ALSTON —This is not accidental. As Senator Hill points out, this is deliberate. It is a strategy of delay and defer and filibuster and putting it all off as long as possible. It is pretending that somehow this is an incredibly difficult task, that we have got all these loyal and dedicated public servants working 24 hours a day—`They are absolutely swamped, cannot possibly comply with a motion to which Senator Collins took no objection'. This bloke has been sweating over this, or should have been, for the last two or three weeks at least and ought to be blindingly—


Senator Collins —I've been doing one or two other things as well.


Senator ALSTON —If the Minister has, he has not been concentrating on the main game, because I would have thought that this would be what it ought to be about for him. He ought to have been blindingly aware for the last three weeks that the allegations against him were that he personally did not seek or obtain the necessary advice—


Senator Collins —You are going to have the report in 30 minutes.


Senator ALSTON —Do not worry about that. We will come to that in a moment. It ought to have been achieved days ago, if not weeks ago. Senator Collins ought to have been acutely aware, because if he had any concept of how to administer his own office in his own interest he would have immediately said, `What documents did I get? What did I ask for? If they are blaming me, tell me; did I do everything reasonable in the circumstances? Do not let us just say, "Go away and find some scalps in the department". Tell me what I did and what I ought to have done'.

  It is preposterous for Senator Collins to come in here and now refuse to comply with the order of the Senate yesterday. I do not for a moment accept that there is any difficulty in his doing that, at least in part and, indeed, I would say in whole. There cannot be very many pieces of advice. His whole defence in this matter seems to have been, `Hell, why should I have thought of that? This is arcane legal nonsense', or, `There I was sitting up in Darwin on 19 January and staff were on leave and I did not think of doing this, that and the other'. I suspect that there was precious little advice that he got or asked for. Yet here he is having the cheek to say to the Senate that he really cannot comply at all with that request to which he did not object. That is treating the process with contempt. That is making it abundantly obvious that he is not fair dinkum about trying to face up to his own responsibilities.

  He clearly knows where he failed and he simply will not acknowledge it. As I apprehend what he said before I arrived, there will only be a couple of documents. The Minister indicated earlier that if I am wrong he will quickly indicate that. Am I correct in assuming that when he does table the Pearce report it will be accompanied by only several documents—


Senator Collins —Why don't you wait to see; you haven't got long to wait.


Senator ALSTON —I am just asking the Minister whether he has said how many documents, if any, will be tabled with the Pearce report. If he has not said anything on the subject I will not pursue it at this stage.


Senator Collins —Give me leave when you have finished. I am not going to interject across the chamber. Give me leave and I will respond.


Senator ALSTON —Why not?


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, you should be talking to the Chair and not to the Minister.


Senator ALSTON —Therefore, Madam Acting Deputy President, I can proceed only on the basis that, when the Minister does table the Pearce report, he will table precious few accompanying documents. I therefore remind him again of a solemn promise that he gave to the estimates committee to table every relevant piece of paper that was used by the inquirer.


Senator Collins —That is a nice little payback for being honest with you, Senator Hill.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order!


Senator ALSTON —Do not let us have this fatuous and disingenuous nonsense that the Minister does not interject across the chamber, particularly when he is invited to offer a helpful and constructive piece of information. The Minister chooses not to do so, and I am therefore simply pointing out that he told the estimates committee something like, `This is not just any old inquiry. I will ensure that every conceivable piece of paper used by the inquirer will be tabled in the Senate'. I have not got the transcript here. We will look at it a little later.

  I am putting the Minister on notice that when the Pearce report is tabled we expect him to comply with that undertaking, and that will include not only every document that Professor Pearce looked at but the transcript of the evidence of those who appeared before him.


Senator Collins —Don't talk nonsense—the transcript is evidence.


Senator ALSTON —So we are simply to rely on, are we—


Senator Collins —The integrity of Professor Pearce.


Senator ALSTON —Not the integrity of Professor Pearce at all. It depends very much on the interpretation the Minister places on Professor Pearce's terms of reference, but I can tell the Minister right now that I do not accept that Professor Pearce has any jurisdiction to pass judgment on the Minister's failings. Professor Pearce is asked to address the problems in the department, and therefore there may well be a lot of material there that Professor Pearce does not refer to because it is extraneous, and particularly if the Minister did his usual trick and went along and no doubt tried to persuade Professor Pearce of how important and how accurate and how righteous he has been in the whole process.


Senator Collins —What?


Senator ALSTON —I do not know whether the Minister did. Did he? Has the Minister been along to give evidence to him?


Senator Collins —Smear me if you like, but leave Professor Pearce out of it.


Senator ALSTON —I am simply saying that if the Minister went along to see Professor Pearce and went to great lengths to tell the professor how good he had been, Professor Pearce may well take the view, and should, that any self-justification is irrelevant because his terms of reference confine him to passing judgment on the department. Therefore, it is outrageous for the Minister to suggest that his undertaking to the estimates committee does not require him to table every piece of paper, including the transcript. This process will be a farce—it is no fault of Professor Pearce—if the Minister chooses not to table the transcript. If the Minister chooses not to table every relevant piece of paper it will be his decision alone, taken for political purposes to cover his ample hide. It will certainly, I think, contaminate the whole process. It will bring Professor Pearce's name into needless controversy, and it will ensure that the Minister remains the focus, as he deserves to be.


Senator Collins —That is dead right.


Senator ALSTON —I am glad we agree on something. Let me simply say that the Minister has not provided any reason at all why he is deliberately and flagrantly disobeying the order of the Senate, to which he did not object yesterday. He has not in any shape or form tried to explain why he is not able to table at least some of the documents. I would not accept that that is sufficient. He ought at the very least to know how many documents there are and what they are. He ought to have been able to tell us that before midday. The Minister is deliberately refraining from cooperating with the expressed wish of the Senate. He is clearly wanting to be as protective of his own hide as possible. He is not wanting to provide the documents that will enable the Senate to pass judgment on his responsibility. Once again he is wanting to hide behind a report that he has commissioned and whose terms of reference are limited to the activities of bureaucrats. We know he has been desperate to try to blame the bureaucrats from day one, when he is not busy blaming the Opposition, the Senate, the media, or anyone else.

  His main game has been to try to shaft the bureaucracy. That is understandable when he is not prepared to face up to his own responsibilities, but it is outrageous for him to somehow pretend that the Pearce report, in the form in which it appears, without all the documentation, somehow addresses the issues of concern. It simply does not. The Minister will be hounded until he fully complies with the request.