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Thursday, 20 May 1993
Page: 937

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Transport and Communications) —by leave—I table the Pearce report and attached explanatory tabling statement, and I seek leave to move a motion in relation to it.

  Leave granted.

Senator COLLINS —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

I say for the benefit of the House that I did have the courtesy to speak to the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Hill) about this, and indicated what I thought was a manageable way of handling the debate, now that I have got it in here before Question Time. It was that I would speak on it as soon as I could and table it; that someone would adjourn the debate, which would give the Opposition the chance to read it; and that negotiations, as they normally do, would take place between the Manager of Government Business in the Senate and the Manager of Opposition Business about bringing the debate on at whatever time is convenient to both the Opposition and the Government.

  The written statement touches upon the key issues in this matter. I have just explained, again, what I explained to Senator Hill half an hour ago, in full: that I will table the report; that I will make a statement on it; that it would be reasonable for someone then to adjourn the debate, having spoken to my motion to take note of the report; and then the Opposition can bring the debate on later, whenever it wants to—today, if it wants to—having read the report. That is not an unreasonable process. I have now tabled it.

  Honourable senators will note from the report that Professor Pearce says that he is not going to, and does not need to, canvass the issue of this definition of ministerial responsibility. There is a good reason for that: there are thousands of definitions. I wish to give the Senate, because this is the nub of the matter—

Senator Walters —It depends on the Minister, doesn't it?

Senator COLLINS —No, it does not. I quoted from some conservative Ministers in previous years, and from one in particular. I think that the three areas in the modern parliamentary system that Ministers actually do resign over—

Senator Hill —Mr Deputy President, can I suggest an alternative process? The Minister has suggested that he wanted the matter adjourned after he has put down his tabling statement. We think that is sensible, because we have not read the report. Could I suggest that he seek leave to incorporate his tabling statement? Then we can all take the documents away—the report and the statement—and come back and debate the matter later in the day.

Senator COLLINS —No, I do not want to do that. I explained to—

Senator Alston —You want to spend as much time as possible—

Senator COLLINS —That is why I say that one can get no agreement on fairness in this. This has been the central issue of these sittings every day and night for three weeks. I have the report.

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator COLLINS —I will say it now, and for this reason.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The Minister has the call.

Senator Hill —Mr Deputy President, on a point of order: what is the effect of the sessional order that required us to go on to other business at a quarter to one?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —At a quarter to one leave was granted for this debate to be carried on.

Senator Hill —Leave was granted for the Minister to table a report.

Senator Walters —And to table his tabling speech.


Senator Faulkner —Mr Deputy President, on the point of order: leave was granted for the previous matter to go past 12.45 p.m., the time at which matters of public interest are called on. After the conclusion of that matter, on the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition for the adjournment of the debate, leave was granted by the chamber for the Minister, Senator Collins, to table the Pearce report and make a tabling statement.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —That is correct. The Minister is in order.

Senator COLLINS —Mr Deputy President, could I just explain why I think this is the best way of handling it? I am happy to make my statement now, for obvious reasons, because when Opposition senators have as many hours as they like—

  Senator Hill interjecting—

Senator COLLINS —No, I do not need to do it afterwards. When Opposition senators have as many hours as they like to consider everything, they can not only consider the report—they have got the Hansard—but they can consider what I have to say about it. I think that that is fair, so I will continue.

  I was just getting to the point of saying that the key element here—at least, it has been every day and night for the last three weeks—is ministerial responsibility. Let us get right down to the bottom line: whether Ministers should resign and under what circumstances. I have had calls for the last three weeks that I should do so. I will tell honourable senators what I think Ministers should, and do, resign over. There are three grounds.

Senator Tambling —Speak to the Pearce report.

Senator COLLINS —This is exactly the point of this matter, as the honourable senator knows. I quoted Sir Victor Garland, a former Liberal Minister, who said that a Minister should only resign if the Prime Minister believes it is for the good of the government. But I think there are two other grounds. There are three grounds, I think, that should cause Ministers to resign and, indeed, that the record shows Ministers do resign over. The first is when the Minister loses the confidence—

Senator Ian Macdonald —Mr Deputy President, could I raise a point of order regarding the relevance of this? What have ministerial responsibility and reasons for resigning got to do with the tabling of the Pearce report?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The Minister is in order.

Senator COLLINS —Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I am glad this is all going into the Hansard. Has anybody been listening to the calls from those opposite for the last three weeks? This report is to determine, independently, whether I should resign or not. For Senator Macdonald to pretend that that is not the case on some obscure—

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator COLLINS —I will continue, Mr Deputy President, regarding this specious point of order. There are three grounds on which Ministers should resign.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The Minister should ignore the interjections.

Senator COLLINS —I will. The first is if the Minister has lost the confidence of the Prime Minister and—in my case, I will extend that net a bit further—his senior colleagues. I do not think they will be embarrassed if I name them. There are five Ministers in this Government whom I have known for something like 15 years and to whom I regularly go to seek advice on political issues. They proffer it to me unasked very often. Those Ministers are: the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, Senator Ray, Senator Richardson, Mr Beazley and the Prime Minister (Mr Keating). I lived in Arnhem Land, as honourable senators know, for four years.

Senator Kemp —Is this relevant?

Senator COLLINS —Yes, very relevant. Twice in my life I have witnessed people being sung to death, which is what has been happening to me for the last three weeks. People refer to it as pointing the bone. That is only done in Central Australia, but the mob I lived with for four years, whose language I still speak and whose ceremonies I—

Senator Hill —Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. Apart from its lack of relevance, I think this is highly offensive. I find it offensive that our right to expect proper accountability of a Minister is being spoken of in terms of somebody being `sung to death', to use the Minister's expression. He has sought leave to table a report and a statement. If he would table the statement we could get on to the business that the Senate is assigned to undertake at a quarter to one each Thursday and we could come back to the debate later in the afternoon when we have all had a chance to read both the report and the statement. The Minister seems to be distracted, if I might say so, with respect.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The Minister is speaking to the motion, which he had leave to move.

Senator COLLINS —I will finish in no more than two minutes. I will conclude my speech by stating what I think are the three grounds on which Ministers should resign. In my view, the first is that a Minister has lost the confidence of the Prime Minister and, in my case, a number of senior colleagues. The second is that a Minister has committed some gross personal impropriety, either inside or outside Parliament. I talked to Senator Michael Baume about this the other day. He would agree that history seems to indicate that that is either corporate or sexual impropriety. It would include such things as a Minister sleeping with a Russian spy—or perhaps kissing Senator Bishop on national television. The third ground, which is very important, is that a Minister has misled the Parliament. In my view, if he has misled the Parliament, he should resign instantly.

  I say that the Pearce report indicates, firstly, as honourable senators will see, that I certainly know that I have the full support of the Prime Minister on this issue and that of my senior colleagues whom I have mentioned. Secondly, it indicates that I have committed no personal impropriety either inside or outside the Parliament. Thirdly, the Pearce report will indicate that for the last three weeks I have told the Senate nothing but the truth.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Hill) adjourned.