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Tuesday, 23 November 1993
Page: 3440


Senator FERGUSON (4.43 p.m.) —I rise to support my leader, Senator Hill, in the matter of suspending the standing orders. Yesterday's events provide a very good reason why we should be supporting this motion. Yesterday, we saw an indication of the double standards of this government in relation to information. As I stated yesterday in that debate, if the government chooses to recall an estimates committee, it does. This has happened.

  I am sorry that Senator Schacht has gone, because he is the minister who recalled an estimates committee because he had some more information that he wanted to give it. Many of my colleagues will remember that it concerned the proposed imposition of an administration fee on the diesel fuel rebate. When the minister had more information that he wanted to convey to the committee, he recalled it after it had already dealt with the appropriate matter.

  If the government is going to assume different standards when it wishes to provide more information compared with when the opposition wishes to obtain more information or question information that has been made available, the very least it could do is table the documents as requested in the two notices of motion. Coalition members would then have the opportunity to avail themselves of the extra information which currently they do not have.

  A House of Representatives committee has been formed. As I understand it from the Canberra Times, Mr Langmore has said that the committee is talking about holding meetings in private, perhaps next February, with the Auditor-General present. That is not an adequate way for this matter to be given full, frank and open public debate.

  We do not really know what documents the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories (Mrs Kelly) has. Senator Schacht today trotted out some letters. They were obviously some of the documents that the minister had which Senator Schacht chose to use and, I understand, which the minister chose to use in the other place as some sort of evidence of coalition members' support for the grants. In this particular case, we do not know what documents the minister has and we do not know on what basis the decisions were made. The Auditor-General's report stated that some 11 per cent of the grants that were made in response to requests did not fit the criteria previously used by the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories. Those requests had previously been rejected.

  The Senate has some right to know what made the department and, particularly, the minister's office change their minds so that those people whom it had previously been decided did not have the proper qualifications under the objectives to receive grants all of a sudden did receive grants. I have my own suspicions as to why they changed their minds, but some of the documentation that would be available from the minister's office might help to reinforce some of those suspicions.

  I cannot for the life of me understand why Senator Lees, speaking on behalf of the Democrats, should want to leave such an important matter to a House of Representatives committee. As I said only last night, I understand that the Democrats believe that it is their responsibility to keep the government honest. It has been put another way, but I will leave it at that. Yet she would allow this committee—which has no representation from the Democrats whatsoever—to do the work which could be done by a Senate committee on which the Democrats could be properly represented. They could find out for themselves some of the reasons behind the decisions that were made by the minister's office about where some of these sporting and cultural grants should go.

  I am surprised that Senator Lees says that a House of Representatives committee could do it because I am quite sure that, in every other situation, the Democrats feel that they would like to have an input and would like to have an influence on what happens in this place in particular. For those reasons, I support Senator Hill's motion to suspend standing orders so that we can have an adequate debate on the issue.