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Monday, 6 December 1993
Page: 3835

Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) —by leave—I want to again protest this practice. Every week it seems that some ministers are not bothering to turn up for question time.

Senator Collins —Don't look at me.

Senator HILL —Senator Collins is one of the better ones. In the last sitting week, Senator Cook was at a conference in Melbourne. This week we all know where he is, although the minister did not seem to want to mention it. We all know that both Senator Ray and Senator Cook are in Malaysia. Our relations with Malaysia could have been helped in other ways, rather than by sending ministers there after the event. But that is by the way.

  The important issue is on what basis the government can, at its whim, decide ministers are going to go off on various conferences or for other reasons not attend question time. We have always accepted that, in relation to CHOGMs, or meetings of the forum in the Pacific, or longstanding, regular commitments in exceptional circumstances, it is legitimate. But this government is now going far beyond the normal, legitimate, accepted practice of the past. We at least ought to be given the courtesy of reasons as to why this is going to occur.

  Mr Deputy President, you might have picked up that Senator Cook is not going to come back until after the Senate has risen. Apparently, he will not be here for the whole fortnight. Why is it necessary for the minister to be away from the parliament for the whole fortnight—a junior minister at that? It might well be that Senator Gareth Evans feels that he can pick up the trade portfolio again, but that is not a legitimate justification either.

  What can we do other than protest? There are all sorts of things that we can do to make the government's life more difficult but that we avoid. However, if this abuse of the process of the parliament is going to continue, we will have to look at our options. I presume it is a purposeful decision of the Prime Minister, and we know his attitude—

Senator Bolkus —Fred used to turn it on with much more conviction.

Senator HILL —No, our ministers used to attend. Our ministers accepted a responsibility to attend the parliament and to answer questions. Mr Keating has a different attitude to the parliament. He does not see the responsibility to the parliament in the way that it was traditionally seen. It is just another example of his general attitude to the process, which he sees as more of a nuisance than as part of constructive democracy. On some occasion, can we get some general guidelines as to the basis upon which the government is going to decide which ministers will attend when—which conferences are of such note that ministers need not attend before the parliament? This is now getting to the ridiculous stage.