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Wednesday, 18 September 1996
Page: 3556

Senator BOB COLLINS —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Transport and Regional Development. After the minister gagged Aviation Safety Authority officials during the estimates hearings last night and prevented them from answering any questions relating to the unprecedented political direction of the minister for transport to overturn the decision of the authority to require the fitting of automatically activating emergency locator beacons, the minister said that the government had issued this direction on `the best advice'. He went on to say that `the government was conscious of the consequences of the decision'. Can the minister now advise the Senate what was, to quote him, `the best advice' that the minister for transport used to take this unprecedented action in overturning a safety authority decision on equipment to be installed in Australian aircraft? Can he make that best advice available to the Senate.

Senator ALSTON —In the course of last night's proceedings, after Senator Collins had made a fool of himself by suggesting that somehow you could ask officials about the level of morale in the department in relation to decisions, I was asked, with a preface, `I accept that you won't have any first-hand knowledge on this issue, but could you indicate the government's general approach'. I said that without knowing the merits of the decision, I would assume—

Senator Bob Collins —What?

Senator ALSTON —Do you want the answer or not? I would assume that the government had access to the best advice, that it would have made the decision conscious of all the relevant factors, that it would not have been an arbitrary or capricious decision and that we therefore would have ensured that we had access to all the necessary information. All I am saying to you is that those are approaches that one would expect of good government. I am quite happy to ask Mr Sharp to provide you with as much as he possibly can in terms of the information that was taken into account in the making of that decision. But I am sure you understand now, as you understood then, that I did not have any personal knowledge of the issue. I therefore did not have access to the advice.

Senator Bob Collins —Oh, yes!

Senator ALSTON —Of course. I was making it plain to you last night that all I could do was assume, as one would normally assume, and I think you were nodding vigorously at the end of that exchange, that that is indeed the best approach to adopt. You did not pursue the matter further for that reason. I say to you again that in making this decision—

The PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, your answer should not be addressed directly to the questioner.

Senator ALSTON —It is surprising, Madam President, that the other side did not take a point of order. The fact is—

Senator Bob Collins —I was impeccable, Dick.

Senator ALSTON —Well, you might have been impeccable to that extent but Senator Collins certainly was not impeccable in pursuing the matter last night. He did accept that there were principles of good government and good decision making that did involve having access to all the necessary facts and information. That includes the advice that is available to the minister. Naturally, I will invite the minister to respond in the most helpful way possible.

Senator BOB COLLINS —Following that interesting answer from Senator Alston, is Senator Alston aware that his assumption that he has just told us about was sadly flawed and that the reason the minister for transport took what we were advised last night was an unprecedented action in politically directing the authority in respect of overturning a decision on safety equipment on aircraft was in fact a payment for some help that was given to the now government during the election campaign in some newsletters that were published, which I will canvass at a future time. Is the minister conscious of the fact that, on the evidence given to the committee last night, we are now the only country in the world that uses these beacons that allows manually activated beacons to be used?

Senator ALSTON —I am aware that Senator Collins did read into the Hansard record before seeking to table or incorporate it a letter which I think was dated 5 May 1995—

Senator Bob Collins —No, that has nothing to do with this question.

Senator ALSTON —I thought it had. Senator Collins I thought was suggesting that a decision was taken for reasons that were based on presentations made to the minister. If that is not so, of course I will disregard it. I simply say this, Madam President: whatever decision Mr Sharp made, he was not required to have access only to the advice that you think he should have taken into account.

Senator Bob Collins —What!

Senator ALSTON —He was entitled to take into account all of the necessary areas of advice that are available to him, and he makes that judgment as best he can.

Senator Bob Collins —About what equipment is fitted to aircraft?

Senator ALSTON —He does not have to take a decision based on what you think is the appropriate advice. He makes the decision on advice that appeals to him. (Time expired)