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Thursday, 19 September 1996
Page: 3588

Senator FAULKNER —My question is directed to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Minister, I refer to Mr Costello's statement in the House yesterday that the government was not attracted to Senator Harradine's alternative proposal for raising money from Telstra. I ask you, minister: did Mr Costello consult the Prime Minister before making this statement? Minister, didn't Mr Costello consult you, as minister for communications, before making this statement? And, minister, are you attracted to Senator Harradine's proposal?

Senator ALSTON —There seems to be some misunderstanding on Senator Faulkner's part. Maybe it derives from the fact that they never ever really did make statements at all other than in question time. But Mr Costello was not making a statement in the House of Representatives yesterday. He was asked a question by an independent member of the House. In other words—

Senator Bob Collins —Did he do it in sign language, Richard?

Senator ALSTON —Just a moment. There is all the difference in the world between someone making a prepared statement and someone answering a question. It is a pretty fundamental difference, I would have thought. Yet, Senator Faulkner seems to think that somehow Mr Costello had decided to go into the parliament and make a statement on behalf of the government. This is fundamentally a misconception and misunderstanding of the nature of the process. They have question time in that place where all members of the House of Representatives are entitled to ask questions. They are certainly not obliged to give notice and, indeed, one would not expect Independents or indeed even—

Senator Bob Collins —This is the federal Treasurer at question time in the House of Representatives.

Senator ALSTON —Are you making a fool of yourself? The fact that it is the Treasurer in the House of Representatives converts an answer to a question without notice into a statement, into a ministerial statement, does it? You really have no idea of the difference between a ministerial statement and an answer to a question without notice. What Mr Costello was doing was speaking on behalf of the government.

Senator Bob Collins —Oh, good.

Senator ALSTON —I just hope you appreciate the point that I have been making to you.

Senator Bob Collins —No!

Senator ALSTON —You don't. You still do not understand the difference between a ministerial statement and a question without notice.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, do not direct your remarks directly to a senator opposite.

Senator ALSTON —Madam President, I was grievously provoked. I will try to ensure that there is no misunderstanding about this. Senator Faulkner clearly has no idea either because he asked me on two occasions about the making of a statement. So, quite clearly, Senator Faulkner does not understand the issue either. It is clear, therefore, that what they should have done was look at the Hans ard to understand what was happening. What happened was that Mr Rocher asked a question to which the Treasurer gave a response on behalf of the government. He indicated the government's position.

Senator Bob Collins —He stated it.

Senator ALSTON —Well, he stated it. I am sorry: he indicated; he stated. Good point—great point! He was not making a statement—can we agree on that term? He was answering a question—can we agree on that? All right. In answering the question—

Senator Bob Collins —What was he doing—knitting?

Senator ALSTON —He was answering the question, Senator Bob Collins. In answering the question he was indicating the government's attitude to proposals which would increase government debt or which would not be cost effective in the management of government debt. I would have thought that is a fairly clear enunciation of the government's attitude to an issue. He did it by way of an answer, not by way of a statement. I hope you will read the standing orders and understand the difference.

Senator FAULKNER —I ask a supplementary question, Madam President. I think we have a new measure of attempts to duck a question asked in this chamber by redefining the dictionary definition of the word `statement'. But, as a supplementary question, minister—and try to answer this and not duck away from it; it is very simple—did you agree with the Treasurer, Mr Costello, and do you agree with the Treasurer, Mr Costello, that Senator Harradine's proposal for the issue of redeemable preference shares in Telstra is not attractive? Minister, it is a simple question: do you agree with that statement?

Senator ALSTON —Once again, there seems to be a misunderstanding on the part of Senator Faulkner about the position of the government on issues. All ministers agree—we are all agreed on this issue—as Mr Costello made plain yesterday, that the government is not attracted to proposals that would increase government debt and would not be cost effective in the management of government debt.

It is also quite clear, as we have indicated, that we are considering Senator Harradine's proposals. We will be having further discussions with him in due course. If you do not understand the nature of what was said in the House of Representatives yesterday, I am quite prepared to enter into correspondence with you or conduct a briefing. Perhaps Senator Schacht might come along, too. We could go through it and save ourselves a lot of trouble down the track. But I would have thought the position was made abundantly clear on behalf of the government by Mr Costello in question time yesterday.