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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 4421

Senator CROWLEY(3.37 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone), to questions without notice asked today, relating to information Senator Vanstone provided to the Employment, Education and Training Legislation Committee concerning recipients of social security benefits.

We are dealing here with a matter of the greatest gravity. The Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Senator Vanstone, in question time today and just now in her statement gave us the chronology of how long it took her to write to cover herself, to explain that there had been an error. But for far too long she waited. Even then, she did not come into this Senate and give the explanation.

It is clearly established that misleading a Senate estimates committee is equivalent to misleading the Senate. I find it quite remarkable that yesterday Senator Vanstone gave an unreserved apology—which quite clearly indicates the seriousness with which she takes this matter, the substance of it—but she is quite cavalier about the timing and the process of what she had to do. `What's a couple of days here and there,' she said.

A couple of days here and there are in direct breach of the ministerial guidelines for appropriate behaviour. Those guidelines were put on the record in my question to Senator Vanstone, and also by Senator Faulkner, but they need to be said again:

Any misconception caused inadvertently should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

The minister says, `What's a couple of days here and there.' They are a direct flouting of the guidelines for appropriate ministerial conduct, from which I quote:

An answer which may be found incorrect should be corrected as soon as the error is found.

`At the earliest opportunity' one guideline says; `as soon as it is found' says the next.

Senator Vanstone knew very early on—some of us have the gravest doubt that she did not know from the word go—that this was a fake family. Departments do not make hypothetical families by attaching kids to real families. That is a totally political family construct. It is not what departments do, but they are encouraged to do it by their political directors.

If this hypothetical family was not designed by the minister it was designed by the minister's office. It is about time that the political bent on this matter is made clear. And it is a political bent, blaming the department.

What department takes over two weeks to explain that they got it wrong? They knew on 26 September—when the secretary wrote to the minister—that they had got it wrong. It was two weeks after that before a letter arrived—and still no apology in this place, not until a question was asked by Senator Carr. This is outrageous! It is interesting to note that the ministerial guidelines say:

Any misconception caused inadvertently should be corrected at the earliest opportunity.

The question which I think is critical is: what range of information does that cover? Does it cover the minister coming in here and apologising because she said something wrong or misled the estimates committee and was required to make it clear here? It might, but a common other reading of it would be that you would make some effort to correct the mass of misinformation that went out in the major dailies in huge headlines across this nation. There has been nothing to correct that misinformation—nothing.

The people of Australia have been fed a heap of lies for cheap political gain. In the process, a lot of people have been very offended. Listen to what Mr Costello's brother had to say about it. Listen to what Mr Harry Herbert had to say. Listen to what people in receipt of those payments have to say about how they feel about being pilloried by Senator Vanstone's very cavalier regard for the truth.

This is an outrageous misrepresentation of facts for cheap political advantage. It blatantly conflicts with the guideline requiring a minister to be truthful. The minister's performance blatantly conflicts with the ministerial guidelines requiring errors to be corrected as soon as possible. It blatantly conflicts with the guidelines requiring the correction of errors that have gone further than this parliament.

This minister should resign instead of ducking behind her department in a very cheap trick to spread the blame. Quite clearly, the blame rests entirely and utterly with the political players in this scene—the minister and her office.

Senator TIERNEY(3.42 p.m.) —I chaired the particular estimates hearings where this matter was considered. We actually looked at the document. The document looked totally plausible to us.

It looked totally plausible to Senator Carr at the time. I cannot remember him jumping up and down and saying, `This is nonsense.' It looked totally plausible to Senator Crowley at the time. As a former minister for family services, she should know something about family benefits. I cannot remember Senator Crowley at the time asking,`Hey, is this correct?' It looked totally plausible to all of us.

Senator Bob Collins interjecting—

Senator TIERNEY —It is interesting that Senator Bob Collins should interject. Senator Collins knows a lot about ministerial responsibility. There was a major inquiry into the administration of his department relating to the pay TV licences. It looked at where ministerial responsibility starts and ends and, as Senator Collins would remember, it concluded that a minister cannot possibly know about what happens in his or her department at every level.

Senator Crowley made the outrageous allegation that this information was fabricated in the minister's office. That is not true. As the chair of the committee, I have from Sandy Hollway, the secretary to the department, a letter, which is on the public record—it is a pity that Senator Crowley is not here to correct her lie—and in which he admits—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! You will withdraw that comment.

Senator TIERNEY —I withdraw that comment, Mr Deputy President. Her deliberate misleading of the Senate—

Senator Patterson —What did she say?

Senator TIERNEY —Senator Crowley said that this was fabricated in the minister's office. I have here, and the minister has already tabled this letter—

Senator Bob Collins —On a point of order: you cannot accuse a senator of deliberately misleading the Senate other than by way of a substantive motion.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! You can do it, but it is disorderly.

Senator TIERNEY —Right. It stands on the record and it is true.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —You will withdraw it.

Senator TIERNEY —I thought you said it was disorderly.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —It is disorderly. Therefore, you will withdraw it.

Senator TIERNEY —I withdraw, but everyone knows the basic point that this former minister over here has made a statement. It was in the minister's office and the department has said that it is out of the department. That is where the error lies. How on earth could the minister know what was happening within the department? All of us sitting there at the meeting accepted this on face value.

Let us go to the real basis of what is wrong in the system. The example of the Wright family showed what happened in the administration, or the maladministration, of Austudy under the previous government. One and a half years ago we had an inquiry into Austudy after the Ombudsman found 17 major flaws in the administration of Austudy. We held a major inquiry into it; we made 24 recommendations to change it.

Let me tell you about one of the recommendations. In the past, when people put their name down for Austudy, they had to show their taxable income. The Wright example—hypothetical as it now turns out—shows that people can get their taxable income way down and get Austudy. What our report recommended was then implemented in the dying days of the Labor government. They had not done anything about it for 13 years. They would not have done anything about it until they were provoked by our committee, which broadened out the criteria, which did show up people's assets.

The result of that Liberal initiative is to better target Austudy, and the people who get it are the people who deserve to get it. That is the basis of this debate. It is just an absolute storm in a teacup for the opposition to come in here and claim that the minister has done something wrong when she, like the rest of us on this committee—like Senator Carr and Senator Crowley—sat there through that and believed that it was a real family. Now we know it is not a real family—it is a hypothetical—the record has been set straight, and that is where the matter should lie.

Senator CARR(3.47 p.m.) —Senator Tierney really does stretch the truth indeed. This proposition was put to me at the committee. As deputy chair I have got used to the Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone) not being able to answer questions. For night after night, we sat there asking her questions and she referred those questions, on each and every occasion, off to her officers.

On the case of student youth and language support programs, Senator Ferris—first cab off the rank—asked the big dorothy dix question. The dorothy dixer came in from Senator Ferris. There was the minister in all her glory with an answer that you would have to write home about—a minister who seems to know absolutely nothing about her portfolio when asked about any other area except this one.

What do we find? We find that the minister goes on and on about it to the point where her staff have graphs prepared, have all sorts of extraordinary explanations. I say to you: I was surprised. I asked the question very simply: `So we see this sort of thing being applied across all government departments, can we?' I asked the question, and she was not able to answer, other than to say, `I did not assume for one minute that you think these people should be getting off with these benefits. Of course, that is quite clearly the case. You cannot for one minute expect people to get off.'

We have heard a lot about this government on so-called welfare cheats. I asked the question this week: is it not the case that the most conspicuous bunch of millionaires being paid by the taxpayer are now on the government frontbench? I think that question stands.

We have a fundamental principle here. This minister was advised, according to the secretary of her own department, on 26 September that there was an inaccuracy in her statements to the Senate. She had six sitting days to come into this parliament and correct the record as required under the ministerial responsibility guidelines set down by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard). She failed to do so for six days. If it was not for the question asked by me, she probably still would have tried to get away with her actions.

She tries to pretend that somehow the actions she has taken in regard to tightening up Austudy, with the introduction of the means test, were something only she was responsible for. Yet, if you read the correspondence, under the existing guidelines set down by Labor, the so-called Wright family—the original case, the one before she tried to bodgie up the figures—was not eligible for payments under Austudy.

It is enough to make it absolutely clear that the actual means test was introduced by Labor. It was announced in the 1995-96 budget and came into effect on 1 January 1996, before this government was elected. The portfolio budget statement at the time made it perfectly clear that, as far as the Labor government was concerned, there was a responsibility about community concerns that some well-off families could get Austudy and use complex financial arrangements to circumvent Austudy income and assets tests. From 1 January 1996, before this government was elected, certain categories of families, such as those with access to complex financial arrangements, were to no longer get Austudy unless household means were within allowable limits. Who was responsible for that measure? Of course, it was the then Minister for Schools, Vocational Education and Training, Mr Ross Free. He happens to be Labor's candidate in Lindsay.

Senator Vanstone owes a lot to Ross Free. It was Ross Free who introduced the measures to tighten up arrangements so that people could not abuse their wealth. However, Ross Free never sought to attack people on social security benefits, to suggest millionaires were on welfare and there was some rorting going on, that all people entitled to benefits should not be getting them, or that somehow millionaires were taking advantage of the system.

Without due regard to the proper ministerial guidelines, the minister sought to avoid her responsibilities and to mislead this parliament but, above all else, to mislead the people of this country and not correct the record on the basis of the huge media response from the campaign organised by her, commencing with a dorothy dixer from Senator Ferris. It was a set-up from beginning to end. It took her eight days to come clean, and then only after she was exposed in this chamber as a result of questions from the Labor opposition. It is clear to me that this minister has been—(Time expired)

Senator IAN MACDONALD(3.52 p.m.) —No wonder the ALP is treated as so irrelevant in society when you hear the way they go on about this. I suggest that Senator Crowley get out of the cafe society, away from the chardonnay socialists and the chattering classes and move into the real world—and listen to what people like those in Lindsay want this parliament to do. I can assure you that they do not want this parliament wasting its time on this sort of thing day in day out.

The community voted for us overwhelmingly at the last election because they want a parliament that gets to work and does things. They want a parliament that addresses things like unemployment, the high taxation that all Australians pay and the additional price of goods we have to pay because of the waterfront rorts. Those are the sorts of things for which Australians voted overwhelmingly to get fixed up.

The Labor Party are very embarrassed because most of the problems we now suffer in Australia arose during the time of the Labor Party government of this land. They are not interested in the real issues at all. So what do they do? They run around chasing rabbits down burrows, looking at the shareholdings of very well qualified, intelligent, committed and honest Australians who occasionally make a clerical slip.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —   You can laugh. But get out there and ask real people. Get out of the unions; don't go back and ask your union mates or sit around the Labor Party headquarters and ask those sorts of people. Get out among the real Australians and see what they want us to do. See how absolutely sick and tired average, ordinary, battling Australians are of the way you mob go on with all the irrelevancies that you continue to raise.

If you want to talk about ministerial responsibility, why do you not do something about people like Mrs Lawrence who has been proved in a royal commission to have lied? If you want to talk about morals and the way ministers act, why do you not start on Mrs Lawrence, a woman who has been proved to have lied and is still on the Labor Party front bench?

What about our own good Senator Bob Collins who, as one of my friends reminded me, was the `minister for crises'? Everything he touched became a crisis. You might remember the waterfront, first of all.

Senator Patterson —He was going to resign.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —He was going to resign if he did not fix it. By the date he nominated, it had got infinitely and immeasurably worse. And yet he stayed around. Then he went on to communications. Remember the pay TV fiasco where he signed a bit of paper without even reading it? He did not even read it. He just signed it!

Senator Forshaw —Mr Deputy President, on a point of order: I know that in this period of discussion sometimes speakers do range widely; and I also note that Senator Macdonald has not once yet attempted to defend the minister's disgraceful conduct. Could he actually get back to the issue that is before the parliament rather than talk about all these other irrelevant matters?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Macdonald is in order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Thank you, Mr Deputy President. I appreciate Senator Forshaw getting up and interrupting me. It always shows you are hitting the point if the Labor Party start taking points of order. Thank you for that. I wear that as a badge of courage. You give me the courage to keep going because I know it is hitting home.

Not only did Senator Bob Collins mess up pay TV. He then took over Thomson radar. Remember that? We almost had to have a royal commission into that. If you had any credibility and you wanted people to believe what you are going on about, you would look at that.

One of the previous speakers mentioned something about ministers referring estimates questions to their officers. I sat through six years of it when none of the Labor ministers could answer a question. Senator Schacht will remember that—he could not answer a question. He used to refer them all on. He did not have a clue. Of course, we accepted that because we wanted real answers. (Time expired)

Senator STOTT DESPOJA(3.57 p.m.) —I am glad that Senator Ian Macdonald brought up the issue of the real world because this issue does affect people in the real world. Looking at some of the people receiving Austudy benefits—those few able to get through the stringent eligibility criteria of the Austudy student financial assistance scheme—we see that those on the independent rate receive 68 per cent of the poverty line. But your average Austudy student or recipient is on 38 per cent of the poverty line. So the people we are talking about today in receipt of payments under this scheme are people in the very real world that Senator Macdonald alluded to.

The Australian Democrats are concerned about this issue and this debate. The Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Senator Vanstone) has misled this parliament. She misled the Senate estimates committee. So implausible were some of the examples given to the estimates committee, contrary to the suggestions by Senator Tierney, that my office contacted the Clerk after the estimates committee hearing to find out what would be the case if a minister was responsible for misleading Senate estimates, because we knew that the facts presented to us were indeed dubious and quite spurious.

The minister is responsible not only for misleading the estimates committee and thus the Senate. She is guilty of tardiness by failing to acknowledge and apologise earlier for her mistake in this place and elsewhere, as pointed out. But the minister is most guilty in this debate of perpetuating the myth that there are thousands of people out there who are inappropriately accessing Austudy and that millionaire families are inappropriately accessing Austudy.

We have yet to have any facts or figures presented to us as to how many might indeed be so-called rorting the system. I will not use Senator Faulkner's language but he did suggest that Senator Ferris was a bunny. I will not suggest for a minute that Senator Ferris was, as Senator Carr suggested, using a dorothy dixer question.

Senator Carr —Of course it was a dorothy.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Regardless of whether or not it was a dorothy dixer question, the point is that I am afraid Senator Ferris assisted in the perpetuation of this myth and stereotype by putting out on 24 September, as I recall—and I am happy to stand corrected on this, Senator Ferris—a press release suggesting that 500 millionaire families could be doing just what the Wright—

Senator Carr —Five thousand.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I stand corrected, Senator Carr—that 5,000 millionaire families in Australia had either inappropriately accessed these benefits or could do so in the same way that the Wrights had been doing so. I suggest that the minister is correct in stating that she was labouring under the impression that it was a real family—that the Wright family was the right family and not the wrong family, as we suspected all along. The Hansard record demonstrates that she believed it was a true family. She said:

We can make available an example—I do not know if we have it now—of a family that I have been telling the department is incorrectly subtitled as the `Wright' family—not their real name, of course.

As Senator Faulkner read out earlier, she then went on to say:

I would like to see the Wright family take their case public, whatever their proper name is.

So I will give the minister the benefit of the doubt that she did believe this was a true case. Of course, that still does not mitigate the fact that she did mislead the parliament and misled the Senate estimates committee. But regardless of that, she is indeed guilty of perpetuating this idea that people—and the Wright family case was used as an example—are rorting the Austudy system.

Senator Tierney referred to this case as being entirely plausible. I have to say that when the three kids were read out, the family's income was read out, the $1.1 million home was read out, the truck was read out and then they threw in a Range Rover worth $40,000, that is when we all started to think it sounded a little implausible. Senators Crowley and Carr did mention to me informally and at the Senate estimates committee hearing that they were concerned that the social security benefits did not add up, the example did not sound right. We were unable to get facts and figures relating to those families who are allegedly rorting the system.

The minister is guilty of misleading the parliament. She is guilty of taking her time and being tardy in responding. Even though, as a member of the committee, I got my letter on Tuesday morning, dated 9 October, not at one stage during Tuesday did the minister make an effort. (Time expired)

Senator Panizza —Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. The last speaker, Senator Despoja, said at least five times that Senator Vanstone misled parliament, and the last time that she deliberately misled parliament. I think that is a reflection that should be withdrawn.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I am not sure that I heard the comment `deliberately misled'. It is a bit of a grey area but there have been rulings previously that it is in order to use the word `misled' in that context, but it is not in order to use the term `deliberately misled' because there is an implication of lying. As I said, it is a grey area but that has been the ruling on previous occasions.

Senator Panizza —On a further point of order: I believe I heard `deliberately misleading the Senate'. I heard it. I would like you to check the tape, come back to the Senate and report what was said. If that is correct, I want it withdrawn.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I think it is easier to ask Senator Stott Despoja rather than check the tapes.

Senator Stott Despoja —On the point of order: if I did say that, I will withdraw that term. I also remind Senator Panizza that my name is Senator Stott Despoja.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I am not sure that the comment was used but it if was used, it has been withdrawn.

Senator PATTERSON(4.05 p.m.) —I think it was George Will who said that morality is the last refuge of the politically desperate. Well, that is the Labor Party, and now the Democrats—the Laborcrats, as I choose to call them—have got into bed with them and they are now on the same bandwagon. I would have thought, Senator Stott Despoja, that you might have shown some integrity in this, with your knowledge of education.

Talk about going out into the real world; as I go around Monash with the students who I see as a member of the council for the past 18 years, time after time I am told stories of students who are struggling who can identify and know families where students are getting Austudy to which they are really not entitled. You know that; you have heard that and you most probably know students who have been in that situation. There are people who reorganise their financial affairs—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Patterson, address your remarks through the chair.

Senator PATTERSON —There are people who can reorganise their financial affairs in such a way as to get Austudy and deprive other young people who really ought to get Austudy. It does not behove Senator Stott Despoja to come in here and join these political desperadoes on the other side. I have not heard a better description of the Labor Party than that of Will for many years. They had 13 years of slimy, backdoor deals, of whiteboards, piggeries, lies and amnesia.

We only have to remember the sort of stuff that went on about the Marshall Islands. We only have to remember the stuff that went on about Dr `I can't remember' Lawrence, who could not remember a thing, yet eight of her colleagues could remember having discussed a petition before it went into the parliament. But she seemed to have amnesia. She is still sitting on the opposition's front bench. She was not taken to task. It took ages for Mr Keating to come to the point that he had to get rid of Mrs Kelly over the whiteboard issue.

The Labor Party has the gall to come in here and condemn a minister who was com plying with the standards. For the record, I should read the letter that was sent to Senator Tierney because Senator Crowley said that she concocted this in her office.

Senator Stott Despoja interjecting

Senator PATTERSON —No, I did not say that you did, Senator Stott Despoja. I said Senator Crowley did. You said she had misled the parliament.

Senator Stott Despoja did not once say that the department had admitted that they had given the information to Senator Vanstone. She has written to the chairman and she has come in here and made an explanation. She has explained the situation. The head of the department, Mr Hollway, writes to Senator Tierney as chairman of the committee, stating:

I am writing to you direct on the matter of the Wright family because the fault clearly lies with the department.

I repeat: the fault clearly lies with the department. Senator Stott Despoja does not want to admit that. Senator Crowley does not come in here and say that. Senator Crowley says that Senator Vanstone made it up in her office. But Mr Hollway said that the fault clearly lies with the department.

Senator Vanstone came in and apologised to the Senate. She has done the right thing, and yet we have wasted all this time when we could have been debating the legislation before the house. We are discussing this issue because they failed to tell the public and the parliament the truth. The departmental head has said that it was an error in the department and they take full responsibility. I know that the buck stops with the minister, and the minister has come into the parliament to apologise. To misrepresent the situation, as has been done this afternoon, I find appalling, totally inappropriate and unacceptable.

Question resolved in the affirmative.