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Monday, 28 October 1996
Page: 4553

Senator BOB COLLINS —My question is to the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. In question time on 16 October in reply to a dorothy dixer from Senator Ellison you quoted from a number of newspapers in support of your decision to appoint a special auditor to ATSIC. You quoted inaccurate and highly prejudicial claims from some of those articles, including a headline one that 90 per cent of Aboriginal organisations had mismanaged their funding according to the special auditor.

You gave evidence to the Senate estimates committee last week that you knew that these newspaper articles that you quoted from were inaccurate. Why then did you quote from them and how does this fit with the Prime Minister's ministerial guidelines that ministers must be honest in their public dealings and should not intentionally mislead the parliament or the public, and any misconception caused inadvertently should be corrected at the earliest opportunity?

Senator HERRON —I am somewhat bemused by this question from Senator Bob Collins when you consider all the important issues that are around, such as industrial relations, Telstra, the inflation rate and interest rate loans. We spent 20 minutes with this the other day in estimates. Senator Collins has become obsessed with this issue. For the benefit of other senators I might explain that in the Senate estimates last week Senator Collins demanded to know why I had not put out a media release correcting incorrect information about the special auditor contained in the newspaper article he referred to.

After consultation with an ATSIC officer, I informed Senator Collins that ATSIC had put out a media release correcting the information. I thought no more about it in fact until the weekend when I read a report in the Melbourne Age which quoted Labor sources as suggesting that I had mislead the Senate on that question. On checking this morning with ATSIC, I found out that what the officer had told me was that ATSIC had put out a release with the correct information.

That is what Senator Collins is carrying on about. That is the point, that somehow or another I have misled the Senate. In estimates I took it that the release corrected the information and, after discussion with ATSIC today, I wrote to the chairman of the estimates committee, Senator Ian Macdonald, correcting that information.

I might add that Senator Collins is also in the Hansard as saying that he was aware of the ATSIC media release correcting the information. That is in the Hansard. You cannot escape that. If you check the Hansard, he is quoted as saying that he was aware of an ATSIC information release that did not exist. This is such a petty matter, I feel that Senator Collins would be better to focus on the real issues of today. He would be better focussing on the downward movement of interest rates under this government and the great news that that is for young home buyers. He would be better focussing on the disarray that his own party is in—the Labor Party which was wholeheartedly rejected by the people on 2 March and again at the by-election in Lindsay.

Senator Bob Collins —This is the Lindsay by-election defence.

Senator HERRON —That is correct. Maybe the message might get through to the other side that they are out of touch with the Australian public and the Australian people. The Labor Party is trying to project itself as an alternative government with a question like that from Senator Collins. It is not often in life that I start feeling sorry for the Labor Party. I do not think I will ever feel sorry for the Labor Party, but if that is the best they can do in question time—to project themselves as an alternative government—it shows that they are still out of touch and ought to put on their dunces caps and sit over in the corner. Are you rising to a point of order, Senator Collins? Madam President, he just sat down and he will be sitting on that side for a very long time until he gets in touch with the Australian public.

I note that even former Labor Senator Graham Richardson appears to have got the message. Graham Richardson states:

The further decline in Labor's vote . . . leaves the party looking at the certainty of six years in the wilderness, and the possibility that its exile may last considerably longer than that.

That was from former Senator Richardson. Even your leader Mr Beazley has conceded as much. He is on the record as saying:

"(The Lindsay result) does affect us in terms of our understanding of the reasons for our defeat at the last election" . . .

What Mr Beazley is saying, and what Senator Collins demonstrated so well today, is that Labor still does not understand. You have not got the message yet, Senator Collins and the Labor Party.

Senator Sherry —What about answering the question?

Senator HERRON —I have answered the question. Labor is still out of touch. It is living in the rhetoric and politics of the past. If you are going to be an adequate opposition, you had better start thinking and getting in touch with the Australian public.

Senator BOB COLLINS —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I want to briefly bring the minister back to the question that was asked. Let me refresh your memory, Minister. At Senate estimates you not only claimed that ATSIC had put out a press release correcting the incorrect reports but you said that you had as well. You provided both of those press releases to the committee. I see you nodding. Here are the press releases, Minister, that you provided.

You quoted from the newspaper articles on 16 October in question time. The newspaper articles were, in fact, published on 15 October—the day before. You are nodding again. Both of these press statements were issued on 14 October, Minister—the day before. In fact, you did not issue a press statement correcting the newspaper articles; neither did ATSIC correct the newspaper articles. Both the press statements, Minister, that you tabled at Senate estimates were, in fact, issued on 14 October—the day before the newspaper articles appeared. Why then did you mislead the Senate estimates committee as well as this chamber?

Senator HERRON —Senator Collins, you have an affliction, and I will gladly clean your ears out. I would refer you to the Hansard and the answer that I just gave you, Senator Collins. You were too busy interjecting and you did not listen to what I said. I would refer you to the Hansard and the answer that I gave you previously. If he had bothered to listen in the first place, Madam President he might understand the point that I was making by quoting from media reports on the special auditor and by quoting from the ATSIC chairman, Lois O'Donoghue, who said that ATSIC, the media, Aboriginal organisations and the public had all accepted the value and importance of the special auditor process. The point I was making was that only Senator Collins and his mate in the other place Daryl Melham are still trying to pretend the process was a waste of time.

Senator Bob Collins —You told a big fib, Minister.

Senator HERRON —I did not tell a big fib.

Senator Bob Collins —It was 14 October.

Senator HERRON —Senator Collins, I will just answer. As he is unaware of what I said in the answer to the first part, Madam President I will read it out again for you, Senator Collins, because you did not listen last time. I will read it out again. Are you listening, Senator Collins?

The PRESIDENT —Senator Herron, your time has expired.

Senator HERRON —Well, he had better read it in the Hansard.