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Tuesday, 29 October 1996
Page: 4673

Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs)(5.18 p.m.) —I oppose this motion moved by Senator Faulkner for a number of reasons, not the least of which is, in the first instance, that no case has been made that I have misled the Senate. No-one has produced any words that I have used in the Senate that have misled the Senate, to the best of my knowledge, at all. I will come to that and go back over those matters in detail, lest there is anybody who has not been focusing on some of the questions that have been asked and the answers that have been given.

But equally importantly, returns to order are a mechanism for the Senate to use in circumstances where they believe that information should be provided to the Senate. Presumably, that is because there is an important matter where you call upon taking from a minister and a department information that would otherwise not be publicly available, that is not on the public record. There have been occasions, of course—and there always will be—where returns to order should be used. I make no bones about that whatsoever. But in circumstances where no case has been made that a senator has misled the Senate, then I do not think it is an appropriate case to use a return to order.

Secondly, I follow on and indicate that the breadth of the return to order does not go simply to the question of whether I have misled the Senate; it goes to the much broader fishing expedition in relation to any advice to me from my department relating to unemployment projections up to the year 2000. That is any advice whatsoever—not advice pertaining to the, I say, fabricated allegation that I have misled the Senate, but any advice whatsoever and my statements about the purported unachievability of the Australian Labor Party's target of five per cent unemployment by the year 2000.

I say, firstly, a return to order is an important mechanism for use by the Senate when it believes that documents that otherwise would not be provided publicly should be. Secondly, because that mechanism is so important, if you want to use it because you think someone has misled the Senate then you have to make a decent case that in fact they have. Thirdly, when you do want to use it, you do need to have some discretion in the focusing of the return to order to ensure that you are not trying to debase the value of returns to order by casting your net so wide that you consistently get refusals from a government. That is, the terms of the proposed return to order should be targeted to the matters in question.

Of course, a return to order should be used, if all of those other conditions are satisfied, in circumstances where there has been an unwillingness to front up and give an answer. In that respect I would say, `Look, with respect to this matter, I have answered this in the Senate on a number of occasions yesterday and again today.' Also, I have been written to by the secretary of the estimates committee which is meeting on Friday—and it is early days in the week, I know, but Friday is not that far away—indicating that the committee may wish to discuss these matters then, and I am happy to do that.

In those circumstances, to proceed with a return to order would cast an enormously wide net across any information provided on unemployment projections—and how do you do a projection? You take into account certain assumptions about a whole lot of economic matters and you necessarily therefore are asking for a lot more than that because you want to see what is behind assumptions that have been made.

So let me come to the case of whether I have, in fact, misled on this matter. I have dealt with this matter once before, yesterday, and I have dealt with it today. But since members opposite do not seem to have come to grips with what I have said, and perhaps some people now in the chamber were not here during question time, let me go through these matters.

On 18 August I put out a press release entitled `Labor's hidden unemployed to slow fall in jobless rate'. One sentence at the bottom of that press release said:

Similarly, DEETYA has advised that at the time of the election, on information available to the previous government, unemployment in 2000 would have been between 6.8 and 7.3 per cent.

Let me read that to you to convey its meaning:

Similarly, DEETYA has advised—

that is us—

that at the time of the election—

that is, its advice as to what information was around at the time of the election, and this information would have been available to the previous government. I said in the Senate, not today but yesterday, that, if they chose to ask for this information, they could have got it themselves; that is, it was information that was available to the government. If you have a whole department there, all you have to do is ask for it. The press release continued:

. . . unemployment in the year 2000 would have been between 6.8 and 7.3 per cent.

That is what that sentence means. It says:

Similarly, DEETYA has advised that at the time of the election, on information available to the previous government—

they were in government for 13 years; they had every piece of information available to them that it was possible for the department to provide—

unemployment in 2000 would have been between 6.8 and 7.3 per cent.

A journalist in the Australian , not having done an interview with me—and that is fair enough; people are entitled to rely on your release—paraphrased that. He did not quote it. He obviously did not directly quote it. He paraphrased it and said:

Senator Vanstone said that at the time of the March election, her department had advised Mr Crean, the then employment minister, that unemployment by the year 2000 would have been, at best, 6.8 per cent.

That is a journalist trying to do his job, but that has created the impression that I have said Mr Crean was advised by his department. The department then did send—

Senator Carr —Your department certainly thought that was the impression you wanted to create.

Senator VANSTONE —No embarrassment about this. I am pleased they did.

Senator Carr —They did.

Senator VANSTONE —Let me continue. The department did send a note to my office indicating that that press report was incorrect.

Senator Carr —That's right. They did.

Senator VANSTONE —That is right. That press report is incorrect, as I have just tried to indicate. I do not think I have a copy of that note with me, but they did. What that note indicated was that the press report was incorrect. That is all it indicated. The situation that I have outlined to this point is that I have put out a release, and a journalist has paraphrased that and given the wrong impression. The department has sent a note to my office, indicating that the article in the Australian , which gives the wrong impression—

Senator Carr —It quotes you!

Senator VANSTONE —which does not quote me but gives the wrong impression—was incorrect. The department has, of course, done the right thing in doing that, because that report is incorrect. It is not what I said. It is what a journalist in the Australian has paraphrased from a press release.

Then the opposition seeks to rely further, for some reason inexplicable to me, on a transcript of an interview done with Meet the Press a few days later. It has already been raised in here by nearby Senator Faulkner. What I would like to tell you is this. The transcript states:

Labor knew before the election that its target of 5 per cent unemployment by the year 2000 was unachievable; it had been told that. I know that's absolutely certain that they knew.

Nonetheless, they kept pretending that they could perhaps get to a target. That says they were told, and I repeated in here—and I am happy to do it again if that is what people prefer—the range of people who did tell them they would not get to that target. If we have got to the stage where a minister cannot say, `Look, you knew you were not going to get there and you were told'—when, in fact, they were told and they did know—where are we? Where are the words I have used that have misled this Senate? Where are they? They are just not there.

The press release is on the public record. I have no embarrassment about that press release. I am quite happy with it. If my job is going to be to correct what has been said every time a journalist gets something wrong or members on the other side get something wrong, I am never going to do any work. I stand by what I said in that press release—quite happily. I stand by what I said in the Meet the Press program. That does not add up to what the opposition members would have it that I said. That does not add up to that at all. So the first point—

Senator Conroy —Do you stand by your answer in question time?

Senator VANSTONE —Yes. Regarding the first point, the key matter is to recognise that the Australian of 19 August incorrectly paraphrased my press release of 18 August. What was said in my press release was correct. I have also explained my comment that the previous government has been told that its five per cent target could not be achieved. I have appointed—

Senator Carr —By DEETYA.

Senator VANSTONE —Mr Acting Deputy President Murphy, I have 20 minutes left. I have plenty of time. I just ask you to bear in mind that it is easier to speak if you are not consistently interrupted. Senator Carr seems to have an enormous inability to let other people speak. He not only chooses to yell when he does speak but he chooses to interject on other people when they do.

As I was saying, I have also explained my comment that the previous government had been told that its five per cent target could not be achieved. I have pointed to remarks by the secretary to the Treasury and others—plenty of others. For example, I have pointed to the editorial of the Australian, which basically came to this conclusion:

At best he is deluded and at worst Mr Crean is not telling the truth.

I have referred to Professor Helen Hughes from the full employment project. In the Australian of September 1995, Professor Hughes said:

The unemployment rate not 8.2 per cent would be no better than seven per cent by the year 2000 if present growth levels were maintained.

Dr John Quiggin, whom I think Senator Kernot quoted in this place today—

Senator Kernot —Yesterday.

Senator VANSTONE —Earlier this week. He is an associate professor and, as I understand it, a great proponent of Working Nation. He said in September:

There is no doubt, the government cannot possibly achieve five per cent under its current policies.

If that is not clear evidence that the government was told by its advisers or supporters, I do not know what is. Ted Evans, the Secretary to the Department of the Treasury, is reported to have said that it would be extraordinarily difficult to achieve the government's target of five per cent unemployment by the turn of the century and he described the target as `very ambitious'.

In September 1994, Dr Vince FitzGerald could see and expressed concerns that our national savings rate would not be sufficient to bring unemployment down to an acceptable level—that is, five per cent or below—within the remainder of the present decade.

Senator Carr continues to interject `by the department'. He cannot find the words other than the paraphrasing by the journalist in the Australian.

Senator Carr —Your own press release.

Senator VANSTONE —I have not said they were told by the department. That is what I have not said. That is probably the crux of the matter in the end.

I have referred to the comment on Meet the Press that they were told—and I have repeated this for almost a third time in this place—the sorts of people who told them. There is really nothing in this suggestion that I have misled or that my department has somehow suggested in advice to me that I misled. Make no bones about it—the department rightly points out that the article in the Australian is correct. That is not an article written by me and it is not an article done from an interview with me; it is an article done by a journalist paraphrasing a press release. The department's advice to me simply drew attention to the inaccuracy of the Australian report.

I turn to the second ground. Senator Faulkner seems to be seeking every piece of analysis and advice concerning scenarios, projections, forecasts, et cetera about unemployment. No government is going to simply give out all of this to satisfy the senator's curiosity and fishing expedition. The Public Service has to be able to provide dispassionate and fearless analysis and advice. This cannot happen if anything can be put in the public domain at a senator's whim.

The return to order process was not created as a licence to fish. It was not created as a device to give automatic access, least of all for no good reason, to internal information in government. The previous government itself declined to provide information when it was judged not to be in the public interest. It is not in the public interest to undermine the institution of frank analysis and advice. That is especially so when aspects of the information, as with economic projections, can be market sensitive.

That brings me to the third reason for opposing the motion. I would not lightly invoke market sensitivity and public interest as reasons for declining to provide material to the Senate. We should be careful and look at issues of market sensitivity case by case. This should not be invoked as some unthinking or blanket reason for denying information.

Senators who have an interest in the estimates committees will have heard on numerous occasions the attacks I have made on claims that have been used by departments over the years about market confidentiality. The ABC's frequent use of that comes to mind.

At a later stage, I might raise some opportunities the previous government used to get around the Senate estimates committees which were finally making departments come to grips with the fact that the departments could not be allowed to escape scrutiny at estimates committees by sticking market confidentiality clauses in. They devised a very sneaky way of getting around that, but I will come to that on another day. It does not warrant any more than a mere mention here.

There are some aspects of the advice to me from the department which, in the view of the Treasurer's office—and I accept that—must be market sensitive. The Senate, I hope, would appreciate that work on scenarios for unemployment involves comments about possible future rates of economic growth and that this can carry implications beyond any debate here about employment or about whether the Senate has been misled.

I am perfectly happy to be as forthcoming as possible with the Senate committee which reconvenes on Friday and discuss these matters. There is no urgency about this today. I am happy to go on answering questions about why I have not misled the Senate. I am happy to repeat in this place time and time again the number of people who told the previous government that it was not going to reach its five per cent unemployment target by the year 2000. I am very happy to continue to do that. If people want to continue raising these matters day after day, they can bring in here again the press release I issued and the article written in the Australian.

I do not know if I have said this in the Senate already—I may have—but in case I have not I will say it now. I do not attribute any bad faith to the journalist. People make mistakes; I understand that. People do read things differently; I understand that. I do not attribute any bad faith to him at all.

But, nonetheless, an incorrect impression was created. In other words, the impression was created that I have said something that I have not said. I am perfectly happy to keep reanswering that matter in here, but we have to stick to the issue here—that is, because Senator Faulkner wants to maintain that I have misled the Senate and has not yet, in my view, made out an appropriate case, it does not entitle him to go on a fishing expedition for the full range of advice on unemployment projections up to the year 2000 which this government may or may not have received.

I understand arguments that we have projections in the budgets. I am not making a case here that there are not ever forecasts, that there are not ever projections and that scenarios are never cast. I am not making that case at all. Of course these things are done. But a government goes through all that advice, weighs it up and accepts that which it thinks is the best advice. What Senator Faulkner is asking for is the full range of that. If you do it here, then why not do it next week to Senator Kemp on Treasury matters? Why not ask for everything there?

Senator Kernot —We might. I tried on the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Senator VANSTONE —Senator Kernot interjects. I hope she was listening in the early part of my remarks when I said that I do understand why there is a return to order and that I do think there are circumstances when it is appropriate to use it. I used it myself. To the best of my recollection I have used it only once, and certainly only once recently. That was when the previous government refused to be forthcoming with respect to the payment of Dr Lawrence's fees. That was a very important issue, and we believed it was important enough to use a return to order. Perhaps the Foreign Investment Review Board was one. I do not know; I was not involved in that. There are those circumstances.

All I am saying is that use of a return to order is important. Use of a very broad one necessarily becomes even more important. In order to use it you have to make a really decent case. What I said on the record is there for all to see: a press release that says one thing and an article the next day written by a journalist who has not spoken to me. It was written with no bad faith as far as I am concerned, although I suppose I should not say that without having met him to discuss it. I am giving him the benefit of what perhaps should be doubt, but it has never entered my head that this was done in bad faith; put it that way. The journalist has misparaphrased that. The journalist has not put it in quotes; he has misparaphrased it. The department has written to me and said, `There's a mistake in the media.'

I hope my department does not do that every time that happens and expect me to come and correct it in the chamber or somewhere else, because I will spend my life in here. I suspect the reason the department did it on this occasion is that the incorrect paraphrasing actually refers to an activity of theirs: that is, whether they directly advised the previous minister. I think that is the circumstance that occasioned them to do this. They certainly did not do it in other circumstances when there has been incorrect reporting—for example, in higher education, which we will discuss on another day.

In summary, let me conclude by saying that I agree—there is no dispute—that returns to order are important. They are a very important mechanism. The currency can be devalued by overuse and the currency can be devalued by poor drafting when you use a baseball bat or a sledgehammer to hit a nail. But, when the nail is not even there—when the relevant documents are on the public record in the sense that the statement I made is a public press release, when the article in the Australian is on the public record, when what I said on Meet the Press is on the public record; and I think they speak for themselves—there is no case for using a return to order as broad as this to go right into every possible projection that the government might have made with respect to these matters. You need to have a case; otherwise what we are saying is, `Any time we feel like it, for no good reason, we think we'll just ask the government to open up its books on everything.' That is not the purpose of a return to order.

Lastly, before I conclude—because I will try to keep very close to the time that Senator Faulkner used—Senator Faulkner raised yet again the Wright family, the so-called Wright family. I will not bother going into everything he said. It seems that as much as I come into this place and acknowledge that the department made a mistake and that they have apologised—and although I wrote to the estimates committee, having asked for the draft of the letter to the estimates committee to be changed, having got some advice, and although I asked that the letter be sent around to the committee so that all members got it, including, obviously, Labor members and presumably, therefore, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja as well—somehow this is a ruse and a cover-up.

It is very important to remember something that was raised in question time today. I accept that this is not pertinent to the detail of this return to order, but it is pertinent to the remarks that Senator Faulkner made, since he is alleging I have some sort of record in this respect and is using the Wright family as an example of it. There were two things wrong with the Wright family. Firstly, the Wright family was presented as being an actual family, when what in fact happened was that an actual example of a family that had been caught by the means test was taken and altered. In my view it is not reasonable to then call it an actual family. That is fair enough. That has been acknowledged. Secondly, errors of calculation were made in the level of social security benefits that that family could get.

But we should not forget that the Wright family example illustrates a very real problem. The problem is that relatively wealthy families were applying for Austudy—families which might also have available to them social security or other government benefits. Other departments do not have an actual means test. If anything, the case of the so-called Wright family demonstrates the merit of Labor's means test. Nobody disputes that a family with the Wrights' profile would have available to them around $12,000 worth of benefits other than Austudy. I have tabled in the Senate real cases of wealthy families denied Austudy by the application of the means test.

There has been extensive consideration over the life of this government of the desirability of extending the means test. There have been no rash decisions about an immediate application of the means test to other benefits, because no-one wants to disadvantage the genuinely needy. But let me reassure the Senate that we will be targeting the greedy, just as Labor did by applying the means test to Austudy. It was designed to get at people like the so-called Wrights, who, taking Senator Ray's advice, as I am advised, did have a home worth over $1 million and who would, but for the means test, have got Austudy.

I just raise those points to indicate that the error with respect to the so-called Wright family is that they started with an actual family and changed it. It is not reasonable to call it an actual family after that.

Initially, there was an error in the calculations. I think the calculations put it up at $20,000, and we say it is around $12,000, but the guts of it—that a family with the profile would, but for the means test, be able to get those benefits—is not incorrect. As an example of how it works, it is a good example. It is only one example, and that was the error that was there.

Let me conclude by saying returns to order are important. They should be used for very important matters. They should not be more broadly cast than they need be. They certainly should not be used when the question of whether someone has misled the Senate has already been answered. They should not be used for a fishing expedition and there is certainly no case to use them when the estimates committee before which I am to appear on Friday has not even had the opportunity to answer and was told at the last sitting, when I was overseas on education matters, that I would be coming back. There is absolutely no reason, for all of those reasons, to proceed with this return to order.