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Thursday, 24 August 1972
Page: 744

Mr KENNEDY (Bendigo) - I wish to call the attention of the Parliament to what I regard as a deliberate attempt by the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser) to impose a blanket of secrecy over the information of the Department of Education and Science and deliberately to deny to members of this Parliament, myself in particular, information that otherwise would be available to almost any person in the entire community. I believe that his tactics, following last night's debate in this House, on another attempt to withhold information, are in line with the tactics he has been used in regard to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation which were highlighted last week by the honourable member for Riverina (Mr Grassby) who pointed out that the Minister had in fact issued a directive that the CSIRO had to inform him in cases where scientists had been in communication with members of the Federal Parliament.

Last week in a debate in this House I charged that the Minister had quite unjustifiably withheld information from me. For 2 months he kept me waiting for information that I had a right to have. He gave me no indication in the meantime that this information would not be provided. He gave me no indication in the meantime that, had I adopted the method that he later outlined, I could have received that information. He kept me waiting for 2 months and I still have not received the information. As I pointed out last week, I protested to the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) but nothing has been done so far. Following a debate in the Parliament last week, the Minister for Education and Science now has thrown a blanket of secrecy over the operations of the Department of Education and Science. He has issued a directive to the officers of this Department that when I telephone and ask for information on education matters they are not to provide it to me; they are to instruct me to direct my question to the Minister for Education and Science himself. I ask the Minister whether this gag in fact applies only to me or whether it applies to all members of the Federal Parliament. Does it refer only to that particular section of the Department to which he knows I am referring or does it affect all of his department?

What he basically is trying to do is to withhold information that formerly I was able to receive by telephoning the Department. Within the bounds of what was publicly available, certain types of information were provided to me. This information referred particularly to the sums of money that certain private schools were entitled to under the Commonwealth science grants scheme and under the Commonwealth libraries scheme. This information was formerly available to me. The Minister now has given an instruction that this information is no longer to be available to me; I must contact the Minister first of all. What is his purpose in doing this? His purpose is to withhold informa tion and delay it in such a way that I can get that information only when he pleases.

I refer now to question No. 5360 which I asked 5 months ago in the Parliament. Last week the Minister for Education and Science replied to only a section of that question. The question sought basic information and it took 5 months for me to receive a reply. Last week, the Minister informed the House that he had sufficient staff in his department to answer only the questions of 2 people - myself and the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) - and he made it quite clear that in those cases where both of us asked questions, precedence is to be given to questions asked by the Leader of the Opposition. I refer now to another situation which is typical of his delay. On 10th May this year I asked question No. 5783, a very simple question indeed. It would not have taken his Department more than a few weeks at the very most to provide that information. The question asked for details about certain private schools which had been requested by the Minister to provide information as to what their needs were within a given period. It was a very simple question. Those schools had refused to provide him with the information. A period of Simonths has now passed. Question No. 5783 is still unanswered. Three weeks ago - again after continual pressure from me - the Minister wrote me a letter saying that the information would be provided in the first week of the Budget session. It is now the second week of the Budget session. Perhaps the information will be forthcoming again after the election.

A very basic principle is involved here: A member of Parliament has, as his task, to defend public interest. It is our task to watch over what governments are doing with public money. There are two ways in which that information can be provided by the Government itself - through the Department or through the Minister. The Minister now has cut off that source of information through the Department. It must come directly through him. Of course, he can then manipulate the supply of information as he sees fit. In other words, what the Minister is doing is deliberately depriving a member of Parliament of the right to carry out his function; he is preventing a member of Parliament from getting information which is absolutely essential to that member of Parliament to enable him to scrutinise the use of the public's money.

As I have pointed out previously in this House, some of the things on which I have sought information are matters which have caused very great embarrassment to the Minister. I have said a number of things which the Minister has not had the courage to come out and defend publicly. He says nothing. He runs to his burrow. His answer is to say nothing and to withhold the information. The cases about which I am talking relate to private schools which have full entitlement to very large sums of public money, reaching up to more than $500,000 in the case of the Methodist Ladies College at Kew for library grants and science grants. The Minister now is trying to withhold this information. Obviously, he simply has not got the courage to provide this information. He will provide it at the time when he sees fit.

I intend to go on raising these matters. I regard his behaviour as autocratic and unprincipled. I find it totally obnoxious. I will continue to raise these matters in this House until I get the information to which I am entitled in this Parliament.

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