Tuesday, 8 September 2009
Questions without Notice
Building the Education Revolution Program
My question is to the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Government Service Delivery, Senator Arbib. Did the government or the department undertake its own analysis of the funding of science and language centres by electorate? If so, when did it undertake this analysis?
In regard to the 537 science and language centres that the government is now supporting through its funding, the decision of the Minister for Education was based on advice she received from an independent panel established to assess the application submitted by a secondary school, based on a number of criteria set out in the BER guidelines. The education minister agreed to the list of projects as they were recommended by the independent panel. The education minister has never spoken to panel members about their selection. The panel’s recommendations were adopted without amendment. This is an outstanding result for schools across the country receiving funding that was neglected under the previous government. At the same time as that, the employment—
Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Sessional orders require that answers be directly relevant. The minister was asked a very specific question as to whether the government or the department undertook its own analysis of funding these centres by electorate. The answer is either yes or no and he should now be required, given that he has only 30 seconds left, to actually answer that question.
On the point of order, Mr President: this is clearly a spurious point of order. Senator Arbib was asked a politically charged question. He has sought to outline the proper public processes that were put in train. He is directly answering the question by outlining the appropriate and proper processes that applied to these grants. There is no point of order.
Mr President, before you rule on the point of order, could I ask you to take into account the fact that, although you cannot instruct a minister how to answer a question, you do have an obligation to enforce the sessional orders. Therefore, you do have an obligation to ensure that the minister is directly relevant. With respect, it is no answer to that to say, ‘I can’t tell the minister how to answer the question.’ With respect, you are obliged to ensure that he is directly relevant. That is a judgment, Mr President, you must make. With respect to this question, the minister was asked whether a particular fact occurred or did not. It is within your capacity and obligation, if you are going to enforce the sessional orders, to ensure that the answer is directly relevant.
Mr President, on the point of order: the minister has been directly relevant in answering the question. It is not a case that a politically charged question or a question that is framed for a yes or no answer requires the minister to answer yes or no. The minister can be directly relevant to the question by ensuring that if it is necessary to reject the proposition—the proposition is rejected by the questioner—and the answer is given as to what the framework and process is, then that is being directly relevant to the question.
I did think that the second point that Senator Brandis raised in relation to the obligation to import skated very close to calling your judgment, your decision, into account. But what the ruling does do—and what you are entitled to do, I humbly submit—is indicate whether or not the particular minister is responding to the question. My understanding of the response you have provided is that it does, in fact, do that. It is not a question of ruling whether the minister has indicated yes or no to the particular question; it is about whether the minister is being directly relevant to the question in his answer. The answer does not call in to question whether the minister has responded yes or no. To be directly relevant to the question, the minister—
Order! You are now debating the question. On the point of order: I remind senators we are still have a sessional order trialling this system. I understand that completely. I also understand that the minister has 32 seconds remaining. I believe the minister is answering the question. It might not be in the way in which it is desired to be answered by those who ask the question—
Order! I cannot force a minister to answer a question in a particular way. I can draw the minister’s attention to the question and I can ask the minister to address the question. But I cannot tell the minister, nor can I endeavour to elicit a particular answer from a minister that a questioner might like to hear. I draw to the minister’s attention the fact that he has 32 seconds remaining to answer the question and I ask the minister to continue.
They have not heard of ‘independent assessment’, because in their time in government it did not exist. It did not exist. When a minister stands up and talks about an independent assessment, they get a bit surprised because they have never heard about that before. It was all the ministers making the decisions in those days, and we know they were all political decisions. I am advised that the department did not consider electorates or any analysis prior to the decisions being made.
Thank you, Mr President. I appreciate the answer to yesterday’s question and the partial answer to the first one today. Can I also ask whether the minister can confirm the following troubling statistics? While 14 per cent of Labor seats missed out on any funding for science and language centres, 25 per cent of coalition seats—nearly twice as many—missed out. In Queensland Labor marginal seats each received over $8.1 million each on average while coalition marginal seats received $3 million less.
Can I say to Senator Ryan, and can I put this on record again for all senators, that the process was totally independent. There was an independent assessment panel. I made it clear yesterday and I will make it clear again to all senators—because I think this information needs to be put on the record—the panel consisted of independent members. The panel consisted of Steve Carter from the Australian Council of Social Service, Andrew Blair from the Australian Secondary Schools Association, Bill Daniels from the Independent Schools Council of Australia, Angela Scarino from the Research Centre for Languages and Cultures and former Chief Scientist James Peacock. They made the decisions. They were not made by the minister. One of the key criteria was ‘disadvantage’. Those on the other side of the chamber do not understand disadvantage, but that is where these science and language centres are going and it was an independent process. (Time expired)
I note the minister referred to the independent panel in his first answer and, I believe, said the minister had not met with the panel. Will the minister confirm to the Senate that no-one in the minister’s office either directly or indirectly via the department had communications with members of the panel about allocating any of these projects?
Again, I just confirm that the education minister agreed to the list of projects as they were recommended by the independent panel. The education minister has never spoken to panel members about their selections. It was an independent process. I know that some senators on the other side of the chamber—the Liberal Party, the National Party—know nothing about independent processes. We know the people who put together the ‘regional rorts’, the ethanol plants that did not exist and the funding down on Bondi Beach in the electorate of the member for Wentworth, do not understand independent process. But we certainly do and that is how this was done.