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Monday, 12 September 2005
Page: 51

Mrs GASH (3:25 PM) —The member for Batman is very strong on rhetoric but is very weak on substance. I rise to speak to the motion, but I must preface my comments with the observation that the subject matter of the member’s motion is a matter before the courts and, therefore, I am constrained from commenting directly on the case.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs referred the alleged leak of departmental information concerning the government’s response to the Clarke review for investigation by the Australian Federal Police in February 2004. I am advised that following the AFP investigation the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions preferred charges against the departmental employee under the Crimes Act 1914. The staff member has been suspended from duty without pay since charges were laid on 29 March 2004. However, I have noted the judge’s decision relating to the two journalists. As the matter is before the court, it is not appropriate for me to comment further.

Ms Roxon —They haven’t been charged yet!

Mrs GASH —Just hold on! Just wait. I do want to comment on the other two elements of this motion: the alleged right of journalists to rely on a self-imposed code of ethics to protect their sources and the facts of the review into veterans’ entitlements, commonly referred to as the Clarke report.

On the first aspect, it has to be observed that journalists sell news. It is a commercial, even mercenary, vocation, so in that respect the high moral ground assumed in relying on a code of ethics when the pressure is on must surely create a dilemma. In my mind, the law of the land must prevail over any philosophical or ideological view, and if that reliance is placed on that position then it constitutes a contempt of court. This is well documented, so it is trite to stand here and condemn the government for upholding the law. The media has a right to report the facts and certainly we do not want to encourage suppression of truth. On one hand the government must be transparent, yet on the other accountability means that there are times when confidentiality must be preserved for the greater interest. It is not for a journalist to judge an issue. That is why we have courts—to interpret and apply the laws made by government.

But commenting without supporting their view with facts is tantamount to making a public judgment. This is made worse by the fact that they may be commenting without knowledge of the implications of what they are commenting on. If it is for pure sensationalism, then they have no right to rely on their code of ethics. In fact the principles of this code of ethics include the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. All of those principles must be met if the code is to have any credence. You cannot just cherry-pick to suit your circumstances. But, most of all, journalists must respect the law, for if they do not they simply brand themselves as sanctimonious hypocrites when relying on their ethical code.

Can I now make comment on the second aspect of this motion, the assertion that somehow the government denied veterans certain entitlements from the review. The purpose of the review was to see if the philosophy underpinning the Veterans’ Entitlements Act was still valid today, and the review committee found that it was. It did not identify any need to change something that has held veterans in good stead since the inception of the original act. That having been determined, the rest was academic.

Sure there may have been 109 recommendations originally, and if all were upheld it would have been at considerable cost to the government. But over half were overturned because not all of these recommendations accorded with the underlying principles of the act and, consequently and understandably, were disallowed. The net result was an additional $267 million over five years for veterans and war widows. It built on our strong track record for veterans and it brought the veterans’ budget to $10 billion in its first year—an additional $4 billion overall since 1996.

The review was conducted at arms length to the government and the recommendations were formed in conjunction with the terms of reference. This does not mean that the government is constrained to comply with those recommendations without some discretion. This discretion was exercised with a number of significant recommendations overturned, with the result that veterans’ benefits were improved. As expected, not everyone was happy with the outcome, but in general terms it was a very satisfactory result. The new treatment of veterans’ disability pensions and indexation arrangements is particularly laudable. It is specious for this motion to imply that somehow many veterans were robbed when any objective examination of the dynamics of the process shows the reverse. It is also a mischievous and misleading gesture which can only raise unfair expectations. This motion deserves to be consigned to the place it rightly belongs—in the rubbish bin.