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Thursday, 12 May 1994
Page: 739

Senator ELLISON (11.49 a.m.) —I remind the Senate that the print media inquiry was set up to look into, among other things, the workings of the Foreign Investment Review Board and, as such, it is a most important aspect to be looked at. During the course of this inquiry, a most important question has been revealed, and that is the power of Senate committees and what power they have in relation to witnesses who claim public interest immunity. It is this aspect which is partly the subject of Senator Kernot's motion. P.P. McGuinness, in the Weekend Australian on 19 February this year, stated:

The most important political issue of today is not the leadership of the Liberal Party, nor the peculiar personality of the Prime Minister, nor the implementation of the Native Title Act. Nor policy issues of the first importance, such as unemployment.

  The really vital political issue in the true sense is that being fought out in the Senate committee on foreign ownership of the print media . . .

P.P. McGuinness went on to say—

Senator McKiernan —Use his proper name—Padraic. That is how he is signing himself nowadays.

Senator ELLISON —Not in the article I have, Senator McKiernan; his name is shown as `P.P. McGuinness'. He went on to say:

  What is being fought out in the context of this committee is the most profound of all the political issues in the history of democracy—the powers of Parliament versus the powers of the executive.

In that article he touched on a most serious example in history where this was fought out and which caused Charles I to lose his head. That was, of course, the contest between the monarchy and the parliament of the day. Here we find ourselves, 300 years later, still dealing with this most important topic. He stated further on in the same article:

  The really difficult question now is the power of the Senate to call to account a government that depends for its majority on the House of Representatives.

That is, indeed, a most important question. Senator Kernot's motion is a well-thought-out motion which refers this matter to the privileges committee, of which I happen to be a member. I note that the reporting date is 23 August. I would partly agree with Senator McKiernan's comments that that committee does have a great deal on its agenda and that an extension of time could well be required. Nonetheless, this is a most important issue and one which should not be glossed over.

  In fact, it was during the course of this inquiry that the Treasurer, Mr Willis, went public on the matter. I cite the article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 9 May this year:

  The Government should publish reasons for its decisions to accept or reject big foreign investment proposals in future, to avoid controversies like the one surrounding the Fairfax takeover, the Treasurer, Mr Willis, has said.

  In an interview with the Herald, Mr Willis said once the Senate inquiry into the Fairfax takeover was completed, he would push for changes to ensure the decision-making process on foreign investment was open to public scrutiny.

You see, Madam Acting Deputy President, this is a most important issue before the Australian public. It is a most important reference that has been made to a Senate committee. During the workings of that committee it has found that there has been a problem in collecting and taking evidence because key public servants have claimed public interest immunity. What we have open to us, of course, is a devil and the deep blue sea option; namely, we cite them for contempt and they face the risk of imprisonment—which is entirely unsatisfactory, and Senator Kernot's motion makes that very point—or we do nothing about it. Senator Carr said that there are some who think public servants should be gaoled on this matter. I can state quite unequivocally that there is no-one, to my knowledge, in this chamber who believes that to be the case.

Senator Kernot —But the government put that sanction in there.

Senator ELLISON —As Senator Kernot reminds me, the government put that sanction in there. We are looking to find a solution because we have a great problem here; that is, this legitimate inquiry by a Senate committee has found that it has run up against a brick wall. It cannot get access to information, on behalf of the Australian people, I might add, into how the workings of this Foreign Investment Review Board take place, because the public servants, who are really the meat in the sandwich, have been directed by the Treasurer not to answer these questions.

  It is an entirely unsatisfactory state of affairs and one which, I believe, the people of Australia will not tolerate. We are the elected representatives and the people of Australia expect us to do our job—that is, to carry out our parliamentary duties in a forthright manner. And that includes the committee system, which, indeed, includes obtaining evidence.

  Nothing should stand in the way of the interests of the Australian people, or the democracy of this country. We have found with this inquiry that there is a brick wall which the Senate committee has come up against; and, in the interests of truth and democracy, it cannot go any further. That is really the issue we are facing today, the one which P.P McGuinness cited as being one of the most important issues to be decided in Australia this century.

  I believe the government does not even have issue with this motion, apart from paragraph (4); and I might address some remarks to that. The government would want this matter to be referred to the privileges committee, but not so that the print media inquiry might avail itself of the report of that committee. I believe it to be essential to the workings of this inquiry that it, firstly, have the report by the privileges committee in order for it to give a full account to the Senate.

  Secondly, it was this committee and its inquiry which has led to this very issue being here today. Inquiries often reveal defects and flaws which are not really the subject of reference. The Costigan inquiry was a case in point. It virtually brought down a government in the process of its investigation. This inquiry has happened to bring to the attention of the Senate and the public of Australia a most important point, and I believe that is why it is essential that paragraph (4) be linked to the print media inquiry. I believe the government is shirking its responsibility in trying to excise that paragraph from the motion. As Senator Kernot said, she was not simply sitting at home one Sunday and thought that it would be a good idea; it was the process of this inquiry which brought this to the fore. Indeed, that is what the press has acknowledged and that is what is being acknowledged publicly.

  Whilst on paragraph (4), I point out to the Senate and the people of Australia that it recommends that the committee present its final report with `the minimum resources required for giving effect to this resolution'. By extending the matter to take into account the privileges reference, the question of added cost is indeed being addressed. I understand that this committee will operate henceforth at an average of $100 a day, and the cost will be minimal compared with that of other inquiries which we have had to date. I recall that the inquiry into the building industry in New South Wales ran into millions of dollars—I think some $30 million. As we are looking at one of the most important political issues this century, the extra $10,000 required really pales into insignificance when we look at the way money has been spent on other inquiries. I believe that should be borne in mind.

  I would correct Senator Carr on one matter that he raised. He said that the coalition was hell-bent on the abolition of the Foreign Investment Review Board. He is about six years out of date, I believe. That might have been the policy about six years ago, but certainly it is not the policy of the coalition today.

  I have not underestimated the importance of this reference, nor of this motion. I believe that this will provide a solution to the workings of this committee and subsequent committees. Whatever motives might be attributed to it by the government, I can tell honourable senators, on behalf of the coalition, that there is an earnest desire to see this aspect cleared up. We do not want to leave in limbo the question mark over the powers of Senate committees and the powers they have in relation to witnesses.

  Mr Jackson, QC, provided a thorough opinion on this matter and one we have drawn our own understandings from. That highlights the uncertainty of the issue; not even counsel as eminent as Mr Jackson could give us a definitive ruling on the matter. Members of the committee have their own understanding of the opinion because of the uncertainty that prevailed. Once this reference is made and has been gone into thoroughly by the privileges committee, we can help clear up that uncertainty; and there will not have to be recourse again by a committee to legal counsel on the matter because the matter will be resolved.

  This Senate has some great tasks ahead of it this year dealing with the powers of the Senate and the interaction of the two Houses. We have section 53 of the constitution to be looked at. That reference is equally, if not more, important. I thoroughly commend the motion to the Senate.