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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 381

Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (3.09 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the statement.

I am grateful to the minister for finally coming clean and acknowledging the sordid reality that this is indeed simply a stark political exercise. For months we had the pretence that the government had a legal justification for what it was doing—that somehow it had contrary legal opinion which presumably would explain, or throw some light on, the reasons why it maintained that public interest immunity applied in this instance, or the extent to which the powers of the committee were limited.

  Now we have at least had the truth flushed out: as both the constitution and the provisions governing the role of committees make absolutely clear, their powers are absolute. Any attempt by the government to therefore withhold documents on a unilaterally discretionary basis is a matter of pure politics.

  I can understand Senator Gareth Evans's current level of distraction as the minister for sour grapes because he had the total lack of grace to not only express his chagrin at being comprehensively rolled—and I suppose he is not alone, given that Mr Keating, Senator Robert Ray and Senator Carr were all behind him—

Senator Gareth Evans —What are you talking about?

Senator ALSTON —I am saying I can understand why Senator Evans is distracted on this matter.

Senator Gareth Evans —Mr Deputy President, on a point of order: there is a requirement of relevance to address the matter in issue. That has got absolutely nothing to do with the matters before the Senate at the moment.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I am sure Senator Alston was indulging in a bit of frivolous excursion, but I am required to uphold the point of order.

Senator ALSTON —I am deeply disappointed with your ruling, Mr Deputy President.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —But you will take it with good grace, no doubt.

Senator ALSTON —All I can say is that I was attempting to explain why I thought Senator Evans might have been distracted at the present time. But the fact remains that, as a member of a committee which laboured hard and long over a period of years and as the deputy chairman of that committee both in opposition and in government, Senator Evans had every opportunity to make provision in the Parliamentary Privileges Act of 1987 to ensure that this sort of defence upon which the government now relies was provided for by statute and that there was some appropriate way of resolving the issue.

  Senator Evans is now telling us that it is simply an exercise in naked power—the government is the government and, therefore, it has no obligation to justify itself other than, as he describes it, saying that it was a matter of politics. That is not a good enough explanation. One might as well say that Mr Keating's secret deal with Conrad Black, or at least unilateral promise of favours, was a matter of politics. That is in no sense a justification or an explanation of the true nature of public interest. That is what this ought to be all about.

  It is not a matter of politics. It is a matter of whether Senator Evans has any decent—let alone legal—justification for withholding these documents. After all, we know from the document that was leaked and subsequently publicly and officially released by Mr Willis—

Senator Gareth Evans —It sounds a bit like a political speech to me.

Senator ALSTON —I am simply saying that in the context of being a politician—

Senator Gareth Evans —For someone who is denying the relevance of politics, you are not very plausible.

Senator ALSTON —If one is a member of the Senate it is a bit hard not to speak in a political fashion. In considering legislation and responses, normally one finds that someone who claims the intellectual talents of Senator Evans would somehow be able to dress up a matter of politics with a veneer of respectability so that there would be some justification—

Senator Gareth Evans —I quoted Greenwood and Ellicott and that isn't good enough for you.

Senator ALSTON —As even Senator Evans would concede, that is a matter of ancient history pre-dating by 15 years his bill which became the 1987 Parliamentary Privileges Act. Senator Evans had every opportunity to make some sort of legal justification for what he did. Instead, he came in here and came clean by saying that this is simply a matter of the government deciding it would be too acutely embarrassed to disclose these documents, other than the one which was already in the public arena and which Mr Willis had to belatedly confirm was a valid copy of a FIRB document. So we are now being told that as a matter of politics, not as a matter of—

Senator Gareth Evans —A matter of convention, I said.

Senator ALSTON —It is not a matter of convention at all. Senator Evans let the cat out of the bag. The fact is that the government has no justification for withholding those documents that would throw very important light on the basis for those decisions as to whether public interest was indeed taken into account in making far-reaching decisions on the shape of the media and foreign ownership considerations. But no, the heavy suspicion has always been that the government's decisions were motivated by political considerations rather than legal or national interest considerations. Senator Evans has come in here and confirmed that. For all his supposed ability of fast footwork, he has not even had the guile to disguise this as anything other than a matter of politics.

  I am indebted to the minister for at least coming clean to that extent. I repeat that there is no justification advanced by the government. That makes it clear beyond all doubt that their reasons for withholding are as shabby as the reasons for the decision making in the first instance. It is a matter of profound regret that Senator Evans has not been able to come up with a better excuse than that one today.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.