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Thursday, 15 May 1997
Page: 3398


Senator FORSHAW(9.40 a.m.) —by leave—I make this statement to the Senate on behalf of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee to respond to recent disturbing and incorrect media reports about the committee's conduct of its inquiry into consular assistance for Australians travelling abroad. These media reports arose out of attempts by the committee to take evidence in camera from Mr Alastair Gaisford, who was serving in the Australian embassy at Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the time David Wilson was captured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in 1994. The committee understands that Mr Gaisford is still an officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but is under suspension. Mr Gaisford refused to give evidence in camera.

Before dealing in detail with those media reports and the events which gave rise to them, I want to provide some information about the conduct of the inquiry to put them into context. Although originally conceived as an inquiry into matters relating to the David Wilson hostage crisis in Cambodia, the scope of the inquiry was broadened when the Senate referred the matter to the committee on 25 August 1995. Under its terms of reference, the committee was required to conduct an inquiry into the Australian government's consular services and, as part of that inquiry, examine issues and problems in dealing with difficult and complex cases, including that of the David Wilson hostage crisis.

The committee advertised the inquiry in the national press and called for written submissions to be lodged with the committee. A number of detailed submissions contained adverse comments and these were dealt with by the committee in accordance with the Senate privilege resolutions. The committee decided to release submissions as their authors appeared before the committee in public hearings. Where possible, and in the interests of natural justice, responses to adverse comments in submissions were released at the same time as the submissions.

The federal election in March 1996, subsequent changes in membership of the committee, including that of chairman, and the need to finalise three other inquiries, resulted in delays in commencing the public hearings in this inquiry. The committee began public hearings on 9 September 1996 and first took evidence from the family of David Wilson on 24 October 1996. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade gave evidence to the committee on the Wilson case on 25 November 1996. The Wilson family was given an opportunity on 11 March 1997 to give further evidence and to respond to the department's evidence.

It was not until 11 March this year, during his second hearing with the committee, that Mr Peter Wilson, the father of David Wilson, requested the committee to take evidence immediately from Mr Alastair Gaisford. Mr Wilson stated that Mr Gaisford had been the Australian consul in Phnom Penh at the time and was involved with the hostage crisis. He thought Mr Gaisford could make a significant contribution to the inquiry. In the Canberra Times the next day, Mr Gaisford was reported to have said outside the hearing:

I have no doubt David Wilson would be alive today if we had firmly controlled negotiation pressure.

The committee notes that the Wilson family had not nominated Mr Gaisford in their detailed written submission as a person from whom the committee should take evidence. They also did not refer to Mr Gaisford in their first appearance before the committee. We mention this, not as a criticism, but because it is relevant to consideration of subsequent events regarding Mr Gaisford.

Nevertheless, the committee responded to Mr Peter Wilson's request that evidence be taken from Mr Gaisford by inviting him to make a written submission in the first instance. It was explained to Mr Gaisford in the letter of invitation that the committee was following normal committee practice by first seeking a written submission and then deciding, after consideration of the submission, whether to seek further oral evidence at a hearing.

It should be emphasised that Mr Alastair Gaisford did not make any formal approach to the committee about giving evidence until he responded to the committee's letter of 25 March 1997 inviting him to make a written submission. He did not respond to the advertisements in the national press calling for written submissions. The fact that he knew about the inquiry and the evidence given during the course of the inquiry is beyond doubt. He attended many of the public hearings, including the two days in Melbourne when members of the Wilson family gave evidence.

It is understood that Mr Gaisford approached informally the former chairman of the committee, former Senator Bob Woods, in the early stages of the inquiry but no record of these discussions was passed to the committee. He also approached informally at least one other current member of the committee, who responded that he should make a written submission to the committee. However, despite what was said in any private conversation with a member of the committee, that does not constitute any approach to the committee.

After the committee invited him to make a written submission, Mr Gaisford began to put obstacles in the way of his contributing to the committee's inquiry. He claimed that he would be giving evidence as an officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and not in a personal capacity.

It was pointed out to Mr Gaisford that, if he did not have authorisation to appear on behalf of the department, he would have to appear in a personal capacity. There is no other capacity in which he could appear. The committee also made it clear to Mr Gaisford that, if he wanted to appear on behalf of the department, it was his responsibility to seek the necessary authorisation from the secretary to his department.

Mr Gaisford told the committee in his letter of 31 March 1997 that his address was the North Asia Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has refused to give the committee any other address or telephone number. However, as stated earlier, the committee understands that he is an officer under suspension from the department and is not entitled to enter departmental premises.

The committee did not believe, in the circumstances, that the address that he had given the committee was an appropriate address for official correspondence, particularly as the department did not have a forwarding address for him. Mr Gaisford collected the committee's mail directed to him from the committee secretariat. The committee has on occasion had to use intermediaries to contact him. The committee notes that Mr Gaisford used departmental letterhead for all his letters to the committee, despite the fact that he is under suspension and is not writing on behalf of the department.

Mr Gaisford advised the committee in his letter of 31 March 1997 that he believed parliamentary privilege would not protect him adequately and that action under other Commonwealth legislation might be taken against him in respect of evidence given to the committee. He requested the committee to obtain written advice from the Clerk of the Senate to clarify the protection afforded by the Parliamentary Privileges Act. Such advice was obtained from the clerk and attached to the committee's letter dated 17 April 1997 to Mr Gaisford. Mr Gaisford eventually lodged his written submission with the committee on 29 April 1997.

Contrary to Mr Gaisford's assertion in his submission that he was the Australian Consul in Phnom Penh, the committee was informed recently by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that Mr Gaisford was not the consul at the time of the Wilson hostage crisis. According to the embassy's diplomatic list dated 18 July 1994, which was provided to the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on 28 July 1994, Mr Gaisford was listed as second secretary. Another officer was listed as first secretary and consul.

The committee gave careful consideration to Mr Gaisford's submission, which was only a summary submission with a list of topics that he said he would address in a hearing. Despite the incomplete nature of Mr Gaisford's submission, the committee nevertheless decided to invite Mr Gaisford to give oral evidence at a hearing. It was further decided that the hearing would be held in camera.

Accordingly, on 6 May 1997, the committee invited Mr Gaisford to give evidence to the committee on 12 May 1997. The next day, Mr Gaisford handed the committee a letter seeking reasons for hearing his evidence in camera. The committee responded on 8 May 1997 stating, among other things, that:

Unlike other parties in this inquiry, who responded to public advertisements by giving the Committee detailed submissions, you have provided a summary submission late in the inquiry. Some of the other submissions contained adverse comments which were dealt with in accordance with Senate procedures to ensure that the right of individuals to natural justice was not prejudiced.

In your case, after further consideration and a detailed study of your summary submission, the Committee is not satisfied that your evidence will not reflect adversely on another person. Accordingly, under Privilege Resolution 1 (11), the Committee has decided to hold the hearing in camera. It will decide subsequently whether to release the transcript of evidence.

In his letter of 7 May 1997 Mr Gaisford requested that in any hearing he be accompanied by counsel at the committee's expense. Although the committee was unconvinced by Mr Gaisford's need to be accompanied by counsel, it did not object to counsel being present at Mr Gaisford's expense. It is not the practice of Senate references committees to pay counsel's costs and expenses.

About 3.15 p.m. on Friday, 9 May 1997, Mr Gaisford delivered another letter to the committee saying that he would not give evidence to the committee in camera. In the letter Mr Gaisford requested the committee to revoke its decision to hold the hearing in camera. At about 5.10 p.m. that day, he returned to the committee secretariat asking whether the committee had revoked its decision. He was told that, as members of the committee were travelling back to their homes in their respective states, it was impossible to convene a meeting of the committee between 3.15 p.m. and 5.10 p.m. to consider Mr Gaisford's letter.

He was also told that any revocation of the committee's decision to hold the hearing in camera would require a further decision of the committee; the chairman did not have the authority to revoke unilaterally the committee's decision. He was told that the committee could not meet before Monday. Mr Gaisford then handed over a further letter to the committee regretting the committee's decision. (Extension of time granted)

It is apparent that Mr Gaisford made contact with Mr Tim Wilson, the brother of David Wilson, and told him that the committee was requesting that he give evidence in camera, not in public. Mr Wilson then made a statement to the media, which was reported on the ABC's early edition of PM, saying that he had lost faith with the committee and that the committee was a waste of time. In the later edition of ABC PM, I as the chairman of the committee made a statement confirming that Mr Gaisford had been invited to give evidence in camera, that this was being done in accordance with normal committee procedures but that I was not in a position at the time to go into details of why the committee had decided to take Mr Gaisford's evidence in camera.

On Monday, 12 May 1997, Mr Peter Wilson and Mr Tim Wilson appeared on the Channel 9 Today show and continued to disparage the committee's decision to take evidence from Mr Gaisford in camera. They accused the committee of taking part in a cover-up. Press reports in several newspapers over the weekend and Monday also reported the comments of the Wilson family and Mr Gaisford on this matter.

On Monday, 12 May 1997, the committee met to consider the next step in this matter. It decided to direct Mr Gaisford to appear at an in camera hearing on 14 May 1997. Although the committee passed a message to Mr Gaisford through an intermediary that it wanted to communicate with him, Mr Gaisford has not made contact with the committee. The committee reached the conclusion yesterday that this approach would not be worth pursuing.

The committee believes, however, that it cannot remain silent, because the public comments of the Wilson family, provoked by Mr Gaisford, cast serious aspersions on the integrity of the committee and the Senate. The committee, therefore, decided that the appropriate course of action is to place the facts of this matter before the Senate.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, as is the practice of Senate committees. As the Wilson family made a detailed submission to the committee early in the inquiry in response to the advertisement, the committee was able to act in accordance with Senate procedure resolutions and, where necessary, seek responses from people who were subjected to adverse criticism. Mr Gaisford's very late contribution as a summary submission with no details or evidence to substantiate his claims is a matter of concern to the committee.

The committee gave careful consideration to Mr Gaisford's summary submission. Mr Gaisford made a number of serious general accusations about the handling of the David Wilson hostage crisis without any evidence to support his claims. He provided as an appendix to his submission a list of topics on which he wants to address the committee. The emotive way in which he cast some of those topics suggested to the committee that he might publicly make adverse comments about individuals involved in this case. The committee had reservations about the nature of the evidence he would give at a hearing.

However, the committee wanted to take evidence from him, as he was involved in the hostage crisis and may be able to contribute to the committee's understanding of the issues in this case. On the basis of the submission alone, the committee was not satisfied that he would not make adverse comments based on unsubstantiated claims at a hearing. Should Mr Gaisford make adverse comments in his evidence, those affected by his comments would not be able to defend their actions and reputations at the time. They would clearly be denied natural justice.

The committee also took into account Mr Gaisford's approach to the committee. Unlike the Wilson family and other witnesses, who tried to assist the committee in its inquiry, Mr Gaisford's approach was quite the contrary, aggressively raising obstacles at every turn. It reached the point where I had to warn Mr Gaisford twice not to harass members of the committee and the secretariat and that if he continued this aggressive approach I would report the matter to the Clerk of the Senate, which I eventually did.

Given the nature of his submission, his aggressive approach to the committee and his focus on procedural matters rather than the content of his evidence, the committee decided that it should hear Mr Gaisford in camera. It was the intention of the committee that if Mr Gaisford's evidence conformed to normal standards of evidence it would be released publicly. The committee is quite prepared to release criticisms of the actions of individuals if there is evidence to support those criticisms and there is an opportunity for those people subject to adverse comment to respond in accordance with Senate procedures. The committee is not prepared to allow unsubstantiated claims to be made against individuals under parliamentary privilege.

Since making its original decision to hear Mr Gaisford in camera, the committee has been made aware of evidence given by Mr Gaisford and other members of the DFAT Reform Group to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration on its inquiry into the management and operations of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1992. In its report, the committee concluded that: many of the specific allegations made by the DFAT Reform Group were seriously inaccurate; in none of the cases reviewed by the committee was there sufficient evidence to justify action against any individual and, in a significant number of cases, the allegations against individuals were clearly disproved; those cases which were partly or largely substantiated, including one nominated by Mr Carroll as significant, were of minor importance; and there was no evidence of any cover-up of improper or illegal behaviour. The committee believes that these comments lend weight to the committee's concern about evidence which might be given by Mr Gaisford in this inquiry and the committee's decision to hear Mr Gaisford in camera.

I want to make it clear on behalf of the committee that the committee is considering seriously all the issues in this inquiry. With its decision to take evidence in camera from Mr Gaisford, the committee was following established Senate practice of ensuring the protection of innocent people from possible unsubstantiated claims made under parliamentary privilege. The committee has no intention of withholding significant relevant information from the Senate or the public.

Mr Gaisford has had ample opportunity to make a contribution to this inquiry going back to August 1995 when the inquiry was established. If he had had any concern about protection afforded by parliamentary privilege in respect of evidence he might give to the committee, this could have been resolved quickly at any time, as it was when he recently sought from the committee written advice from the Clerk of the Senate.

The committee believes that if Mr Gaisford had pertinent information about the handling of the David Wilson hostage crisis which could assist the committee he should have come forward early in the inquiry, as did other people. But even when the committee invited him to make a submission at the request of Mr Peter Wilson, he began a series of procedural arguments with the committee rather than make a substantive submission which contained his views and the evidence to support them. A person wanting to give evidence would normally assist and cooperate with the committee to ensure that the committee received relevant information. In this case, this did not happen.

The committee is very concerned that the actions of Mr Gaisford have unnecessarily put additional pressure on the Wilson family, the relatives of the late David Wilson. The fact that they felt compelled to speak out on this matter is regrettable. It was frustrating for me and the committee that we were not in a position to assuage the doubts of the Wilson family at the time. By making this statement today, this important matter is brought into the public arena in its proper context. This obviously could not be done and nor should it be done through the media.

I wish to point out that all decisions made by the committee in relation to Mr Gaisford were unanimous. I thank the Senate for extending my time to make this statement. I seek leave to table all the correspondence between the committee and Mr Gaisford, Mr Gaisford's submission, other relevant correspondence and transcripts of media reports.

  Leave granted.