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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4061

Senator FERGUSON(7.59 p.m.) —I rise to make some comments pertinent to the report of the Select Committee on Uranium Mining and Milling which was tabled on 15 May. I spoke briefly on that occasion—only for three minutes—because we were very pressed for time, as we are today, when it came to the tabling of that report.

Senator Lees spoke before me that afternoon, and in the early part of her speech she said the following things. Talking about the committee, she said:

I found the process on this committee the most stressful and most difficult of any of the committees I have sat on for the last seven years. The process really was the worst I have encountered, and I hope I never encounter anything like this again.

I also had some concerns about the process she was referring to. I will speak about them later. But it was because of the activities of Senator Margetts in particular and Senator Lees that the process of that committee was placed under so much stress. Senator Sandy Macdonald has already referred to this.   Senator Lees then went on to say:

I must, therefore, thank sincerely Mr Frank Nugent for his integrity, cooperation and supportive approach in helping us to go back through the evidence to try to balance the majority report.

I was the next speaker on that occasion, and when I heard Senator Lees make those remarks, I felt that she was implying that the secretariat itself had something less than integrity and was less than cooperative and supportive. I then got up and made the following off-the-cuff remarks in response to Senator Lees's comments, which, I felt, reflected on the integrity of the committee. I said:

It is a fact that Mr Nugent was put on to work for the secretariat, but he in fact insisted that he would only work for Senator Lees and Senator Margetts. When told that he was not allowed to do that, he resigned from the workings of the secretariat.

I have been assured that that is not an accurate reflection of the facts. In raising that, I had no intention of making any personal reflection on Mr Nugent but only on the process that had been undertaken during the compiling of that report.

I have known Mr Nugent for all the time I have been in this place. I know him to be an honest and fair worker and a very cooperative person in this place. I should not have said that he insisted that he would only work for Senator Lees and Senator Margetts, because my understanding of the facts is that he was working under instructions, and it was not fair of me to make that implication about his work. I had no intention of what I said being a reflection on him personally but only a criticism of the process. I withdraw unreservedly those remarks that I made about Mr Nugent, because I now know that they were not fair to him personally.

I would like to make a couple of other comments about the report. One of the reasons I made those remarks at that time was that I was concerned about the fact that I was unsure whether the process we went through during the compilation of that report and the earlier behaviour of some of the members of that committee were handled as well as they could have been.

Last Friday I talked at length to the clerk of committees, and a meeting has been proposed. I hope it will be held between the Clerk of the Senate, the clerk of committees, the secretary of that committee, the chairman of that committee and me, so that some of the reasons behind some of the appointments that were made and some of the instructions that were given to members of the committee can be talked through. I would hate to think that the process we went through would be repeated again in such a way. I believe that there were some aspects of appointments to the committee and of the process that were not as they should have been. That is something that needs to be talked out.

I want to particularly thank the secretary of that committee, John Nethercote, for the work that he put into that committee. He worked under very difficult circumstances. I would also pay particular tribute to the work that was done by Julie Coker-Godson who worked on that committee for a great deal of the time. I would also like to thank the other people who worked with the secretariat and within the secretariat and under John Nethercote for the duration of the inquiry, not just during the writing of the report. I felt they worked under extreme difficulties. They had very tight deadlines. It is a very large report, there was a lot of rewriting and a lot of effort went into getting a report that we felt was going to be as unanimous as we were ever likely to get.

The opposition and government members of the committee managed to come up with a report where, as in all committees, there had to be a little bit of give and take to come to a unanimous point of view. The lengthy discussions that took place and the eventual outcome and decisions that were made in writing that report reflect the hard work and integrity of that committee. I believe the integrity of the secretariat itself was reflected on by the comments that Senator Lees made when she did not refer to them but referred to someone who worked only for her.

I also want to particularly thank Senator Bishop and Senator Reynolds for their efforts. In a committee like this, it could be easily perceived that there would be a divergence of opinion which it would not be possible to overcome in order to get a majority report out. Senator Bishop in particular was very conscientious about the work he put into this committee—the time he put in and the nego tiations that took place with the chairman. I can only congratulate him on that. I also congratulate Senator Reynolds who, in the final drafting of the report, came a long way in making an input to help the report be as good a report as I think it is: a report that covers every aspect of uranium mining and milling that is of interest to this Senate.

It was quite natural, when you know the philosophical and political views the Greens and, to a slightly lesser but almost identical extent, the Democrats have on this issue, that there was never going to be a totally unanimous report from that committee. It was never going to be possible. But Senator Macdonald hit the nail on the head when he made some comments about Senator Margetts's position. I do not believe it is possible to start off on a committee inquiry—and one that is as important as this—with a pre-determined position, and then try to find the evidence to suit your pre-determined position. That was not the case with the opposition members of this committee, who worked very hard and attended the hearings and inspections and gained, first-hand, the information necessary to write a comprehensive report.

I had not intended to speak so long on the committee report itself, because I did speak earlier. But I did particularly want to make the remarks I made tonight in relation to Mr Frank Nugent and, as I said, to withdraw unreservedly the remarks that I made, which were not accurate. I have spoken to Mr Nugent, I have written him a letter, and we talked about it at length earlier this week. I am pretty sure that he understands my position. I certainly understand his. I did want to make sure that, as well as speaking to him privately, I put on the record exactly what I meant to say. Because it was said in this place where he, as a clerk of a committee, has no right of response, I wanted to correct the record for 15 May.