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Thursday, 20 September 2001
Page: 27587

Senator ROBERT RAY (6:30 PM) — First of all, I thank Senator Hogg for warning me that he was going to raise certain issues out of the 100th report of the Senate Committee of Privileges. I also indicate to Senator Hogg that there was a failure by the committee to write to him on these matters because we wrote to current committee members and not to people who had been substituted in. This was a failure on my part: not only did I not remember that I suggested that he go on this committee and suggest to Senator Carr that he replace Senator Cooney on it; it completely escaped my mind when all the correspondence came to me to send to existing members. That was an oversight by the chair. I apologise for it.

Secondly, I do not think any member of the committee ever thought that Senator Hogg would be responsible for leaking to that particular journalist. It is inconceivable that a member of the Right faction of the Labor Party would leak a story to a former Centre Left member of the Labor Party—unless you are exceptionally clever! I have to say—and Senator McGauran is present tonight and a honoured member of the Senate Committee of Privileges—that we do have enormous difficulty in tracking down leakers. I have to say—and I have said it for the record before—that leakers of Senate reports are inevitably senators. Let us not cast a shadow of doubt over other organisations, secretariats and all the rest; these reports are inevitably leaked by senators. The odd senator has been caught. We did catch one two or three years ago because he gave a televised press conference leaking the report. He did throw himself on the mercy of the Senate. So it does happen, but normally you do not catch a leaker. If you look at the report, at least one of my colleagues in the Senate was pretty straightforward. He said:

It would appear that the document in question was `leaked', and that such a leak may have been calculated to politically damage a member or members of the Legislation Committee, given the political context and the subject matter at the time. Certainly, that seems a credible theory.

That is code for: there was a Liberal Party preselection in New South Wales and maybe it was leaked for that purpose. Who knows? I do not know. I have no idea who leaked it. I could have a good guess—

Senator McGauran —Don't.

Senator ROBERT RAY —But I will not. You are right: I will not have a guess whatsoever. And Senator Greig, at least, does not have a guess either. But one thing I think he is right about—and I am probably right about—is that it was a senator who had access to the report. As I said, tracking down any leaker is usually beyond the powers of the Senate Committee of Privileges, no matter what talent is therein assembled.

Could I also say that the committee—and I am not going to go into the discussion of the committee—did receive a letter from Ms Moore. It was noted, I think, by committee members that maybe it was a strange letter. I have to also say that we never had any intention to censor any letters. I think it is our responsibility to publish all the replies unless they are totally defamatory, and I do not think this falls into that category exactly. However, I do not think this is a very wise letter. In the very opening paragraph, the letter states:

The following events may or may not have some connection.

If they do not have any connection, we do not want to hear from the person. The last sentence in the larger paragraph, where the letter mentions `a “payment of a debt”, or words to that effect' is pure scuttlebutt, second-hand hearsay knowledge, and I do not know why it is there. It has no relevance to our inquiries into leaking. As for the reference to Senator Mark Bishop, I have say for the record that, whether or not Senator Bishop is on this committee, Senator Hogg has the right to discuss those issues with Senator Bishop or a staff member any time he likes. There is, of course, a requirement on Senator Bishop not to disclose any of this material, and he would not. But we do discuss issues with colleagues and with staff.

For heaven's sake, we have had plenty of these committee reports find their way into a minister's office and then over to departments, and that does take things a little too far. We have been a bit cross about that over the years when it has occurred, and we have had grave suspicion that some of the minority reports to references committees have been departmental reports, et cetera. But the more innocent explanation is really that the department wanted to be prepared to respond properly. Quite often, we have found that departments do not understand Senate privilege. Many of them have taken education courses of late and have made progress in this regard, and that is quite pleasing. The letter goes on to state:

After the unauthorised release:

Two of the Secretariat staff working on the dissent went to Senator Hogg's office by appointment to meet with him ...

Yes, Senator Hogg may well have been busy, but then it goes on to state:

Shortly thereafter Senator Bishop left the office.

So what? He has left my office on a few occasions. Sometimes he has been happy, sometimes he has been unhappy, depending on the nature of our conversation. More often than not, I think he will concede, he has had a very nice coffee there.

Senator Mark Bishop —That's right.

Senator ROBERT RAY —But so what? In summary, we are not in the position of ever censoring the material that comes to us. I do not think that is appropriate. The only time we ever censor material is in a section 5 right of reply, which we are instructed to do—and always in terms of negotiating with the complainant. So we had no choice but to put that letter in our report. But it was a very strange letter. It was one that I think drifted aimlessly all over the place. It is full of innuendo—for what purpose, though, I cannot divine. I think it would have been better not to have come.

One of the things possible here is that the Clerk Assistant may well draw that committee secretary's attention to all of the previous correspondence sent to the Privileges Committee by other secretaries. That would be a very good educative process, to see how all of the other secretaries over the years have responded. Nevertheless, if such a letter had come in and referred to me, I have to say, Senator Hogg, I would have been pretty concerned, as you were tonight.

I would like to finish by saying that we have had a record number of references of leaked committee reports. Really, it is getting beyond the pale. Why do people leak committee reports? They leak them basically for brownie points, don't they? They leak them to pre-empt the rest of their colleagues or to do damage to someone. It is not really a proper procedure to do that to your colleagues. Often it is only to get a bit of publicity a day or two before the report is about to be published.

If you think that you are getting brownie points with journalists by doing it, I can tell you that as soon as you make a mistake they will be the first ones to attack you. They will attack you because they do not even respect you. They do not respect leakers along these lines. They know deep in their own hearts that it is part of their job to obtain this sort of stuff and to publish it. That is part of their job. That does not mean it carries respect with it.

When it is things like in camera evidence it becomes even worse and we wreck the whole committee system that actually is the joy of the Senate. We are all frustrated by aspects of the committee system, sure, but we have to have something productive that at least delineates us from the other place, that justifies our existence. It is little wonder that various parliamentary institutions from around the globe come here to see how the committee system operates—the estimates committees, the standing committees, the references committees and the legislative committees—because rarely is it so accurately defined and effective as in this chamber. Senators have to take responsibility for protecting that committee system, and they will not do so by leaking reports and by leaking the internal discussions within those committees. You would have to say that an overwhelming majority of senators in fact abide by the rules and respect their colleagues.

It is a real disgrace, I have to say in conclusion, that we are up to the 100th report of the Privileges Committee. I cannot remember what the number was when I took over the chairmanship, but I think it was about 55 or 60. We have had all of those cases, the majority of which have been leaking cases. In conclusion, I think these matters can be resolved internally. They had to be raised here. They could be raised nowhere else, because this letter itself was a privileged document.

Question resolved in the affirmative.