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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 11367

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:11 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Hill as Minister for Defence and Minister representing the Prime Minister. Does the minister recall saying there may have been `flaws in what Australia understood' to be Iraq's weapons arsenal before the war, and that:

It's important for public confidence that the full story is told, even if it leads to a debate as to whether the intelligence was good enough or not. In terms of public confidence it needs to be open and frank.

Can the minister confirm that the other two members of the coalition of the willing have commissioned at least three comprehensive inquiries between them into the nature and accuracy of intelligence information leading up to the war? Given the willingness of the US and UK governments to be open and frank with their people, why does the Prime Minister refuse to order any inquiry, be it official, judicial or parliamentary, in public or in camera, about the intelligence advice to the Australian government which led directly to our participation in the war?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —Senator Faulkner might have missed it during the break, but there was quite an intense debate within the Senate committee system on this very issue in which the heads of relevant Australian intelligence organisations, such as the Defence Intelligence Organisation, appeared before the Senate estimates committee and were questioned in depth—

Senator Chris Evans —He said he couldn't say anything; it was a secret.

Senator HILL —yes, including by Senator Evans, on the intelligence that was put to the Australian government. As I recall it, what he and others basically said is that they stand by the intelligence that was put to the Australian government. There was democracy in action. Members of the opposition who bothered to attend—the Australian Democrats and the Greens could have but they were presumably off doing other things at that particular time—had the opportunity not just to question the politicians but to actually question the professional leaders of the Australian intelligence organisations on these very matters. So let us have no suggestion that something is being hidden. I do not think that the equivalent representatives have yet appeared before parliamentary committees—

Senator Bartlett —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Under the standing orders it is inappropriate for the minister to mislead the Senate by suggesting that the Democrats were not present at the defence estimates. I was there personally, as was Senator Allison. As this might be an indication of the level of truth the government attaches to everything else it says to the Senate, I would ask you to ensure that he corrects the record on this one.

The PRESIDENT —Senator Hill, you may wish to reflect on your answer as far as the Democrats are concerned.

Senator HILL —I am sorry, Mr President, I missed the brief attendance of the Leader of the Australian Democrats in the committee. I think they came in to talk about the sale of some land at Brighton in Tasmania. I do not think that the intelligence leadership in terms of the professionals of either the United States or the UK have actually yet appeared before relevant committees of their parliaments, but that can obviously be tested. In relation to the inquiries that have been undertaken elsewhere, as I understand it, they have been principally undertaken by the parliament in the UK and by the congress in the United States. Apart from that, the CIA in the United States said that it is doing its own inquiry, but that seems to relate back in time frame to matters before this question of weapons of mass destruction.

So this government has nothing to hide. We are contributing specialists to the ongoing search in Iraq. We do believe that it is important that the full picture is developed and that ultimately the full picture is communicated because it is important that the public has confidence not only in intelligence provided to governments but also in the way that governments use that intelligence. So this government certainly has nothing to hide in that regard.

But as the Prime Minister said last week, there is a need to be patient in this matter. There is a need to develop the full picture. It is not easy. There are literally hundreds of sites that still need to be examined and literally thousands of scientists and other individuals able to provide information through interrogation and discussion. Ultimately the full picture will be developed and communicated. I think that will be an important thing because from that we can learn for the future.

Senator FAULKNER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister serious in suggesting that albeit very effective questioning—questioning from Senator Evans that took one hour where witnesses at the table were unable to answer questions because of confidentiality considerations—is an excuse for a comprehensive inquiry? Minister, isn't the joint parliamentary committee which oversees ASIO, ASIS and DSD well placed to undertake such an inquiry into the nature and accuracy of intelligence which forms the basis of decisions to commit Australian forces to conflict? Hasn't that particular committee got a track record of approaching these sorts of issues in a secure and non-partisan way? Couldn't the joint committee in its inquiry simply take account of the fact that there is an ongoing search for weapons of mass destruction but that certainly has not stopped the UK and the US pressing these inquiries with great vigour? Why doesn't Australia do it?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —Senator Faulkner is really asking me why the parliament is not acting. I am here responsible for the government's position, but apart from that I remind him that the defence department—

Senator HILL —You asked the question; now you have to cop the answer.

Senator HILL —I am about to remind you that the defence department appeared before the Senate committee for two full days, morning, afternoon and night. It was the decision of the Labor Party to spend one hour on this particular issue. It saw the priority being Point Nepean or the sale of land at Brighton and a whole lot of other minor matters.

Senator HILL —It was the choice of the Labor Party.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Faulkner, you have asked your supplementary question and I think you should give the minister the right to give an answer, and I would ask both sides of the chamber to pay attention.

Senator HILL —Two full days could have been used by the Labor Party to question—

Senator Faulkner —You're the one who stopped the witnesses—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Faulkner, please pay respect to the chair and stop interjecting. Senator Hill, your answer should be through the chair.

Senator HILL —Two full days; Labor chose to use an hour. Senator Faulkner says, `But it was open.' In the interests of democracy, it is generally preferred that it be open, but they could have asked for it to go in camera if they wished. (Time expired)