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Thursday, 10 May 1984
Page: 1988

Senator MESSNER(6.25) —I raise a matter in connection with events which occurred at the Victorian special State Conference on Uranium, held in Melbourne on 28 November last year. It concerns the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans), and I had hoped that he would have been present in the chamber during my remarks. He may not have reached the chamber yet, by virtue of the fact that the adjournment debate began a little earlier than usual. The matter to which I refer is one which has been the subject of a couple of questions from me in the course of the last day or two. It concerns the alleged sale of stolen Commonwealth property in the course of a meeting which was held in Melbourne at that time. The matter came to my attention as a result of representations from a constituent in Adelaide, who had seen a television program on Nationwide on Monday, 28 November. The program showed, in the course of its discussion of the uranium issue, the presence of certain Hawke Government Ministers at that special conference and mentioned also activities which took place at that conference and members who were present at the presentation and display of signs which had been stolen from the Pine Gap defence facility establishment in the course of a march which took place there a week or two before the conference.

As a result of the representations, I wrote first to the Minister for Administrative Services, Mr John Brown, on 14 December 1983, setting out my constituent's complaints about this matter and asking whether action was proposed to be taken by the Government against those who had undertaken the alleged sale of the stolen Commonwealth property. I received a reply from the Minister on 20 January 1984 to the effect that it was not a matter which he could deal with and that he was fowarding that correspondence to the Minister for Defence, Mr Scholes, for his attention. Subsequently I received a letter dated 20 February 1984 from Mr Scholes, who indicated that he had forwarded the matter to the Special Minister of State (Mr Young), for the attention of the Australian Federal Police to see what should be done about the matter. Although I did not know that Mr Brown had also forwarded my correspondence to the Attorney-General, I did receive a letter from the Attorney-General dated 10 February 1984 which also indicated that he had forwarded the correspondence to the Special Minister of State for the attention of the Australian Federal Police .

Three months later, I have received no reply from the Special Minister of State as to what action the Federal Police may be taking on this matter. As a result, since it had been a reasonable time since the last period of correspondence, I deemed it necessary to raise the matter in the Parliament to determine what the Government intended to do in relation to the matter. Yesterday I asked a question of the Attorney-General as to whether there had been an auction sale at an Australian Labor Party meeting in Melbourne on or about 28 November 1983-a meeting at which he was either invited to be present or, indeed, was present. I asked the Attorney-General what he would do in order to pursue the matter and he indicated that he would seek further information to find out what had happened at that meeting. I should point out that in my question yesterday I referred to the auction of Commonwealth Government property allegedly stolen from Pine Gap. It has now come to my attention that the correct word would have been 'raffled'. Today, I addressed a question to the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, as the Minister representing the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy). I am told that Mr Duffy was also present at the meeting last November.

Senator Gareth Evans —What meeting was that-a State conference?

Senator MESSNER —It was a State special conference.

Senator Robert Ray —You don't get invited to those.

Senator MESSNER —Senator Ray was present also. The media, however, was invited.

Senator Gareth Evans —So were about 450 other people. What are you saying?

Senator MESSNER —If Senator Evans would care to listen to the case, perhaps he might be able to give us an intelligent reply. The point of my question today was to discover-

Senator Gareth Evans —When did the raffle take place?

Senator MESSNER —Would Senator Evans please shut up and just listen for a time. He might learn something. The point of the question today was to determine whether we could obtain a copy of a transcript of the Nationwide program I spoke of earlier setting out the circumstances of the meeting in Melbourne and, indeed , who was present and, in fact, what took place at the meeting. The Minister replied that she would seek to obtain that information from the Minister for Communications who, I have just indicated, was also present at the meeting in Melbourne on that day. Subsequent to my question-it has now prompted me to raise the matter during the adjournment debate-a transcript of the Nationwide television program has come into my hands which sets down the circumstances of that meeting. I seek leave to have the transcript incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The transcript read as follows-



RICHARD CARLETON: From assets testing to an asset of Australia, at least in some people's eyes, uranium. Uranium is a sore that just won't heal for Labor. Now reminiscent of earlier damaging brawls in the Party, the Queensland Branch has referred to the all-powerful National Executive, the question of the Hawke Government's uranium policy. The Queensland Branch has asked the National Executive to rule whether the Caucus decision of a few weeks ago is contrary to Labor's written policy. In effect, Queensland is asking Labor's outside National Executive to rule on a decision of the Party's elected Parliamentarians. This has happened and caused great problems in times gone by. This will come up at the National Executive meeting today week.

But last weekend Labor's Victorian Branch held a special State Conference on Uranium and the result was no surprise-condemnation of the Government's new policy. But given all the sound and the fury at the Melbourne meeting what difference does it make. David Ransom was there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ''It seems to me that in issuing the sternest warning which State Conference can to the highest levels of the Parliamentary party, we are not promoting division, it is they that have done it-we are promoting unity . . .''

DAVID RANSOM: Even aside from domestic politics, for uranium conference it couldn't have been more timely. The Americans have started putting their new missiles in Europe, the Russians had responded with warnings of nuclear war. Also on the international stage was the Australian Prime Minister. He had just lent weight to an Arms Race Protest blessed by Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in India.

But the Prime Minister's concerns about things nuclear didn't rate with many of those who turned up at Melbourne's Collingwood Town Hall yesterday. They were much too riled by Bob Hawke's support for uranium mining.

At yesterday's conference the Victorian Branch's dominant Socialist Left Faction was out in force. People like Joe Camileri, State MP Jim Simmons, and old identities like Bill Hartley. The Faction had Caucussed earlier in the week and was confident of success. Eighteen motions were listed. The brunt of the attack was a repudiation of Federal Caucus's decision on Roxby Downs and a censure of all Victorian Labor MPs who voted in favour of it.

But from the start it was obvious that Bob Hawke's Centre Unity Group was to put up a fight. They had a powerful force led by Attorney-General, Gareth Evans and including MPs Clyde Holding and Senator Robert Ray with Michael Duffy from the Independent Group.

On display like trophies from a medieval battle were the relics of the female fracas at Pine Gap. Commonwealth property it may have been but here it was being raffled in aid of the anti-uranium cause.

JOAN COXSEDGE: ''An anti-nuclear policy today is not merely justified . . .''

Then Socialist Left MP, Joan Coxsedge spoke to the first motion and the political fur started flying.

JOAN COXSEDGE: ''. . . is the only way that people can live with their consciences and yet we find unscrupulous people including members of our own Party hell-bent on breaking this policy and to add to the overpowering pressures of the world's nuclear arms race.''

CLYDE HOLDING: ''And if you are talking about phasing out tomorrow, well that's alright. We'll tell Gordon Scholes we won't go on with the frigates down at Williamstown and you can explain to the Metal Workers Union what is going to happen if they don't have those frigates on line. It's not as bloody easy as you think.''

Centre Unity member, Clyde Holding had attempted to counter with an amendment. The move was to have the Federal Executive decide the illegitimacy of the Caucus decision but it didn't work. Then Gareth Evans presented a warning.

GARETH EVANS: ''By undertaking as you are proposing to do on some of the rest of these motions to campaign against this Government, you are throwing the credibility of the capacity of this Government on the line, you are destabilising this Government and you are creating a situation-whether you believe it or not, or whether you want to or not-whereby you are guaranteeing that the certainty of the continuation of uranium mining in this country. Don't set this party on a course of public self-immolation and don't set this party and this Government on a course to destruction.''

But the smoke cleared to reveal all the Left's motions passed with hardly an amendment, although often only narrowly. But just as interesting was the confusion over whether the ALP has an anti-uranium policy or not. An observer at the Conference was a lecturer in politics at Victoria's Philip Institute of Technology, Mark Considine.

MARK CONSIDINE: ''A number of speakers who came before the Conference today on both sides were arguing that in fact existing policy supported their position. So we have got the amazing if not ridiculous proposition put before us that in fact the present ALP National Policy supports both the continuation of the present contracts and their repudiation. Now I think that ambiguity was at the base of a lot of the acrimonious exchanges today and it is one of the reasons why this issue is going to burn on and bubble on for a good time to come.''

But how serious a business is a Branch censure of Federal Parliamentary members .

MARK CONSIDINE: ''I think it is an indication that that whole tension between the Party in office and the Party out of office has never really been resolved. It is not clear for example whether the Government of the day, a Labor Government of the day, has a direct responsibility to continue supporting Party policy or whether as a Government it has a right to look beyond the Party to some wider electorate.''

So what will all this mean to the Prime Minister and the way he runs his Government. The National Correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Bowers.

PETER BOWERS: ''I suspect very little, I believe he will ignore this resolution today, just as he ignores all resolutions that he doesn't like taken by the Victorian Party.''

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ''It may not have any influence on the way he runs his Government but I think where it will have an interesting influence is that perhaps the pressure of these resolutions may force some Federal Politicians to take a view that was expressed by a couple at the Conference. For instance we will go into the Parliament and we will support a resolution as we must because we are bound by Caucus but elsewhere we are not going to support it. So that you are actually getting politicians now who are saying 'well I will say one thing in the Parliament but I am going to say something else and very strongly elsewhere.' Now how can you have a Federal Government and continue to have support for a Federal Government when members take clearly opposite positions like that. It is a duplicity that I think the electorate won't tolerate.''

The Socialist Left sees yesterday's victory as a forerunner to a stronger anti- uranium vote at the National Conference next year. Another view is that such a hard line might frighten off some anti-uranium supporters and leave the Left isolated. But on the consequences of a stronger antiuranium vote, Peter Bowers again:

PETER BOWERS: ''If the National Conference reverses its policy and particularly the policy on Roxby Downs it almost certainly will mean the defeat of the South Australian Government because that was the issue on which the last election was fought and Roxby Downs was a key factor in that election. As for whether Hawke could survive it, it would be a very serious blow to his personal standing and it is worth remembering that Hawke's personal popularity is a big factor and one of the, perhaps the most important factor that the Labor Party has going for it. If you asked me to pick, say, what is going to happen in the Labor Party in nine months time, I would expect that Hawke will have the numbers.''

ANNOUNCER: David Ransom with that report from Melbourne.

Senator MESSNER —The transcript was provided by the Parliamentary Library. I shall quote paragraphs 3 and 4 of page 2 which indicate in the first place that certain people were present at that meeting and also refer to actions that took place in regard to the stolen government property. Paragraphs 3 and 4 read:

But from the start it was obvious that Bob Hawke's Centre Unity Group was to put up a fight. They had a powerful force led by Attorney-General, Gareth Evans and including MPs Clyde Holding and Senator Robert Ray with Michael Duffy from the Independent Group.

On display like trophies from a medieval battle were the relics of the female fracas at Pine Gap. Commonwealth property it may have been but here it was being raffled in aid of the anti-uranium cause.

That brings me to the major point I wanted to make in the course of my remarks. Although it can be acknowledged that those remarks in the transcript do not say that the Attorney-General or any of the other members of the Australian Labor Party were present or knew, in fact, of the existence of the stolen property at that meeting, there is pretty clear circumstantial evidence that, in fact, they did know that that property was in the building in which they were present in the course of the meeting. In fact, I believe that it would have been painfully obvious to them that that was so. The question has to be asked whether they knew that that property was stolen. I suspect that there is absolutely no doubt that they know that that indeed had happened in the light of publicity given to the activities of the female demonstration at Pine Gap a week or two earlier. The next point I would like to make is that it is surely for the Attorney-General, then, to give an explanation as to whether he knew of the presence of that stolen property at that meeting. I would like to hear him on that point.

To further muddy the waters on the issue, in the letter I received from the Attorney-General dated 10 February 1984 he said, in the course of referring the matter to the Special Minister of State that in fact he had no personal knowledge of the matters to which I was referring in my original letter to Mr John Brown. I could understand if the Attorney-General, pedantic as always, chose to draw the distinction between an auction of stolen government property and a raffle. It is quite possible that he could have taken that position, and quite legitimately so. Irrespective of the morals of the situation, he having such an incisive legal mind might very well be capable of drawing distinctions in that circumstance. I would like to hear his explanation now as to whether or not he had personal knowledge of those events.

I think that we in this Parliament need to be able to draw a conclusion as to whether the Nationwide program was a truthful account of what happened in the course of that meeting and, indeed, whether those Ministers and those members of parliament knew about it. If they did know about it-and it has to be said that the evidence is fairly strongly in favour of their knowing about it-why is it that the Attorney-General did not see fit to take a stronger line of action against those who had stolen Commonwealth property? His role in this chamber is both as Attorney-General, as first law officer of the land, and as Minister representing the Special Minister of State and consequently having direct responsbilitity for the administration of the Australian Federal Police. Is the Attorney simply pursuing his normal course, that is, having referred the matter to the Special Minister of State, is awaiting a reply from him as to what action is going to be taken by the police? Or is it just a lack of diligence on his part which we have become accustomed to in this chamber over the last 12 or 15 months since he has been in office in regard to his approach to matters of what he might regard as fairly minor details of administration?

I believe that that question needs to be answered. I believe that the Attorney- General would do us all proud by making clear his own understanding and knowledge of the events that took place at that convention, and if he also, at the very least, would please hasten his activities in connection with the Special Minister of State to see whether he can obtain some action from the police force and obtain a report for us as promptly as possible.