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Thursday, 14 June 1984
Page: 3087


Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(10.40) —Senator Primmer has just stated that he believes that on this occasion, as on others on which he has canvassed the same topics, he has not abused parliamentary privilege. Others will be of a different view. I would find that position understandable in my position as Deputy Chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which Committee recently, this week, tabled an exposure draft report dealing with matters of this kind. We made a recommendation that citizens, non- parliamentarians, who are the subject of stinging attacks in this place, well founded or otherwise as those attacks may prove to be, ought to have more formal opportunity than they get at the moment to reply to them. I think Senator Primmer's allegations on this and on other occasions give extra point and weight to that recommendation.

I am not in the position tonight, any more than I have been previously, to respond in detail to the particular allegations that have been made, or at least the bulk of them. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Hayden, has been concerned on each occasion that they have been raised to ensure that proper inquiries have been made. A number of inquiries, have, of course, been set on foot through the Department of Finance, the Ombudsman and, more recently, by Mr Pryor at the direction of the Public Service Board. Certainly those reports that I have seen or that have been reported to me do not lend credence to the kinds of allegations that have been made in the past. What the status of the new allegations is must await further investigation, report and response but I do not think Mr Hayden will appreciate the way in which his attitude to this matter has been characterised on this occasion, as on others, by Senator Primmer.

The one matter raised again by Senator Primmer on which I am in a position to make some short response tonight is statements made by Mr Henderson in the Senate chamber when appearing before the Estimates Committee at which I was the responsible Minister on 3 May. An exchange occurred between Mr Henderson and Senator Tate which has been the subject of some pamphleteering by Mr Witheford, or at least those who support his position. The statements of the events, in particular as to the persons responsible for actually initiating the prosecution by Mr Witheford, made by Mr Henderson on that occasion are perfectly accurate and he simply does not deserve the charges that have been levelled against him of telling lies or in some other way misleading either the Senate or the public as to the circumstances of initiation of those proceedings.

As I understand it-my Department certainly had an active role in this-the facts are as follows: The police were called in to the Foreign Affairs Department in order to investigate the unofficial disclosure of official documents some days before Mr Witheford was charged. As is normal police practice, they decided that action be taken once they had been asked to investigate that matter. It was the Deputy Crown Solicitor's decision, on the basis of evidence collected by police, to proceed against Mr Witheford under the Crimes Act. Mr Henderson's statement of 3 May to the effect that the Department of Foreign Affairs was not responsible for the legal action that was decided on by the police in conjunction with officers of the Attorney-General's Department is perfectly correct. It is also the case that the two outstanding matters following Mr Dobson's dismissal of the first matter were referred to Mr Ian Temby, the Director of Public Prosecutions, who considered very carefully the weight of the evidence and the justification for further charges continuing. As a result of that review by the DPP the prosecution of one of the two remaining charges will continue. So some of the more extravagant language that has been employed, not only by Senator Primmer and those supporting Mr Witheford but also gaining considerable colour from the magistrate himself, Mr Dobson, it would appear is not justified.

Probably much more can be said about this matter. On previous occasions I have expressed my respect for the good faith and motivation of Senator Primmer in bringing these matters forward. I must confess, as with each passing week, month or parliamentary day still further allegations are made which appear, as their investigation is brought to my notice, to have no more solid a foundation than those preceding, one begins to doubt whether that characterisation is as entirely apt as it might have been at the outset. Nonetheless, I will, giving the benefit of the doubt where it ought to be given, to parliamentarians acting under cover of privilege, note what Senator Primmer has said. I will refer the substance of his comments, to the extent that they raise new matters, to Mr Hayden and ask him to ensure that such response as is appropriate is made as soon as possible.