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Thursday, 28 February 1985
Page: 325

Senator McKIERNAN —Is the Minister for Veterans' Affairs aware that lawyers representing the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia before the Royal Commission into the Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam did not appear at the Commission's formal hearings on 27 February? If so, can the Minister say whether their failure to attend may have jeopardised the VVAA's case, given that yesterday was the last day set aside for the presentation of evidence to the Commission?

Senator GIETZELT —The Senate will be aware that one of the first actions the Australian Labor Party took when it came to office in 1983 was to establish that Royal Commission. Naturally, we provided funds for counsel assisting the Royal Commission. Because the Vietnam Veterans Association was a major party to the proceedings, the Government agreed to pay that organisation an amount of funds to enable it adequately to present its case before the Commission.

Yesterday, some 18 months after the Commission first sat, was the last day on which the Royal Commission took evidence. It is a fact, as Senator McKiernan said, that the two lawyers, Mr Adrian McInnes and Mr Alun Hill, the legal representatives of the Vietnam Veterans Association, failed to attend the Commission's hearings yesterday. Their non-attendance arose from a claim they made to the Government for a restructuring of the formula for payment of their fees. That was associated with the question of sitting days and preparation of the case.

I regard this is an apalling abrogation of their responsibilities to their clients and a poor reflection on their professional ethics. It was the last day of a very long royal commission, and their obvious duty was to represent their client, the VVAA and the veterans that that organisation represents.

I should point out to the Senate that the Government has already paid to these two lawyers in that 18-month period a sum in excess of $490,000. What was in dispute was a sum of approximately $200,000. Yesterday, after consultation with my colleague the Minister for Finance, the Government agreed to pay them another $170,000. That would have meant that the two lawyers and their instructing solicitors would have received from the Commonwealth a sum of $660,000 for two years work. In my estimation, that is not bad. It is a case of private snouts trying to get into the public trough when they refuse to carry out their legal and, I stress, their moral responsibility to their client on the final day of the public hearings.

Obviously the view of some professionals is that the Government is fair game and that whenever there is a royal commission they are entitled to get as much money out of the Government as possible. They have met their doomsday as far as this Government is concerned. If they are not prepared to accept the fee, they will be criticised generally for their behaviour.

I was informed just before I came into the chamber for Question Time that the two lawyers have resigned their commission to the Vietnam Veterans Association. The consequence of that action is that the President of the Vietnam Veterans Association, at no cost to the Government, has agreed to finalise its representation to the Royal Commission. It is a matter of great regret and of great criticism that people in the legal profession, as indeed has happened with some people in the medical profession, seem to put their values more on the money they can earn than on their obligations to their clients.