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Thursday, 12 May 1994
Page: 728


Senator CARR (10.52 a.m.) —I think the proposition before the Senate today needs to be reiterated because its seriousness may not be clear to those who are listening to this debate, particularly after the contribution of the last speaker. Essentially, the motion moved by Senator Kernot seeks to refer a bill on public interest immunity to the privileges committee, and requests that an extension of time be granted to the circus known as the print media inquiry. In essence, what we have heard from both the Liberal Party and from the Australian Democrats is that the proposition by Senator Kernot in the bill is not perfect.


Senator Kernot —I have said that.


Senator CARR —I acknowledge that Senator Kernot has said that, and it is a proposition that I am only too happy to agree with. It does not prohibit the prospect of public servants and citizens of this country being gaoled by this Senate. That is a very important point to make. When people are polishing up their haloes on these issues, it is very important to understand that there are sections of this Senate that believe that this Senate should have more power than the United States Senate but that its citizens should have much fewer rights than American citizens. That is a proposition I find very difficult to come to terms with, particularly from those who claim to be representing the democratic traditions of this country.

  It is also said that, on the question of public interest immunity, the legal precedent the government is operating on is shaky, that somehow or another the body language of witnesses before the committee indicates that the government is in a weak position. Body language is a unique legal concept that I have yet to understand, and I am sure that there are many very learned senators on the other side who will explain to me the legal precedents for the concept of body language.

  I draw the Senate's attention to the legal opinion the committee sought and then tried to suppress. First of all, clause 52 of that legal opinion indicates that a court would probably uphold any claim to public interest immunity on the class of documents referred to as category one. Secondly—and this is very important—clause 55, on page 28 of that legal opinion, states:

  There seems to be also no reason why such views might not be expressed strongly by the executive government, and no reason why that government should not tell its employees, former employees, advisers and former advisers, and its own former members, that it intends to claim that the questions should not be answered or the documents not produced.

To suggest that the legal opinion on which the government is operating is somehow shaky seems to me to ignore the very opinion the committee itself sought to suppress because it thought it was going to contradict its position. It strikes me that we have further examples today of just what a three-ring circus this whole committee has turned into. As many committee members I am sure would be aware, the media comment on this to date has highlighted just how ridiculous the whole thing has become. The committee is described essentially as a third-rate soap opera. I think that pretty much sums it up.

  The committee was founded on a spurious presumption that there was some sort of deal involving control of Fairfax for balanced coverage. We have seen no evidence to support that conclusion, none whatsoever. What is relied upon is a tongue-in-cheek remark made by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) in Seattle. What is ignored are the repeated denials of that proposition, not just by Mr Keating but by Mr Black. What is ignored is that the overwhelming body of evidence in Fairfax is that a cultural change within Fairfax led to its newspapers becoming more conservative. In fact, three out of the four titles supported the discredited opposition in the last election; they were so far out of touch in the last election that they backed the conservatives.

  All of this, to me, does not suggest evidence of a deal. All of this points to the fact that the cultural change within Fairfax is more in support of the opposition's position in politics than of ours. But those opposite choose to ignore that. What we see here is an attempt to use the Senate as a device to pursue the political agendas of a group of people who are increasingly becoming locked into the perpetuity of opposition. Essentially, what we are seeing here is the fourth attempt to extend the terms of this whole circus. Four attempts have been made to extend the circus to keep it in town for yet another couple of months. Why do those opposite do that?

  I look around the committee and I see the horsehair wigs being metaphorically placed upon the heads of members of the coalition. They see themselves in some sort of glorious light as judges able to cast aspersions upon the motives and morality of other Australian citizens. That is very good of them. What emerges is that the committee chairman in particular has more power through this committee than he is otherwise ever likely to have. It provides him with an opportunity to lord it over other people and to pontificate upon the activities of other people.

  It has been said that nothing has come out of this committee. I agree in essence that that is probably right, with one exception: the Liberal Party has decided that it will consider a change in its foreign investment policy. I suppose that is an achievement, in a strange sort of way. We need to understand the hypocrisy that surrounds the operation of this committee. I make no pretence in relation to my position. I am here, and the nature of these sorts of committees is such that we are obliged to act in certain ways to defend the position of the government. It is very much a partisan committee. That is the nature of the establishment of these types of committees. The appropriate committee to consider the substantive issues is the Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration, but that was not used because it does not have the same high profile. It does not get the same media attention as a special committee such as this gets.

  In terms of the hypocrisy, what must be understood is that, at the time of the sale of Fairfax, the Liberal Party operated a policy of abolishing the FIRB. Statements put out at the time of the sale of Fairfax by Senator Alston, when there was an extension of foreign ownership of that company, welcomed and supported the increase in foreign ownership. Conrad Black was left under no illusion that the Liberal Party position was open slather on foreign ownership. So we must challenge whether people are entering this matter with proper balance and a proper sense of propriety as to the way in which they are operating. Of course, they are not.

  There is no clearer example of the way in which this committee has been misused than the way in which this committee has been chaired. The whole issue has been prejudged from the beginning. Witnesses have been badgered and threatened. We have seen an example of witnesses being threatened with gaol.


Senator Kemp —You can talk about threats, Carr. We have read the press.


Senator CARR —Senator Kemp has read the press; I understand—


Senator Kemp —Members of the committee have been threatened—by you.


Senator CARR —I would be very interested to see those allegations put outside this chamber. I think Senator Kemp might find himself in considerable difficulty.


Senator Alston —Summary justice.


Senator CARR —If we are talking about summary justice, I refer to an article in the Canberra Times relating to Senator Alston in his role as chairman of the committee—which is more power than he is ever likely to have, because he is never going to be a minister or in any other role in terms of normal state authority. He has to use these sorts of committees to bore it up a few people. An article in the Canberra Times on 14 April reads:

  Senator Alston told Mr Willis that unless Mr Pooley answered questions, adverse findings could put his "reputation as a competent and able public servant responsible for the prudential control of superannuation assets amounting to many millions in question".

That is a shocking abuse of power, a shocking abuse of civil liberties, and an absolutely outrageous threat to intimidate witnesses. What do we see before the committee itself? It could be claimed that Senator Alston has been misrepresented. It could be the old story—he has been misrepresented by the shocking Canberra Times. So let us look at what happened before the committee itself. I want the Senate to understand what occurred. In Sydney, on 21 April 1994, Senator Alston, speaking as the chairman, using his full metaphorical force and breathing down the microphone, said to Mr Pooley:

And I would presume that you would also agree that you are uniquely placed to assist us if you were able to do so, and if you choose not to do so, then you would understand that the committee may well have to proceed on a basis which may well result in drawing adverse inferences which may reflect on your competence or integrity.

What an outrageous abuse of the power of this Senate to attempt to intimidate witnesses. He said to Mr Pooley:

I presume you have reflected on all those matters.

I think it is important that we hear Mr Pooley's response. He said:

In circumstances where there is an allegation about something and the person concerned is not in a position to respond, for one proper reason or another, I would have thought it was proper for the committee to conclude that that person was not in a position to say anything about that matter.

That is the whole point, is it not? Instead of attacking the government on the question of public interest immunity, which is something the honourable senator has not understood—it is a bit easier to say, `We do not really understand what the government's position is'—he tries to attack defenceless public servants. He attempts to threaten them with gaol. He intimidates them by suggesting that he is going to cast adverse aspersions upon their character. That is totally inappropriate.

  I find it very interesting that Senator Alston feels it necessary to attack Senator Loosley's character. That is all well and good. He suggests that somehow or other witnesses have been briefed—because it adds to the whole flavour that somehow or other this is a judicial inquiry. This is not a judicial inquiry. This is not an inquiry that has the trappings, the support or the imprimatur of law. This is an inquisition. This is a political tribunal aimed at attacking individuals. It is not a court of law.

  To suggest that somehow or other witnesses appeared before this committee as if they were before a court of law and that senators on this committee were judges is totally outrageous. It suggests powers and responsibilities that senators do not have, powers that they may well like to have but which they do not have. This is a political inquiry, and it was a political inquiry from beginning to end. What is being proposed is to extend the circus for another few months.

  Of course, the committee will fall flat on its face. The whole committee has been demonstrated again and again to be ludicrous. It was based on a false presumption that there was an alleged deal done. No evidence was produced; no evidence adduced. The substantive questions of foreign investment should have been referred to the appropriate standing committee of this Senate, which, of course, does function, as Senator Kemp knows, without the sort of nonsense that goes on in this committee.

  The one big exception is that this committee does not have the glare of publicity about it. When senators have as little to offer as those opposite, they desperately need the publicity. That is what this is all about. It is an attempt to get publicity at a time when those opposite have very little to present to the people of this country. They have no real policy on these issues. We have not seen their policy yet. They have had plenty of time to come up with it, but we have not seen it. What we have seen is that they are considering a change in their policy. Their position to date has been the abolition of the FIRB and they are now saying that they are prepared to consider that. I suppose that is something in itself. I look forward to reading carefully what those opposite have to say on the question of foreign investment.

  On the question of the arrangements with Fairfax, I draw to the attention of those opposite once again to the fact that Fairfax has become a much more conservative body under the present media ownership. The proposition that a deal was done is not supported by any evidence. It is a political witch-hunt which will, in the end, produce nothing.

  This motion, in so far as the first three parts go and reference to the privileges committee, is fine. At the end of the day those opposite are not going to produce very much out of that. The last proposition is wrong in principle and, ultimately, it will prove to be their own downfall.