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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2454


Senator SHORT (3.05 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus), to a question without notice asked by Senator Short this day, relating to a request for extradition to Lebanon.

Senator Bolkus, in his answers today, as he did yesterday, misled the Senate. There is no doubt at all that he misled the Senate today and that he misled the Senate yesterday. He made what appears to have been an untrue statement in response to my question yesterday. He had 24 hours to correct the impression that he had given. At the start of question time today he tried but failed totally to correct that false impression. Then, in response to the questions today that were put to him, he denied knowledge of material that he knew that he had. Indeed, we know that he had it because yesterday he quoted some irrelevant parts of it in answering my question.

  This matter goes to the heart of Australia's international relations; it goes to the heart of Australia's national security. The minister—and, I must say, Senator Gareth Evans—showed an extraordinary dereliction of duty today in terms of his knowledge, or supposed knowledge, of the involvement of his own department in it. This matter goes to the question of how certain people get into Australia—people who have subsequently been accused in the sense of warrants for their arrest being issued by the government of another country first of all for a bomb attack that killed innocent victims in a church in a town near Beirut just a few months ago. The investigations of that led to subsequent warrants for the arrest of two persons living in Australia.

  Yesterday Senator Bolkus denied any knowledge of these matters, despite the fact that two days earlier—it was probably three days, because the minute is dated 24 June—he had received a briefing note from his own department that told him that the warrants for the arrest of two persons, namely Antonios Obeid and Jean Chahine, had been issued in March of this year in relation to the bombing of the church in the village near Beirut. It also told him that on 13 April this year ASIO advised that it had interviewed both of these people and `is of the opinion that it would not have been impossible for either to be involved either directly or indirectly but proof either way is likely to be difficult to find'. ASIO said that on the balance of probabilities they may not have been guilty of those charges.

  But whether they are or not is irrelevant. The critical fact in all of this is that Senator Bolkus yesterday and again today attempted to portray to the Senate that he had no knowledge at all of this issue. Despite the fact of his having been asked questions initially in Senate estimate hearings last week and receiving the briefing note from his own department the following day, he denied on two successive days knowledge of matters of which he had been obviously fully aware.

  At the very least, these are matters of gross ministerial incompetence and dereliction of duty. But much more serious than that, they are prima facie evidence that this minister has misled this house and therefore the parliament and the Australian people on a matter of very considerable importance. He has not in way attempted to explain, nor did Senator Evans do so today, why the government is so intent on hiding the truth from the Australian people on this matter. It is a matter on which I believe the minister deserves to be censured.

  Let us look at the material the minister has produced today. Senator Evans also is calling for further information. We will have a look at all of that then. In the meantime, it is a matter of the most grave concern, and the minister's treatment of this chamber and his misleading of it are disgraceful.