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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5865

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (2:00 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Can the minister confirm that, when asked to explain his telephone calls about the COT cases to Neil Jepson, the solicitor for the major fraud group of Victoria Police, he first denied on the Sunday program that he made any such calls; then claimed on the same program that he made the calls to ensure `matters were properly investigated'; then claimed in a media release that he made the calls to ensure that any action he took `did not compromise any investigation'; and then said on AM andon the 7.30 Report that he had made the calls on behalf of Mrs Ann Garms, which she vigorously denies? Minister, which of these four differing explanations is the correct one, if any?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —The starting point is the first question I was asked on the program in relation to this matter, which was:

You've even made phone calls for the investigating officers, correct?'

My answer was:

No, not true.

I have no reason to think that is anything other than an accurate statement. It was then said that I had made two phone calls to Neil Jepson, the major fraud group's investigating solicitor. It is worth interpolating that there was no context attached to that question. Since the matters had been settled some 3½ years ago, I had had no reason to turn my mind to any matters relating to this particular issue and of course the whole purpose of the interview was supposedly to do with matters relating to the implications for freedom of information as a result of privatisation.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator ALSTON —You do not have to take my word for it, because two letters came in from the Channel 9 program: Sunday intends to broadcast a story on 20 October on the potential impact on the consumer of the privatisation of Telstra, firstly, and, secondly, in relation to FOI. That is the context in which I expressed a desire to know when it was alleged that I had made those phone calls to Mr Jepson. Following the program, I put out a release to which Senator Faulkner referred, in which I said:

My considered recollection is that, following a request to do so on behalf of the CoT cases by Senator Boswell, I contacted Mr Jepson in order to satisfy myself that any direct action I might take in regard to Telstra did not compromise any investigation which might be undertaken by the Victoria Police.

Essentially, I repeated that statement in subsequent interviews. In other words, I made it plain at all times that I had not received a direct request from Mrs Garms or, indeed, from other COT case members, but I had received a request from Senator Boswell, who had, on behalf of Mrs Garms and others, over a period of many years been making consistent representations to me. I proceeded on the basis that Senator Boswell was similarly making those representations. I think that makes it clear that at no time did I suggest that Mrs Garms had asked me to call, but that Senator Boswell had done so. I reject any claims that I sought to interfere in any way with any police investigation. The Victoria Police have put out two separate statements on the matter, one of which says:

At no time has any outside party attempted to pressure, influence, coerce or intervene in this matter and we reiterate that Victoria Police have investigated this matter fully and impartially.

I have no reason to think that there were any other phone calls made by me to anyone other than Mr Jepson and that, as I understand it from advice received by my office from the Victoria Police government liaison officer, is the understanding of the police on the matter as well. As I say, I am aware also of claims that the Victoria Police investigation stalled and that that was in some way related to my phone calls. This is again not so and is not confirmed by the facts. The facts are that not only did police press releases make it clear that the investigation was at an initial stage whilst Mr Jepson was attached to it but it was subsequently upgraded to an investigation. That was also the understanding of Mr Graham Schorer, who described himself as the spokesperson for the COT cases in a letter of 17 June 1999, when he said that, on the 22nd, the Victoria Police had advised—(Time expired)

Senator FAULKNER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, on how many occasions did you ring Mr Jepson? Can you indicate clearly to the Senate how many occasions you did ring Mr Jepson? Secondly, can you indicate to the Senate if you rang anyone else in the major fraud group? In particular, did you speak to Detective Sergeant Rod Keuris?

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —In the first instance, of course, my recollection of these events was vague in the extreme for the obvious reason that I had had no reason to turn my mind to them since I understood the matter to have been settled. However, I have since had discussions with Senator Boswell and his office, which have thrown some further light on the matters. It seems now that on 15 March I rang Mr Jepson on two occasions. There is nothing to suggest that I rang any other person, so that of course rules—

Senator Conroy —Twice.

Senator ALSTON —Yes, twice within a short period of time, as I understand it—both on the same day. The second was essentially a follow-up question to the first. I have no reason to believe that the police have any understanding that I rang anyone else. Certainly I have absolutely no knowledge of any suggestion. However, I am aware that Mrs Garms has intimated that there were more calls made than two— (Time expired)