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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7390

Senator CHRIS EVANS (2:58 PM) — My question is directed to Senator Hill, the Minister for Defence. I refer to the question I asked him last week about the coronial inquest into the Westralia fire. Can the minister now confirm why the Commonwealth representative at the Western Australian coronial inquest into the fire submitted that it not be held in public? In rejecting that submission, didn't the coroner highlight a number of concerns about the fire that have not been investigated? Wasn't concern also expressed that the Commonwealth omitted critical information in its submissions concerning the fire's cause? Is the minister aware also that counsel assisting the coroner last week expressed grave concerns about the Commonwealth's noncooperation with the inquest, including its failure to provide the court with the names and contact details of key witnesses? Has the minister now availed himself of a briefing on these serious issues?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I actually have answers to the questions that were asked by Senator Evans last week, which I intended to table at the end of question time today. Senator Evans adds some extra matters in his question of today. I am astonished to hear suggestions that the Commonwealth is failing to cooperate. Defence has got nothing to hide and is making every effort to cooperate with the coronial inquiry.

Last week, the questions in part related to why the initial Navy inquiry took place before the engines were stripped. The answer is that it was because the stripped engines were not relevant to the cause of the fire. The inquiry that took place was to determine the cause of the fire. That was determined on the basis of the advice from the Western Australian Police arson squad report. I hope the other detailed responses that I have for Senator Evans will help him in relation to this matter. This ongoing coronial inquiry has full Commonwealth support. There is nothing to hide. Unless it relates to a specific witness or some matter that is a national security issue, which I cannot imagine there would be, it clearly should be held in public.

Senator CHRIS EVANS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer. I think he ought to have a look at the transcript, because a number of concerns were expressed about the attitude the Commonwealth had adopted, including the call to have the inquiry held in camera, and also concern about its failure to cooperate in the provision of witnesses' names and addresses and other matters. As my supplementary question, I ask: didn't the Western Australian coroner also highlight a number of areas not investigated by the naval board of inquiry into the fire? Given that you have now had a briefing on the issue, are you confident that the Navy inquiry has covered all relevant issues and that there is no need for further investigation? Are you confident that the matters that were uncovered post the naval board of inquiry being held do not warrant further investigation by the Navy?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I have no reason not to be confident. There is a coronial inquiry taking place that will examine the matters as determined by the coroner. If there is a public interest that has not been adequately addressed by the Defence inquiries, no doubt that matter will be brought out. But the Defence inquiry was to determine the cause of the fire, and that was duly determined. Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.