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Friday, 8 May 1970

Mr WHITLAM (Werriwa) (Leader of of the Opposition) - by leave - [ had hoped that the Minister for National Development (Mr Swartz) would move that the House take note of the paper. A precedent has been created in two ways by the speech which we have just heard from the honourable member for Farrer (Mr Fairbairn). He has set a precedent in revealing the proceedings of the Cabinet and in revealing the correspondence between the Prime Minister (Mr Gorton) and himself. 1 need not embroider the indictment which he has delivered. Honourable members know him to be a man of honour and they know that he at least would take and observe accurate minutes.

I would hope that the other precedent which has been set is one which we can follow on later occasions, whatever our political differences may be between parties or within parties, lt was 3 years ago. I recollect, when I received the final answers to questions on this very matter of the difficulty which honourable members in this House have had in ascertaining the proceedings and negotiations between the Commonwealth and the States. Unquestionably, of course, honourable members of the State Parliaments have the same difficulty. In our federal system we increasingly find the situation arising where parliamentarians can never discuss intergovernmental agreements until they are cut and dried. The position 3 years ago arose in relation to the off-shore oil agreement. The same position has arisen more recently over Dartmouth and Chowilla. The honourable member for Farrer was just as reluctant - we would say remiss - in allowing honourable members of the House to know what the expert documents were or what the state of the negotiations was concerning matters such as Chowilla and Dartmouth.

Like all honourable members in all the parliaments concerned, we were faced with an agreement. It is cut and dried. We either accept the agreement as it is or declare that we have no confidence in the Government which concluded the agreement with other governments. There is a certain irony in quoting now the reasons which the late Prime Minister gave for refusing to table documents of negotiations between the Commonwealth and the States. He had tabled correspondence with the Premier of Victoria concerning natural gas since he had cleared that matter with the Premier. Then I brought to his notice the fact that the honourable member for Dawson (Dr Patterson) had been refused such information on the Queensland Government's requests for financial, technical and evaluation assistance for water conservation projects north of Brisbane. This was in September 1966. In October 1966, the honourable member for Macquarie (Mr Luchetti) had been refused similar information in relation to an approach by the New South Wales Government for financial assistance for a 5-year water conservation plan. Also in October 1966 I had been refused information on communications with the New South Wales and Queensland Governments concerning the border rivers of those States and communications with the Queensland and/ or Western Australian Governments concerning the Snowy Mountains Authority. I asked if he had asked the other Premiers whether they agreed to make such information public and, if not, whether he would now ask them. The right honourable gentleman's reply on 4th May 1967 was:

The correspondence about off-shore gas was released by mutual agreement in the circumstances relevant te the particular subject under discussion, but this does not mean that all or particular items of correspondence -between myself and the State Premiers should be made public. When a Premier writes to me he is entitled to expect that bis correspondence will be treated in confidence, just as I expect that my letters to Premiers will be treated in the same way. If this were not so, tha present harmonious way of conducting business between the Commonwealth and State governments would break down.

That is exquisitely ironical because nothing could be less harmonious than the proceedings between the Commonwealth and State Governments on this current matter of the territorial sea. The relations between the Commonwealth and the States, all members of the same political party, are so lacking in harmony for the very reason that the correspondence was never revealed to their colleagues in the Parliaments. The same argument was repeated later that month when I further asked about information being refused in February 1967 on the same grounds to the honourable member for Moore (Mr Maisey) concerning requests by the Western Australian Government for Commonwealth financial assistance for further development projects and again in April 1967. In view of the fact that Mr Holt had told me that the Premiers had not cleared the release of the information in the previous case I asked him:

Has he asked the Premier - of Western Australia- whether he agrees to make the information public; if so, when did he ask him?

Mr Holt'sanswer on 19th May 1967 was no. Then he repeated what he had said before to the effect that such communications had to be confidential otherwise there would be no possibility of harmonious relations between the Commonwealth and the States.

This second precedent which has been set today in releasing correspondence at least may enable parliamentarians to conduct their affairs in a more enlightened and rational way than Australian governments have permitted them to do within our federal system in recent years. It is rather difficult for us on this side to understand why on 16th April - last month - the honourable member for Farrer voted against the motion by the honourable member for Dawson that these documents should be tabled.

Mr Fairbairn - After agreement by the Prime Minister to table them.

Mr WHITLAM - It was very difficult to ascertain on that evening what the relations were between the honourable member and the Prime Minister, or between any of his colleagues and the Prime Minister or between any of his colleagues and himself. But on that occasion the honourable member for Farrer at least accepted the undertaking. He trusted the honour of the Prime Minister. On this occasion on the matter of the correspondence he has, of course, refused to do so. As T have said, 1 do not need to embroider the precedent which he has created by revealing the nature of the Cabinet discussions on this matter, and of his own relations with his leader and of his leader's conduct in regard to this further set of minutes, but I do feel at least that this is the appropriate opportunity to point out that at least in this matter concerning the Commonwealth and the States members of all the parliaments in Australia will know what was done by the governments responsible to them. I regret that the Minister has not seen (it to enable a debate to take place on this matter. Only he can move such a motion and nobody, of course, except members of the Cabinet, or a former member of the Cabinet like the honourable member for Farrer, have had access to these documents which have now been tabled.

Mr FAIRBAIRN(Farrer)- Mr Speaker, I desire to make a personal explanation.

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