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Thursday, 11 October 1973
Page: 2039


Mr SNEDDEN (Bruce) (Leader of the Opposition) - I have a matter of privilege which I wish to raise. It is based upon an article published in the Sydney 'Daily Telegraph' of today, Thursday 11 October 1973.

The article appears under the heading Torres Strait Scheme under Attack'. I produce a copy of the 'Daily Telegraph' printed and published by Mirror Newspapers Ltd of 2 Holt Street, Surry Hills on behalf of Nationwide News Pty Ltd. I should make the point immediately that the issue of privilege relates in no way to the newspaper itself. The newspaper reports a letter which was sent by Mr Dexter, who is the permanent head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The letter was addressed to Dr Coombs who, among many other duties, is a special adviser to the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam). I understand that he is Chairman of the Aboriginal Affairs Council. The report says that Mr Dexter's letter to Dr Coombs related to evidence to be given to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation. I have ascertained that both Mr Dexter and Dr Coombs in fact gave evidence before that Committee. As I have not the letter I am unable to say whether the letter was written before or after their evidence to the Committee. One must assume that it was a letter written before their appearance before the Committee having regard to the quote from the letter which is included in the newspaper report. The newspaper reports:

We should not assume that all those we will be talking to will be interested in getting at the facts.

I have no doubt that at least one of them seeks nothing else than the abandonment of the Turtle Project or in putting what remains of it after restructuring under the direct control of the Thursday Island Co-operative.

We should therefore exercise discretion in what. we say in particular in relation to those aspects where we may not yet have determined our own approach, such as marketing.

I wish to refer to Erskine May's 'Parliamentary Practice'. On page 114 under the heading Conspiracy to Deceive either House or Committees of Either House' it reads:

It has already been seen that the giving of false evidence, prevarication or suppression of the truth by witnesses while under examination before either House or before committees of either House is punished as a contempt;

I will real the following words for the sake of completeness but I do not want any allegation to be read into my reading of them: and that persons who present false, forged or fabricated documents to either House or to committees of either House are guilty of a breach of privilege.

The point I wish to make is contained in the next sentence, which reads:

Conspiracy to deceive either House or any committees of either House will also be treated as a breach of privilege.

It hardly needs for me to say, but I think it worth saying for what I say will no doubt be reported, that privilege in this sense does not relate in any way to the personal advantages of any member of the House. Privilege in this sense relates to the House being able to discharge its functions fearlessly without any fear of consequences or without any reward for what is done. It is on that basis that I raise this matter. Can the House or in this case the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation be regarded as being defeated in getting at all the facts and all the truth of the matter which they were examining? Concerned as I was about the matter I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister. It was delivered to him this evening. I have had that letter returned to me with a notation from the Prime Minister. I notice the Prime Minister is at the table and I assume I have the authority of the Prime Minister to report what was in the letter and the reply the Prime Minister made.


Mr Whitlam - Yes.


Mr SNEDDEN - The letter reads:

My dear Prime Minister,

A serious issue has been raised concerning the administration of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs involving Dr H. C. Coombs-


Mr Whitlam - I suggest the essence of the letter is the last 2 sentences. Perhaps you could read them and my 2 sentences in reply.


Mr SNEDDEN - I have no objection but it is quite a short letter and it might be as well to read it in whole. The letter reads:

My Dear Prime Minister,

A serious issue has been raised concerning the administration of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs involving Dr H. C. Coombs as Chairman of the Aboriginal Advisory Council and the Permanent Head of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, Mr B. Dexter.

The Opposition will seek an opportunity to debate this issue but I want to bring immediately to your attention the possibility that a serious breach of privilege has occurred concerning the evidence that Mr Dexter and Dr Coombs were to give the House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Conservation.

If that report is correct (Daily Telegraph 11.10.1973) Mr Dexter is quoted as writing to Dr Coombs as follows:

I will not read that extract as I have already done so. The letter continues:

Will you provide me with the full text of the letter and advise whether you would support referring this matter to the Privileges Committee.

I intend to move the appropriate motion in the House tonight.

The letter -was signed by me. Underneath it is written:

I have no such letter, original or copy. I support referring the matter to the Privileges Committee. 11.10.73 2140 hours.

There is then something which I interpret to be the initials of the Prime Minister. That is the basis upon which I raise this matter of privilege. I am aware that normally it remains for the Speaker to be satisfied that a prima facie breach of privilege exists. I am in your hands, Mr Speaker, as to whether I should move a motion at this stage or wait until you have investigated the matter to see whether there is a prima facie case. If it were your wish, Mr Speaker, that I move the motion now I would move it in the terms that the matter of the article in the 'Daily Telegraph' of Thursday 11 October 1973 under the heading Torres Strait Scheme Under Attack' be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I am in your hands, Mr Speaker. I believe I said earlier that the matter of privilege relates to the letter, not to the report of it. I think it is important that that distinction be made. I leave it to you, Mr Speaker, to indicate to me whether you wish me to move the motion now or whether you prefer more time to consider the matter.







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