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Rockingham Council Offices, 21 April 1997: transcript of doorstop [Colston; Wik]

EOE

JOURNALIST: Well, there's conflicting advice today on whether the Senate should go ahead with a contempt inquiry and whether that might hamper any police inquiry or any subsequent legal proceedings against Mal Colston. What do you think?

BEAZLEY: Well, let me make absolutely clear that we don't want, and the Senate does not need, a consideration of the legal issues surrounding the question of whether or not Senator Colston has inappropriately operated his various allowances and accounts. That is not required and ought not to be a part of any Senate inquiry. What the Senate must inquire into is whether or not it was misled. And that doesn't involve the legal issues that surround those concerns which are now the matter of a police inquiry. It is a much simpler matter. Did Senator Colston knowingly mislead the Senate when he gave his explanation as to the cause of him having claimed for matters which he was not entitled? These are two separate issues and the Clerk of the Senate is perfectly correct in that and an inquiry that went forward on that basis would be capable of structuring itself in such a way as not to interfere with the legal concerns.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Government's just looking for a way to kind of back off the Senate inquiry?

BEAZLEY: The Government is giving optimal protection to Mal Colston. They own Mal. They have for the last nine months and every step they take is a reluctant step backwards, giving him optimal opportunity to evade his responsibilities. And the Prime Minister's announcements in relation to him a week or two ago were no different from that.

JOURNALIST: Why did you decide back in 1983 not to press ahead or investigate further with the Colston allegations when you, despite recommendations, that you had from Mr Holdich?

BEAZLEY: There were a whole range of considerations that were gone into at the time. And what the documentation now revealed absolutely emphasises are these things: firstly, we did exactly what the previous government had done in relation to Mr Colston for similar sorts of concerns. Secondly, we put a great deal of effort into it and at the end of the day, those bureaucrats concerned ticked off on the outcome that we reached. The difference between our approach and that of our predecessors, and remember most of these concerns arose while they were in government, not when we were in government, the difference between us is that we actually pursued the bloke. We actually went after him to get him to regularise his arrangements. And I think that in the time and the nature of those particular offences, that was an appropriate response.

JOURNALIST: You obviously didn't pursue him enough though, did you?

BEAZLEY: Well, for that we recovered all the monies that were owing to the Commonwealth and we, with some considerable effort, I might say, as the documentation reveals, with some considerable effort, we got him to regularise his arrangements to eliminate conflict of interest in the way in which he made his claims. So much so that at the end of the process, which was continued under my successor and predecessor, Mick Young, the Department was writing to the then Minister, Mr Young, saying we've got to stop harassing Colston. So, it wasn't as though we were neglectful of our duties in that regard. So, I think that the issue is not what happened in 1983 or in 1982, when both the Liberal Government and then the Labor Government had a chop at Mr Colston. The issue is what is happening now. And the critical issue is why is this Government so reluctant to turn him over and does the heart of that reluctance lie in arrangements put in place by Alston, Hill, acting as agents for the Prime Minister's office, to ensure Senator Colston's support in the Senate? Does the heart of their reluctance lie in concerns about that? Now, these are matters of contemporary immediate relevance to the probity and integrity in the governing process in this nation, and they are not receiving the attention they ought to receive.

JOURNALIST: On the Wik issue, Mr Beazley, the National Party now seems to be supporting John Howard's 10 point plan which would give pastoralists certainty but not extinguish native title. Would you support what Mr Howard appears to be putting forward?

BEAZLEY: Look, we stand ready for an outcome like that originally described by the Prime Minister as fair to all sides. We believe such an outcome is achievable. We have put down a 7 point program of our own to achieve that and many of those points match with things that the Prime Minister is talking about. So, we stand ready to negotiate. On one thing we won't negotiate. And that is the question of the extinguishment of native title rights. That would be a seizure of property rights unprecedented in this nation. And we would not go along with that. So, if the Prime Minister does not go along with that, that is welcome and we will be supportive of it.

JOURNALIST: So, if they don't legislate to extinguish native title you'll support it?

BEAZLEY: Well, there's going to be a lot of things in that legislation because there are many more issues than simply the extinguishment issue. There are issues related to the threshold for claims, issues related to the efficiency of the process, issues related to laying out in some form of codification the rights of pastoralists. Now, we see ample opportunity for common ground to be developed there but there's also going to be the probability of disagreement. But if we do not have a fundamental disagreement on the question of extinguishment, then that would be very much to the good.

JOURNALIST: Would you agree that if there is no legislation to extinguish native title, that will head off any High Court challenge?

BEAZLEY: Well, we want to minimise High Court challenges. We want to minimise the possibility that the taxpayer is going to be drawn into massive expense here unnecessarily. That's going to be one of our aims. That is one of our aims. So, we want legislation which minimises opportunity for High Court challenge. But, frankly, our citizens have recourse to the High Court on anything that they please and governments cannot prevent them from doing so. All that governments can do is to minimise the opportunity by putting in place good legally compliant legislation.