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Senator claims Attorney-General withheld vital evidence which proved that Justice Callinan, before being appointed to the High Court, provided evidence to Minister Herron about Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Federal Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, has warned his Opposition counterpart to back off from accusations that he covered up evidence that would have prevented High Court Justice Ian Callinan from sitting in the Hindmarsh Island Bridge case. On Wednesday, Labor's Nick Bolkus released a letter confirming that Justice Callinan provided legal advice to the Government about its Hindmarsh Island Bridge legislation. The Shadow Attorney followed that up by accusing Mr Williams of conspiring to cover up this crucial evidence by failing to disclose it to the court while Justice Callinan was considering whether or not to sit on the case. But, as Mark Willesee reports, this morning in Adelaide the Attorney-General broke his silence and countered with claims that Senator Bolkus was presiding over a beat-up.

MARK WILLESEE: A conspiracy and a cover-up - they're the allegations levelled at Federal Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, by his Opposition counterpart, Nick Bolkus. Senator Bolkus maintains that Mr Williams withheld vital evidence which proved that Justice Callinan, before being appointed to the High Court, provided evidence to Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, about the Government's contentious Hindmarsh Island Bridge Act. That evidence was a letter from Mr Callinan explaining that his evidence was not to be used by a bipartisan Senate committee, but by Senator Herron, a party to the case in the High Court. Damning evidence, according to Senator Nick Bolkus.

NICK BOLKUS: It was a matter that was fully within the province of the Commonwealth, it was a matter where the judge has indicated he didn't have the correspondence before him and he was looking for help. In those circumstances, the obligation was on the Attorney to ensure that the full facts of the matter were brought before the court. He can't run away from this.

MARK WILLESEE: So what does Daryl Williams think of the Opposition's claim that he covered up vital evidence?

DARYL WILLIAMS: This is not a question of a cover-up, this is a question of a beat-up. There is a case that's being tried in the High Court, the judges have heard it, heard the argument, and they've reserved their decision. He should just back off and leave it alone.

MARK WILLESEE: You became aware though that one of those judges was not in a position to be able to hear that case in an unbiased fashion and contrary to his own belief. When did you become aware, in other words, that Justice Callinan was mistaken?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, let me say at the outset, it was known before Justice Callinan was appointed that he had been involved in some way in the Hindmarsh Island affair and it was always going to be an issue whether he would sit on the case or not. And from the Commonwealth perspective, we have consistently adopted the position, and it's a proper position, that whether or not a judge sits is a matter for that judge and that court.

MARK WILLESEE: Lawyers for the Ngarrindjeri opponents of the bridge raised the issue of Justice Callinan's advice twice in court and twice on the phone to the Government Solicitor's office. But this morning, in Adelaide, the Attorney-General repeatedly stressed that it was not up to the Commonwealth to release the letter, but rather it was a matter for Justice Callinan.

DARYL WILLIAMS: The issue was brought on by the judge in a very proper way. He provided information to the parties; the parties argued the case; the Commonwealth put the position to the relevant principles as set out in its submissions, but took no issue on whether the judge should sit or not, and that's where the matter should end.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, in Adelaide this morning. Well, the other member of the Coalition accused of being involved in the cover-up of Justice Ian Callinan's role is also on the defensive today - Senator Eric Abetz, who chairs the Senate committee which held the letter leading to Justice Callinan's withdrawal from the case. The Opposition says Senator Abetz tried to hide the evidence through a tactic of storming out of a committee meeting. The Senator says he did all he could, though, to follow proper parliamentary procedure. Rafael Epstein in Canberra.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The letter confirmed that Justice Ian Callinan had provided evidence to Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, on the Government's Hindmarsh Bill. When released on Wednesday, Justice Callinan withdrew himself from hearing the case because Senator Herron is a party to it. The Opposition's Nick Bolkus says that on 2 February, Mr Abetz stormed out of a specially-convened meeting held to discuss the public release of Justice Callinan's letter. It's understood Eric Abetz left the meeting because there wasn't a full complement of Coalition Senators and, besides, says Eric Abetz, such information is privileged.

ERIC ABETZ: There are certain rules that apply to all committees of the Senate of which Senator Bolkus is the first law, or the would-be first law officer of this country would be aware, and that is that they remain confidential unless the committee determines otherwise, and I am not prepared to comment what occurs at a private meeting of the committee that I chair.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Senator Abetz says he put in train the proper process to release the letter on 22 January. He was prepared to release it if the committee agreed it was in the public interest. It seems to have taken some time, but Senator Abetz is not so sure of the letter's importance.

ERIC ABETZ: I think it has added something to the public debate, but I'm not sure that it necessarily takes the matter much further.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: It was enough to make Justice Callinan step down from the case, though.

ERIC ABETZ: Oh well, I'm not sure whether that is necessarily the case. Undoubtedly, there were a number of issues that were raised with Justice Callinan. Undoubtedly, the letter was one of them.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: After Justice Callinan's decision at the start of February, stating he was unable to find all the relevant documents, the Senate committee still hadn't met. Nick Bolkus says Senator Abetz again refused to release the letter last Monday. Senator Abetz says he has never tried to suppress the letter.

ERIC ABETZ: As I've said before and Senator Bolkus has made a name for himself now as a man who deals in sleaze and innuendo, but never, ever substantiates it, and Senator Bolkus will continue to do so. I categorically reject such an assertion and the record is clear.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Senator Eric Abetz there, and Rafael Epstein reporting for us from Canberra.