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Continuing debate on Marshall Islands affair

RICHARD ACKLAND: It looks like the fall-out from businessman, Greg Symons' affair in the Marshall Islands is spreading. The resignation of Graham Richardson from the Ministry may well be just the beginning of the affair. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is in the firing line and the Opposition wants a Senate select committee. Let's get to the story with Pru Goward.

PRU GOWARD: Thanks, Richard. Well, anyone who remembers the Select Committee Inquiry into High Court Judge, Lionel Murphy, cannot doubt the enormous power the Senate can wield during these hearings. That committee's work, eventually, was part of criminal charges being laid against the judge. Well, so far, the Democrats remain to be convinced of the need for such an animal; it is the Opposition's task to change their minds, and although it's not listed as a term of reference, they could begin by focusing on the terrible forgetfulness and office sloppiness to be found in some ministerial offices. In Kerry Sibraa's office a crucial letter is misfiled; in Senator Richardson's office, you'll remember, staff took it upon themselves to make immigration inquiries on behalf of Greg Symons without even asking their Minister; and crucial documents from the same gentleman were never received.

Now it looks as if Senator Evans' office is infected with the same disease. A senior staff member took an important call from the Department of Foreign Affairs about Greg Symons' arrest, but can hardly recall it and forgot to tell the Minister. What's more the Department claims it sent important information to the Minister's office, but again that was never received. The mystery of the faxes that ate Canberra.

Well, joining me now is the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Robert Hill. Thank you for coming in at this early hour, Senator. Now, we'll look at these office problems in a moment, but first I'd like to look at a very particular sequence of events surrounding the involvement of the Foreign Minister.

Greg Symons was arrested on 2 April; Senator Richardson says he talked to Gareth Evans on the 3rd, and then made his one call to the Marshall Islands President on the 6th of April. Now, 6 April is the same day, co-incidentally, that Foreign Affairs, in a remarkable piece of intelligence gathering, hears of this one call and phones and then faxes crucial details of the case to Gareth Evans' office. Apparently they are unaware of Gareth Evans' involvement in all of this. Gareth Evans says he knew nothing of the information until a month later.

Now, it's one thing to talk about sloppiness, but would you agree that Senator Evans' role in that apparently is quite proper?

ROBERT HILL: Well, our difficulty is we don't know all the facts, so we've had to extract facts like teeth through this whole exercise. And, as of yesterday, Senator Evans said the file, he acknowledges that his file of the relevant department involvement continues to grow. But he won't make that file entirely available, only select documents. We only found out at the end of Question Time yesterday that the Department actually had the Greg Symons prospectus that set out the detail, including the immigration scheme. So we don't know the whole sequence of events. But it does seem to us to be incredible that Gareth Evans would authorise what to us is incredible in itself, and that is that Senator Richardson telephoned the President of another country to seek his intervention in the return of a passport without checking the facts with his Department, checking whether his Department had been involved.

And that incredible sequence, of course, it meshes with the fact that we now find that on that very day his Department had been talking with his office about the whole matter and that the Department claims to have faxed these documents to Senator Evans' office; Senator Evans' office saying they didn't receive them, and Senator Evans saying that he didn't even know that his office and the Department were working together on the matter.

PRU GOWARD: But why should Gareth Evans challenge Graham Richardson's request by checking it with his Department? That implies that he's challenging Graham Richardson's account of why he's doing it and what he'd do.

ROBERT HILL: Because the request is so extraordinary; because of the danger of being seen to be improperly intervening in the affairs of a small Pacific state; of doing something that could be interpreted by that state as applying pressure which, in fact, was the way in which the Attorney-General of that state recognised the matter.

PRU GOWARD: Did see it, yes.

ROBERT HILL: He said, of course, that the call was from not just any Minister but from a real heavy in the Australian Government. That's the danger. And if you go back and read Gareth Evans' book, interestingly in that book there's several paragraphs in which he talks about the danger of doing this sort of thing and the difference between the size of Australia and the influence of Australia and the small Pacific states and how we have to be so sensitive to that and so careful in our dealings with these states.

PRU GOWARD: Well, Senator, you might be critical of Gareth Evans' office, but you could only admire the remarkable intelligence gathering of the Department, that on the same day that Senator Richardson makes just one phone call to the Marshall Islands they hear of it, instantly, and ....

ROBERT HILL: Without a communication with the Minister. That's just extraordinary.

PRU GOWARD: And phone immediately.

ROBERT HILL: But also we now hear that there's a file note, we think it's a file note of that conversation, which indicates it's come from Micronesia to the Department, to Gareth's office. PRU GOWARD: So it doesn't even come from the Marshall Islands.

ROBERT HILL: No, no. No, they seem to know what's going on - which says that Senator Richardson may not, it may not just be a case of phoning the President, it may be that he's made contact with other Cabinet Ministers in the Marshall Islands. Now, why hasn't Gareth Evans followed that up? You know, what role, is it true? What other role have these heavies in the Australian Government been playing in the affairs of the Marshall Islands? And these are serious questions and they require answers. And I must say, at the moment, we are astonished that the Australian Democrats can't see the seriousness of this matter and still remain to be convinced that further inquiry is necessary.

PRU GOWARD: And the private Graham Richardson visit to China in 1987, allegedly with business negotiating to build a steel mill and an airport. Now, Gareth Evans acknowledges that the Australian Ambassador to China at the time was annoyed at not being told, but as far as he's concerned, I mean, surely that's the end of the matter?

ROBERT HILL: Well, again, he says that there is no minute on the Department's files at all concerning that matter, but everybody knows that Professor Garnaut, who was then the Ambassador, complained of it. And I just find it astonishing that that complaint didn't appear in written form in the Department. The Department deals with tonnes of paper a day. That's one of the problems with the Department of Foreign Affairs; it has so much paper it doesn't know where it's going half the time. And again, from my experience with the Department, I just find it incredible that Mr Garnaut wouldn't have put in writing his concerns and those concerns wouldn't be within the Department.

So again the best way to get to the facts is through an inquiry. It's the efficient way and a way in which the Senate has dealt with these matters in the past. We can get it through Question Time, but it is a long, slow, arduous process and somewhat inefficient. And that's why we're seeking that the Australian Democrats cooperate with us. Let's get this matter out of the way. Let's get the true story, the full story, and then we can fulfil our responsibility of ministerial accountability.

PRU GOWARD: But who is it that you would seek information from in a Select Committee that you can't do in Question Time?

ROBERT HILL: Well, we can ask the bureaucrats themselves. The bureaucrats ....

PRU GOWARD: In particular? Who are the crucial bureaucrats?

ROBERT HILL: Well, in this instance, it is a bureaucrat across the road in Foreign Affairs who claims to have faxed all the relevant material to Gareth Evans a month before Gareth Evans said he learnt anything about the matter. Now, he's really gone for the long drop because Gareth Evans' office now, through a form of a statutory declarations, says that they didn't ever receive that material. Now, where does the truth lie? And we can get at that truth if the Democrats will cooperate. Let's get it out of the way. We don't want this stink to go on for ever, and I would have thought the Government wouldn't want it to go on for ever. But the inquiry is the efficient way of doing it.

PRU GOWARD: But you know what happens to these inquiries. They have lives of their own and they can become witch-hunts, can't they?

ROBERT HILL: They could, but the Senate has a lot of experience in this and does it well and efficiently. See, some people say - and I think this is part of Senator Coulter's problem, he says we're just after scalps. That's not correct. What we want is proper Government accountability and proper standards and proper public administration.

PRU GOWARD: All right. Have you got anything new that you think could convince the Democrats to join you in seeking a select committee?

ROBERT HILL: Yes, we have. And I spoke to Coulter last night and I said I want to present all our material to him, which I hope we can do within the next few days.

PRU GOWARD: To the Senate, or to Senator Coulter?

ROBERT HILL: To Senator Coulter, and a few more facts to the Senate.

PRU GOWARD: Senator Robert Hill, we'll wait with interest. Senator Robert Hill, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.