Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Leader of the Government in the Senate discusses objections to a Senate inquiry into the affairs of Senator Mal Colston while the Senator is being investigated by the Australian Federal Police

PETER CAVE: The Federal Government's resistance to a Senate inquiry into Mal Colston has been reinforced by its most senior legal adviser, the Chief General Counsel Henry Burmester. That advice provided over the weekend to Attorney-General Daryl Williams warns that an investigation by the Senate Privileges Committee into Senator Colston could hinder the Federal Police investigation into criminal charges currently under way.

We're joined now on the line by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Robert Hill, and he's speaking to our chief political correspondent, Fran Kelly.

FRAN KELLY: Robert Hill, you're now faced with two conflicting sets of advice from two different Public Service advisers - the Clerk of the Senate and the Chief General Counsel. Who's advice do you prefer?

ROBERT HILL: Well, I don't entirely agree with what you just said. What Harry Evans has said is that it would be a different inquiry into questions as to whether the Senate was misled. But the problem is that it all arises out of the same set of facts, that's why it's been my concern all along that a Senate inquiry might prejudice the police investigation, and I've therefore thought that it's unwise that it should go ahead.

FRAN KELLY: Well, Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Senate, says all that it would do .. it would not be unlawful - a Senate inquiry would not be unlawful, it would just be simply inconvenient. He also makes the point in his advice that it's difficult to imagine an issue more important to the integrity and the proper operation of the Senate than ensuring untruthful statements are detected and remedied. I mean, do you agree with that advice?

ROBERT HILL: Well, there's no question of whether or not the Senate inquiry is lawful; it would be lawful and it could inquire into matters as to whether it was misled. And I think Harry Evans says that he feels that the issues could be kept distinct. But I would very much doubt that. I think that the whole theatre and circumstances surrounding the Senate inquiry - speculation, publicity, reporting, coverage, et cetera - could well take it beyond the protection of the Senate room and, therefore, prejudice other matters. And therefore I've said that I think it would be irresponsible.

FRAN KELLY: What about the issue of the integrity and the proper operation of the Senate, though? I mean, as Leader of the Government in the Senate, what would you propose for maintaining the integrity of the Chamber while also trying to conduct a proper police investigation?

ROBERT HILL: Well, you see, if the Senate went ahead with this inquiry and it prejudiced and resulted in, say, some subsequent matters as arising out of the police investigation not proceeding, you would be the first to condemn us; in other words, I think that the Labor Party ought to do is to put politics aside for a minute in this matter. It's been referred to the police for proper investigation; it's being investigated and that's where it should lie.

FRAN KELLY: Would you though, say, agree in principle with the Senate privileges investigation into this issue, but suggest it be deferred until the end of a police investigation? Is that your position?

ROBERT HILL: Well, that's a different question. If the police clear Senator Colston, there may still be outstanding Senate matters. But it is amazing - this has been called for by a Labor Party that's really had no interest in the standing of the Senate at all. And just remember that it's a Labor Party who, through Mr Beazley and then Senator Evans, decided not to refer other matters concerning Senator Colston to the police when they were in government, and then had him subsequently elected Deputy President of the Senate. And now they come to us and say that they are so concerned about the standing of the Senate that they would want an inquiry that may - may have the effect of prejudicing the police investigation. It's an extraordinary set of circumstances.

What I'd say to the Labor Party is just put your politics aside for the moment, allow the police to conduct their investigation properly, and what actions flow thereafter will depend on the results of that investigation.

FRAN KELLY: But doesn't that course of action also benefit the Government? If you're talking about the theatre that might surround a Senate inquiry, isn't it possible that other information could come out with such an inquiry - for instance, information about yours and Senator Alston's private negotiations with Senator Colston prior to his defection from Labor, prior to his Telstra vote? I mean, would that be a concern for you?

ROBERT HILL: Well, that's not a concern for me, but you obviously know more than I do, because I thought that the Senate inquiry that was being called for was one into whether Senator Colston had misled the Senate through publishing a false letter .. allegedly false letter from one of his staff.

FRAN KELLY: Indeed, but you yourself has raised the issue that the theatre that would surround an event like this and the other sort of issues it might raise.

ROBERT HILL: Well, that's right. What I'm saying is that that may well prejudice the police inquiry or matters that could subsequently flow from that inquiry; and, therefore, for the Senate to take that action, because it feels that it needs to do something internally, would be reckless and irresponsible.

FRAN KELLY: So just to broaden that then, you would have no problem with Labor's current call for dealings between the Coalition Senators, the Prime Minister and Senator Colston prior to him defecting from Labor and, subsequent to that, to be investigated by the police investigation? Is that the proper place for it?

ROBERT HILL: Well, I think that's an extraordinary suggestion. Firstly, there was no deal, but what's it got to do with the call for a Senate inquiry?

FRAN KELLY: Well, my point is that if they are the sorts of issues that may come up within a Senate inquiry and there is no Senate inquiry or that's deferred, the Labor Opposition has also called for those issues to be investigated by the police, do you have any problem with that?

ROBERT HILL: Well, Labor would call for anything. This is amazing, as I said, that here you've got the Labor Party through Mr Beazley and then Senator Evans that refused to take advice from the most senior legal advisers in the country to refer a matter to the police regarding Senator Colston, and now they are calling for, what, a police investigation into matters relating to the election of Senator Colston to the deputy presidency?

FRAN KELLY: Well, the issue is Labor has said that they think that should be part of the investigation, the overall investigation into the Colston affair. Gareth Evans has said publicly in the past that he's happy for his role in 1983 to be investigated by the police. Would you be equally happy for your....

ROBERT HILL: It's not a question whether we'd be happy. The police will investigate what they see as necessary. If they see evidence of any criminality, they will investigate it. Now that's their job and I'm perfectly happy with that being their job. But what I'm saying is that you are, obviously .. well, it's the Labor Party, but you're pumping it along, seeking to expand what was until the last few days a Senate inquiry being called for to look at the question as to whether Senator Colston misled the Senate in tabling a certain letter into other matters.

What you're demonstrating is that this is just .. what the Labor Party is calling for is just purely of a political nature, and it just gives further evidence that the better course of action, in fact, is for the Senate to stand aside for the moment and let the police complete their work. And then if the Senate is still unhappy about matters that relate to internal Senate matters, it can take whatever action it likes.

FRAN KELLY: Senator Hill, thank you.