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Government's position in delaying a Senate inquiry into claims against Mal Colston is supported by the Chief General Counsel; Prime Minister criticises the former Labor Government's handling of entitlement breaches by Senator Colston

MONICA ATTARD: The Federal Government's case for holding off on a Senate inquiry into the claims against Mal Colston were strengthened, today, by the Chief General Counsel, Henry Burmester. Not only has Mr Burmester released his own advice on the dangers a Senate inquiry could pose for a police investigation, he has also dismissed key aspects of advice provided by the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, which the Opposition has been relying on to push its bid for an inquiry.

As Ross Solley reports, John Howard also applied the heat, today, to Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans over their handling of problems relating to Mal Colston 13 years ago.

ROSS SOLLEY: The Government has advice from two quarters that to allow a Senate inquiry into the affairs of Mal Colston at the same time the Federal Police are inquiring into his behaviour could seriously jeopardise the latter. Chief General Counsel, Henry Burmester, and the Federal Director of Public Prosecutions, Brian Martin, QC, both hold grave fears about the effect a Senate inquiry would have on a police investigation, and, if the situation arises, any possible charges against Senator Colston. That was good enough, today, for Prime Minister, John Howard.

JOHN HOWARD: Let's get the police investigation out of the way, and if after that the Senate believes that there are matters which should be looked at by the Senate, then let that occur. So it seems to me to be an open and shut case. What the Labor Party is advocating is a course of action that might provide a technical let-out at the end of the day, and I think that's stupid.

ROSS SOLLEY: Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, was of the same opinion, but to make doubly sure, he also sent off the advice of Senate Clerk, Harry Evans, to the Chief General Counsel for comment. The Opposition's relying on Mr Evans' advice that a Senate inquiry would not hamper any police action. Mr Evans believes if a Senate inquiry is confined to the truth of statements made by Senator Colston to the Parliament, there would be no 'insurmountable difficulties'.

Late today, Chief General Counsel, Henry Burmester, informed Daryl Williams he did not agree with the Evans advice. He said it was a matter of judgment whether a Senate inquiry could be restricted to matters not the subject of criminal investigation. He also claimed Mr Evans had significantly downplayed the effect a Senate inquiry would have on documentary evidence. Mr Burmester says while documents and evidence presented to a Senate inquiry could be used in a court case, they could not be tested or examined; nor could they be used to challenge evidence given in a court.

All of which means the Government can claim it is doing the right thing by rejecting calls for a Senate inquiry, at least until the police investigation is complete. Coupled with more revelations, over the weekend, of the way Kim Beazley and Gareth Evans handled Colston problems when they surfaced 13 years ago, John Howard is now also claiming the high moral ground.

JOHN HOWARD: We are the people who sent this to the police. Evans and Beazley refused to send it to the police. Evans and Beazley covered up. Evans and Beazley ignored the advice of the head of the Attorney-General's Department. Evans and Beazley decided that a little private counselling to a young mistake-maker-as they described it-was preferable to sending it to the police. They are the last men on earth who can lecture us about proper handling of this issue-the last men on earth. At all times, I have behaved properly and quickly and speedily.

ROSS SOLLEY: The Opposition still wants a Senate inquiry, a very narrow inquiry using the services of an adviser from the Attorney-General's Department to ensure the investigation does not stray onto dangerous ground. But Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, today found himself defending his own handling of Mal Colston's affairs 13 years ago.

KIM BEAZLEY: For that, we recovered all of the moneys 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.

ROSS SOLLEY: Mr Beazley believes the Government's reluctance to call a Senate inquiry is not for legal reasons but for political purposes.

KIM BEAZLEY: 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 probity and integrity in the governing process in this nation, and they are not receiving the attention they ought to receive.

ROSS SOLLEY: Mal Colston's son, Doug, said today on behalf of his father, it would be highly inappropriate for a Senate inquiry to be conducted at the same time as the police investigation, and that any Senate inquiry would amount to a kangaroo court. And Senate President, Margaret Reid, is still waiting for that phone call from the ailing Senator-whereabouts still unknown.

MONICA ATTARD: Ross Solley in Canberra.