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Attorney-General responds to claims that a submission highly critical of native title legislation may have been suppressed

MARK COLVIN: To respond to today's accusations, we go live now to our Canberra studio where the man at the centre of the row, Attorney-General Daryl Williams, is speaking to Ross Solley.

ROSS SOLLEY: Daryl Williams, what did you tell your Acting Secretary, Norman Reaburn, to say to Alan Rose when he rang him last week?

DARYL WILLIAMS: This issue arose some time ago and I wrote last month to the commission indicating that I was concerned that they seemed to be going beyond their statutory powers. The commission was reviewed by a parliamentary committee of which I was a member; it reported in 1994. I am a very strong proponent of law reform commissions; I was a member of the Western Australian one for four years, and I fought long and hard in that committee to make sure that the Law Reform Commission maintained its standing and had the appropriate powers.

But it was a unanimous decision of the members of the committee that the commission should continue only to exercise powers in relation to references given by the Attorney-General.

ROSS SOLLEY: So what did you tell Mr Reaburn to say to Mr Rose when he met him last week?

DARYL WILLIAMS: What Mr Rose seems to be suggesting is that they have a practice of making submissions to committees and inquiries, in effect, at will, and they would like to continue to do that. And I am telling them that that's not what their statute authorises them to do.

ROSS SOLLEY: So was Mr Reaburn instructed to make sure the Law Reform Commission not make a submission, or give evidence to this joint parliamentary committee?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I wrote to the commission myself in August and indicated that it had been drawn to my attention they had made a submission to the Wik task force on the native title legislation, and I queried how that could fit in with their terms of reference. Mr Rose then suggested that it fitted in with their terms of reference because they had a reference dealing with customary law.

That reference was reported on by a commission, differently composed, in 1986, 11 years ago. It's nothing to do with the current Bill.

ROSS SOLLEY: I want to concentrate on what instructions you gave to Mr Reaburn last week.

DARYL WILLIAMS: Mr Reaburn and I had a discussion about what course to take, and it was clear that there was a difference of view. Mr Reaburn understood my view that the commission, to maintain its standing in the community and to avoid being seen as engaging in political issues of their own choosing, ought to very carefully think about what they're going to do. Now, there's been suggestions in ....

ROSS SOLLEY: I just want to clear something up here - a difference of opinion between yourself and Mr Reaburn?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, it's between the department and the commission, and a difference between - apparently, quite evidently today, between Mr Rose and myself.

ROSS SOLLEY: You just heard what Mr Rose said about the impression he was left with after talking to Mr Reaburn. Does it sound ....

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, the impression he was left with was that he didn't feel under threat at all. He had a choice to make. He knew my views that the commission should be confining itself to references given by the Attorney-General. They have a number given by my predecessor; they have some given by me. They have plenty of work to do. They don't need to be going around choosing what committees and inquiries they will make submissions to on unrelated subjects.

ROSS SOLLEY: Was it your intention that, after Mr Reaburn's conversation with Mr Rose that the ideal outcome would be that the Law Reform Commission not make a submission, or withdraw its submission from the native ....

DARYL WILLIAMS: I didn't know the precise situation with respect to the parliamentary joint committee; I'm still not quite clear on what had happened between the commission and ....

ROSS SOLLEY: You instructed Mr Reaburn, didn't you, before he made the phone call?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Mr Reaburn and I had a discussion and Mr Reaburn, following that, conveyed my views to Mr Rose, and you've heard what Mr Rose said.

ROSS SOLLEY: And on the strength of those, Mr Rose has decided not to go ahead with making this submission and not to make himself available to give evidence to this committee.

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, that's a choice he's made. He's heard my views, he's made a decision. If that is his decision, that's it. If he's summoned by the committee, then no doubt he will appear before the committee.

ROSS SOLLEY: Do you have any problem at all with the Law Reform ... I mean, the Government's issued an invitation for anyone who's got an interest to make a submission on the native title legislation. Have you got any problems at all with the Law Reform Commission making a submission?

DARYL WILLIAMS: Well, I do have a problem with the Law Reform Commission devoting not unlimited resources to issues that haven't been referred to it. It's very important for the standing of a law reform commission that it be seen to be acting in accordance with references given by the government. When it is given a reference, then it can act independently and objectively, it can seek views in the community, form a decision whether the government likes it or not. But it is not for the Law Reform Commission, under its current legislation agreed on a bipartisan basis in 1994 and in 1996 when it was formally enacted, to go deciding what issues it will pursue in the community and what issues it won't.

ROSS SOLLEY: Are you aware of the advice from the Clerk of the Senate, Mr Harry Evans, that all attempts to influence witnesses or potential witnesses in respect of their evidence constitutes improper interference?

DARYL WILLIAMS: I don't know. He's probably referring to the Parliamentary Privileges Act. I don't know what advice Mr Evans has offered.

ROSS SOLLEY: He is referring to information provided to him today, I understand, from John Faulkner in the Senate, relating to this incident. Now, are you treading on fairly thin ice here?

DARYL WILLIAMS: No, I am not. I'm seeking to do my duty to ensure that a statutory body acts in accordance with the law laid down by the Parliament.

ROSS SOLLEY: Daryl Williams, thanks for your time.

MARK COLVIN: Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, there, talking to Ross Solley.