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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12880

Mr KERR (9:19 PM) —I move amendment No. 1:

(1) Part 4, clauses 7 to 9, page 9 (line 2) to page 12 (line 29), omit the Part.

This amendment is designed to remove from the Crimes at Sea Bill 1999 the provisions which relate to the Timor Gap. I think it is important to place firmly on record that this House has been grievously misled—and I assume by inadvertence—on instructions by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration.

The bill was introduced on 30 September by the Attorney-General—one month after the East Timor ballot. In that circumstance it was surprising that the provisions that related to the then agreement between Australia and the Indonesian authorities with respect to the Timor Sea were included within the bill. On or around 18 October Senator Vanstone's office advised the opposition of the government's proposed amendments. They provided a confidential copy which described the amendments as having arisen because the `Office of Parliamentary Counsel have identified a number of minor language differences between the Commonwealth bill and corresponding legislation in the model state legislation'. None of the matters that were advised to my office on or around 18 October concerned part 4—those matters which we are proposing to remove.

On 21 October, the bill was scheduled for debate. Again, my office had received no notice of any intention of the government to remove the offending provisions. On 11 November, the opposition received the draft weekly program for the House, which listed the bill for debate on Wednesday, 24 November. On the morning of 23 November, Senator Vanstone's office called my office to see what the opposition's approach would be to the bill. In the afternoon, my office responded to that call by communicating to Senator Vanstone's office that we had problems with part 4 and would be moving to oppose the same. I make the point that at this stage neither formally nor informally had the minister's office ever raised what is now asserted to be a longstanding intention to remove those provisions. We had communication directly in written form from the minister's office relating to a series of other amendments that the minister was proposing to incorporate in this bill. There was no mention whatsoever of the provisions in part 4.

On the evening of 23 November, Senator Vanstone's office delivered advanced copies of unrelated bills to be introduced into the House the next day. We asked what the minister's view was regarding part 4. We were told that there might be a government amendment to omit the provisions in part 4 and that drafting was in progress. So much for this longstanding intention! We insisted that we were opposing part 4 and would press on with an amendment. We sought from the minister a clear statement as to whether the government would be abandoning part 4. We were left with advice from the minister's office that we would hear from her the next morning in relation to this matter and we would put our heads together if the government were going to omit part 4. We suggested that it might be wise to delay the bill, and we left it at that. We were told that there was a slim chance that the bill would come in on Wednesday but it was more likely to be Thursday.

The next day, we had still not heard back from Senator Vanstone by 1.30 p.m. I did a doorstop and said that we would be opposing part 4 and that we expressed surprise that the minister's office had not abandoned the commitment to that provision. This nonsense that has been put forward by the parliamentary secretary that the government had decided to remove part 4 well before the debate that was first in the House must be said to be a complete misunderstanding by the parliamentary secretary of the truth. (Extension of time granted) I can only assume that that misunderstanding comes because he was misled by the minister.

There can be no gainsaying those accounts. They are absolute fact. What possible purpose would there have been for us to have held a media conference in relation to this matter, had the minister's office given us the undertakings which we had been seeking? Absolutely none whatsoever. The first confirmation we had that the government was now intending to move for the removal of those provisions relating to Indonesian sovereignty over the Timor Gap was not communicated to us. In fact, we never had any communication in relation to this. We heard indirectly from journalists who pursued the matter with the minister's office that the government was now moving such amendments.

In those circumstances, the opposition is pressing ahead with its own amendments to remove those provisions. We are not going to be churlish about this because we now know the government is going to move mirror amendments. There is no point in forcing a division or doing anything of that kind, but there is importance in putting on record what has been the most deceitful and stupid piece of parliamentary conduct by a minister that I have been aware of. It has been made worse by what is plainly a distorted set of histories in relation to this matter that the minister's office has conveyed to the parliamentary secretary.

I find it personally quite offensive that it is being suggested that the government had decided to remove part 4 well before the unhelpful intervention, as it was described, by the parliamentary secretary, when the only indication was that the government was considering and looking at the drafting possibilities on the evening of 23 November—that is, imminently and immediately before the debate that actually started here on the 25th. On the 24th, when we had agreed that the minister's office would get back to us as to whether or not they would be deleting those provisions, by 1.30 p.m. we had still not heard from the minister's office. I do not know what I am supposed to do in those circumstances. Truly, I do not know what I am expected to do as a shadow minister. Am I expected to have some kind of third eye that enables me to read the mind of a minister whom we have been pressing about the good sense of removing these provisions and who will not tell us that the government intends to do that?

Mr Griffin —It would be a short read.

Mr KERR —It would be a short read indeed. I am not so prescient. What I do say to the parliamentary secretary at the table is that the now recent invention of an intention of the government to remove these provisions simply flies against the record and against the facts, and I regard it as a contemptible act by the minister involved to have briefed you in such a way. That is the first time I have used that language with respect to Minister Vanstone. I have often used tough language with respect to the wisdom or otherwise of particular decisions, but I do not say lightly that somebody has misled this House. I do not say lightly that they have sold you a pup and put you on a course of asserting as a truth a falsehood in this House, but they have.

This is not a situation that I feel pleased about. This is not a situation that should be allowed to go unchallenged, and I will not allow it to go unchallenged. We will be moving these amendments. It is unfortunate that this issue has distracted attention from what otherwise is a substantial piece of legislative reform achieved not only through a succession of governments but, I am certain, through considerable effort by the Attorney-General and the minister for justice in the current government. (Extension of time granted) I just find it very sad and very unfortunate that, on this occasion, when we could otherwise have had a debate reflective of the fact that this legislation, other than the provisions of part 4, is a substantial achievement, a fact which we could have addressed without controversy, that has not been able to come to pass.

Those who know my history of good faith in negotiating with the government through some very difficult issues we have faced in a series of areas of which I have had charge, I think, would realise that I do not operate on the basis of taking advantage of a situation where the government makes its intentions plain to my office and I then pretend that they have not done so and act in a way which is inconsistent with that knowledge. I want to make it absolutely plain that that was not the case in this instance. I just think this arse-covering exercise—because essentially that is what it is—of trying to defend a position that is absolutely indefensible is not a satisfactory way in which a minister of the Crown should behave.

Those would be my remarks in relation to the amendments I have circulated. I understand that, because the government is proposing its own amendments now, it will take the course of defeating these, and that I will understand as part of the give and take of the parliamentary process. The end outcome will be achieved. But it really is pretty disgraceful when those kinds of wrong impressions are given by the parliamentary secretary on behalf of the minister. I take these things very seriously. I want to be able to behave honourably in respect of dealings with my counterparts in the ministry, and I expect the same in return.