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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14876

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) (3:36 PM) —I thank the House and I thank the Leader of the Opposition for moving this censure motion. You do not normally do that, but he has provided me with an added opportunity to deal with some of the more absurd propositions that have been advanced not only in his motion but also during question time. The first thing I would like to deal with, and it goes very much to the spirit of what is in the motion, is the matter raised by the member for Gellibrand, which arose out of a news conference I had on 19 February last year. I was asked a question, and the question ran as follows:

Leaving the Governor General aside may I ask your views on a moral question?

The questioner then went on to ask my view on a legal question. I was not reluctant on this occasion to give it. He said:

Firstly, is it a crime for an adult male to have a sexual encounter with an underage female and secondly if that happens is it an excuse on the part of the adult male that the child led him on?

The answer I gave was as follows:

Laurie I haven't checked the state of the criminal law now but I do remember when I was at law school that it was a defence to a carnal knowledge charge that if the person in question who may have been under the age of 16 was between the ages of 14 and 16 and there was a reasonable belief on the part of the accused that the person was in fact above the age of consent. Now beyond that I can't offer an opinion on that because I don't know all of the facts and the circumstances.

That was a straight statement of fact. It goes on:


[inaudible] offer an opinion?


Well I will offer an opinion, I find anything to do with the interference of children abominable, disgusting, and it's something that repels and is repulsive to all Australians and, you know, I think the community should be united in its hostility to it. I deplore breaches of trust that occur whether it's in a church organisation or any kind of school and it's not limited as some reports would have had it in the past to schools run by the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church. Sadly it's occurred in government schools as well in years gone by. So I mean it makes my flesh creep.

That is what I said. After another question, in which the journalist finally said, `and a moral one', I said:

Well I don't think older men should take advantage of underage girls, no I don't.

Mr Latham —That was a separate question.

The SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa! The Prime Minister will be heard in silence.

Mr HOWARD —In my language, that is the attitude I had.

The SPEAKER —The member for Gellibrand has forgotten her status in the House, and so has the member for Batman.

Mr HOWARD —I regard it as absolutely reprehensible of the Leader of the Opposition to counsel and procure the asking of such a question. But of course that is typical of the Leader of the Opposition—and you noticed the muted reactions from those who sat behind him as he delivered his withering attack on me and the Governor-General regarding this appointment. Let me, for the benefit of the Leader of the Opposition, take him through a few realities about the appointments of governors-general in this country. Let me inform the House that I followed the same procedure that was followed regarding the appointment of Dr Hollingworth as was followed, in my understanding, by Mr Keating in relation to the appointment of Sir William Deane.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Blaxland, since he understands no other language!

Mr HOWARD —It was the same procedure that was followed by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in the appointment of Bill Hayden as Governor-General, the same procedure that was followed by Ben Chifley in the appointment of Sir William McKel as Governor-General, and the same procedure followed by Gough Whitlam in the appointment of Sir John Kerr as Governor-General. In other words, I have followed exactly the same procedure. To my knowledge, they followed it in the past because that was the constitutional custom and convention.

We had a vote in this country in November 1999, and the Australian people voted in favour of retaining the present constitutional monarchical system. Some in the parliament voted yes and some in the parliament voted no. I allowed my colleagues a free vote. It was the right thing to do. I respect the fact that many of my colleagues do not share my antirepublican sentiments. The fact is that the majority of the people voted in favour of the present system. As the New South Wales Premier said on radio this morning, the core of the present system is prime ministerial government. The core of the present system would be undermined if there was anything in the nature of a popular election for the appointment of what is, after all, an important but nonetheless executive power in the country, and a ceremonial position. I hold very strongly to the view that the constitutional convention should continue to be observed.

In recommending the appointment of Dr Hollingworth, I believed I was recommending a person of high intelligence, a person with a proven record of service to the community, a person who was skilful in handling public situations and a person who had led, in my understanding, by reasonable standards a morally correct life. I am not a person who sets himself in some kind of pious moral judgment over others. We are all flawed individuals. In the course of this debate we have had a fair amount of delivery of speeches suggesting that there are some in the community who stand above all others. I am in awe of the perfect judgment of so many of my fellow Australians! I am in absolute awe! I wish I had that capacity to avoid errors of judgment. Of course I have been guilty of errors of judgment in my life. Who amongst us could suggest that they have not been guilty of errors of judgment? Who amongst us could stand before any audience in this country and say, `Oh, no, my judgment has always been flawless; I have always been absolutely perfect. I've never allowed my charity towards somebody to overcome my better judgment'? None of us. None of us could honestly stand before their mirror or their maker and possibly make that kind of assertion.

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition was heard in silence. The same courtesy will be extended to the Prime Minister.

Mr HOWARD —I am certainly not going to do that. Let me also say this in relation to the motion moved by the Leader of the Opposition: I accept responsibility for Dr Hollingworth's appointment. I have never sought to avoid it. I made a bona fide judgment on the information I had at the time. That judgment at the time was justified; that judgment was supported by many people in the community. His appointment was very widely welcomed and his appointment was very widely welcomed because he was seen as a man who had served the underprivileged with dedication and commitment for all of his adult life. Nothing that the Leader of the Opposition has so miserably said about him, either here or on previous occasions, can take from Peter Hollingworth a record of decades of service to the underprivileged in this country. Nothing that has happened will stop me saying that to this parliament or to any section of the Australian people. We can stand here in our ivory castle of parliamentary privilege and we can attack people, but we ought to take account of the totality of their lives—we ought to take account of the total contribution that they have made.

If you look at the life of Peter Hollingworth, you see a person who has made a contribution to the relief of suffering. He is a person who deeply regrets, obviously, the great error of judgment he committed in relation to the priest Elliot and the matters that were canvassed in the report of the Brisbane Archdiocese of the Anglican Church. He very deeply regrets that. I think all of us would know that, and to say that and to express an understanding and sympathy for him in no way diminishes our abhorrence of child abuse. It is quite reprehensible of the Leader of the Opposition to suggest that, because we do not adopt in full his condemnation of Dr Hollingworth, in some way we are soft on child abuse. That has been the gravamen and the miserable, baseless levels to which the accusations of the opposition have fallen today. They can do nothing better than to conjure up that kind of implication and that kind of suggestion.

The SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa is warned!

Mr HOWARD —Of course the government and I, in particular, were not being soft on child abuse in taking the view I took in relation to Dr Hollingworth. I was merely stating what I believed to be a correct judgment: that he had not done, in the office of Governor-General, anything to warrant his removal from that position. That is a judgment I made last year, it is a judgment I made again a few weeks ago, and it is a judgment that I stand by. In the end, Dr Hollingworth decided that the best thing for the office was for him to go. He did the right thing. He did the proper thing by the office and he deserves the respect of this parliament, not the denigration of the opposition, for having taken that decision.

Let me say two other things about the office. We have heard a lot about the dignity, the respect and the prestige of the office. One of the great mistakes of history is for people to impute that, because there has been a controversy, the controversy is automatically transferred to the office. I do not believe the office of Governor-General has been weakened by what has happened. For his information, may I through you, Mr Speaker, inform the Leader of the Opposition that we have not, much to his disappointment, had a constitutional crisis over the past few days. I did not feel yesterday, as I watched St George defeat South Sydney by 16-14, that we were going through a constitutional crisis. I believed quite the contrary. Can I say to the Leader of the Opposition that the system—

Opposition members interjecting

The SPEAKER —The Leader of the Opposition was heard in silence; we will extend the same courtesy to the Prime Minister.

Mr HOWARD —If a method of parliamentary selection and removal of the Governor-General or a president of Australia had been in place on this occasion, I wonder whether the matter would have been resolved as easily, as smoothly and with such stability as it has been on this particular occasion. Some of my colleagues around me might disagree with me on that. I would respect their views and I would not try to dragoon them into holding an alternative point of view, but I put that on the table. I would say to the Leader of the Opposition that, far from demonstrating that the system needs radical change, it may well demonstrate that, in the words of Paul Kelly—hardly a pro-monarchist; very much a pro-republican—in the Australian this morning, the system had shown `subtlety and flexibility' in the way in which the issue had been handled. So disappointment to the Leader of the Opposition and no constitutional crisis; that is disappointment No. 1. Disappointment No. 2 for the Leader of the Opposition, having heard the muted response from his colleagues behind him, was there was not much traction for him out of the issue either.

Once again, we have seen the opposition leader go right over the top. Instead of settling for a conventional attack on the Prime Minister and the Governor-General, he goes right over the top. He makes allegations of a cover-up; I did not cover up anything in relation to the matters that came out in February last year. Everything was on the record that had come out in February last year. I made a judgment in February last year that I was not required to act, and I repeat for the benefit of the Leader of the Opposition that the judgment was that the Governor-General had not behaved in a way, since assuming his office, to warrant my recommending to the Queen that his commission should be revoked. That judgment was right then, and it remained right until the time of his resignation. I defend that judgment. I am prepared to be held accountable for that judgment, and I believe that judgment to be correct.

I have been asked about the rape allegations against Dr Hollingworth. I make this point to the Leader of the Opposition: when they were first made in December, they were bare allegations contained in a solicitor's letter. It would have been absurd for the Governor-General to stand aside on the basis of such a letter, especially as he denied the claims. In the course of the court proceedings, a suppression order was sought and obtained by the now tragically deceased lady, then there was a suppression order obtained by the Governor-General. It was always on the understanding, and was made plain in the Governor-General's videoed statement, that if leave to bring the action out of time had been granted then the suppression orders would have been lifted. There was no cover-up. The law worked; the system worked; the process worked, and any suggestion that Peter Hollingworth got a preference because of his position is bunkum. The first suppression order was obtained by the now tragically deceased lady, and the cover was only blown on everything improperly by the member for Melbourne, who shamefully put the questions on notice. I reject them, I reject the censure motion, and I reject the behaviour of the Leader of the Opposition.

The SPEAKER —Member for Melbourne!

The SPEAKER —The member for Melbourne is warned! The member for Jagajaga some time ago was invited to address her remarks through the chair and accept the call.