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Thursday, 13 September 1984
Page: 993

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(1.05) —The Government will not oppose the terms of this motion because Senator Lewis has pointed out, and others no doubt are able to point out, that the terms of the motion are quite unexceptionable. Of course, it is the case that we have a long established principle that it would be a serious contempt for any person who attempted to deter or hinder any witness and of course it is the case that it is appropriate, I suppose, to warn persons against taking any action which might amount to attempting to improperly influence a witness. That much said, however, it is another thing again to accept without demur the wisdom of Senator Lewis choosing to bring this motion forward in the way he has at this time.

I believe it ought to be acknowledged by the Senate that Senator Georges is absolutely right when he says that it is unnecessary to bring the motion forward at this time since the Senate Committee is amply armed with the powers to look after its own privileges and to protect those and to protect the Senate itself. Of course, should the Senate Committee be minded to call in aid the powers of the Senate itself, those powers will undoubtedly be made available. There is also an element of unwisdom, I believe, in Senator Lewis, as a member of this Committee, rising to his feet and advancing a motion like this in terms which can be described only as sailing very close to the wind in terms of dealing with substantive matters which have to be resolved by the Committee. In both of those respects I think Senator Georges is absolutely correct and we ought to acknowledge the force of what he is saying.

There is another thing, however, that ought to be said for the record; that is, that in terms of the particular subject matter which Senator Lewis has adverted to as justifying bringing forward a specific motion of this kind, I do not believe even that as reported in the Press is such as to justify the course that he has taken. Two points need to be made: One, it is not clear that the statement attributed to Mr Landa in the Sydney Morning Herald and apparently in similar terms also in the Canberra Times was ever actually made.

Senator Chipp —The Sydney Morning Herald was much more succinct.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I take Senator Chipp's point. The second point I make is that it is not clear that if it was made it is open to the interpretation that Senator Lewis has obviously been trying to impute to it. It is not clear that the statement was ever actually made because of course there are two major controversies in which Mr Briese is presently embroiled in New South Wales, and the subject of Mr Landa's parliamentary statement a day or two ago was clearly the matter of the appointment of a number of magistrates whose competence or whatever has been recently called in question. There is a major issue involving Mr Briese and his willingness apparently to testify in appropriate disciplinary proceedings against those magistrates which has created profound difficulties for Mr Landa and the New South Wales Government and he was apparently expressing himself with some force on that particular controversy.

Senator Lewis —You do understand that that was in the Parliament; this was alleged to have been said outside.

Senator GARETH EVANS —Yes, I understand that. But what I am saying is that it is clear that there is also another controversy in which Mr Briese is embroiled that squarely concerns the Senate Committee and it is a matter of some uncertainty as to whether Mr Landa's remarks can even be regarded as applicable to that situation or to the other controversy in New South Wales. I took Senator Lewis to acknowledge the ambiguity and uncertainty of that during the course of his speech. But the further point that I make, that even if there was some reference and that reference could be established to the Canberra controversy, as it were, concerning Mr Briese, it is by no means totally clear on its face that remarks of the kind reported ought to be construed as a contempt or a potential contempt of the Senate.

There is a sense in which executive governments that are on the verge of making major appointments of what are for all practical purposes judicial figures, ought to be able to have confidence that those appointments will in fact prove to be justified. To the extent that there may be some question in the air as to whether or not an allegation has been made which may prove to be justified and to the extent--

Senator Chipp —You are sailing fairly close to the wind yourself now.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I am simply making the point because Mr Landa is here being accused, if only hypothetically, of a grave contempt-I think they are Senator Lewis's words-of the Senate if he did say anything which could be construed as referring to the Canberra Briese controversy. All I am saying is that that must be a matter for reasoned and sensible argument and appreciation of all the facts and circumstances at some appropriate time. It is not something about which assumptions can be made. There conceivably may be circumstances in which what Mr Landa might have said along those lines could quite sensibly be justified as a cautious, careful exercise of the ordinary prerogatives and responsibilities of executive government.

I simply raise that particular question to say that even if the matter is as Senator Lewis believes it might have been, in other words, a reference to the Canberra controversy, then still it is inappropriate to jump quickly to the kind of conclusions that he wants us to jump to. I think those points ought to put on the record without getting into the kind of debate which Senator Georges quite rightly, I think, has warned us about.

All that having been said, the point still remains that it is probably not inappropriate in all the circumstances of this highly volatile and delicate and difficult task that is confronting the Committee for the point to be made now by the Senate as a whole that it is a very serious business to endeavour in any way to interfere with the workings of the Committee, to do anything which might be construed, properly or not, as an attempt to interfere with a witness, and it is probably timely, although arguably unnecessary, for such a warning to be given. Provided we approach it in that spirit, rather than hanging it specifically to the facts of some particular case which are not established to everyone's satisfaction and which may well be ambiguous anyway, I do not see any basis for objecting to Senator Lewis's motion and I endorse it accordingly.

Question resolved in the affirmative.