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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26693

Senator ROBERT RAY (6:01 PM) —Let me address the first issue that Senator Ferguson has raised: the one day of hearings. It is up to the committee how many days of hearings they will have.

Senator Ferguson —Senator Bartlett only wants one.

Senator ROBERT RAY —He does not run the committee, Senator Ferguson—not at this stage at least. The indication given clearly by Senator Faulkner—and I think it was proper that he gave it—was that he did not believe before an election other witnesses would be compelled to come before the inquiry, that it would only be volunteers. He especially made the point, and I agree with him, that it is not appropriate to compel MOPS Act staffers to come during an election campaign. They have other duties. Think of the potential misuse that that could be put to in other circumstances! That cannot be contemplated.

I only want to address a few issues in reply. Firstly, whilst I have a high admiration for Senator Brandis's legal skills, I do not think he has understood the proroguing of parliament argument very well. I do not think he believes it but he seems to imply that the House of Representatives is prorogued and the Senate is not. Neither is prorogued. Parliament is not yet prorogued. The reason this chamber is sitting and the other chamber is not relies on different standing orders. There is a power within the Speaker's office that has allowed the cancellation of the House of Representatives sitting today, and that is what has happened. Speaker Neil Andrew cancelled the sitting of his own volition or maybe on advice from the Prime Minister—it is irrelevant. No such power exists within the Senate President's office; hence, we have to sit. I believe what happened yesterday—and there has been no clarification of this by Senator Hill—was that it was simply assumed that the Senate President had that power, that you could prorogue parliament on Tuesday but that neither house would sit. The argument that developed afterwards, that the Prime Minister has been generous in allowing the Senate to determine these matters, is absolute nonsense. We know that PM&C gave advice to the government that under standing order 55 an absolute majority of senators represented by their leaders could cancel a sitting of the Senate. That happens to be wrong advice. I can understand why the advice was given, but I have read standing order 55 and I do not believe that advice is right. But I can understand why someone may have interpreted it in that particular way.

In essence, parliament is not prorogued. The Senate is sitting because it had no power to cancel its sittings, at least until after 12.30 today, and the House of Representatives did have that power. It is not the first time that the House of Representatives dominated thinking in executive government has entirely overlooked what could be happening in the Senate. Senator Hill said that he has this advice. I invite him to table his advice that parliament and the Senate did not have to sit—we have not seen it. Before we see it, we cannot evaluate it; we can only assume what is in it. Both Senator Brandis and Senator Hill have said today that it is very bad form to set up a committee after an election has been called. I have some sympathy with that, except we announced—

Senator Brandis —I didn't say that.

Senator ROBERT RAY —Yes, you did. We announced last week that we were going to set up this committee, so I might equally say that it is bad form to call an election when we announced we were going to set up the committee. That is one all—let us forget it. But the fact is that our bone fides were established at least last week. This is not a last-minute gambit, once an election has been called, to set up a committee. We were always going to set up a committee once the Scrafton evidence came out. It came out after the last sitting of the parliament, so there was no prior opportunity. Senator Brandis went on today to say—I am going to shock him; I am going to agree with him—that any Senate report coming down on matters of fact that affect politicians will have some bias and partisanship. Of course they will—it was ever thus—and they have to be discounted because of that. It does not mean you discount the evidence that you receive, but you do not put the conclusions themselves up on pedestals as Holy Writ. I accept that. If you go through the record, Mr Acting Deputy President, you will see that I have put that on the record many times in the past, so I cannot contest that.

Then, of course, we get the attack on the Democrats by Senator Hill about how they are virtually part of the Labor team and that they will not approach this in an independent way. Oh my, oh my! Aren't they forgetful of past favours? They did not bag the Democrats when they were booting the GST through. They did not rubbish the Democrats when they were putting through the `dash for cash' bill that allows—talking about Kremlin show trials—`Kremlin Central' at Robert Menzies House to dictate to state branches of the Liberal Party. They did not complain then. They did not complain when the Democrats conspired with the Liberals to set up a political inquiry into Centenary House. But what have the Democrats done for them recently? Absolutely nothing, apparently. So the Democrats get rubbished in this particular process. Senator Hill made the point—very poorly, I thought—that we did not subpoena Mr Scrafton during the last inquiry, and that point has also been made by Senator Ferguson today. Their argument would be strong if they could point to one case in the past where Labor members have voted to subpoena MOPS staff before committees.

Senator Brandis —What about Mr Reith? He wasn't MOPS staff.

Senator ROBERT RAY —It is not the normal case that we subpoena MOPS staff, nor do we subpoena ministers or ex-ministers, Senator Brandis. That is your form. You chased Mr Hawke. You chased Mr Dawkins and others and forced them to come before committees. You got Mr Hawke there and he dazzled everyone, so you thought that maybe it was not such a good idea to bring them before committees anymore. It is not a case of political cowardice or anything else. On a matter of principle we have said that you do not subpoena MOPS staff. Subsequent to that, we have had the finance and public administration committee look at this issue. They came down with some interesting conclusions. To summarise, one was that if the MOPS staffers actually have an executive role to play—not just an advice-giving role but an executive role—in a minister's office then they should lose that protection. The difficulty in the case of Mr Scrafton or anybody else is: can we take that protection away from them retrospectively? We may in future, as a parliament and as a Senate, decide to subpoena MOPS staff, but should we do it in retrospect when they thought they were protected by the norms of this place? That is an interesting question and one that I cannot answer at this stage. But I do not think we failed to subpoena Mr Scrafton in the past because we doubted what evidence we had. We did it on the principle that generally MOPS staffers should not be held accountable in this parliament because they are the personal staff of ministers or members of parliament.

Senator Hill went on to give his defence of the `children overboard' affair, saying it was based on reports. That part is true. The real crime in the `children overboard' affair was the haste for publicity. You only have to follow the sequence of events to see this—when the committee was told, when Mr Ruddock was told and how quickly they rushed this into press without checking any of it. No checking was done. We know that from all the evidence, and I am sure no-one opposite will get up and say that there was. There was no checking done whatsoever. It was a case of getting this out there. There was political gain in this. Of course, once it is out there there is some downside to admitting you are wrong. That is where the real crime was: the lack of intellectual rigour and the lack of ministers and ministers' staff checking the story, getting in contact with the Adelaide and making sure it was true. The main priority was to get out there and politicise this issue in an emotive way. We heard statements like: `We don't want these people in our country if they throw their kids overboard.' If they were doing that, neither did I. I did not want them in this country if they were doing that. But talk about demonising a group of people who were not able to defend themselves. It is a national tragedy.

Senator Hill went on to say that, in some way, we are personalising the campaign against Mr Howard. I do not believe that is true. Mr Howard said yesterday that the key plank in this election campaign will be trust. Obviously that particular statement was poll driven. Therefore the veracity of the Prime Minister's statements becomes very important. Now we have a conflict. We have Mr Scrafton saying that he discussed not only the video but also the photos, the ONA report and the fact that no-one in Defence believed the claims that kids were thrown overboard on 7 November, before the 8 November National Press Club appearance in which the ONA report was used. Some people in this place may say, `Oh, that's all in the past. We shouldn't really worry about it.' But I believe we have a right to know the truth on these particular matters and how truthful the Prime Minister is going to be. It is all very well to get the odd statement from Mr O'Leary, Mr Nutt and Mr Sinodinos, but even those are pretty wishy-washy statements because they were not directly involved in the conversation—nowhere nearly as directly as Major General Powell, the Navy commander, and Ms McKenry, who then worked for Defence PR. They were all told about this conversation. You really have to ask yourself why you would have lied three years ago at that particular stage. So we are not personalising this; we are seeking the truth.

Of course, Senator Hill then went on to make a fairly outrageous comment. He said that the Prime Minister believed the public had a right to know and that is why he put the video out. Well, good on him. But that sort of generosity did not extend to having Mr Jordana or Mr Hampton appear before the committee. The government could have asked them to appear—we did not have to subpoena them—but, of course, then the real truth may have come out. So it is nothing to do with the public having a right to know. Even when we do get a witness there, like the head of the task force, what do we get? On 57 occasions we got the answer: `I don't remember.' The Anastasia of the Public Service is then promoted to a big department and given a Public Service Medal because she did not remember. Rather gratuitously, Senator Hill says that the Senate could ignore this issue and pass some valuable legislation. This raises two issues. Firstly, why did he try to get the parliamentary sittings cancelled yesterday? Secondly, if we do have important legislation but we happen to put forward one amendment to it then we have nowhere to send it. The House of Representatives has been dissolved and will be prorogued tomorrow. If we do amend any legislation, that is the last we are going to hear of it until it has to be reintroduced and the whole process started again.

We have heard about the expense of having a Senate inquiry. We all know how cheap Senate inquiries can be. This one would not cost too much money—probably about one-tenth of the cost of flying people all over the country yesterday, airline cancellations et cetera. One of the key aspects here is something Senator Hill did not say and has not addressed today. When we asked him in the debate on the suspension motion why he had a Loans Council inquiry meet all through the 1993 election, there was absolute silence. The cone of amnesia came down over the chamber. Nothing was said. If this committee is established and we do have hearings, we are not going to go to the absolute crass stupidity of those 1993 hearings—meetings chaired by the grand wizard himself, Senator Coulter, in airport lounges and other farcical activities. Who was the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate at the time? Senator Hill. He led all of that. He engineered it. He authored it. Yet he will not take responsibility for this or even explain himself today on this particular matter.

There are a couple of other comments to make. I must pay tribute to my colleague opposite Senator Brandis. He uttered the ultimate dirty word in all of this—he mentioned Mr Reith's name, something Senator Hill and Senator Ferguson studiously avoided. Ultimately he was the one dumped on over this. Everyone knows that Mr Reith did not do his duty in that period—he did not properly inform people. We presume, still, that he did not properly inform the Prime Minister. That is an absolute tragedy. Of course, he has been rewarded.

Senator Brandis —He was acting on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force—as you know, Senator Hill, as a former minister.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I am not Senator Hill for a start, Senator Brandis—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President. We will get Senator Brandis's interjection and I will come back to him in a moment. Mr Reith failed in his duty. He basically knew the truth of what had happened and made sure, for political and manipulative reasons, that it was never passed on. Most of his colleagues have ignored him and dumped on him. As the ultimate reward, he was given the biggest sinecure in the world: going to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development with a large untaxed salary, so he has been paid off to get out of the road. It is interesting that Mr Reith is not an issue anymore. Everyone has made the judgment that in fact he failed to tell the truth.

Just one of the substantive issues that does still concern me in all this is the use by the Prime Minister of the ONA report on 8 November 2001. I have maintained throughout that it is not right for a Prime Minister to quote from an intelligence report for his own political benefit. I do not believe he should have done so then. If Mr Scrafton is right—Mr Scrafton, on the night before, told Mr Howard that this was based only on ministerial information and not on intelligence—then the fraud that would have been perpetrated on the Australian public the next day is a matter for serious long-term concern. It is hard to believe, and I do not necessarily draw a judgment yet, but if the Prime Minister, addressing the Press Club, quoted the ONA report knowing it to have no substance it was a pretty low-rent act. It also probably set a very bad example. It probably prompted the leaking of the Wilkie ONA document to Mr Andrew Bolt—the top-secret AUSTEO document that was published in part. The fact is that that was one of the greatest blights on this government ever known.

I believe that this committee will not be a witch-hunt, as is accused. It would always have the potential to be so unless it were properly controlled. I do believe that we have a need to pursue the truth. I understand the comments made by Senator Ferguson here today, which are made out of loyalty to the Prime Minister. I understand Senator Brandis's comments today, which are made out of duty to the Prime Minister. Senator Brandis, I am extremely impressed by your loyalty and devotion to the Prime Minister, and I am sure he will reciprocate that by giving you absolutely nothing.