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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 2155


Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (17:18): I should point out at the outset that Senator Milne and I, who were the subjects of this adventure by Senator Kroger and Senator Abetz which foundered under the scrutiny of the committee, do not have the advantage—which other members in this chamber have, including the chair of the committee—of having the committee's findings. Nevertheless, I will do what I can to respond to this process, which is one of the lowest points in Senate procedure that I have experienced in the 16 years of being in this chamber. I say that not because I and Senator Milne were the subjects of this ambush through the Senate by Senator Abetz, using Senator Kroger—neither of whom are with us in the chamber—to prosecute a quarrel but because it should not have been allowed past the President. I have spoken on that matter before.

The committee has found that it does not consider there is any direct evidence to support the accusations as true. It could make no other finding. Nor is there—and the committee might have, in decency, added this in its report—any indirect evidence to consider, which might have ameliorated the wrong done in this process to Senator Milne and I and, indeed, by inference to other senators.

The submission to this committee from our legal representatives, Mr Roland Browne—who is our solicitor in Hobart—Mr Ron Merkel QC and Frances Gordon of counsel, in Melbourne, made it abundantly clear that the Kroger-Abetz letter, which went to the President and set in train this process, should never have got past the President and that a 24-hour consideration by the President was manifestly wanting. Nevertheless, the letter is, amongst other things, highly selective and inaccurate. It gives rise to no bona fide or reasonably arguable allegation. Further, there was no allegation of contempt disclosed—no allegation whatsoever in the Kroger-Abetz letter that disclosed contempt. The letter was manifestly deficient. These are all matters that the President ought to have picked up on, and there was no proper basis for any allegation of an offence by Senator Bob Brown, Senator Milne or any of the other Greens senators.

In the six minutes left to me I say that this process has defamed a good, proper and decent businessman and citizen of this country, Mr Graeme Wood. It is a tawdry, unbecoming process which got past the President and went to the committee and it has now been found wanting. The committee had 'no cogent evidence' of a contempt—no evidence whatsoever—but it went past this inadequate President to the committee with the consequent result of national publicity. What is more, it did so without warning to Senator Milne or me, the subjects of what have now been found to be totally incorrect accusations. The process put in train by the President through whichever other senators knew about it had representatives of the Murdoch press, namely the Australian, in the gallery. We have asked the committee to make findings on that matter, but there are none in this report today. There should be. I know the committee has said this should not happen again but it should not have happened on 24 November last year and it warrants an inquiry and a report back to the Senate.

In the matter of expenses, the chair of the committee, Senator Ronaldson, has just read that there has been no claim for expenses and that there is no evidence that there is a need for those expenses to be paid. That is not true. Several letters from our legal representatives to the committee have requested that in fairness, following a process set off by Senator Abetz and Senator Kroger, the legal expenses incurred in defending ourselves from these accusations—now found by the committee to be wrong—should be reimbursed to Senator Milne and me. I can tell you those expenses are in the order of $50,000, an amount which is warranted not least when you look at the expenditure of more than $1 million during the period of the Howard government on the defence of ministers following accusations from the public. This is far more than that: it is an accusation from fellow senators found to be wrong and it needs to be put right by those expenses being paid. We will pursue the matter of the expenses, reminding the Senate and the chair of the committee, who sits here and looks at me now—

Senator Fisher interjecting

Senator BOB BROWN: And there is laughter from coalition members opposite. The reality is that the claims by Senator Abetz and Senator Kroger—and indeed Senator Brandis, who after two months was forced to recuse himself from this committee—had brought with them a potential for six months in jail or a huge fine. It is justice that, having found that the accusers had no basis for this process whatsoever and the accused having every right to seek appropriate legal defence, those costs should be paid. That is part of the reasonable process of law in this country and I remind the chair as I have done before that it is appealable to the courts.

The difference between now and 1987 is that the Senate has passed the Parliamentary Privileges Act into law. It is a legal instrument. It is not just up to a committee to dismiss a fair reimbursement of legal costs as it may wish to—it is a matter of proper legal practice brought into law by this Senate when it passed that act in 1987. I never wanted to get into this process, nor did Senator Milne and nor did Mr Wood, but we have been subject to the most appalling calumny through this Senate, and reprinted in the media across this country via the Australian newspaper, on a totally unwarranted and wrong basis. Is it to be that Senator Abetz or Senator Kroger simply shrug their shoulders and try again? I say not. In particular I bring to the Senate's notice the recommendations from our legal representatives that this process should not happen again and that those recommendations should be adopted in full by the Senate. (Time expired)