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Thursday, 12 May 1994
Page: 723

Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (10.26 a.m.) —This is an important amendment, particularly because it recognises what the government fails to recognise, namely, that very important policy issues are at stake. It is probably some embarrassment that Senator Gareth Evans, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, for several years sat on a committee that gave very careful consideration to how the forms of the Senate ought to operate, what rules ought to apply, the conduct of committees, and what ultimate sanctions ought to be in place to ensure that the Senate was able to properly go about its business. It was only after a long and detailed inquiry and report that we ultimately had the rules that govern the operation of this committee.

  Of course, those rules allow for witnesses who do not cooperate to be dealt with. If those rules did not allow for that, then witnesses could ignore a committee with impunity; whereas we know that the intention of the founding fathers was that not just both houses of parliament should be supreme but that the Senate, quite deliberately, was given powers that are given to virtually no other upper house in the Western world. Therefore, it was important to ensure that those powers were properly exercised.

  It is against that background, therefore, that this committee was given absolute powers to require witnesses to give evidence, to compel the production of documents and, by extension, to deal with persons who failed to cooperate or who did not produce documents when requested. Against that express term of reference, there is of course the concept of public interest immunity, which has grown up over the years in an endeavour by the courts to control the otherwise untrammelled exercise of power by the executive.

  The courts took the view that it was not sufficient for the executive to say, `We will not cooperate. We will not produce documents. We will not give evidence.' The courts said, `There may be circumstances in which that can be the case, but where we are concerned with statutory powers, we will make judgments on those matters and we will decide whether public interest immunity applies.' As for the advice available to this committee, particularly from Mr David Jackson QC, it is absolutely clear that this Senate has unqualified powers to require witnesses to give evidence and to produce documents. The government has had abundant opportunities to provide contrary legal advice to this committee.

  I have heard Senator Murphy say on several occasions that he disagrees with Mr Jackson—he does not pretend to be on the same plane as Mr Jackson but, in his humble view, he disagrees. I do not have a problem with Senator Murphy disagreeing with Mr Jackson but I do have a problem with a Treasurer, with the vast resources of the government at his disposal, not bothering to put before the committee any contrary legal view, despite the fact that at one stage I read in the press that the government was in possession of advice that cast doubt on those powers. We have never seen it; we have never heard of it.

  None of the members of the committee on the other side of this chamber have ever attempted to address our attention to any legal authority or legal advice that might indicate that somehow the powers of the Senate are limited. The witnesses, Messrs Hinton and Pooley, who effectively claimed that they were precluded by a direction from the Treasurer from cooperating with the committee, even though they were given every opportunity to take legal advice, at no stage sought to produce any advice, or direct our attention to any authorities in any shape or form to argue their case.

  What we have is simply the government thumbing its nose at a Senate committee which has very clear powers to require cooperation. It is against that background that Senator Kernot's motion has been moved. This will have the effect of allowing, not just in relation to this committee but also in relation to future committees and future situations where impasses can arise, a third party, untrammelled by the political pressures that might sometimes apply in committees, to make an independent judgment. It certainly should not be assumed that that independent tribunal would come down on one side or another. It would make judgments on the merits.

  It is interesting that Senator Loosley, without notice, should move such a decoupling amendment because it is perfectly clear to all concerned that he does not have the courage of his convictions—and I will come to his convictions a little later, because he has quite a number in politics. The fact is that those opposite are simply anxious or determined by all means to try to cut this concept—this perfectly proper alternative proposal—adrift from this committee's deliberations so that the government can simply have its way, ignore any findings, simply not hand over the documents and then say that the committee was unsuccessful in getting to the heart of the matter. There is only one person who qualifies for the title of national disgrace around this place, I would have thought.

  The fact is that this committee has been remarkably successful to date because not only have we had evidence from a number of important witnesses, but when it comes to the question of balanced coverage, for example, we have not yet had the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) contradict what he said on the record in Seattle about a commitment with Conrad Black and having delivered on that commitment after the election. So we have the evidence starkly on the record to date.

  When it comes to the effectiveness of the Foreign Investment Review Board, we had the very person who is now pretending that this committee has achieved absolutely nothing and who preferred to swan off to PNG, saying on Meet the Press a couple of weeks back that he and his Senate colleagues had taken the view that something had to be done about ensuring there was more transparency in the process. No doubt that is what led poor old Ralph Willis to have to finally stop defending the indefensible and tell Mike Steketee of the Sydney Morning Herald that indeed he had always thought that there was a problem with the Foreign Investment Review Board process—he had known that from the moment he became Treasurer—and that after our committee has reported, he will certainly be looking at amendments that would require the Treasurer to provide reasons for foreign investment decisions.

  I would have thought that that is a dramatic breakthrough and an achievement that directly derives from the work of this committee. But, no. With a straight face, the person who spoke before me had the gall to say in the committee yesterday that the fact was that this committee had been totally discredited. When challenged to concede that that was simply his view of the world and not shared by others, he would not for a moment resile from that proposition. Then, when challenged with the fact that indeed he and Mr Willis had both conceded the FIRB point and were proposing amendments, he said with a straight face that that had nothing to do with this committee.

  How anyone who pretends to have any integrity in the process or is concerned about his reputation can say such a thing is beyond me. But I suppose that when one looks at the individual concerned, it is not so surprising. I refer to an article in the Sunday Telegraph of 1 May. Honourable senators will recall that Senator Loosley was taken to task some weeks ago because the article he manages to churn out each week—we do not know how much he gets paid for it or where the proceeds go—had `Senator Loosley, ALP Senator'. We took him to task for not disclosing the blatant conflict of interest; in other words, that he was a member of the Senate select committee into the print media but had not chosen to disclose that fact.

Senator Cook —You are pathetic.

Senator ALSTON —I know this hurts, but Senator Cook will just have to cop it for a little while longer.

Senator Cook —It is derisible.

Senator ALSTON —It is derisible? Senator Cook has a very thin skin. I would have thought that, having been comprehensively trumped on Austrade, he would be licking his

wounds, but if he wants to buy into this one, he can do so.

Senator Cook —You don't understand the facts.

Senator ALSTON —Senator Cook might like to enlighten us, and then we can understand his view and we will be much more sympathetic. McMullan is out of the country. This is Senator Cook's chance to get himself on the record.

  The fact is that not only did we criticise Senator Loosley for that, not only did he not in any shape or form apologise to this chamber, but on 1 May he again published an article headed `Senate at its worst. Stephen Loosley'. It does not even say that he is an ALP senator, let alone a member of this committee. He went on to wring his hands, very loudly and verbally, about the fact that Mr Hawke and Mr Conrad Black had had a fairly colourful contretemps. He said:

But it is all very well for a former prime minister and a media proprietor to trade headlines.

What if the person damned had been an ordinary Australian citizen? He or she would have been damaged irreparably. There would have been no effective reply and no proper means of response.

Senator Murphy —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. Whilst I do not wish to interrupt Senator Alston's attack on Senator Loosley, I would ask that you draw his attention to the motion before us and request him to address that rather than continuing this attack on Senator Loosley and reports in the press that we have all read and heard before. Senator Alston has conducted himself in the chamber in the same way before, and I think it is a waste of time. Why does he not address the motion?

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Herron)—There is no point of order.

Senator MacGibbon —I would like to speak to the point of order.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator MacGibbon —I would like to speak then.


Senator MacGibbon —It is one of the courtesies of this chamber that when someone makes an attack they have the courage to stay, not run from the chamber in the way Senator Loosley did.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator ALSTON —Just in case Senator Murphy is under some misapprehension, this is a second article. It is not the one we first took exception to where Senator Loosley did not disclose that he was a member of the committee. This article does not even disclose that he is anything other than a private citizen. It is fairly misleading on its face.

  It reflects very much on the chamber and it also reflects on the remarks he made about the effectiveness of the committee when he says that there are no opportunities available to private citizens to correct wrongs. As Senator Loosley ought to know very well, there is a resolution of the Senate that requires all Senate committees to provide an opportunity for any person who believes that he or she has been wronged to reply to the committee. In those circumstances, I would have thought either that Senator Loosley's statements were simply a further demonstration of abysmal ignorance warranting a public apology in the same columns or, if one takes a less benign interpretation, that they were the product of a deliberate attempt once again to mislead the readers of the Sunday Telegraph for the purpose of discrediting the Senate committee.

  The fact is that Senator Loosley and his colleagues—certainly Senator Carr—are absolutely desperate to try to discredit this committee, to derail it by all possible means, to have ritual interruptions and disruptions, to have the most extraordinary leaking of all that has ever gone on. For that person then to say that one of the problems is that we did not strive for consensus really beggars belief.

  At no stage has Senator Loosley sought to achieve any form of consensus. We have had these childish tactics and responses. One thing that really concerns me about the whole way in which this committee has conducted its deliberations—as senators will recall—is an occasion when Senator Loosley alleged a conflict of interest because I had made a phone call to Allan Kohler. It subsequently emerged that he himself had discussions with two of the witnesses before they gave evidence to the committee.

  That matter was written up in a number of national newspapers. When asked to comment further as a result of those articles, Senator Loosley responded by refusing to take phone calls—in other words, the same silly, childish immaturity, the same sulking approach that he took yesterday and that no doubt he always takes as a deliberate tactic. I should have thought that it was a matter of great concern to this chamber that those allegations were first raised as a result of phone calls received by me and, I believe, several others from deep inside the Fairfax organisation indicating that Senator Loosley had briefed witnesses beforehand.

  I do not know the fact of that matter, but it was certainly put forward that Senator Loosley had done at least the very thing he was accusing others of doing and that that required an explanation. Several of the persons, Mr Cockburn and Mr Hickie, made statements to the newspapers endeavouring to play down the significance of the matter. Then we had Senator Loosley reported in the media as saying:

"I don't believe anything specific was discussed about the inquiry, although it could have come up,"—

  Senator Loosley stressed that the visit was simply to familiarise himself with the Fairfax operation-

On its face that is absolutely unbelievable. To think that someone who has pawed and crawled all over media for the last 15 to 20 years as a factional thug in New South Wales and as the general secretary of the party would suddenly think he needed a familiarisation tour of the plant—

Senator Cook —On a point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President. Senator Alston, who in private life is a lawyer, does know the standing orders quite well. For him to style a member as he just has is against standing orders; it is a reflection on a member of this chamber and he should withdraw those remarks. Those remarks were not made inadvertently but deliberately to slur the reputation of a member of this chamber. Those remarks should be withdrawn.

Senator Alston —On the point of order, Mr Acting Deputy President. I intended quoting from the Canberra Times of 7 June 1992 when a New South Wales Left leader described Senator Loosley as `just a factional thug in the same mould as Senator Richardson but nothing like as smart.' So I am entitled to quote from newspaper articles, and on that basis it is perfectly proper for me to reflect on the way in which Senator Loosley has conducted himself in this matter.

Senator Cook —You might have some smart lawyering way of getting around it, but you directly reflected on a member of this chamber and you know that you aren't able to do that. You shouldn't do so and you should withdraw it. I ask, Mr Acting Deputy President, that you require the withdrawal.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Herron)—I ask you, Senator Alston, to withdraw the word thug as it is unparliamentary.

Senator ALSTON —Mr Acting Deputy President, I withdraw my statement to that effect. I rely on what others have said, particularly people like George Campbell who said he would not sit at the national executive table while Senator Loosley remained president.

  It was a very serious suggestion that Senator Loosley spoke with these witnesses before they gave evidence, not after, which was the context of my phone call to Mr Kohler. Do senators really believe these vague statements about `just happening to bump into Mr Hickie', `they were really talking about the Ros Kelly affair', and Senator Loosley saying he did not believe anything specific was discussed about the inquiry, although it could have come up? Can we really believe that?

  Against that background I should have thought the first thing that Senator Loosley would have wanted to do when this issue was raised by way of a question from Senator Ellison several months back to Senator Gareth Evans, was to get to his feet and explain the full circumstances in which he came to talk to Messrs Hickie and Cockburn; but he did no such thing.

  Senator Loosley did not even have the courage to canvass that issue in the chamber. He has remained silent, other than for what, I would have thought, on their face, were those incredible explanations. I hope that he will come back into the chamber and fully explain these matters.

  This committee has taken evidence from a number of important witnesses. It has been able to proceed to a considerable extent to ascertain matters. We have had a very significant concession from the Treasurer when he finally confirmed the identity of the leaked FIRB minute. That minute would never have seen the light of day if it had not been for this committee and if it had not been initially contained in a submission. Despite all the efforts of the witnesses from Treasury who refused to comment on it as a result of directions from the Treasurer, the fact is that public opinion went so much against the Treasurer on that matter that he ultimately wrote the committee a letter conceding that that was indeed a true copy.

  That, of course, opens up a whole lot of other issues—particularly, how it came to be that the minute contained what others have said are very inaccurate and false statements about the quality of the AIN bid. It is very important, therefore, for the committee to be able to further question public servants about those matters and, particularly, to get to the bottom of why it was that Dr Roberts, the day after FIRB had made its recommendation to the Treasurer on 5 December, should ring Baring Brothers Burrows out of the blue and ask for basic background information.

  Once again, one would have thought that that is demanding of an explanation. It is verging on the incredible to think that Dr Roberts cannot recall the circumstances when Mr Breeze, who was the other party to the conversation and who has put a submission to the committee in considerable detail, has no trouble recalling the circumstances—and spelt them out. In those circumstances, it is absolutely necessary for the committee to have the power, to have an ability, to pursue this defence of public interest immunity to enable people such as Dr Roberts to give evidence unfettered to the committee.

  If they are allowed to do that, we are much better placed to cast ultimate judgments on how it came to be that such a request was made after the event. No explanation was offered to the committee; none suggests itself. Therefore, there are some very important issues at stake.

  To have the likes of Senator Loosley outside the country telling people, no doubt, that this is simply a committee that is going nowhere and is a national disgrace is just typical of the approach that his whole culture has told him is the way to respond to issues. I would have thought that the sooner we had a bit of sensible discussion on the merits of these issues, the better.

Senator Murphy —Are you going to use the last 10 minutes of your time to actually address the motion?

Senator ALSTON —I am sorry that the honourable senator has not been listening. I thought I had done a fair bit of that.

Senator Cook —No, you have not.

Senator ALSTON —Haven't I? Oh, well.

Senator Murphy —You haven't mentioned one aspect of this motion.

Senator ALSTON —Haven't I? Really? I am very sorry about that. I thought I was at pains to indicate why this transparent suggestion of decoupling is nothing more than an attempt to avoid acute political embarrassment and to render the committee ineffective. It is absolutely necessary that the matter be considered by the privileges committee and then reported back so that the committee can take that matter into account.

Senator Murphy —Hooray!

Senator ALSTON —I am sorry; I thought I had elaborated on that. I suppose there are some people who need to have things really underlined. Let there be no doubt in anyone's mind that we understand what those opposite are on about. We understand why the likes of Senator Loosley have taken the approach that he has taken. I simply say that he is the last person in the world who should be taken at face value when he says that the committee has not achieved anything. One has only to recall how he was knocked off as national president when he was cordially detested on all sides; when he took a $100,000 payout when he resigned as general secretary—$80,000 of it for holiday pay—when he had already had frequent overseas trips and, indeed, took one paid for by the radio station that covers for the general secretary.

Senator Cook —What is this about?

Senator ALSTON —I am simply saying that the last person who ought to be believed is someone with that sort of background.

Senator Cook —Why?

Senator ALSTON —Double dipping. After coming into the Senate on 1 July 1990, he continued to receive a salary of about $8,000 for that month.

Senator Cook —How do you know that?

Senator ALSTON —Because my understanding is that he has never denied these matters.

Senator Cook —You are making the allegations.

Senator ALSTON —I will quote the Sydney Morning Herald of 6 June 1992:

Loosley's $99,000 payout fuels ALP row.

If those opposite want to tell me that Senator Loosley sued for defamation and that he is on the record as comprehensively denying all these matters, I would be very interested. The fact is that he has not done so, because six days later the Herald said:

. . . and Loosley's excuse yesterday for receiving two salaries for a month following his move to the Senate that this was a transitional arrangement was completely inadequate.

I do not understand that Senator Loosley has ever denied these matters.

Senator Cook —He doesn't have to deny them.

Senator ALSTON —Precisely. Senator Cook regards these things as all fair game. If someone can double-dip and get away with it, great stuff. I thought the Centre Left had a bit more integrity than the New South Wales Right, but if Senator Cook wants to be in the same bed with them, go for it.

  Senator Loosley is the last person in this country who ought to be taken seriously when it comes to suggestions that this committee has not made considerable progress to date. The fact is that the Treasurer has made a number of very significant concessions. There is a further distance to go, and the best way of achieving that is to have this bill properly scrutinised. I am not saying that it is the ultimate solution, and I think it probably does require further amendments. It certainly requires proper consideration and examination in the context of this committee. Not until we learn what others think about this bill will this committee be in a position to make its final judgment.

  I hope Senator Carr, who does not owe anything to Senator Loosley when it comes to being able to push people around, is able to address those issues, and particularly the question of why it is that the government has not put forward any legal advice to contradict Mr Jackson and others, and why it is that the government has a God-given right simply to ignore the principle of public interest immunity and say that it refuses to cooperate, despite the Parliamentary Privileges Act and despite the powers of the Senate, which were put in place by the Leader of the Government in the Senate. I hope we will hear a bit about the merits of the case.