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Thursday, 12 May 1994
Page: 735

Senator SANDY MACDONALD (11.25 a.m.) —I am in complete support of Senator Kernot's motion. I say that to meet the test of relevancy that those opposite are requiring us to accede to. We have had the bluff and bluster and sanctimoniousness of Senator Loosley and, to a certain extent, Senator Carr. He talks about what is proper, right and appropriate for Senate committees, but I say to honourable senators that when the revolution comes Senator Carr will be lining most of us up.

  I congratulate Senator Murphy both for his contribution today and for his reasonableness and, furthermore, for his reasonableness in the committee. He has attained a level of performance in the committee which would lead the electors of Tasmania to believe that their contribution—their dollars and cents—would probably be better spent than those of the electors of New South Wales who put Senator Loosley here.

  The matters we are discussing today are really quite straightforward. The issue of public interest immunity is not simple; clearly, there are matters which this or any other government cannot have carried out in the full light of day. From the print media committee's perspective, on the one side are the arguments of the Senate's right to information and the public interest in knowing the basis of a crucial decision affecting a key section of our media. On the other side, there is the matter of how the Foreign Investment Review Board operates and works, and a wider fundamental question of the confidentiality of official advice to this government.

  The advice received by the Senate committee from Mr Jackson QC, as we heard, is simply that public interest immunity cannot be claimed per se. That it exists in principle is not doubted by me, but in its operation it has become highly political and will always continue to be so. The Senate's power to force public servants to produce documents and answer questions is without doubt, and parliamentary privilege legislation enforces this right through sanctions.

Senator McGauran —Senator Evans's legislation.

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —Exactly. The exercise of these sanctions would be highly political and inappropriate on almost all occasions. It is the inappropriateness of the Senate in this political atmosphere fining and imprisoning public servants that would be prevented now by Senator Kernot's proposal. Let me make one thing clear: the Senate has the right to get the information that it wants. Whether the privilege is appropriate is another question. The Senate has this rightful power against the executive and it is a power provided to us under the constitution.

  Senator Kernot's motion provides the compromise. I should add that the government has been very critical of the cost of this committee. We now have the chance and the time to get a long-term benefit out of the continuing problem of executive privilege claimed on this occasion—and certainly it will be claimed again in the future. I know that the government sees the value of that because I know that it is aware of the problem that is faced.

  Senator Loosley's contribution throughout this whole committee, both in its private and public hearings and what he said in the Senate, has not been very constructive. I follow up what Senator Alston said when he cited an article written by Stephen Loosley—not Senator Stephen Loosley—in the Sunday Telegraph on 1 May 1994. He said:

  While the committee itself has become virtually a national embarrassment . . . The emerging abject failure of the committee has more to do with malice than poor chairmanship and vague ideas about political interference in media coverage.

It seems that Senator Loosley is implying that this print media committee is not complying with its duty. It is an article which brings the committee into disrepute and shows contempt for the Senate itself. I think he is mistaken and he is ignorant, and if he is neither mistaken nor ignorant, he is deliberately dishonest.

Senator McGauran —All three.

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —Yes. His performance on the committee as the senior government member has been churlish and completely lacking in judgment. He talks a lot about how the committee has operated and he has criticised its chairmanship by Senator Alston, yet half the time Senator Loosley has not been in attendance.

Senator Murphy —Relevance, Sandy.

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —I will be very relevant at the end now, because if it is true that Senator Richardson blocked Senator Loosley's ministerial appointment, I can understand why after his performance on this committee.