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Thursday, 1 June 1972
Page: 2468

Senator POYSER (Victoria) - This Bill is designed to amend section 36 of the Public Works Committee Act 1969 for the purpose of adding an additional $10,000 to the appropriation of this Committee so that it can properly carry out its functions. The Opposition has no intention of opposing this measure. As everybody knows, the Public Works Committee performs the extremely valuable task of examining those Commonwealth works costing in excess of S0.75m that are to be carried out by the Department of Works at the behest of other Commonwealth departments.

It is interesting to note that in the 1960s only 3 or 4 references were made to this Committee annually. The average in recent years has been about 22 references a year. An examination I have made of the programme before the Committee indicates that the number of references this year will be well above the latter figure. The references that are before the Committee at present and that are likely to be before the Committee by the end of the current calendar year are such that it is quite obvious that there should be an increase in the standing appropriation in the Public Works Committee Act for expenses from $20,000 to $30,000. It is important that the Committee be able to examine adequately and properly the work that it has before it. That often entails not only meeting in the national capital but also travelling from State to State and place to place to examine projects and hear evidence in public from persons who support or oppose certain projects or want them altered. For that reason, the Opposition does not oppose this measure.

But 1 do find it necessary - I shall be as brief as possible - to raise some matters associated with the work of the Committee in relation to an examination it made of the proposed naval base, HMAS 'Stirling', on Garden Island in Western Australia. The Committee as would be known because its report on this project has been tabled in the Senate, visited Western Australia and took evidence for 4 days in Perth on what turned out to be one of the most interesting references it has had for some time. The public interest in this reference was substantial. The vast majority of the evidence heard by the Committee came from members of the public who desired to have access to Garden Island for the purpose of boating and other forms of recreation. lt appeared prior to that public hearing that the Department of the Navy desired the whole of Garden Island to be closed to public access at all levels. In early evidence the Committee was able to obtain an indication from the Department of the Navy and the Department of Works that some 350 acres would be made available to the people of Perth for public access and recreational purposes. Following evidence from many interested organisations and individuals that spanned a period of 4 days, including 3 night sessions - the Committee sat for many hours in relation to this matter - the Navy finally indicated at that public hearings - I stress the word public' hearing - that it would approve of public access to 1,250 acres of this very lovely and unusual island. Some members of the Committee indicated that they would have preferred to see a larger area made available, but I felt that we had probably gained as much as we could hope to get from the Navy in this regard.

The Committee returned to Canberra for the purpose of hearing additional evidence from another organisation and of finalising its report. That to my mind seemed to be the final offer from the Navy. But on 18th April the Committee received further correspondence from the Department of the Navy indicating that it would be possible - I must emphasise that this matter was still the subject of consideration by the Committee - for an area of up to 1,800 acres to be made available to the public of Western Australia. This, as 1 indicated earlier, was a top public issue in Western Australia, so much so that many people became interested in giving evidence to the Committee. We, as a committee, were considering all the submissions that had been put before us in an endeavour to ascertain what we believed it would be possible to recommend in our report as an area for public service, and also taking into consideration the needs and the security of the Department of the Navy and the safety of persons who may desire to use the island, because associated with this programme was the establishment of an armaments depot for the storage of very high explosive war weapons.

While this matter was under consideration we found that the information contained in the letter, which was in our hands and which was dealt with by the Committee sitting in private, was the subject of a Press release by the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr McMahon, on 5th May last in Perth. So important was this Press release that it was the top front page story in the 'West Australian' of that date. It indicated that the information our Committee had received by letter from the Department of the Navy was the decision of the Government. The decision had been made before our report had been submitted to this Parliament; indeed, the matter was under active consideration. It was a matter of beating the gun. This caused great concern to the Committee, so much so that it was discussed by the Committee. I do not propose to go into details of those discussions other than I think it is fairly accurate to state that the Committee was concerned that such a matter should be the subject of a Press release and could embarrass the Committee in making its final decision. Because of the time factor I do not propose to quote from the official report, but I shall read from the official text of the statement made by the Prime Minister. In answer to a question in relation to this matter the Prime Minister said:

We had the Commonwealth Public Works Committee examining the problem, and they will shortly be submitting a report to us. And 1 also got the Minister for the Navy . . . and we have decided in the last few days, without actually moving to a final decision, to increase the size of the coastline that could be used, from 7 to 10 miles out of the total 14 miles. And we've also decided -

I emphasise those words - to increase the acreage that could bc used by civilians under the control of the Navy from 1,250 acres to 1,800 acres.

The Committee was then in the position that if it had decided to make a different recommendation in relation to this matter it would have been seriously embarrassed by the pre-empting of our report by the utterances of the Prime Minister. I take the point that if a letter that conies before the Committee in private, as this letter did, had been released by me to the Leader of my Party in order to jump the gun for political purposes in Western Australia, I would have been in serious breach of the Public Works Committee Act, and action under the Act could well have been taken against me.

I emphasise at this stage that the Public Works Committee is a committee which works extremely well outside the political field; it works in the interests of formulating recommendations and getting answers on matters it must investigate. The question of scoring political points off each other has never occurred, to my knowledge. It certainly has not reared its head at any level during the period of time that I have been a member of the Committee, and I hope it remains that way because the issues that we are examining are extremely important to this nation. The big works programmes that are to be carried out are extremely important to the development of the Northern Territory, in particular, and, to a lesser extent, to the Territory of Papua New Guinea.

I now turn to what happened following the reference to this matter in another place by the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Les Johnson). A question was asked of the Minister for the Navy (Dr Mackay) by Mr Hamer on 25th May 1972. In his reply the Minister stated:

This decision was conveyed immediately to the Public Works Committee which, it so happens, without our knowledge was then sitting in private. The information was expected and anticipated by the Public Works Committee, as indicated in its report which is before the House.

By no stretch of the imagination was this report or this letter anticipated or expected. As I said earlier in my remarks, it is true that as a Committee we indicated to the Department of the Navy that we would like to see further areas made available but, as a member of the Committee, I neither expected nor anticipated any further submissions from the Department of the Navy regarding this matter. Time will not permit me to develop my argument as I would like, but the Minister indicated in his answer that the information given was information which the public had a perfect right to know. I state, quite clearly and emphatically, that if this is the position with correspondence that goes to a committee which has to report to this Parliament and a committee member is free to give that information to his leader to enable him to go to a State and get political capital from it, as was obtained on this occasion, the whole system of committee confidence will break down completely. A precedent not only was established but also was condoned by the Minister for the Navy in his reply.

Senator McLaren - The same thing happened last week.

Senator POYSER - That is another matter which the honourable senator may refer to in the time at his disposal.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Prowse) - Order! I have allowed the honourable senator to continue speaking without intervening, but the Bill has a limited purpose and the matter which the honourable senator has traversed is not related to the subject matter of the Bill. I trust that he will not pursue it further.

Senator POYSER - I thought that as this Bill amended the appropriation for the Committee some reference to the work of the Committee and the reasons why additional money was necessary would be justified. However I do not desire to pursue this any further other than to put the record straight and to indicate my concern that a precedent can be established in this manner whereby members of a committee will be able to pre-release information or use it themselves for their own political gain.

I hope that what happened on this occasion, if it was an accident, will not occur again. 1 certainly do not appreciate the Minister for the Navy condoning it in the manner in which he has done. Although it could have been completely accidental I have a suspicious mind and have been in politics a long time and I can see the advantage that there was to the Prime Minister in being able to make this public announcement in the manner in which he did. I would like to have made further references to the statement made by the Minister for the Navy last night in relation to the comments made by the honourable member for Hughes in another place, but I bow to your previous ruling in relation to this matter as it may conflict with the Bill before us. I leave the matter at that but indicate that 1 will take the opportunity at a future date to refer to this matter. I believe that the work of the Public Works Committee, because of the heavy programme before it, is such that we may have to re-examine the situation in relation to the sittings of the Committee.

Perhaps we will have to investigate the appointment of a second Public Works Committee so that the work to be placed before the Public Works Committee can be thoroughly processed. The programme of the Committee is such that it will be necessary for it to sit through the recess - of course, that is natural for any committee - but it would also appear that the Committee will be sitting on each Monday and Friday of the spring parliamentary session, and almost every week during the recess. That is a very heavy programme. Very important works will be under examination. The Committee will be travelling many thousands of miles around Australia, and in this recess into Papua New Guinea. The Minister could profitably examine whether this is an extraordinary work load or whether the pattern is likely to continue at its present high level. If it is likely to continue a second joint Public Works Committee could well be established to examine properly all the major works to be carried out by the Commonwealth in the future. We do not oppose the Bill and we wish it a speedy passage.

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