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Thursday, 1 June 1972
Page: 2472

Senator WRIGHT (Tasmania) (Minister for Works) - in reply - This is a small Bill which is designed to amend the Public Works Committee Act to provide for an increase in the standing appropriation in that Act to cover the expanding expenses of the Public Works Committee. I take the occasion to say how much I, as Minister for Works, appreciate the reliability and expedition with which the Public Works Committee performs its function. I believe that it has a most important practical job to do. Its examination of the major works projects in the Government's programme is of great assistance to the Government. In the 4 years I have been Minister for Works the relationship between the Public Works Committee and the Minister has been most cordial. On any matter on which I think the Committee would wish to express a view, I consult with it.

But I am bound to say that I think that the whole of the reference made today is completely misconceived. I believe that there is not the slightest basis for any complaint wilh regard to what has been done in this respect. Let me lay the foundation of fact with regard to this matter. The project was to be sited on Garden Island, Western Australia. It was a project for a naval base. Garden Island consists of 2,900-odd acres. One of the questions incidental to the Committee's inquiry was as to how much of that area could remain, notwithstanding the establishment of the naval base, available for access by the public. As Senator Poyser has suggested, in its submission the Department of the Navy commenced by proposing a small area. During the public hearings, the Department of the Navy assented to a view that that area could be increased to 1,250 acres. Then the Department of the Navy, following discussions - I think quite rightly - took into consideration whether that area could be extended. If the Naval Board decided that the area could be extended, there was nothing to preclude any proper agency of the Government announcing to the public a decision of the Government in that respect. It would still remain open for the Committee to require evidence on the subject and to express the view that that area was either too much or too little. There is nothing whatever which prevents the Government from making decisions as to the cost or nature of the project or the area that the establishment will occupy. The fact that the public has the right to be given this information by the Government is written quite plainly into the provisions of the Public Works Committee Act. The mere fact that a witness gives evidence subsequently of a Government decision does not mean that the Government decision is the exclusive property of the Committee. Section 23 (1.) of the Act provides:

Subject to this section, the Committee shall take all evidence in public.

That acknowledges the right of the public as well as of the Committee to have access to all of the evidence given to the Committee. The only limitation upon this is contained in sub-section (2.) which reads:

Where, in the opinion of the Committee, any evidence which is proposed to be given before, or the whole or part of a document produced or proposed to be produced in evidence to, the Committee relates to a secret or confidential matter, the Committee may, and at the request-

Not of the Chairman of the Committee - of the witness giving the evidence . . . shall - take the evidence in private;

In Perth all the evidence relating to the Garden Island project, as to the area which the public should be permitted to have access to, was taken in public, and quite properly so. The Government exposed itself before the Committee to criticism on a matter which the public had a most understandable right to know about. The Committee concluded its hearings in Perth, during which all the evidence was taken in public, and the Navy a few days later through its Secretary wrote a letter to the Committee advising that the Navy had agreed to extend the area. Who could claim that any Committee could ever form a reasonable opinion that that was a secret or a confidential matter? If the Secretary of the Navy had put in his letter - which he did not - the words 'I want you to treat this evidence as being evidence in private' or 'this is a secret or a confidential matter' I could understand the Committee exploding at the very thought that the public was being denied knowledge of a fact in which it had a very earnest interest. So the mistake in this matter was made by the Committee. It had no authority under the Act to receive that letter in private. Even if it did, having regard to the public discussion on previous evidence on this subject, it would have been wrong to exercise any authority if it had decided to receive it in private. Whether or not it should have been received in private, we know from the remarks of the Chairman of the Committee, as recorded in the Hansard of the House of Representatives, that the Committee never discussed this, and quite properly refrained from so doing. I would think that the Committee would assume that any evidence on extend ing the area should be given in public as was the evidence that had been given when more limited areas were being discussed.

Section 23 of the Act makes it clear that all evidence on these matters, except matters of a secret or a confidential nature, are to be given in public. The section goes on to provide for the situation in which a witness may request evidence to be given in private. Sub-section (5.) of section 23 states:

Where evidence is taken by the Committee in private or otherwise than at the request of a witness-

And that was the case in this instance because there was no request from the witness - a person . . shall not, without the authority of the Committee under the next succeeding subsection, disclose the evidence to the public.

But the overriding provision in that regard is that there is nothing in this section which prohibits the disclosure or publication of evidence that has already been lawfully published. This emphasises the contention I make that if the Government today decides that the area shall be 1,800 acres it has a right and a duty to publish that information to the public. The Act contains an express provision which states:

Nothing in this section prohibits -

(b)   the disclosure or publication of evidence that has already been lawfully published; or

(c)   the disclosure or publication by a person of a matter of which he has become aware otherwise than by reason, directly or indirectly, of the giving of evidence before the Committee.

The Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) became aware of this decision when the Naval Board, through the Minister for the Navy (Dr Mackay), communicated the decision to him. He did not become aware of it by reason of his having any knowledge of evidence that was given to the Committee. He had knowledge of it as an independent, positive decision of the Government. I slate this with some degree of definiteness because, in pursuance of that cordiality which is entering into the relationship between the Minister and the Committee, I want to be quite candid and frank. I want to put on the line and on the record the interpretation that I have of the situation, namely, that the overriding consideration with regard to this Committee is that all matters, except those that are in their nature secret and confidential, shall be given in evidence in public. The Committee has no right to take any evidence which is not confidential in character otherwise than in public.

The other sections of the Act which I have mentioned make it abundantly clear that if a witness discloses information to the public before he gives evidence before the Committee he commits no offence. If the information has been lawfully published before he goes before the Committee there is an express provision in the Act which says that the disclosure of that information is not a contravention of the section, and this is made quite clear by the other section which states that the disclosure by a person of a matter of which he has become aware, other than by reason of being privy to the evidence, is not prohibited. That is the difference between the Prime Minister's publication of this fact with which we are concerned here and the situation put by Senator Poyser. We would all deprecate the situation where a member of the Committee, or an officer, or a witness who heard the evidence and became aware of a fact that was treated by the Committee as secret and confidential - in other words, he became privy to that confidentiality or secrecy - then retailed it to his political party, to the Minister or to somebody who could take some advantage of it. We would deprecate that situation most strongly. But that is not the situation in this case. This type of case is expressly preserved and provided for in the sections that I have mentioned. I ask the Senate to have that position established and to accept the increased appropriation for which the Bill provides to enable this Committee to continue the sterling work that it does.

The only other point on which I wish to comment is Senator Cant's reference to the increasing burden being placed on the Committee. 1 have never understood the Committee to complain of that and 1 do not understand any honourable senator here today to complain of it. 1 listened to Senator Poyser's reference to this matter and I can assure him that I am available for consultations with the Committee on any suggestion that may be made for duplicating the Committee or limiting the number of matters that are required by law to go before the Committee. I shall facilitate any suggestions which will enable honourable senators and honourable members to discharge this important duty - a duty which, when discharged, is so helpful to the Government - by making to the Government any recommendations which are really practicable and wise. 1 trust that in this respect we can provide the extra $10,000 to cover the Committee's expenses from year to year as the Bill provides.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time, and reported from Committee without amendment or debate.

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