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Tuesday, 6 June 1995
Page: 1260

Mr TICKNER (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs) (4.27 p.m.) —All over Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are quivering in their boots at the prospect that the member for Hindmarsh (Mrs Gallus) might one day assume the office of Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. The fact is that on every single occasion that the coalition has a choice between defending the heritage values of indigenous Australians and supporting other interests—whether they be developers or someone else—the coalition supports the bulldozer above the rights of indigenous people. We have seen a tawdry track record from the coalition in dealing with this Hindmarsh Island bridge issue within the parliament and outside the parliament. In the course of my remarks, I am going to say something about the opposition's conduct in dealing with that issue.

  First of all, let me put on the public record that my actions in this matter, in issuing the declaration to protect the area from desecration, have been supported by no lesser authority than the Commonwealth parliament. Both houses of the Commonwealth parliament have endorsed my actions and have refused to support the disallowance motion moved and supported by the coalition in both houses. I can say to indigenous people that, when I speak, I speak with the support of the parliament. They ought not to think that because the coalition in this place refuses to stand up for their interests the rest of us do not care about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and are not prepared to speak out and stand up for what is right.

  I want to pose a challenge to any member of this House, any member of the press gallery or any member of the public to read the judgment of Justice O'Loughlin in relation to the heritage declaration and, as appropriate, read the transcript of the court case that gave rise to the judgment. I want to say that, almost without exception, every single issue that has been canvassed extensively by really only two major media outlets—the Adelaide Advertiser and Network Ten—and by a few columnists like Piers Ackerman, was received, considered and rejected by Justice O'Loughlin.

  I will give you five or six examples of the slurs that have been issued against me and against indigenous people in this matter and the way they were independently considered by the court and rejected. I stand here on the floor of the parliament with the support of the parliament having gone through a judicial inquiry. I have been there. My actions have been before the court, scrutinised to the most minute detail and I have walked through that process and emerged with my integrity intact and my actions in respect of the matters challenged by the coalition vindicated by no less an authority than the Federal Court of Australia.

  I will take members through some issues. One issue that has been raised in the media is that I issued a declaration for a different period than that recommended in advice to me. Yes, this is true, but this is also a matter that has been considered by the Federal Court of Australia. Mr Justice O'Loughlin made it clear that the decision maker in this matter was not some bureaucrat and not some staff member but me as the relevant federal minister. It was my decision. How did I issue a declaration different to some of the advice put to me by some of the bureaucrats? I had regard to the Saunders report. If you look at the Saunders report, you will see that she did not support a declaration for a limited period.

  For days on end we have had this slur against former members of my staff—people who are not in a position to defend themselves and who have gone on to other careers—that somehow or other they mutilated documents to destroy evidence. That was raised in front of Mr Justice O'Loughlin. Every word and every minute detail on the timing and date on which faxes were sent and how documents were dealt with was raised in front of Mr Justice O'Loughlin. Every single scrap of evidence that has been hurled publicly by some of the columnists in the Adelaide Advertiser and by some of those on Network Ten has been raised in the Federal Court. What did Mr Justice O'Loughlin decide? He decided that I had not prejudged the matter. He decided that that evidence was not to be supported.

  It has been alleged in the course of public debate on this issue and supported by the coalition that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in some way provided improper advice to the applicants in this matter. Mr Justice O'Loughlin considered that too. As the member for Barker (Mr McLachlan) ought to know and certainly the member for Hindmarsh ought to know, he rejected any impropriety on the part of ATSIC.

  It has been said consistently that I prejudged this matter. All this nonsense that I somehow predetermined the matter was argued like Blue Hills in the Federal Court. It went on for hours and hours. Members of my staff were cross-examined. What did the judge say? The judge said that I had behaved properly in this matter. It was alleged in no lesser an authority than the Adelaide Advertiser, I think on Saturday, that the fact that I had caused the preparation of a draft declaration was somehow prejudging the matter.

  Mr Justice O'Loughlin considered this and he said that I had behaved prudently. He made it clear that I was working to a tight time frame. If the South Australian Premier had said to me, `Look Robert, we will have a cooling off period. We will call off the threat,' then things might have been a bit different. But that was not what it was about. My best recollection of what the judge said in relation to this matter was that it would be a dereliction of my duty if I did not act in such a way as to ensure that there was no gap between the expiry of a section 9 declaration and the issue of a section 10 declaration. He said that I used a prudent course of action in ensuring the preparation of a draft declaration.

  The Adelaide Advertiser knew all that. If Colin James, who I understand has won a Walkley award for his efforts, keeps going the way he is going he should send back the award. This guy knew when he wrote the story that the court had expressly considered this matter, yet the Adelaide Advertiser put this on the front page of its paper.

  Another accusation has been made by journalist Geoff Easdowne who most of the time wrote all of his stories without even bothering to talk to my office. If I recall the article appropriately, he said that somehow or other I had ignored legal advice with respect to compensation. I have done nothing of the sort. Read what Justice O'Loughlin said about my actions in this matter. He said that I was a prudent minister and that I cared about the taxpayers. Read what a judge of the Federal Court of Australia said.

  There are some other matters I wish to raise in the course of this debate, but one thing that I would like to say is: is it not extraordinary that whenever there is an opportunity for the coalition to exploit a political issue then respect for the independence of the judiciary and the judicial process go out the window? You are supposed to be the upholders of the traditional views in this country. You are supposed to be the upholders of standards of propriety and ethics.

  We are talking about a case that is still before the Federal Court of Australia. What we have seen from what I have already said is a conspiracy between a number of key members of the Liberal Party and, I believe, the solicitors for the Chapmans. Some members of the media have either been conned into being a part of this or have been unwittingly used as stooges in this. What they have done through a series of newspaper stories is re-run the arguments expressly rejected by the Federal Court of Australia.

  I will say some things when I am ready about the nature of conduct that has gone on behind the scenes and the way this has been run. I happen to believe that the member for Mayo (Mr Downer), despite the fact that we have disagreed on some things, is, in a number of respects, an honourable man. I ask him to read the judgment of the Federal Court and look at the evidence.

  I saw what the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) said when asked about the conduct of the member for Barker. A journalist said to him, `If you got someone's private documents, you would deal with them the same way, wouldn't you?' The Prime Minister said no. Of course he would not. I would not either. Do you think that if we happened to be in opposition I would do what you have done in respect of these assertions and re-run this court case?

Mr Cobb —Daryl Melham did.

Mr TICKNER —That is an entirely different story. I will tell you the difference. Firstly, the document in question was a single page and this was eight kilograms of documents. Secondly, the document in question did not relate to a current court case. Thirdly, it was a highly political document. There are a number of other key distinguishing factors. This was a case of misdirected, highly confidential, private mail that contained legal documents.

  Let us judge the difference between the standards of the shadow Attorney-General, whom we do not always agree with, and the member for Barker. One thing that the member for Barker can be sure of is that when you are down and you are troubled, as the song says, you have got a friend. Your friend is the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard). No matter what you do and what you have done in respect of this matter—

  Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The minister will address his remarks through the chair.

Mr TICKNER —Of course. The Leader of the Opposition has nailed his colours to the mast in respect of this matter. The colours that he has nailed to the mast are not those of the shadow Attorney-General; they are those of the member for Barker. He has put in writing, despite all his atrocities, that his respect for the member for Barker remains undiminished.

  In the limited time available to me I want to turn to some more general matters raised by the widely drafted matter of public importance, but which have not been addressed in the course of the remarks made by the shadow minister. She has been critical of my administration of the federal legislation—not the Hindmarsh Island bridge issue but generally. I want to say something to this House about the approach that I bring to bear in dealing with that legislation.

  I am deeply conscious of the responsibilities that I have, as the federal minister, in dealing with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Heritage Protection Act. I have incredibly onerous responsibilities and they weigh heavily on my shoulders now as they always have done in my time in this office. I do have to balance competing interests, but I am also guided by courts in how I administer the act. In the case of Bropho and Tickner there is very clear guidance to me about key aspects of how I administer the act.

  While I have been administering this legislation, I have always tried to bring about mediated or negotiated arrangements to settle matters. I particularly refer to the Broome crocodile farm; the Strehlow collection; and my efforts—even in the face of all the warnings from the member for the Northern Territory (Mr Snowdon), who told me it was literally an impossible task—to work with the Northern Territory government to resolve the Northern Territory-Alice Springs dam issue. In all those matters, I tried to operate in a way to bring people together.

  I ask the people who might read the Hansard to consider the way I have administered the act. Have I appointed some lackeys, some people who are best friends or close allies of the Labor Party, in calling for reports as I am obliged to do under the legislation? I appointed Fred Chaney for goodness sake. I appointed a former judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Hal Wootten. I would have thought that Professor Cheryl Saunders was a very eminent Australian for whom we would all have regard.

Mr Downer —Is she married to a Labor minister?

Mr TICKNER —If you do not believe me about the independence, competency and integrity of Professor Saunders, read the judgment of Justice O'Loughlin because he praises her independence and integrity. That is the general philosophy I have sought to bear in respect of the administration of the act.

  Let me conclude on this note. Here we stand in the run-down to a federal election. What area of public policy is significant for the coalition to address among key issues of public policy as we go to the election? It would have to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, which led to the member for Mayo perishing as the Leader of the Opposition. But it is eight months since the member for Hindmarsh promised the public that she would come forward with a policy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. It has been eight months since the former policy sank in the deserts of central Australia. Eight months later, we have not heard one word of policy. We do not even know whether those opposite would support the continued existence of the federal legislation.

  I hope this debate will close this matter. If it does not close this matter, if you want to keep coming at me, I can assure you I will keep coming back at you with the truth as I have at all times. (Time expired)