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Friday, 29 May 1987
Page: 3654

Mr TIM FISCHER(4.15) —I have obtained material under the Freedom of Information Act that relates to the controversial decision to proceed with the ceremony for the proclamation of the Veterans' Entitlements Act at the Australian War Memorial on 22 May 1986. On that very day I raised a question without notice expressing concern over the use of the Memorial for this function. It emerged in the report of the inquiry into the Australian War Memorial, and I quote:

In the circumstances, the conclusions by the Director and his staff that the function was being held at the Memorial as a result of ministerial direction does not seem unreasonable.

In fact, there was a minute from Miss Cynthia Martin, a senior staff member of the Minister's office, detailed in the report which said, and I quote:


that is the Minister-

would like a ceremony arranged at the War Memorial.

In considering the freedom of information material which has now become available, we must first examine what the Minister said in the Senate. On 29 May 1986 the Department then made a decision that a suitable place for the proclamation ceremony would be the Australian War Memorial. On 14 November 1986, the Minister said:

Never at any time did I direct the Australian War Memorial to perform a function or to make its premises available for the function. It was a decision of the Department to hold the function. It was the decision of the Department that it should be held at the Australian War Memorial. It was then the responsibility of the Department . . . Never at any stage was it a ministerial direction.

Finally, on 18 November 1986, Senator Gietzelt said:

I know of no occasion when any recommendation was made to me that the ceremony could not be held at the Australian War Memorial.

Now, these statements sit very unhappily with vital FOI material, which I obtained for the price of $225.20 of my own money in order to get to the bottom of this matter.

At folio 17, there is a memo from Mr J. Bright to Cynthia Martin, which details a number of venues which could be utilised for such a ceremony. I explain that Mr John Bright is the Public Relations and Publicity Officer of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and Miss Cynthia Martin is a senior staff member in the Minister's office. Folio 17 mentions possible venues as being the Australian War Memorial, Parliament House, the RSL National Headquarters, Anzac House in Civic, General Morshead War Veterans' Home or the Department of Veterans' Affairs regional office. This is a formal record of alternative venues being made available by the Department to the Minister's office.

At folio 19 there is a note to the Deputy Secretary to the Department of Veterans' Affairs, again from Mr John Bright, which says in part:

On Friday, 2 May, I telephoned the Australian War Memorial to discuss the possibility of using some part of it for the ceremony on 22 May. When I arrived, the Director, Air Vice Marshall Flemming, asked to see me about the background to the ceremony and to offer his views.

He pointed out that, to date, the memorial had only ever been used for purposes directly related to its activities and he was concerned that the Australian War Memorial could be criticised for being the venue of a political statement. He asked that it be made quite clear that it was the choice of the Minister and that the VEA announcement was to highlight benefits to veterans and their dependants. He asked me to pass his thoughts to the Minister, which I did through a meeting with Cynthia Martin later in the day.

These extracts from folio 19 are crucial, as they indicate that on Friday, 2 May, the Director of the War Memorial, Jim Flemming, had informed the Public Relations and Publicity Officer, Mr John Bright, that he objected to the use of the Memorial for the reasons mentioned in folio 19.

As a consequence of this FOI material, we now know that this objection was conveyed direct to a senior staff member in the Minister's office, and it would be stretching the imagination beyond the bounds of credibility to assume that the senior staff member did not, in her normal, efficient and effective way, place that recorded objection before the Minister and discuss, if only briefly, alternative venues. It is clear that the Minister had a distinct and determined preference for using the War Memorial against advice from the Memorial conveyed through the Department. In these circumstances, it would be very unusual in the extreme for the function to proceed at the proposed venue of the War Memorial over objections from the Memorial, but it did because it was the Minister's direction. This aspect finally led to a formal letter dated 9 May from Mr John Bright to the Director, which says, and I quote from folio 49:

The Minister has now confirmed that he wishes to proceed with the ceremony at that location on Thursday, 22 May at 2.30 p.m.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. If he maintains his position that he had nothing to do with the choice of venue and was not aware of objections and alternative venues then he is accusing a senior officer of his Department, the Director of Public Relations and Publicity, Mr John Bright, of writing a letter on 9 May containing an absolute falsehood. What is more significant is folio 37, which says:

Cynthia Martin confirmed this morning that the Minister has agreed to the arrangements set out in my Minute of 6 May.

It is clear that Mr John Bright was completely correct in drafting and signing a formal letter to the Memorial on 9 May stating:

The Minister has now confirmed that he wishes to proceed with the ceremony at that location, i.e. the Australian War Memorial.

This is particularly so as the recorded minute indicated the basis for the issue of that letter. The Minister must respond in the Senate and I invite him to do so before the dissolution of the Parliament. Clearly, a prima facie case must be addressed about the comments made by the Minister in the Senate on the one hand which sit very unhappily with the FOI material worth $225.20, which indicated, finally, on a crucial minute dated 22 April:

The Minister has requested a major launch of the Veterans' Entitlements Bill to coincide with the proclamation on 8 May. He would like a ceremony arranged at the War Memorial.

My case rests. This is another example of a classic Yes Minister situation, and I regret that the Minister has gone down this particular path.