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Monday, 10 May 1993
Page: 333

Senator ALSTON —My question is directed to the Minister for Transport and Communications. I refer to last Friday's unprecedented decision to relieve a senior public servant, Ms Christine Goode, of her duties in the department when there is nothing on the public record to indicate any wrongdoing and before the departmental inquiry has even started. Why is this decision to take action against Ms Goode before she has had a right of reply not the classic case of a denial of natural justice? What role did the Minister play in the events leading up to her transfer?

Senator COLLINS —The real question in this chamber is, in fact: what role did Senator Alston play? I did see that article in the Australian Financial Review, and it is grossly inaccurate. I have estimated that the Australian Financial Review carried more than 1,500 words on the pay television issue. There are three separate references to a senior departmental officer, Christine Goode, `being forced to stand aside'; two of them are on the front page. In the 1,500 or so words that were devoted to this topic in the paper the following morning, 23 words were missing. Those were the words in the first sentence of the two-paragraph agreement issued by Mr Evans, the secretary to the department, and Ms Goode containing the key words `by mutual agreement'. I intend to have far more to say about this particular issue later on.

  The story and others like it appear to have emanated from a meeting that I had in the lobby outside this chamber with Senator Alston and, thank God, the Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Kernot. I was contacted early that morning by the secretary to my department, who told me that he was to meet Ms Goode later that morning.

Senator Kernot —Rod Kemp was there as well.

Senator COLLINS —Senator Kernot is right. Thank God there was someone else there. I said, `I spoke to Mr Evans and he spoke to me about the meeting he was going to have'. He was concerned about misapprehensions that may arise from anything that arose at that meeting about punitive action or pre-empting inquiries. I said that I would take care of that in the normal manner—the normal manner, I add, that I have used in 16 years in this business and with which I never had the slightest difficulty with Warwick Smith, the former shadow Minister. It will be the last meeting I ever have with Senator Alston.

  At that meeting I told Senator Alston and Senator Kernot that the meeting was to be held, that I had told Mr Evans that that was a matter that had nothing to do with me and that normal Public Service procedures would apply, whatever happened at that meeting. I specifically told Senator Alston and Senator Kernot that if something resulted from this meeting it could in no way be seen to be pre-empting it but it was a situation that obviously Ms Goode and Mr Evans had to discuss.

  Senator Kernot, to the best of my knowledge, respected that confidence. I will tell the Senate what Senator Alston did. Senator Alston went out and got on the telephone. He rang a whole swag of journalists in the press gallery, three of whom rang my office to check the story. Bits of what he told them were printed on the front page of the Australian. Senator Alston told these journalists that I had told him that `heads were rolling in the department' and that there was a political witch-hunt. Without getting into the details of that meeting—Senator Kernot knows perfectly well the sensitivity of the issues that were discussed—nothing I said at that meeting could possibly have been construed in that way at all. I say in hindsight again, thank God there was at least one honest person present at that meeting. The journalists in the press gallery that Senator Alston contacted will know what he said to them and I know what he said to them.

  This was a disgraceful piece of behaviour from Senator Alston, the like of which I have not experienced in 16 years in politics and I have had plenty of meetings. Ms Goode has provided me with a statement as to the real reason—

The PRESIDENT —Order! The Minister's time has expired.

Senator ALSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question.

Senator Cook —Are you going to resign?

Senator ALSTON —I am waiting for a lead on that matter. If it is true that Christine Goode was transferred by mutual agreement, why has the Minister's office been backgrounding the press gallery that she has been stood aside `for health reasons'? If it is good enough for Ms Goode to be stood aside pending an inquiry, why should not the same rules apply to the Minister?

Senator COLLINS —I do not think Senator Alston will have enhanced himself much with Senator Kernot with that explanation. I asked Mr Evans—and I would never have done so otherwise—to provide me with the real explanation as to what happened at that meeting and it has been provided to me. It casts great credit on the integrity of Christine Goode as an officer and no credit whatever on Senator Alston. I table that explanation. The explanation—and it is a statement from Christine Goode—says this:

On 6 May 1993 I elected to stand aside from my duties as Deputy Secretary (Broadcasting). I did so with the agreement of the Secretary of the Department, Mr Graham Evans.

I felt that it would be appropriate to work temporarily on other duties in the Department pending the outcome of an inquiry.

As I said, this casts a great deal of credit on her integrity and none on Senator Alston's.