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Monday, 10 May 1993
Page: 346


Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) —I seek leave to make a personal explanation.

  Leave granted.


Senator Cook —Yes, you would need to.


Senator ALSTON —That is precisely right. When one has been grievously defamed, the least one can do is to put the matter on record. The first proposition I want to deal with is the suggestion by Senator Collins that I had rung a number of journalists and reported to them on the contents of a discussion that I had with him and Senator Kernot. Let me say this: I did not ring one journalist. I certainly did not tell—I was rung by a number of journalists and I will come to that in a moment.


Senator Collins —Ah!


Senator ALSTON —If the Minister does not know the difference between `rung' and `was rung', he has a problem. I did not ring any journalist regarding that meeting. I did not say to any journalist that heads were rolling. However, one journalist asked me whether I had heard that other heads were rolling, and I said, `No, I had not heard that'. I was also asked whether I had heard that Christine Goode was for the high jump. I certainly did not say anything about the reasons that Senator Collins managed to portray in the meeting we had, which I thought was utterly defamatory—and I am pleased to hear that has not yet surfaced. I will not be divulging what he said in that meeting, but suffice it to say that he thought he was within the confessional and he certainly was. I did not say anything of that sort about Christine Goode.

  I also take the strongest exception to the proposition that somehow I withheld a document from a journalist. The document that was made available to the journalist, being a briefing note of 10 November, was one that came from the Department of Transport and Communications headed `commercial-in-confidence'. The Minister has been at great pains to say, `Nothing flash about this; it has been on the court record for weeks. Therefore it is old and ancient history'. That does not stop a journalist from writing that it is a leaked document. I did not tell a journalist that it was a leaked document.


Senator Collins —Have a look at what you said in the Sunday press.


Senator ALSTON —Just listen for a moment, smart alec. This is what the journalist said:

  A confidential leaked memo from the Department of Transport and Communications is set to deepen the crisis . . .


Senator Collins —Ah, I wonder where he got that from?


Senator ALSTON —It is a she, actually. It does not say that I said it was a confidential document.


Senator Collins —Ah!


Senator ALSTON —Is the Minister serious? Does he not know the difference between a journalist writing something and him providing that precise form of words? If I make a document available to a journalist and it is headed `Department of Transport and Communications—commercial-in-confidence', I do not have to tell that journalist how to describe the document. That journalist can describe it in any way he or she wants to.


Senator Collins —This document will spearhead the Opposition's attack.


Senator ALSTON —Did I use the word `spearhead'?


Senator Collins —That is what you said.


Senator ALSTON —I did not say that at all. The article reads:

  The memo will spearhead a broadened attack by the Opposition . . .

That is not evidence that I said it. The Minister really is appalling. If he said this sort of stuff outside the chamber, he would be gone for a million if he was worth two bob. The fact is that I said nothing of the sort.

  It is critically important to understand that the purpose of that document was to demonstrate that, in fact, Senator Collins was well and truly on notice that he would be meeting with Mr Cosser the following night; and that the department was telling him that Mr Cosser had revealed extensive plans to the department on a highly confidential basis. It was therefore open to Senator Collins to pursue the matter and to explore it further with Mr Cosser, if he chose to. But, apparently, not content with signing documents with his eyes closed, the Minister did not even want to know about the latest developments in MDS technology.


Senator Collins —The story said you gave the journalist the document.


Senator ALSTON —Precisely.


Senator Collins —Why didn't you give her the second one?


Senator ALSTON —Why is that the same as saying, `I gave a leaked document from the department'? It is not. The Minister cannot lie straight in bed. Let us come to the next outrageous proposition—the Minister has said it three times now—which was: why did I not give this journalist a second document? The simple reason is: I have never seen that document.


Senator Collins —It is on the public record.


Senator ALSTON —So it might be on the public record.


Senator Collins —I would quit while you are behind, if I were you.


Senator ALSTON —So it might be on the public record; is that in any way suggesting that I had the document, that I withheld the document, and that I chose not to give the document to the journalist? The Minister should have the decency to apologise when he is dead wrong. There is nothing of any description to suggest that I was in possession of that document. I deny on oath that I ever was, that I have ever seen it and that I ever knew anything about it. Yet the Minister is smug to the end, laughing to himself and getting up and consistently saying that I deliberately withheld the document. That is appalling. I cannot understand how the Minster can keep a straight face on the subject, let alone decline to apologise on that proposition.


Senator Collins —You will never be described as a reliable source any more, Senator Alston.


Senator ALSTON —And that is the best the Minister can say, is it?—when I state categorically that I have never seen the document, and therefore could not have made it available to a journalist. Even the Minister ought to be able to understand that three times in this chamber today he has accused me of deliberately withholding the document.


Senator Collins —Have a look at what the first document says.


The PRESIDENT —Order! This is a personal explanation. It is developing into a debate from both sides.


Senator ALSTON —The Minister cannot be that stupid. I have just been misrepresented again, the suggestion being that somehow all is right if you compare one document with the other because then the truth emerges about Senator Collins's position. That is not the basis of my personal explanation.


Senator Collins —Look at what I said in the court statement.


Senator ALSTON —I could not care less what was said in the courts. The Minister's specific allegation—


Senator Collins —Was false.


Senator ALSTON —Listen, smart alec—


The PRESIDENT —Order!


Senator ALSTON —The Minister's allegation is that I withheld a document from the journalist. Does the Minister accept that I did not have that document?


Senator Collins —Yes.


Senator ALSTON —Does he accept that I, therefore, could not have given it to the journalist?


Senator Collins —Yes.


Senator ALSTON —Well, why did the Minister say on three occasions that I deliberately withheld it? Will the Minister apologise?


Senator Collins —No.


Senator ALSTON —I rest my case.