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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 724

Senator COONEY (4.05 p.m.) —Some excellent speeches have been given today, beginning with Senator Alston who made his case quite clear.

Senator Collins —It was not clear to me.

Senator COONEY —I thought Senator Alston did make it clear; he did not beat around the bush. He said there were two issues that he wanted to put to the Minister for Transport and Communications (Senator Collins). He said that one was enough for `hanging purposes'. As far as the Opposition is concerned, this debate is all about whether or not it can get material on which to hang Senator Collins. That is a fair exercise of what happens in this chamber.

  Senator Bourne took a different position. She said, `Let's see what we can do to get the process on track. Let's see what we can do to get pay television to the people. Let's see if we can improve the department if it needs improvement'. I would have thought that all of those things were very positive. I must confess that I was very impressed by what Senator Bourne said, because she was about trying to improve a situation which nobody denies has gone off the rails to some extent.

  I have listened to the Minister answer questions in this chamber for two weeks and, as I understand it, that has always been his position. He said, `All right. In so far as a mistake has been made, let us see if we can get it back on track. I am not happy about it and nor is the department. Let's see what we can do'. However, going by the debate so far the Opposition is not interested in that. It is interested to see whether it can get enough evidence to hang a Minister.

  I suppose it is good blood sport to hang a Minister from time to time. Other people might be more concerned about whether we can get rid of unemployment in Australia. They might be interested to find out whether social security is properly dealt with, or whether the defence forces are properly attended to. They might be interested to ensure that proper health facilities or proper education are provided in Australia. But that is not the case.

  Senator Alston, who is Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and who is leading the Opposition's thrust against Senator Collins in this matter, says that their purpose is to get evidence for hanging purposes. That is what this debate is all about. I wonder why that is the case. I suppose it makes sense if the Opposition wants to embarrass someone who, like everybody else in this world, does not act perfectly at all times. The standard set by the Opposition in this matter is a bit beyond reality.

Senator Loosley —Ridiculous.

Senator COONEY —Ridiculous, and I thank Senator Loosley. That is the Opposition's purpose and it is well set out in today's Australian Financial Review which had this to say:

The latest pay-TV bungle will give the Opposition fresh ammunition with which to pursue Senator Collins during Question Time in Parliament today.

Not that any party—or anybody—would ever background journalists; nor do I at any stage accuse anybody in the Opposition of backgrounding the Australian Financial Review. But if it were done, it would be consistent with that statement. The Canberra Times also pursues the same line. It says:

The Opposition immediately blamed the Minister for Transport and Communications, Bob Collins, and said he should stand down while the Senate held an inquiry.

That is absolutely accurate. The word `immediately' is used. There was no thought about this; there was no analysis of the evidence. It was immediately the situation that the Opposition called immediately for the standing down of Senator Collins. As soon as the news of the latest problems arose, that was the reaction. So this debate—let us put it fairly and squarely, as Senator Alston has fairly and squarely put it—is about getting evidence to hang Senator Collins.

Senator Loosley —There is no evidence.

Senator COONEY —There is no evidence; that is very true. There is absolutely no allegation of dishonesty on the part of the Minister, no allegation of personal gain making on his part and no allegation of bad character generally. The allegation is that there has been, to use a phrase, a muck-up in a couple of instances in the department and that he should bear the burden of that.

  There is no evidence that Senator Collins has in any way deviated from advice that has been given by his department; no evidence that he has in any way deviated from the legal advice that has been given. In fact, the advice that was given on 12 May 1993 by Mr Gyles QC and Mr Hutley with respect to the way this matter has been handled—and they have been relied on considerably; they are people outside the Government—is as follows:

We regard any claim against the Commonwealth based on negligence as most unlikely to succeed.

The reality is that on the assessment of outstanding silk and an eminent junior counsel there is very little hope that anybody would be able to establish against the Commonwealth any case of negligence in the way this matter has been conducted.

  What is it that Senator Collins has done? He has not been negligent; there is legal advice for that. He has not been dishonest. He has not made any personal gains out of this. There has not been any allegation made about bad character. What is left? That there has been a wrong process undertaken by the department. That was admitted weeks ago, and yet on and on we go—dogs running around looking for bones which they bury and then dig up again. One could be forgiven for thinking that what is being looked for here is not so much a cure, but a setting of traps, hoping that the Minister will somehow contradict himself so that an allegation can be made about misleading Parliament. If a charge of misleading Parliament could be made out, then the Minister would be on a lot less solid ground than he presently is.

  I ask you, Mr Acting Deputy President: is one of the purposes for this attack being pursued not so much to get the process of tendering on the right track but more to set a bait to catch a Minister out so that there may be some real basis for him resigning? If a Minister misleads parliament in a serious way, or even at all, the issue must arise as to whether he should resign, but that certainly has not been done here.

Senator Loosley —It's short-term gain only.

Senator COONEY —Yes, it is short-term gain only. Perhaps what has happened has arisen out of that telephone call that Senator Alston got from a suburb of Los Angeles, Hollywood. As I understand it, Hollywood is a make-believe land. Senator Alston started his speech by referring to this phone call from Los Angeles. Senator Alston, who is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, is a very kind man whom we all respect. Was he, in a subtle way, trying to send us a signal that what he was saying in this speech was make-believe? I do not mean that he was making up the facts that he put forward and I do not mean that he was not serious in what he was putting, but I do mean that he was creating a situation in which his dream might come true; that is, that Senator Collins might resign.

Senator Loosley —Fantasy.

Senator COONEY —`Fantasy' is the word. When giving his account of the phone call from Los Angeles, he was really saying to us, `Look, asking Senator Collins to resign is only fantasy'. One of the things that I would have been interested to hear from Senator Alston was who made this phone call from Los Angeles. Was it from Sylvester Stallone?

Senator Collins —Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Senator COONEY —Yes. It was one of these figures that—

Senator Collins —The Terminator.

Senator COONEY —The Terminator; Senator Alston saw himself in that role. That is what he was signalling to us. He was coming out as the Terminator to see whether he could blast down Senator Collins.

  Allegations are made on both sides of the chamber and thus we have a debate. But allegations are not made more true by increasing the volume of voice with which they are delivered. Accusations are not made more accurate by increasing the passion with which they are made. Imputations are not made valid simply by using florid language. Good sense, if not due modesty, should make people cautious about the legitimacy of their conclusions about a set of facts when made by somebody who is partisan. I am quite clearly partisan in this debate. I am an admirer of Senator Collins. I think he has been a great Minister; I think he has been a great man. The opinions of others may differ, but I think the evidence would show that he has been a great Minister, that he will continue to be a great Minister and that he will certainly not be resigning after this.

Senator Collins —Great in what sense?

Senator COONEY —Great in concept; great in intellect.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Calvert)—Order! Senator Cooney, I am enjoying your speech but I do not believe you need prompting.

Senator COONEY —Senator Collins was enjoying it too. Mr Acting Deputy President, whenever you speak to me I obey absolutely and completely. In a minute we will hear from Senator Tierney, who is a fine man. Mr Acting Deputy President, you often have the privilege of sitting next to him. Senator Tierney will get up and make an impassioned speech. He will call on Senator Collins to resign, and say that it is a dreadful thing that Senator Collins has done. I think he will serve his party very well. As Senator Alston says, the aim of the Opposition today is to hang Senator Collins. I will listen to Senator Tierney's speech because I think he will serve his party well. Senator Tierney will bring out information; he will interpret facts in a particular way; he will attribute all sorts of things to Senator Collins. But, like me, Senator Tierney will be representing a particular side.

   As I have often said in this chamber, the true test of how sincere people are on these sorts of matters is when the voting takes place. Senator Tierney—no matter what I say and no matter how eloquent I am; I am nowhere near as eloquent as he—will stay with his party and I will stay with mine. One thing I am absolutely sure about is that Senator Collins will not be retiring. He will go on giving great service to this country. I will be very happy to see that he does. (Time expired)