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Wednesday, 1 September 1993
Page: 734

Senator BOLKUS (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Multicultural Affairs) (10.38 a.m.) —The subject of this debate is one that has been addressed by the Senate on a number of occasions in the past. In fact, there is a clearly established set of precedents that covers what is before us this morning. The debate is between the right of the public to have access to information and, on the other hand, the right of the executive to conduct its deliberations with some degree of secrecy and without intrusion from places such as the Senate.

  It has always been accepted in our system that it is the privilege of ministers and of the executive to deliberate, to contemplate and to take advice as they request in a way that they can treat it as confidential. That has been established as a precedent in place. If one wants to look at some of the precedents, one can find former attorneys-general from this side of parliament and from the other side who have established that benchmark.

  One could very quickly go to quotations from people such as Mr Greenwood QC and Mr Ellicott QC, both former attorneys-general, and the submission they made in 1972 on the question of the powers of parliamentary committees and the protection afforded to witnesses. They made it very clear that:

. . . the process of cabinet government and the security of military information would be seriously prejudiced if all information on these matters was readily available either to a House or a committee of the House, whether in public or in camera. This we think is quite evident.

Senator Alston —The truth might get out.

Senator BOLKUS —Senator Alston says, `The truth might get out'. What we have before us here is a situation in which the government has, in fact, made available the legal advice. That underscores the way that this area of the law has always operated and the way this area of precedent has always operated; that is, it is very much within the discretion of the parliament and the executive to make available information, legal advice and the like in this area.

  That has been established for quite some time and, hopefully, the opposition accepts that. To that extent, yesterday the government made available the legal advice on the constitutionality of the budget. As Senator Spindler says, that relates to the fundamental issue before this parliament and before the committee.

  Let us look at the hypocrisy on the other side—the hypocrisy that drives those opposite into this place. Let us accept that there is a principle that is very much within the capacity and prerogative of the government to make available documents as it likes, particularly legal documents. Let us also accept the words of Mr Byers, a long time Solicitor-General of the Crown, in 1975 when he underscored the principle that this policy is based on. The Hansard of 1975 says:

The central constitutional notion is the secrecy of deliberations. It is something that has always been accepted in here.

What about the hypocrisy of those opposite? Before the election they went to the people with an industrial relations policy. No matter how much the public screamed for them to make available not only their legislation but also their drafting instructions, they claimed that those instructions should have been kept confidential. John Howard and John Hewson ran around the country asserting that those drafting instructions and deliberations should be kept within their province.

  That leads to the next point. Private member's bills that come to this parliament are also developed on the basis of drafting instructions. Members of parliament always assert the right for those drafting instructions to remain confidential to ensure that all those deliberations can be as broad based and as wide ranging as possible. For months before the election those opposite refused to show their legislation. Not only that, they also refused to show the drafting instructions. Now they come in here, spooked by the likes of Senator Bishop driving them to abort principles that they have stood for for decades.

  The real reason we are having this debate this morning is that Senator Hill and John Hewson want to be seen to be tough. Why do they want that? Because the heat is right on them. Alexander Downer was up in the gallery last night telling people, `We have to oppose the tax measures because if we don't Bronwyn Bishop will come in right over the top of us'. That is exactly what is happening here today. If those opposite do not believe me, they can ask the journalists. This is a fraud that has been perpetrated on the Senate. (Time expired)