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Thursday, 18 November 1993
Page: 3096

Senator FERGUSON (10.54 a.m.) —I will only speak briefly. I had not intended speaking at all, but I think a couple of the comments that have been made warrant some reply. I was present at the hearing in Darwin. I am not a member of the disaster management inquiry but there was a fishing inquiry on at the same time so I was at that meeting and sat in during the evidence. To the best of my knowledge, Senator Burns was not there, which he has admitted, and Senator Coulter was not there either.

  Senator Coulter raises something which I find rather strange in this particular instance because we have had it mentioned that there may be some political overtones or perhaps some political flag flying. Senator Coulter says that Dr Nitschke wrote to him, a person who was not even present at the inquiry, and yet to the best of my knowledge he certainly did not write to any opposition member of the committee who was present. I presume he wrote to the chairman of the committee but I am not sure, and yet he wrote to Senator Coulter who was not at the hearing.

  I would have thought that the fact that he chose Senator Coulter to write to, rather than to any other member of the committee present that day, would suggest that there are some political overtones, particularly since I heard the evidence that he gave that day. It disturbs me somewhat that we do have two inquiries going on at once.

Senator Burns —So you don't want the privileges committee to have a look at it?

Senator FERGUSON —Just hear me out, Senator Burns. Senator Ian Macdonald and Senator Panizza were formally appointed to continue the disaster management inquiry that had started, prior to the reduction of the number of committees. I was not present the first time the committee met after its meeting in Darwin. Senator Archer, who is a permanent member of the committee, was also away at the time. But apparently the matter of referring this to the privileges committee was discussed at length at that meeting by Senator Macdonald and, I think, Senator Panizza.

  At the next meeting of the industry, science and technology committee, an item on the agenda was the reference of a matter to the Committee of Privileges. I was unaware at that second meeting of any of the debate that had taken place at the first meeting. It was only subsequent to that second meeting that Senator Ian Macdonald raised with me some of the issues that he has raised today. I think the decision was taken at the second meeting, which I was at—I do not think Senator Archer was there—that we would refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges.

  I felt comfortable with that decision as I was unaware of any of the other things that had taken place at the previous meeting with Senator Macdonald and Senator Panizza, which I was not at. Having made the decision earlier to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges I was quite happy to agree that that should stand. However, I was unaware of many of the issues that Senator Macdonald raised today. They were discussed at a meeting that was held in conjunction with the disaster management inquiry, which I was unable to attend because it was being held at the same time as the fisheries inquiry.

Senator Burns —What about Nitschke's disaster?

Senator FERGUSON —Senator Burns may well consider Dr Nitschke's position a disaster, but I think a lot of long bows have been drawn today in relation to Dr Nitschke. Senator Coulter suggested that the decision to hire or fire Dr Nitschke was based on the evidence that he gave at the inquiry. We already have, in a letter, a list of other complaints that had no connection at all with the disaster inquiry. I think it is drawing a long bow to suggest that the reason that he was not immediately reappointed was the evidence that he gave. I think that is something that the Committee of Privileges will decide. At this stage, I am quite happy that that should happen. But Senator Coulter is drawing a very long bow in using that as the evidence as to why it should go.

  Senator Burns also raised the possibility that good quality witnesses may not wish to give evidence before Senate inquiries. I have not been in this place nearly as long as Senator Burns—in his speech he said that he regularly attended meetings and scarcely missed any—so he will have heard a lot more good witnesses than I. At the hearings that I have attended over the past 18 months, I have not heard of anybody not wanting to give evidence before a Senate committee because he was fearful of what might happen, but it may have happened.

  I do not think it could be suggested that the work the committees do is in any way less effective because the people who give evidence before committees are not of a high calibre. I believe they are, and have been in all the time I have attended committees. As I said earlier, the decision to refer this to the Committee of Privileges was based on a discussion that took place at a meeting I was not at. So when I did finally get to the meeting that did decide to refer the matter, I was unaware of much of the documentation which we have subsequently received. But having taken that initial decision, I am quite happy that it proceed.