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Thursday, 16 December 1993
Page: 4776

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Foreign Affairs) (9.23 a.m.) —The government will oppose this motion. In doing so, I indicate that the government retains complete confidence in Mrs Kelly as the Minister for the Environment, Sport and Territories. We reject absolutely the various allegations and suggestions that have just been made by Senator Chamarette about Mrs Kelly's commitment to environmental issues, standards and the environmental movement in this country. She is a very competent minister who is very conscious of her responsibilities in her own portfolio, but also very conscious of her responsibilities to the government and to the interests of the nation as a whole.

  The letter to which Senator Chamarette refers contains advice from the minister, Mrs Kelly, to the Minister for Resources, Mr Lee, on the applicability of the national forest policy statement to the exercise of Mr Lee's statutory responsibility in relation to the granting of export licences. It was agreed by the cabinet in recent discussions that Mrs Kelly should provide this advice to Mr Lee so that he would be appropriately informed in the exercise of his—not her, but his—statutory responsibilities.

  It is the government's hope and expectation that it will be possible to reconcile the terms of our agreement with the New South Wales government and also the terms of the national forest policy statement. Nobody suggests that that is an easy matter. It will be one for Mr Lee's discretion, and it is appropriate that he have all available information and advice when he makes that decision.

  However, both ministers have indicated—both Mrs Kelly and Mr Lee—that it would be quite inappropriate to table the letter as it is a confidential communication between ministers on a matter of high government policy. It represents a working document which is part of a deliberative process involved in the functions of government. There are, in the opinion of the government, no public interest reasons for tabling this letter. Final decisions on export licences will be a matter of public knowledge, of course, and people will have ample opportunity at that stage to set in train any debate they want to.

  I make one final point in this respect. As the letter raises specific matters in relation to woodchip export approvals relating to particular companies, it also contains information which may well be of a commercial-in-confidence nature and, as such, that is an additional ground for the government declining to produce the document in question.

  I indicate that that is the government's position. Without taking any further time, I simply state that we will be opposing this motion. I hope the Senate will appreciate the need for government to work in a way that makes possible communications of this kind without having every such communication being the subject of intense public spotlight. There is, of course, a public interest in the final decision in this matter but, as I said, there will be ample opportunity for that public interest to manifest itself at that stage.