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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 345

Senator ALSTON —My question is directed to the Minister representing the Minister for Communications and the Arts. I refer to yesterday's report in the Australian Financial Review, which I note has not been denied by the latest minister for communications, Mr Lee, that Telecom admitted to the minister almost three weeks ago that it has hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape recordings of conversations involving a number of small business operators—known as COT cases—with serious complaints against the organisation. In view of the seriousness of these reports and the frightening implications for the privacy rights of citizens, rather than Mr Lee privately passing the parcel to his colleagues, why has he not made a strong public statement clarifying the situation, making it clear that the government will not tolerate any unauthorised telephone interceptions or information gathering, and spelling out what action the government proposes to take to ensure that no similar conduct can occur in the future?

Senator McMULLAN —The Minister for Communications and the Arts has advised me that he is aware of the allegations that Telstra has monitored telephone conversations of some members of the group known, as Senator Alston says, as COT—casualties of Telecom.

  The minister raised the allegations in discussions with the chief executive of Telstra and the chairman of the board. As a result of those discussions, he wrote to the Attorney-General asking that he investigate whether a breach of the act had occurred, because that legislation which is administered by the Attorney-General permits interception of telecommunications by employees in the course of their duties.Yesterday he received a reply from the Attorney-General that indicates that the Minister for Justice has been asked to refer the matter to the Commissioner of the AFP to determine whether an investigation is warranted. The minister has also made a request to the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General has, in response to that request, directed that the legislation be examined to assess whether amendments are necessary to limit the breadth of the exception given to carrier employees.

  The minister has requested a full report from Telstra. He has received an interim report which he is presently considering. He has received the assurances which one would expect from both Austel and Telstra, indicating full cooperation with any investigation. The minister's advice to me is that he considers it would be inappropriate to make any further comments on details of the allegations while the matter is before the AFP.

Senator ALSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given that the minister has been sitting on this matter for at least three weeks, why is the public not entitled to know what is going on? What is the nature and extent of any unauthorised interceptions? Whether or not that results in police prosecutions is surely immaterial to the facts of the matter. Why cannot the minister tell the community what is happening and whether all the statements and denials from Telecom are accurate, and at least make sure that the public is party to what is going on, rather than in the minister's usual way, trying to stitch up a deal in private?

Senator McMULLAN —To describe the very proper actions which the minister has taken as `trying to stitch up a deal in private' is attributing Senator Alston's motives to Mr Lee. It is entirely inappropriate.