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Parliament House, Canberra, 6 February 1997: transcript of doorstop [Senator Woods, misleading Parliament, Native Title]


BEAZLEY: Well, we've got here, today, a question of the most curious forgetfulness on the part of the Prime Minister. It does beggar belief that the Prime Minister could have, when discussing this issue effectively with the Australian people, forgotten a briefing about a member of his executive and a person so close to him. It is symptomatic of what has become a very messy way of dealing with the issues of standards of conduct of Ministers and members of the executive stretching back to an unwillingness to deal with Alexander Downer, and unwillingness to deal with the positions of Mr Moore and Mr Prosser, belated efforts to deal with his two Ministers who have resigned. It's all part of a piece of a Government that would rather forget about those sorts of standards - a Prime Minister who would rather not enforce them. If the problem is not talked about perhaps it will go away. That's what it's symbolic of.

JOURNALIST: So, should Bob Woods perhaps have been stood down as soon as these allegations first came to light?

BEAZLEY: No, look, the curious thing about all of this is that there's nothing particularly wrong under the terms of the Code of Conduct about the handling of Bob Woods' position. Where the Code of Conduct has been inadvertently or deliberately breached is that part of it where it says that you don't go out of your way to mislead the Australian people. That's where the Code of Conduct has come in here. This is an incident where, but for this piece of curious forgetfulness, it would have rapidly disappeared from the political scene.

JOURNALIST: But isn't it a bit rich for you to suggest that the Prime Minister's memory loss is a bit of a problem when one of your own members, Dr Carmen Lawrence, had a similar memory loss?

BEAZLEY: And didn't he make a meal of it? Didn't he make a meal of the suggestion that you might actually find it difficult to remember the content of a whole series of meetings three years before you were questioned about it. And here we have an incident of forgetfulness that relates to a briefing a few weeks before he was involved in discussing the affair with the Australian people.

JOURNALIST: Was Gareth Evans wise in raising the so-called 'sleaze' factor relating to this affair?

BEAZLEY: Well, as I understand, Gareth has been a bit taken out of context here. He was asked a question, as I understand it, that connected Senator Woods' resignation with the resignation of the two Ministers last year and what should have been the resignation of a couple more at the time. And what he was talking about was the build up a pattern there and he slipped from that particular framework where a pattern obviously has emerged into a discussion of things further afield. So, I think he's been a bit hard done by.

JOURNALIST: So, you don't think this Government has an element of sleaze now?

BEAZLEY: I set aside that word because I think we've got a much more interesting and concerning question here and that is: is there real control over the conduct and activities of the executive? Is there are real grip on an important element of accountability which the Prime Minister has uttered in such stentorian tones at the beginning of this Government and is seen to be backing away from and filling in on ever since that point of time? Another curious episode in all this regard, and which it beggars belief that he would forget the briefing he had from the Attorney-General, is that shortly before that briefing that review of the standards of conduct would have hit his desk from Max Moore-Wilton. He's been sitting on that for a few months too. And so, not only the closeness of Senator Woods would have caused him to remember, I would have thought, but also the fact that it was bound up in that particular review.

JOURNALIST: You said that the Prime Minister went out of his way to mislead the public. Does he deserve some leniency in any way considering that he went on A Current Affair, I think, after a lot of these details came to light?

BEAZLEY: Well, you'll recollect I used the words 'inadvertent' or 'deliberate'. I'm not sure what caused the Prime Minister to forget. I'm more interested in the fact that he did forget and the slovenliness that there is now, effectively, in the administration of all these things of which that is one small manifestation.

JOURNALIST: Just getting back to 'sleaze', for want to a better word, are you comfortable with the prospect of the wider personal lives of politicians emerging as a source of debate in federal politics?

BEAZLEY: No. I don't think they should. And we're not talking about that here. We're not talking about any aspects of Senator Woods' actual personal conduct but merely the circumstances of his resignation. No, I don't think that that's appropriate to go through the personal lives of politicians unless and until aspects of those personal lives cause them to, in some way or another, breach the public trust. There is an investigation proceeding as to whether or not the public trust has been breached and detailed comment on that is not appropriate until that is completed.

JOURNALIST: Is the raising of the word 'sleaze' regrettable?

BEAZLEY: I think that you've got to look at Gareth's context there, as I said before. And it was in a context of a now strange pattern that has emerged in this Government very early in its life - only 10 months - a couple of Ministerial resignations, three now, a couple more should have gone. A standard of conduct turned on its head, confusion about the standards of conduct, confusion about when you're briefed by your Attorney-General. I don't need to characterise that by a term like that. I characterise that by a term of incompetent government.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Gareth Evans about that comment yesterday?

BEAZLEY: Yeah, I've had a chat to Gareth about these whole circumstances. We're talking about this issue, as you might comprehend, all the time as to what is an appropriate position for an opposition which has some responsibility to ensure that a government is held accountable but also has the responsibility to ensure that everything is taken in proportion. And I think that in the circumstances that Gareth, whilst his remarks were used in another context, in response the actual question he was asked, he was responding not unreasonably.

JOURNALIST: Just very briefly on another issue, would the Labor Party be prepared to vote in the Senate against the proposal for a voluntary postal vote for the People's Convention?

BEAZLEY: Well, we have pointed out that this is an extraordinarily lackadaisical, Logie-like process for the seriousness with which a constitutional issue ought to be considered - and it's a disappointing feature of it. But we will sit down and work our way through all of that over the course of the next few months while it comes forward and will, of course when Parliament discusses the issue, have a detailed response.

JOURNALIST: Are you inclined at this stage, though, to vote against it?

BEAZLEY: Well, we do take the point that the Government has had an election undertaking and its going through the process of meeting that commitment in ways in which it sees fit and, at the end of the day, the Government is entitled to conclude it. But we will definitely be taking very seriously the issues of implementation and we would want this body to be clothed with all the seriousness that a treatment of the Australian Constitution deserves.

JOURNALIST: What do you think of proposals for a cut-off date for Native Title complaints?

BEAZLEY: I've only just briefly seen the propositions that the States have put forward. The States are thrashing about on this one. They don't quite seem to grasp the fact that they're dealing, really, with the High Court which has changed the way in which law in this area is interpreted. And the extent to which Governments - State and Federal - when they try for dramatic, all encompassing solutions they place at risk the interests of the taxpayer. This is a thing that can be handled but it has to be worked through very carefully. Thus far the States have not been very good at it.

JOURNALIST: There's also a report that the Prime Minister seems to think that a definition of Native Title would perhaps go a long way to solving this problem. Do you agree that the definition of Native Title is the key?

BEAZLEY: The Court has determined that Native Title is protected, effectively, by an operation of common law. The struggle for strict definitions is going to be a struggle, I think, in vain. And it's a process that involves the sensible handling, step by step, of each problem that arises. It may need a legislative solution. It may need a negotiated solution. But you're unlikely to find a dramatic solution in a strict statement of what Native Title means or a strict statement that involves codifying what Native Title means, which some of the States want to talk about, or necessarily providing arbitrary cut-off dates. It's a problem more complex than that.