Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2005 Week 09 Hansard (Tuesday, 16 August 2005 2005) . . Page.. 2701 ..
… particularly inappropriate for a majority government to hide behind its numbers in the Assembly to prevent proper scrutiny of the events leading to the largest disaster ever faced by Canberra people. It is also inappropriate for it to be party to legal proceedings designed to thwart the public’s right to a proper consideration of all the issues.
But at the heart of this debate lies a commitment to the integrity of the law, both in regard to those witnesses who have claimed a perception of bias and have taken action in the Supreme Court and within the perceptions of the wider Canberra population, especially the victims of the fires. If the integrity of the justice system looking into the disaster is in doubt, it will be doubly hard to move forward constructively. While I argued last year that other approaches were open to government in dealing with the claims of perceived bias, the decision to take legal action was not made by government alone. It was initially in the hands of nine witnesses appearing before the inquest. I did not see it as unreasonable for the government to support an action that would resolve the issue and tie it in, in effect supporting the outcomes of the inquiry.
The ACT Greens do not support an approach that argues that senior officers of the department are on their own in the courts should a disaster occur which requires a coronial inquiry. We hold it proper that the government covers the reasonable legal cost of its officers. So, for example, I would not have supported Premier Beattie in Queensland when he decided not to fund the legal costs for senior officers in his health department facing the inquiry into matters concerning Dr Jayant Patel, formerly of Bundaberg hospital. While such an approach might make for an unwieldy and expensive process, it is a just one. In that context I would recommend that some attention might well be given to reviewing the mechanics of our inquiry processes in order to speed up and simplify them whilst ensuring that the commitment to fairness remains.
At the time the government and the other relevant plaintiffs first took their concerns regarding the ACT coroner to the Supreme Court, I argued that we would have preferred to see the government wait until it had seen a copy of the coroner’s report before deciding that it was influenced or potentially influenced by bias. At that point it would still have had the option to take legal action to prevent publication of the report on account of perceived bias or alternatively to provide the coroner with a response to be published along with her findings. However, I acknowledge that a decision at that point to institute legal proceedings would have left the government open to even stronger claims of a cover-up or of undue interference than it faces now.
I have no problem in saying that I did not believe the Attorney-General had to join the action questioning the integrity of the coroner at that time. However, much reference has been made to legal advice that suggested that he did. For that reason, I support paragraph 2(a) of the motion, which asks that the Attorney-General tables by close of business today the legal advice that he relied on in initiating and/or joining the appeal against Coroner Doogan. I suggest that if legal advice is going to be regularly trotted out as the basis for contentious actions, government could treat the advice itself more robustly in order to explain its position before it takes such contentious action. Nonetheless, I cannot accept the opposition’s claim that the Attorney-General has extended the process by a year. It seems to me that the tortuous extension of this process would have happened whether or not the government joined the action.