Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1999 Week 3 Hansard (24 March) . . Page.. 772 ..
MR RUGENDYKE (continuing):
In the case of Mr Berry's Dangerous Goods Bill, the deadline has not yet expired and we have the opportunity to make the necessary adjustments to procedure, which I will be supporting. Even taking into account the Government's neglect of the OH&S matters in the hospital implosion inquiry, I do have problems with the retrospective nature of Mr Berry's Bill. Just because the Government handled a simple problem extremely poorly does not mean that I can justify endorsing a Bill which has the potential to infringe on an immensely important factor - natural justice. The fact is that at the moment there are individuals out there who, rightly or wrongly, have escaped being liable for any possible breaches of the OH&S laws. Their situation is clear and they are going about their day-to-day lives in the knowledge that they cannot be brought before the courts under the present laws. What Mr Berry is proposing to do is to change the laws so that, if this Bill is passed today, suddenly they are liable again; we are changing their legal status.
Mr Speaker, this is fracturing the course of natural justice which I would expect Mr Stanhope, the Assembly's champion of civil liberties, to justify from that perspective. The proposed Bill raises two issues of importance which are fundamental to the role of the Assembly and its relationship with the Canberra community and the judiciary. The attempt to make laws apply retrospectively, in my opinion, is dangerous. Although the motivation to make specific reforms is often commendable, its effect is to create uncertainty in the application of the law. When ordinary members of the community engage in an activity which may be lawful when performed, they need to feel secure that that lawful activity will not be rendered unlawful at some later time. The implications for business practice and commercial activity would be significant if the practice were to be acknowledged. The issue, I believe, is the need to send a very clear message that the law should be clear and unambiguous. This Assembly needs to consider the big picture and not to react to the expediency of a single issue.
The other issue of concern is the apparent failure of the legal system to respond within recognised time limits. One of the reasons, presumably, behind the original provisions was the need to prosecute matters in a timely manner. The original legislation obviously intended that any prosecutions needed to be conducted contemporaneously with any breach to ensure ongoing compliance or to effect necessary improvements to reduce the possibility of further risk or injury.
These sentiments are consistent with the role of the coroner. In the absence of any information as to why the coroner cannot respond to the requirements of the existing legislation or as to why any prosecution is entirely dependent upon the finding of the coroner, the reforms proposed should not be seen to prop up inefficiencies on the part of the courts or the relevant prosecuting authorities. No explanation has been offered as to why compliance with the existing time limits was not possible. So, Mr Speaker, I will be supporting the amendments to the Dangerous Goods Bill. Those amendments are in line simply because that time limit has not expired and there would be no possibility of creating the retrospective position. In the same vein, Mr Speaker, it is for those reasons that I am unable to support the amendment to the OH&S Bill.