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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2003 Week 2 Hansard (5 March) . . Page.. 495 ..

Wednesday, 5 March 2003

MR SPEAKER (Mr Berry) took the chair at 10.30 am and asked members to stand in silence and pray or reflect on their responsibilities to the people of the Australian Capital Territory.

Bushfire Inquiry (Protection of Statements) Bill 2003

Mr Stefaniak , pursuant to notice, presented the bill and its explanatory statement.

Title read by Clerk.

MR STEFANIAK (10.33): I move:

That this bill be agreed to in principle.

Mr Speaker, I do not think anyone here would doubt that in January of this year Canberra witnessed the worst natural disaster in living memory. As a result of that disaster, well over 400 homes were destroyed, numerous properties were damaged, and four lives were tragically lost. Also as a result of that disaster, the normal coronial processes have come into play and the Chief Minister has announced that there will be an inquiry by Mr McLeod to look at the issues.

I think it is absolutely essential that we have an open and honest inquiry. It is crucially important for any persons who want to give statements or evidence of any kind, be it oral or written, before that inquiry to do so in the knowledge that they can give full and truthful assistance to the inquiry and not have any problems hanging over their head, such as fear of defamation proceedings. I think it is crucial that we ensure that witnesses before the inquiry or persons who contribute to it can feel safe.

Previously, the opposition moved a motion to have an inquiry set up under the Inquiries Act, which we think is the preferable way to go, and my colleague Mr Smyth has a motion on the notice paper today as well in relation to that. But if the Assembly, for whatever reason, does not feel mindful of supporting that, at the very least it is crucially important to support this bill.

Mention has been made that witnesses do have certain protections and that they might be covered elsewhere. I do not think that that is fully correct. Mention has been made of the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which is very different, Mr Speaker. I think it is timely to say a little bit about that. The relevant section of that act is section 4, which deals with disclosable conduct. For the purposes of that act, conduct is taken to be disclosable if it is of a type referred to in subsection (2) and it could constitute, firstly, a criminal offence; secondly, a disciplinary offence; or, thirdly, reasonable grounds for dismissing or dispensing with, or otherwise terminating, the services of a public official who is engaged in it.

That is quite specific. It relates to only one agency, if one looks at the act, and does not cover the whole gamut of matters that are most likely to come before the McLeod inquiry. Subsection (2) states:

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