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Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2003 Week 2 Hansard (5 March) . . Page.. 508 ..

MR SMYTH (continuing):

The same head of Chief Minister's who had not been able to talk to him. Mr Speaker, you have to have some doubt about what is being said here. The opposition has been calling for an independent inquiry so that people like the Volunteer Brigades Association and the volunteers know that they can tell their story.

Having, hopefully, set the Chief Minister straight on these basic issues, I ask the Assembly to support this motion. I explained the motivations for this sort of inquiry last sitting. Those motivations have not changed. We need a fully independent inquiry, with all the powers invested in it by the Inquiries Act, to ensure that witnesses like Mr Dutkiewicz are able to give their evidence freely. This is about the truth, Mr Speaker, and it is about learning lessons. We cannot get to the truth and we cannot learn the lessons of the bushfire disaster unless the McLeod inquiry is given some power and its witnesses some protection.

MS DUNDAS (11.11): Mr Speaker, on 19 February, Mr Smyth moved a motion calling for an inquiry under the Inquiries Act into the events surrounding the recent bushfires, including operational response issues. At the time, I supported that motion because I believed that any investigation of the bushfires should be truly independent of government, be out in the public domain, and have full protection for witnesses giving sensitive evidence.

The process surrounding the McLeod inquiry has attracted some serious criticism. The United Firefighters Union and some individual firefighters have raised concerns about the protection of witnesses from defamation and about Mr McLeod's lack of power to require the attendance of witnesses or to cross-examine.

As I said in February, inquiries into the bushfires should not be conducted in haste and there is time to follow proper processes. The Inquiries Act was developed to create the framework and legal protection necessary for a full, frank and effective inquiry into the matter of public concern. By establishing an inquiry outside the purview of this act, the government has dispensed with a tested framework and the safeguards of the Inquiries Act that were designed to maximise the accuracy of inquiry findings.

I recognise that the Inquiries Act, in itself, is not perfect. I even have on the notice paper amendments to the act. But I am baffled as to why the government has chosen to create its own type of investigation when it is clear that problems have emerged and will continue to emerge if the Inquiries Act model is not adopted.

There have been some unsatisfactory suggestions about how partial protection of witnesses could be conferred through the head of the Chief Minister's Department and the Public Interest Disclosure Act. I do agree with Mr Smyth that these proposals will not give witnesses sufficient peace of mind, since truth is not a defence under defamation laws, unless the strictly applied public interest test is satisfied. Few could be confident that their evidence would pass this test. I am also concerned that whistleblower legislation will not protect volunteers, and most of our firies who fought the bushfires were volunteers.

Although I do not question the ability of Mr McLeod to review the evidence presented to him, without the benefit of privilege for witnesses he may not hear all the evidence that

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