Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2003 Week 6 Hansard (19 June) . . Page.. 2151 ..
MR STEFANIAK (4.11): Earlier this year the Assembly passed legislation on this matter, which I introduced. We had a little bit of argy-bargy and came up with a very good bill, with the amendments agreed to by the government and myself, to protect people who made submissions to the McLeod inquiry. It protected them from any risk of defamation that might exist. Also, the Assembly provided protection to the report of the inquiry and to fair summaries and extracts from the report.
It was expected, then, that the report would be completed in time for tabling during this sitting period. I must admit I thought that was probably a bit optimistic; but good luck, you never know. The act did not, however, make provision for tabling the report outside sitting periods. It made provision that if that occurred there would be protections after the report was tabled-and that was fine-but it did not make actual provision for tabling the report between sitting periods.
I think it's desirable-and the opposition feels it is desirable-that if this report is ready at the end of July we should see it then, when the Assembly is not in session. As the bill was, the report would not be able to be made public until the Assembly reconvened and the report had been tabled. Whilst that was probably only about 18 days or so, we can see the need for this report to be put before the public as soon as possible-and we don't have a problem with that-even though it would only be a number of weeks.
The government has introduced this bill, the Bushfire Inquiry (Protection of Statements) Amendment Bill 2003, enabling the report to be released publicly even though the Assembly isn't sitting at the time, to enable, as they say, fair discussion of that report at the earliest possible time. We think that indeed is desirable.
There have, however, been a few little problems with this. It seems the simple intention of giving protection to witnesses, people who make statements, and hopefully even people who have physically, verbally, talked to Mr McLeod-and I still hope that he might have some public hearings-is not simple. Their rights need to be actually protected. There has been a real problem, though, just in terms of doing that very simply. I'll come to that shortly.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, the acting clerk and everyone else involved in the legal advice that came around, which generated some further problems after it hit the deck on Monday. It is interesting that what was proposed by the government-I couldn't see what they were getting at-did have some probably unintended consequences.
Paragraph 35 of the legal advice that Clayton Utz sent to Mr Tom Duncan, the acting clerk, indicates that the bill, as it is here in principle, does actually cause some problems in relation to the question of privilege and the fact that the document would be privileged in the Assembly. At page 10 of the advice, Clayton Utz actually suggest:
... we consider that the Assembly would think carefully before granting such a powerful protection-
that is, privilege-
since it has no real power to punish any misuse of the protection.