Page 62 - Week 01 - Tuesday, 7 December 2004

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Mrs Dunne: Mr Speaker, before you rule it out, I would make the point that this is not seeking the Chief Minister’s view on the merit of the action at large, or the outcome of the action at large; it asks why the ACT government joined the existing action.

MR SPEAKER: Could you repeat the question, Mr Seselja?

MR SESELJA: Why has the ACT government joined the action against Coroner Doogan to try to force her to stand down from heading the coronial inquest into the 2003 bushfires?

MR SPEAKER: I will allow the question, but the minister should steer very clear of anything that could be construed to be sub judice. Otherwise, I will intervene.

MR STANHOPE: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I agree with you that the sub judice rule is very important and should be respected. In any question that goes to an issue before the courts there is a real issue about the extent to which it respects the separation of powers.

In relation to the decision the government took, I think members are aware that the coronial inquest has been sitting for a long time. It is a very important inquest, important to a lot of people within the ACT. A lot of emotional energy has been invested by a lot of people, and the government is very aware of the importance of the outcomes of the inquest and, indeed, the conduct of the inquest itself for many Canberrans, especially those Canberrans so directly affected by the fire.

As I say, the inquest has been conducted over a period of time. It has heard evidence from a significant number of witnesses; it has compiled significant amounts of information. It is the case that, during the conduct of the inquest, information has come to hand. It came to the attention of those represented at the inquest, specifically through the advice of learned counsel to the territory’s legal advisers in relation to a concern as a result of some of that information, that the coroner may have created a perception of bias in those circumstances.

It was open to individuals represented before the inquiry—indeed, open to the territory representative for the inquiry—to consider whether, as a result of an apprehension of bias, it would be appropriate, in the interests of justice, to ensure that that issue was raised. Indeed, it was raised before the coroner. The issue was raised before the coroner as to whether, as a result of certain incidents and certain information, it could be rightly presumed that there was an apprehension of bias.

MR SPEAKER: Mr Stanhope, I think we are going to the issue that is now going to be a matter that the courts will consider.

MR STANHOPE: Well, they certainly are, Mr Speaker.

MR SPEAKER: And I am very mindful of the sub judice convention and quite cautious about allowing any debate that might impinge on matters that come before the courts. I repeat my anxiety about going too close to issues that may have in fact been considered by the court, including a discussion about the issue of advice in the context of the matter which is being brought back to the courts.

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