Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 2005 Week 10 Hansard (Wednesday, 24 August 2005) . . Page.. 3181 ..
a government is taking an action to interfere with the nexus between the proper role of the government, the executive, and that of the judiciary is very worrying indeed.
That has been commented on since the meaning of the attorney’s actions sank in to people. The meaning of it sank in to a large number of people, certainly to the opposition and certainly to me. Indeed, it is interesting that not just legal practitioners have mentioned it. It seems that other people in our community have some good idea, too, of the meaning of the doctrine of the separation of powers and the fact that the government really is not doing the right thing here.
Fire victims felt that they were actually getting somewhere. They had a robust coronial inquest, something that this attorney wanted, or said he wanted after the fires. It is certainly something the opposition wanted, something that I think everyone in this Assembly wanted, and just before that inquest was due to finish, this action took place. I think the more people thought about it, especially the victims, they started to see it as a betrayal by this government. Naturally, concern started to filter in.
What does the government have to hide? There seemed to be an obvious conflict of interest. The attorney was also the Chief Minister. On the day he was acting emergency services minister. He was a witness, as were a number of public servants. People felt that there had indeed been a betrayal. People who had probably been fairly comfortable with the way things were moving felt that, as a result of the government’s getting involved, there had been a betrayal by the government. The fact is that, whilst the government is not solely responsible for the delay, its involvement in this action did delay this coronial inquest for 10 months.
I mentioned legal precedent. At the time there was one precedent in the ACT. In the 1998 matter of R v Somes ex parte Woods, the Attorney-General joined in an action seeking to remove the coroner on the ground of apprehended bias. That was the right thing to do. There had been a death in custody at Quamby and a public servant or public servants at Quamby launched an action. The government had nothing to gain by a coronial inquest, but it took the traditional step of ensuring that a coronial inquest would be seen through to its conclusion, to back its own coroner and to back the court system even if, at the end of the day, the results of the inquest were unfavourable in some aspects to the government. Governments traditionally, in detailed inquests, do cop a bit of flak on various matters. Things crop up. There may be recommendations that are embarrassing to a government. The government just has to take that on the chin.
Did the government do that in this instance? No way. When it looked like there might be some problems with the evidence coming out of the coronial inquest, they joined in this particular action. That has caused immense concern, not only to victims, not only to the general community, but also, as I said earlier, to the legal community itself. That is of great concern.
The government should have backed its own coroner. If it was not prepared even to do that, it should have stayed silent and allowed this appeal to go through. It did that a month or two beforehand in relation to a question of documents. The precedent is for the government to back its coroner, as the government did in 1998 in the matter of R v Somes ex parte Woods. The government at least could have stayed silent, but it did not. Quite clearly, it had those choices. The Chief Minister, the attorney, himself