Page 4186 - Week 13 - Wednesday, 16 November 2005

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DR FOSKEY (Molonglo) (10.47): It is a matter of concern to me that Mr Stanhope is looking at this motion only in the context of the coronial inquest into the 2003 fires. The Greens have looked at the motion and acknowledge that, while it might have been inspired by the situation around the government’s concern about that inquiry, it relates to broader questions and issues. I have said a number of times to the Liberals that it is time to move on, and I have declined to join their censure motions. Now, in relation to this motion, it seems that Mr Stanhope requires the same advice.

I do not believe it helps the people of Canberra to have everybody’s legal action trotted out with the monotonous regularity that I have experienced in my time here, and I do support the adoption by this chamber of some sort of conventional code of practice on the issue of sub judice. I note that most Australian legislatures have similar codes of practice and I generally agree with the point suggested by Mr Stefaniak. However, I cannot support Mr Stefaniak’s second point, which seems to be out of step with the practice in other Australian legislatures and an attempt to weaken the power of the Speaker to determine, at first instance, whether a matter is properly sub judice. I say “at first instance” because, as I understand it, if a member disagrees with the Speaker’s ruling on any matter, she can move a dissent motion and the Assembly can then debate the merits of the issue. I believe the amendment that I will move shortly would bring Mr Stefaniak’s proposal within the bounds of practice in other Australian jurisdictions.

I share the Liberal Party’s concern that rulings on sub judice must not be tainted by political expediency. However, there is a fine balancing act between the Assembly’s right to debate any matter of public importance, the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. The separation of powers and the rule of law are integral parts of our democratic system. The judiciary provides one of the few remaining checks on the arbitrary and self-serving exercise of power by governments of all persuasions and at all levels. We should be extremely careful not to weaken the independence of the courts or to abuse parliamentary privilege. We must also be careful to avoid any discussion in this Assembly of issues before the courts which may encourage the public prejudgment of judicial matters which, like trial by right-wing talk-show and media interests, serves to weaken public respect or confidence for the judicial system.

Having said all that, I acknowledge the need to be careful not to curtail the Assembly’s ability to discuss matters that are before a court when it is in the public interest that the issues involved are publicly debated. One example that springs to mind is the current SLAPP suit brought by the publicly subsidised woodchip company Gunns against numerous public champions of sustainable and responsible forestry practices. We must be very careful not to play into the hands of any of those who would stifle debate on issues of public importance.

I move the following amendment to Mr Stefaniak’s motion:

Omit the words “can be demonstrated by a Member of the Assembly” in paragraph (2), substitute “appears to the Speaker”.

I will speak at more length about this amendment later on when I close the debate, but I have already—

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