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Thursday, 27 November 1986
Page: 3900

Mr SPENDER —by leave-I welcome the news from the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority that there is greater co-operation between the National Crime Authority and the Committee. In so doing, I express my disappointment that the Special Minister of State (Mr Young) is not present. However, if he were present he may have nothing to say about the matter, but the National Crime Authority is a very important body. It was set up by this Government following an attempt by the previous Government to set up an authority similar in kind but better in function. It is a matter of importance when the parliamentary Committee comes to the House to present its report. The absence of the Special Minister is fully consistent with the way in which this Government has gone about its so-called attack on organised crime. I will come to that matter in one or two minutes.

Before I do so, I shall refer to some of the comments made by the Chairman of the Committee. He referred to the existence of a sunset clause and to problems of recruitment in Melbourne, and later referred generally to difficulties in recruitment in the NCA. There is a sunset clause in the legislation. The Authority was set up for a period of five years. That five-year period runs from 1 July 1984. It is not to be wondered at that there are difficulties in recruitment in the Authority when we see that it has now gone more than two years of its appointed five-year period and there has yet to be a statement from this Government whether it intends to continue with the Authority. It staggers one that the Government could not understand that if staff members do not know whether they will have a job it will be pretty hard to get people to give up work to take on a job on the prospect that after two or three years they may or may not have a job. It is equally astonishing that the Government is unable to say simply whether it intends to continue with the Authority. The Opposition, the coalition parties, are clearly of the view that the National Crime Authority should stay. We will make sure when we are returned to power, if the Government does not legislate in the next few months of the period it has in office, or as long as it is before the next election, that the Authority will remain. But it is a matter on which the Government should come out, and come out quickly. One commissioner, Mr Justice Stewart, is due to finish in a year and a half or so, and I think that Mr Bingham is due to finish in about 12 months. It would obviously be difficult to get people to replace them-to replace Mr Bingham, for example-if no one knows whether the Authority will remain in existence.

The Chairman referred to some concerns that the Committee had, as I understand it, with the security of the Authority's computer. I also understand that those concerns have been allayed. That concern, expressed by the Chairman, illustrates the great concern that people can have about databases being kept secure when they are put on to a computer. The Authority is a very secure organisation and it operates under strict provisions of secrecy. It is a criminal offence for any staff member of the Authority to divulge information that has been acquired by the Authority; yet even in such a secure, confidential organisation concern has been expressed, similar to the concerns that we have been expressing about the integrity of the computer system associated with the ID card.

The Chairman also had something to say about the role of the parliamentary Committee. He referred to his statement of last year and, as I understand him, he would persist in the view that there should be a right of access to the full range of information held by the Authority so as to enable the Committee to monitor and review the Authority's operations. That raises a very real question and a very real problem. The problem is simple: If a committee has access to operational material-names, events and transactions-then by having that kind of access, which necessarily involves staff members having access and Hansard reporters having perhaps a more limited access, more and more people will get hold of highly sensitive and confidential information. The question the Committee might have to consider is whether it should resile from that view and whether there may be some other form of oversight, along the lines of the form of oversight established for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, with an Ombudsman. That might be more appropriate. In saying that, I express no view as to what course of action should be taken but certainly nothing can be done which would in any way jeopardise the security and confidentiality of information held by the National Crime Authority.

Lastly, I return to the question of the Government's intentions towards the National Crime Authority. The Authority has been in operation for well over two years. There are problems about the continuance of operations when doubts exist as to whether it will be in existence in under three years time. Obviously the Government needs to make a very plain statement of its intentions so that the Authority can get on with its business, can organise its affairs as effectively as possible and can recruit the best possible people for the very difficult and demanding work that it undertakes. One thing of which we can be perfectly sure is that, given the incidence of organised crime in this country, given its growth and given the haphazard and disorganised way in which the Government has gone about dealing with it, we will need the Authority for years to come. We may say that that is a pity, but it is simply a reflection of our times. Therefore, it is time for the Government to tell us what it intends to do.