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Tuesday, 23 August 1994
Page: 82

Senator CHAPMAN (6.18 p.m.) —The Witness Protection Bill, which is before us today, is one step in the right direction towards fighting organised crime in Australia. It is no secret that the protection of witnesses and their families is important to encourage witnesses to come forward and to ensure that their evidence is heard at trials. The recommendations handed down following the 1988 parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority report on witness protection established the need to coordinate a national system for the protection of witnesses in the prosecution of criminal offences.

  This bill, as my colleague Senator Vanstone has said, falls short of implementing all of the recommendations made by the national crime authority committee. There has clearly been a lack of consultation with the states in dealing with this legislation. There are particular difficulties associated with witnesses already in prison. It is these particular and specific matters that I seek to address this afternoon.

  A decision by the New South Wales police last year to end protection for criminal Raymond Denning, who turned police informant over the Hilton bombing investigation, was recently criticised by the state Ombudsman after Denning was found dead of a heroin overdose just one month after his protection had been removed. The accountability of state authorities over the protection of key witnesses, whose lives are constantly placed in danger for assisting police with their inquiries, appears to be sadly lacking, even today.

  Let me bring to the chamber's attention the plight of yet another key prison informant whose crucial evidence recently led to the conviction of a prison officer involved in serious drug trafficking offences within South Australia's maximum security prison, Yatala Labour Prison. I highlight this case to remind colleagues that, if this legislation is to work effectively, there is a need to ensure that state law enforcement agencies entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out similar witness protection programs be made accountable for their actions.

  The prison informant in this case, who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons, agreed last year to assist the Anti-Corruption Branch in South Australia by providing invaluable information which resulted in identifying a corrupt prison officer found to be smuggling illegal drugs to prisoners for financial gain. As a direct result of the information the prison informant provided to the South Australian police, he has now become a marked man because of a failure by those responsible for his safety to provide adequate witness protection.

  In short, it did not take long for local prison officers to learn of the informant who had given up one of their colleagues. I seek leave to table a copy of a letter dated 6 September 1993 from the officer in charge of the Anti-Corruption Branch, Commander Robert Lean, which confirmed to the presiding magistrate in Adelaide the position in which this informant found himself.

  Leave granted.

Senator CHAPMAN —I thank the Senate. Part of that letter states:

(The informant) has been involved in an investigation conducted by the Anti Corruption Branch of the South Australia Police Department.

. . . . . . . . .

There has been some concern over the safety of (the informant) within the prison system from two sources. The first of these is the Correctional Services staff who may not be aware of the full facts surrounding the arrest of the prison officer. The far more serious threat is from prisoners who may take retaliatory action against (the informant) because he has assisted police with their enquiries.

The threat of retaliatory action by prisoners in not necessarily restricted to South Australia due to the transient nature of criminals and the acknowledged prison "grapevine".

If either staff or prison personnel become aware of (the informant's) actions in this State then this may place him at risk.

It should be pointed out that the informant tried on several occasions last year to seek the involvement of the then South Australian Minister for Correctional Services in the state Labor government, Mr Bob Gregory, to inquire into the extent of prison corruption but to no avail. It became painfully obvious to him that the former Labor government simply did not want to address a very real problem of corruption within South Australia's correctional institutions. I seek leave to table two letters from the informant dated 8 and 15 June 1993 to the former minister's office identifying the concerns he had about corrupt activities inside Yatala Labour Prison and the Adelaide Remand Centre.

  Leave granted.

Senator CHAPMAN —One can only surmise that the reason the former South Australian government did not want to know of this man's information was that it would have proved to be too politically embarrassing for that incompetent government in the run-up to the state election in South Australia towards the end of last year. It should also be noted that it was only after that government was thrown out of office that an inquiry was set up by the new minister responsible for prisons, the Hon. Wayne Matthew, to pursue the allegations of widespread drug trafficking and corruption within South Australian prisons. A copy of a letter dated 4 February 1994 to the now minister clearly indicates the serious nature of the allegations raised by this informant. I seek leave to table this letter.

  Leave granted.

Senator CHAPMAN —Because of the gravity of the allegation and information to which this informant was privy, he took the step late last year of producing a videotape which was to be released in the event of any attempt to suppress the allegations of prison corruption. Having viewed this video, let me say that it raises further serious questions about the extent of corruption within South Australia's prisons. It is important that the truth of this ongoing corruption not be hidden from the public because of a few who may seek to suppress that truth. I seek leave to table this video in the public interest.

Senator Schacht —Senator Chapman had the courtesy to approach me before he spoke about whether the videotape could be tabled. I discussed with him its possible content. I have just had a discussion with the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus), who is responsible for this bill. We would like to view the tape first before we agree to its tabling. I think Senator Chapman will understand why—we want to be absolutely certain of its content. Perhaps we could take it on notice at the moment. We—particularly the minister—will view the video as soon as we can and go from there.

Senator CHAPMAN —That will be tabled subject to your viewing and accepting it as being acceptable for tabling?

Senator Schacht —Yes. The minister will decide.

Senator CHAPMAN —I indicate to the minister that the informant's identity and certain sections of the original tape have been edited to ensure his safety. One of the problems identified under the Witness Protection Bill 1994 is the protection of witnesses who are already held in prison. The effectiveness of this bill will be seriously undermined if we cannot give witnesses—such as the informant to whom I have referred in relation to these letters and the video, who is of course the same person—suitable protection. Here we have a prime example of a witness who was given all the assurances and promises under the sun about the protection of his identity in return for his assistance now having to live in fear because of a lack of suitable protection.

  One of the prison officers he identified was found guilty of serious drug offences only last month. But this officer, despite being found guilty, will not spend one day in gaol because the judicial system allowed him a three-year suspended sentence with a two-year non-parole period. The police and the courts failed to suppress this informant's identity during the course of the trial. His safety is now at risk as he waits in a New South Wales prison, fearing retaliation by inmates or prison officers who know what he has done. I have very real concerns about the limited accountability measures in this bill because it would seem, as has happened in South Australia, that no-one is willing to take the responsibility for looking after our whistleblowers.

  There is no question about this informant's evidence. It led to the conviction of a corrupt prison officer. Much more is contained on the videotape to which I have referred which implicates other corrupt officers. It is no wonder that today this man feels as though he waits on death row because of a failure to provide adequate witness protection. It would seem that in Australia, we have a poorly managed method of protecting our witnesses who expose and uncover corruption and criminal activity. Just ask Raymond Denning's family in New South Wales. We cannot afford to make a mistake with the provisions in this bill because people's lives are at stake. I trust that this latest informant will not become yet another tragic statistic because someone failed to carry out his moral and professional responsibility.

  It is important that we have an adequate system of witness protection in place, otherwise we will simply find that people will not come forward with knowledge they have which could lead to the conviction of criminals. We need to have people with the courage to do that. Obviously, in turn they need to be assured that they will have adequate protection under an effective witness protection program. I simply hope that this legislation is effective in that regard and we will wait with interest to see it in operation.