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Wednesday, 2 November 2011
Page: 7928

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (11:17): Senator Macdonald might have noticed that he just beat me to the call when I wanted to speak earlier, so it is not so much at his invitation that I am standing to speak but that I think it is important that I put my credentials and views on the record, given that people have been quite free in talking about me.

First of all, I would like to say that it would indeed be a great privilege if the Senate were to see fit to support my nomination to chair this important committee—one of the most busy committees of the Senate, I understand—the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, which looks into a broad range of significant legal issues affecting Australians.

I would like to acknowledge that I have been on the committee for some four months, since I was first sworn into the Senate. I have had the opportunity to observe Senator Humphries's chairing of the committee and I would certainly acknowledge that he has been a fair and diligent chair, and I have been impressed with his chairmanship. Of course we understand that this is not personal at all. I would also like to indicate that I would intend to continue in that vein, and I might come to that later.

I did find it a bit disappointing that Senator Humphries chose to, perhaps, move away from that stance when he was suggesting that, by virtue of my being a member of the Greens, I would somehow, therefore, not be able to chair the committee in a non-partisan and open-minded way. In fact I think that observation belies the experience and track record of my colleague Senator Siewert's chairing of the Community Affairs References Committee. There have certainly been majority reports of that committee by the opposition and the Greens and not always majority reports involving the government, so I think the evidence speaks for itself, but I will come back to that.

As I said, this is not personal. It seems to me that in a sense this is a principle. If you look at the statistics and at the idea of representation of the Australian vote in the Senate, it is an appropriate situation to come to that there are two committees being chaired by the Greens in this parliament. Of the 16 paired legislation and references committees we know that eight are chaired by the government, seven by the coalition and, up to now, one by the Greens. We have 76 senators in the chamber and, as of 1 July, we have nine Greens, which is 12 per cent of the make-up of the chamber. It is fair that committees be chaired in the same proportions, which do reflect the true representation and make-up of the Senate. For those who have not had their calculators out, 12 per cent of 16 is indeed two. As we know, there is also a precedent for this situation. When there were nine Australian Democrats senators they also held two chairs; presumably that was because at that time it was also considered fair and appropriate that the chairing of the committees represent the proportion of the Australian public's vote for senators.

Senate committees are a great aspect of the Senate's work. I have been in the Senate only four months but I have had an opportunity to observe the work that the Senate does, and I think that the work of the committees is often undervalued and not fully acknowledged by the Australian public. I have been very impressed by the degree of goodwill, collegiality and collaboration that occurs on Senate committees and the depth to which important issues affecting Australians are considered and dealt with on the committees, with a good attitude by all participants. I think the committees are a great opportunity to inquire into a range of important issues affecting Australians and, because of that, I think it is appropriate that there be a democratic representation on those committees in respect of the chairs.

I want to come to my qualifications. I think it is important and I think I do need to be accountable in terms of putting those on the record. I believe I am well suited to this role. I was admitted as a legal practitioner in 1984 and, over the 26 years since then, I have carried out a very broad range of roles. In two states of Australia and also in the UK I have worked as a solicitor and legal practitioner. As well as that, my work has spanned private practice, community work, legal decision making, mediation and teaching. As a result of this broad spectrum of legal work, I believe I have a uniquely broad understanding and insight into the various components which contribute to our strong legal culture in Australia and our adherence to the important and crucial concept of the rule of law. I worked in the civil litigation system as a private practitioner, when I worked in the country. So I also have the experience of being a generalist working with country people in Ballarat. At that time I worked in family law, and I did minor criminal work, but I particularly worked with workers' compensation and personal injury litigation—so I got an interesting and quite deep insight into the difficulties and challenges of civil litigation.

I then went to work in a community legal centre with the Tenants Union legal service. Through that role I gained an understanding of the importance of community legal centres and that movement, and the way they offer an opportunity of access to justice for many Australians, including those who are disadvantaged and would not have any ability to prosecute their legal rights in the absence of those important centres and that sector.

I then went to work in London, in the Borough of Hackney, where I worked with the trauma of child welfare law for a London council department. I experienced there the challenges of a London council with very high needs but few resources.

I have worked in the role of an investigating and conciliation solicitor with the Legal Practitioners Conduct Board in South Australia, and that gave me an insight into the regulation of the legal profession, the handling of concerns about misconduct on the part of legal practitioners and dealing with complaints from the public.

Finally, I think it is important to note that I have been a legal decision maker on three different tribunals, including 10 years on the Residential Tenancy Tribunal and 13 years as a Deputy President of the Guardianship Board in South Australia, which gave me an opportunity to conduct hearings of an extremely sensitive and difficult nature involving people with mental illnesses and disabilities and form views about the appropriateness of appointing decision makers for people who are no longer able to make their own decisions by virtue of mental incapacity. It was important work; it involved considering people's legal rights in a range of ways, and it involved hearing evidence from people who were vulnerable and often had difficulty communicating. Through my work on tribunals I developed skills in conducting hearings, listening carefully to witnesses and weighing up evidence in order to make considered decisions that were then subject to appeal and had to be justified.

Obviously, these are all matters which go to the effectiveness of chairing a Senate committee. As I said, for the last four months I have had the opportunity of observing the Senate committee system, and I have been very impressed with the goodwill and collaboration that I have seen. Committees are one of the most valuable and constructive aspects of the Senate's work and I am committed to participating and playing my part in that. If I am elected to the Chair of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee I would look forward to working with senators across the political spectrum. I have a commitment to dealing with matters openly, fairly and on their merits. I believe that my experience and track record stands me in good stead with this, and I look forward to investigating the important legal issues and helping the chamber fulfil our worthy role as a house of review.