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Thursday, 26 June 2003
Page: 17617


Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service) (9:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Respect for the law and its institutions is at the heart of any civilized community.

The Commonwealth has a duty to the Australian people and nation to ensure that its laws are upheld, in this case when unlawful industrial action threatens business performance, international competitiveness, and jobs. It also has a duty to protect the integrity of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its procedures.

On 19 December 2002, I announced that the Commonwealth would take a much more active role in instigating legal action and pursuing penalties against people and organisations that fail to comply with Federal Court or Industrial Relations Commission orders. The government will make full use of existing laws to seek penalties where there is strong evidence that a person or organisation has defied orders and it is in the public interest to take the legal action.

When I made this announcement I foreshadowed that the government would amend the Workplace Relations Act to clarify the scope of the prohibition against contempt of the commission and update the penalties for that offence.

The Workplace Relations Amendment (Codifying Contempt Offences) Bill 2003 does this.

Section 299 of the Workplace Relations Act creates offences that prohibit conduct in relation to the commission. For example, there are offences of interrupting proceedings or using words calculated to improperly influence members of the commission and witnesses.

Paragraph 299(1)(e) of the Workplace Relations Act is currently a kind of `catch-all' provision for all other contempt-like behaviour relating to the commission. It makes it an offence to do any act or thing in relation to the commission that would amount to contempt of court if the commission were a court. Contempt of court arises under common law. It enables a court to punish those who interfere with its proceedings or with the administration of justice. Common law contempt does not apply to proceedings of commissions or tribunals, so these bodies are often protected by statutory provisions, sometimes referred to as `deemed contempt' provisions. Paragraph 299(1)(e) is a deemed contempt provision, because it applies to the commission the whole of common law contempt as it operates with respect to courts.

However, the common law is continuously evolving court-made law and can be difficult to state with precision. The report of the Australian Law Reform Commission on the law of contempt in Australia noted the difficulty in transplanting the technical notion of contempt from its judicial context to the administrative context of commissions, and the failure to clearly identify the conduct that can result in an offence being committed. The report recommended that such provisions be replaced by specific statutory offences that identify contemptuous conduct.

This bill will stipulate the behaviours which will amount to contempt of the commission, clarifying for all parties what constitutes the offences and identifying the necessary mental and physical elements.

I now turn to the specific provisions of the bill.

The bill provides for three new offences that codify certain forms of contempt. The maximum penalty for each of these offences is 12 months imprisonment or a pecuniary penalty of $6,600 for a natural person, and $33,000 for a body corporate.

The first codification offence is engaging in conduct which contravenes an order of the commission. At common law, this is sometimes called `disobedience contempt'. It recognises the importance of compliance with the commission's orders. Commission orders must be taken seriously and clear sanctions must be available when there is a failure to comply with those orders.

The second codification offence is publishing a false allegation of misconduct affecting the commission. This is drawn from scandalising at common law. Maintaining confidence in the commission must be balanced with freedom of expression and open justice. The bill achieves this by requiring the allegation to be false, and the publication to adversely affect public confidence in the commission as a whole.

The third codification offence is inducing another person to give false evidence. This is a component of interference with proceedings at common law.

The fourth offence in this bill is giving false evidence, which has been included to protect the integrity of the commission and its proceedings. This offence is a form of perjury, rather than common law contempt, and has been included for completeness.

Other offences in the Crimes Act 1900 and the Criminal Code will also continue to apply to conduct in relation to the commission—for example, using dishonest means to influence officials performing public duties, interference with witnesses and destruction of evidence. The bill uses legislative notes to enhance accessibility to these existing offences.

The bill also updates other penalties provided in part XI of the Workplace Relations Act to bring them into line with the penalty levels proposed for the new proposed offences in section 299 and penalties that apply to similar provisions elsewhere. Many of these penalties have not been revised in this way since the 1970s and 1980s, so an update is timely.

The bill will promote respect for the rule of law and better protect the integrity of the commission.

I commend the bill to the House. I present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr McClelland) adjourned.