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Tuesday, 12 June 2007
Page: 57

Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (6:10 PM) —I thank the members for Barton, Barker, Banks, Kooyong, Wills, McMillan, Denison, Indi, Calare and Bruce, who have contributed to this debate. The Evidence Amendment (Journalists’ Privilege) Bill 2007 amends the Evidence Act and introduces protection for journalists and their sources. The amendments will ensure that a judge will have the ability to exclude evidence which would otherwise disclose information communicated to a journalist in confidence. In reaching such a decision, the judge will be required to consider a number of factors detailed in this bill.

It is important that members are aware that the amendments are based on a model recommended by the Australian, New South Wales and Victorian Law Reform Commissions. These commissions undertook an 18-month review of the law of evidence and undertook consultations with a wide range of stakeholders. I understand that submissions were received from key media groups including the Australian Press Council as well as public interest groups, legal bodies and the judiciary. I endorse the comments made by the member for Banks on the excellent work undertaken by those commissions.

There has been, of course, as is often the case in relation to these matters, some misinformation in recent days—that the introduction of this bill would mean that the Commonwealth is backing away from its commitment to Uniform evidence law. Let me say that the reason for this bill is to ensure that the court knows—as has been represented by the Solicitor-General—as it is considering penalties in relation to the journalists that are before it, that the Commonwealth’s view is that a judge ought to have a discretion to ensure that, in an appropriate case, broader public interest factors are entertained which might mean that a penalty, particularly one of penal servitude, will not be imposed.

I might say that, given that the matter of the two journalists is before a Victorian court, where the Victorian Evidence Act is dealing with the issue, it is equally important that the Victorian government demonstrates its commitment to this change by legislating quickly. The Commonwealth’s intention is clear, but the matter needs to be dealt with expeditiously so that the court is aware that the matters that have been represented as to our intention to legislate are known by the fact that the legislation has in fact secured successful passage. I welcome the assurances that have been given by the opposition that in the other place they will assist in securing effective and rapid passage.

This does not mean that model evidence laws are not to proceed. The fact is that this matter is being addressed in the context of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General. It is desirable that laws in these areas be uniform in character. It is more likely that we are going to achieve that outcome if the standing committee’s approach is followed—that is, it has had consideration by an expert reference group, that group is making comments, the standing committee will be informed by its advisers and that information will assist in ensuring that the standing committee is well informed. I hope that we will see the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General reach an agreement shortly, in relation to the wide range of other issues that have been canvassed in this debate, on where it is of the view that some form of privilege ought to be available.

I might say that that is separate from a broader range of other issues relating to legal professional privilege which are before the Law Reform Commission at this stage. However, as I have stated in this place, the issue of protecting journalists was too important to wait, given the potential for further delays in the SCAG process—that is, the standing committee process. Yet, as I have also made clear in my second reading address, it remains my hope that I will be bringing forward a second bill which will implement the remainder of the government’s response to Uniform evidence law when we have had an opportunity, in the standing committee process, to fully consider it. I told my state and territory colleagues when I met with them last April that this was the approach that we would be adopting. So this bill is in no way a reflection on SCAG; they were aware that the government’s view was that this matter ought to be dealt with by legislation, in isolation from the other factors, as early as possible.

I am disappointed that the member for Barton, notwithstanding Labor’s support for the bill, felt it necessary to move a second reading amendment which is beyond the scope of the issues to be addressed in this bill and the recommendations made by the law reform commissions. I draw the member for Barton’s attention to the Public Service Act 1999, which, in relation to whistleblowers, already protects from discrimination and victimisation federal public servants who report breaches of the Australian Public Service code of conduct. There are also mechanisms in place for complaints to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about actions or decisions of Commonwealth agencies. In other words, if whistleblowers, in the public sector role that they are fulfilling, believe that something has been dealt with inappropriately, they have appropriate mechanisms to be able to report on those matters to the Public Service Commission or to take the matter to the Ombudsman if they believe that people have been derelict in their responsibilities as public servants.

It is not a question of saying, ‘I can get a cheap headline in a newspaper one day.’ The question of the conduct of officers is not such that they have a broad discretion to wake up one day and say, ‘Today, I feel like I want to be a whistleblower, and I’m going to leak a whole lot of material’—material which it may not be in the public interest to disclose in that way. I make the point that the disclosure of information is not always in the public interest. In some instances, disclosure may be an infringement of an individual’s privacy. It can damage reputations. It can be prejudicial to national security. If it relates to budget issues, it would be quite irresponsible to put information of that sort out into the public arena on the basis that you think you have a cause. For that reason—because there are appropriate steps that can be taken by a public servant who is legitimately concerned about issues to explore those issues—the government will not be supporting the proposed second reading amendment.

I am aware that members of the opposition have used this debate to make a wide range of claims about a wide range of other issues. In what was meant to be a bipartisan issue, it is disappointing that that has been the case, but I do not suppose that I should have been at all surprised. As mentioned earlier, I do welcome the opposition’s support for the bill in principle. It is a significant amendment to evidence law, and it will provide an avenue to protect confidential communications between journalists and their sources. I commend the bill to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AM Somlyay)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Barton has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.