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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 582

Senator HARRADINE (11.13 a.m.) —I see a bit of a distinction between the latter and the former; that is to say, advice given by HREOC or by the Privacy Commissioner to GBEs or government departments in respect of what they are required to do under the relevant legislation, and advice to the government in the preparation of legislation. As to the former, is there anything that would prevent the parliament and parliamentarians from seeking and, in fact, receiving copies of that advice which, of course, affects the operations of the government department or the GBE in matters of principle?

  I detect a degree of sympathy around the chamber—certainly I am sympathetic—to the thrust of the Senator Spindler's proposal that members of parliament should be able to obtain from the Privacy Commissioner and from HREOC advice in considering legislation placed before this parliament. There was one example only the other day when the Senate had before it health insurance legislation. We were then dealing with powers of investigation—a function that was being transferred from the AFP to the Health Insurance Commission. Those of us who were present at the time will be aware that on that occasion we were concerned about what the Privacy Commissioner was saying. The government would not tell us what the Privacy Commissioner was saying about that particular legislation. We knew the Privacy Commissioner was a bit concerned about the aspects of maintaining the integrity of patients' records.

  It would have been useful for honourable senators in that debate to have been provided with the response that the Privacy Commissioner gave to the government on that piece of legislation. I think that is perfectly reasonable. We could not get it on that occasion. We had an assurance eventually by the government that the Privacy Commissioner was satisfied. I believe we also had an indication from the Privacy Commissioner to the committee.

  The point made by Senator Spindler is a good one. I take the point that the minister has made. I think that part of this proposal seeks to throw the net too broadly. The minister raised a very important constitutional question, and I agree with him on that. I could not vote for the Spindler amendment in its current form, but I support its thrust.

  I would like the minister to indicate whether a member of parliament is entitled to receive a copy of the legal advice, or the advice given by HREOC or the Privacy Commissioner, to a government department or a GBE in respect of a matter of principle which would then govern the actions of the relevant government department or GBE. I am using the terms quite definitely; it is a matter of principle. I am not suggesting that the parliamentarian should have access to, say, privacy commissioner requirements in individual cases where information may disclose the circumstances of cases which we would not be entitled to.