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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 970


Senator VANSTONE (6.57 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

The document which is entitled `Access to Justice Advisory Committee', otherwise known as the Sackville report, is a very welcome contribution to the ongoing cost of justice debate. That is not to say that I agree with everything in it, or think that it has everything in it that it ought to have. Nonetheless, it is one more report and part of what I want to say today is that I hope it does not stay as just one more report, that we actually start to see some action with respect to this matter.

  It is easy for people in a front bar to look up on Skychannel and see pictures of Bosnia and a whole range of other places where people do not have the same rights that we have here and to feel somehow smugly confident about that. Of course they should, because we do have rights that a lot of people in other countries do not have. But it comes to not much if people cannot afford to access them, and that is the situation at the moment. People simply cannot afford to access their rights, and, worse still, a lot of people do not know what they are.

  The Sackville report, raising yet again the cost of justice issues, was probably the straw that broke the camel's back and led to at least one, that I know of, achievement in respect of this area. Other straws that went towards breaking the camel's back started in estimates committees several years ago, where senators—primarily myself but others joining in—wanted to break the secrecy surrounding the distribution of an enormous amount of money, about $11 million worth of fees, paid to private counsel by the Attorney-General's Department. When it could not handle the workload or it wanted a specialist it briefed that work out.

  If someone has a consultant, or a carpenter, to do a job that is paid for by taxpayers money, estimates committees are entitled to get to the bottom of what that was about, to make sure the carpenter or the consultant was not improperly paid, to ascertain what work they were paid to do and whether the rates were fair; all of those sorts of things that go to the administration of any particular portfolio.

  Somehow, in the Attorney-General's department, there was a view that the legal profession was different, that it was somehow immune from parliamentary scrutiny, and that the legal profession and the Attorney-General's Department could privately decide how much information they would give to parliament. It is ridiculous to accept such a notion. But nonetheless the Attorney-General's Department accepted it, year in and year out, for years. The reply we were given was that it was commercial-in-confidence.

  We realise that the mere mouthing of those words, were we to allow them to be effective, would allow no proper scrutiny of how the government spends taxpayers' money. Contracts for pencils could have a confidentiality clause. We had a run-in some time ago with the ABC when it put confidentiality clauses in contracts for staff that it employed. It just is not on. If it is taxpayers' money, parliament is entitled to know what is happening.

  I talked about the Sackville report being the straw that broke the camel's back, and I indicated that there were other straws raised at the Senate estimates committee. I also give credit to the legal profession in this respect. I wrote to the bar associations recently and said, `Look, the view is being put to parliament that one of the reasons we do not have access to what barristers are paid by the Commonwealth in this $11 million is that they are entitled to some sort of special privilege. We are told that it is a market confidentiality agreement. Therefore, will you please advise me if your association has a view as to whether that ought to be allowed?' Thus far all the replies I have had from the bar associations have said, `Of course not; we have no view that we ought to be able to keep that matter from parliament.'

  The Attorney, having discovered through reading the Financial Review that I had those letters and that that was the view of the bar associations, may have tried to tough it out. The release of the Sackville report said that there has to be more openness in fees for better competition, enabling better competition for the taxpayers' dollar and the taxpayer to get better value in legal services. Now that the Attorney has seen the barrel looking at him and has given in, he has finally said, `Yes, we will release the amounts that we pay to barristers. We will reveal the hourly and daily rates.' Now we will see some real competition for that $11 million and probably see some of the work shift out of Sydney to other states, which of course will be welcomed. (Time expired)