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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 198

Senator ELLISON (12.25 p.m.) —I did not have an opportunity to speak in the second reading debate, so for the record I will just make my brief observations. I applaud the government on this program. A national program for the protection of witnesses has been long overdue, especially with the escalation of organised crime that we have seen in recent years. Whilst the majority of protected witnesses might involve organised crime, there are the odd occasions where a witness might need protection. There might be a witness who happened upon the scene and an accused person who is perhaps dangerous or has some connections who are of a shadier complexion in the community, we might say.

  I foreshadow some possible points for concern. I raised the question earlier about a proposed witness being accepted and having to fill in a memorandum of understanding and, thereby, disclose incriminating information before that person is accepted onto the program. Furthermore, there may be a case where a person wants protection but is not taken onto the program. Whilst not having a public avenue of appeal, I think perhaps the government could keep an eye on how that is done and how that aspect of refusal is looked at. I appreciate the need for security there but, nonetheless, I think that is an important point.

  Clause 26A, which has now been inserted, goes some way to allaying the fears that I and others who appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs had, and that was that a participant in this program could subsequently appear in another proceeding and have shielded from the court his or her criminal record. I think the amendment proposed by Senator Vanstone in relation to the Democrats' amendment was a sensible one that provides some sort of ongoing review of how this discretion is exercised.

  Nonetheless, I put this warning to the Senate that if the commissioner decides that a record should not be released or made available then, of course, the exercise of that discretion will subsequently be made known to the ombudsman and the commissioner would report to the minister. That could be closing the gate after the horse has bolted and that could well be perhaps too late for a party to the previous proceedings who could well have used that record in a quite useful manner. I dare say if that did come to light that could be a ground of appeal for a retrial and I trust that is how it would be looked at. They are my concerns in relation to this bill.

  I would also ask the government to keep an eye on the removal of witnesses from the program. It is only going to induce people to give this crucial evidence if it can tell them that they are not going to be left in the cold, that they are not going to be removed without good cause or reason. Therefore, I add another caveat to my address on this bill.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Bill read a third time.