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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6746

Senator ABETZ (Special Minister of State) (4:14 PM) —I would like to thank all senators for their contributions to the debate on the Australian Crime Commission Establishment Bill 2002. During the election campaign last year, the Prime Minister announced that he intended to convene a summit on terrorism and transnational crime. That summit was held in April and, amongst other things, it decided to replace the National Crime Authority with an Australian Crime Commission. Details of the ACC were agreed between police and justice ministers in August. The Australian Crime Commission Establishment Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in September and amends the National Crime Authority Act to establish the ACC. The ACC will combine the functions of the NCA, the Australian Bureau of Criminal Intelligence and the Office of Strategic Crime Assessments. The ACC will have an enhanced national criminal intelligence capacity and is designed to complement rather than compete with existing law enforcement agencies.

The bill has received close scrutiny. It reflects the agreement that has been reached with the states and territories after extensive consultation. It also reflects the majority of the recommendations made by the parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority. The committee is to be commended for its efforts, and I would like to reinforce the comments made by the Attorney-General in the House. I wish to place on record my appreciation, and that of the government, of the efforts of the chair, the member for Cook, Bruce Baird, the members of the PJC and the staff of the secretariat to the PJC.

I would like to briefly respond to some of the major points that have been raised during the debate. Labor senators have raised concerns about coercive powers being given to the police and have quoted public comments by the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police from early last year. I wish to place on record again the government's position on this very important issue. The government agrees that it is not appropriate that coercive powers be given to police and therefore agrees with the AFP Commissioner's views. There is no inconsistency with this position and the proposal before the Senate for the ACC.

There is a clear distinction between the authorisation of coercive powers and the exercise of those powers. It is proposed that the board of the ACC be able to authorise the use of the powers, but the exercise of those powers will be by independent statutory officers, to be called examiners. The legislation makes it clear that the examiners are not subject to direction by the CEO or the board in the exercise of those powers. The legislation also makes it clear that examiners are expected to exercise an independent discretion in relation to whether the power should be used in particular circumstances. They will be required to act reasonably, and they will be required to record in writing the reasons for deciding to exercise the powers in each case. So it is not the case that coercive powers have been given to police.

A further concern expressed during the course of the debate related to a perceived lack of ministerial accountability. There is no lack of accountability under these proposals. As a Commonwealth body, the ACC will be accountable to the Minister for Justice and Customs. The ACC will also be accountable to an intergovernmental committee and to the joint committee of this parliament. The government has responded to the PJC's recommendations in the debate in the House of Representatives and has summarised that response in the second reading speech. The government, with the concurrence of the states and territories, agreed in whole or in part with 13 of the 15 recommendations of the PJC. The government moved amendments to the bill in the House to give effect to those recommendations for which legislation was required. However, the government does not accept the additional recommendations made by certain members of the PJC. In the course of debate in the House, reference was made to negotiations with the opposition about possible further amendments.

I want to place on record the government's appreciation of the cooperation of the opposition in engaging in constructive negotiations. I am pleased to advise the Senate that those negotiations have been successful. The concern underlying the additional recommendations was that there should be some involvement by the IGC in the decision to authorise the use of coercive powers. However, the additional recommendations would have the effect of placing the authorisation power with the IGC, subject to an exception in case of urgency. The agreement reached by leaders was that this power should rest with the board and that the IGC would monitor authorisation decisions as part of its oversight role. The compromise reached with the opposition is that the board will be able to authorise the use of coercive powers and the IGC will have a power to revoke that decision. Put another way, the IGC will be given the power to veto authorisation decisions of the board.

The solution provides for an enhanced role for the IGC but permits the board to authorise the use of coercive powers with those decisions taking effect immediately. The government has circulated amendments to give effect to this compromise. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.