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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 577

Senator SPINDLER (10.48 a.m.) —I thank Senator Harradine for his question to the minister. It is important and valid, and I trust the minister will be able to address it.

  One of the reasons that the government gave for opposing my amendment is that it might result in undue workload for the commissioners concerned. But the fact that should be obvious to anyone is that, if an agency or commissioner arrives at a conclusion on legislation before the House and puts that conclusion in writing, to provide that to another inquirer is no more in these days of advanced technology than running off yet another letter, another copy of a statement. Since it is already one of the functions of the commissioners to examine such legislation when requested by the minister, surely it is not too much to ask that non-government members should have the same access. As I said, once an opinion has been arrived at, surely it is just running off a copy. It is a furphy to say otherwise.

  Perhaps the other point is a little closer to the bone. It was indicated that the position of the commissioner as an adviser to government involved in the early preparation and drafting of legislation might be compromised if these officers then are asked to provide advice or information to others.

  I would, of course, accept that any dealings between these officers and the government during the initial stages of preparing and drafting legislation should remain confidential. They should not be asked to divulge what they said to the government, what the government answered and how, in turn, they dealt with it. I think that is accepted. But surely, once the legislation is drafted, once it is before this chamber, the position changes. These officers, the human rights commissioner, the Privacy Commissioner and possibly others, have a statutory duty to assess the consequences of that legislation. The fact that at an earlier stage they assisted the government with advice on framing the legislation should not be a matter that the government should shy away from.

  I can understand the political fear and trepidation and the desire to keep quiet any information or advice that has been provided by these officers. But here we have a real conflict between an executive government that wants to ram through legislation that it wants on the statute books and the duty of this parliament, firstly, to examine that legislation and judge whether that legislation is technically correct, whether it achieves the government's claimed purpose and, secondly, whether it is right in substance—whether its purpose is correct. That is something that this chamber is charged with doing, and it should be allowed to do it. It is little short of interfering with the work of this chamber for the government to say we cannot have the best advice in this country that is available on that legislation before this chamber.

  I have been told that, now that this issue has been raised, the government is prepared to have a close look at the implications of the matter I have raised. While the clerks were able to deal with the time scale of bringing on this particular amendment, the government obviously could not. On this one, I would be happy to continue consultation with the government to arrive at an acceptable formula. But I would appreciate an acknowledgment from the minister, which I have received informally in a sense, that the government accepts the principle that I am putting forward in this amendments.