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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2186

Senator IAN MACDONALD (12.17 a.m.) —I raise a serious matter about justice and democracy in Queensland. In the past in the Senate I have raised the matter of the Whitsunday Shire Council, based in Proserpine on the Whitsunday Coast in central North Queensland. At the shire council elections on 26 March this year the former chairman and the former deputy chairman of the council, both of whom in every previous election had topped the poll, were defeated.

  Whilst it is never possible to say with any certainty why political candidates are defeated, I think it is fairly well recognised in the Whitsunday shire area that one of the reasons that the mayor and the deputy mayor suffered electorally was a high profile dispute between the then elected council and its shire clerk. There were, of course, other reasons, including a campaign of smear and innuendo, which I understand will be the subject of court cases.

  The dispute between the council and its clerk arose when the council attempted to dismiss the shire clerk for the following failures, according to affidavits filed in the Supreme Court: failure to obey council directives; an uncooperative and unhelpful attitude; low level of general competence; lack of knowledge of the Local Government Act; alienation of other executive staff; emotional instability; breakdown of relationships with the council; being drunk at an official function; insubordination; and failure to report to the council.

  Further affidavits filed in the Supreme Court in various legal actions also related vicious and unprovoked insults by the clerk to various members of the community, including senior ratepayers; a claim that whilst representing the council in a social capacity she had drunk to excess in the presence of many ratepayers and developers; an allegation that she had made overt and unwanted sexual advances to a number of residents of the shire and, by her inappropriate contact, had made it more difficult for a number of ratepayers to deal with the council in an effective and business-like way; and allegations of the clerk's volatile, erratic and unprofessional behaviour in the presence of council residents.

  In the end, the council received legal advice that there were sufficient reasons for the termination of the shire clerk's employment. Evidence to support the allegations of the clerk's unsuitable behaviour were contained in affidavits filed in the Supreme Court. I am informed that the council actually sacked the clerk on 12 July 1993 but three days later the Queensland government reinstated the clerk, declaring her to be a whistleblower, suggesting that because she had reported members of the council to the CJC she was sacked.

  The CJC was at the time making an inquiry into allegations that the chairman had a pecuniary interest in a quarry which competed with a quarry owned by the council. The CJC, however, was not involved because of a whistleblower report by the shire clerk. The CJC had in fact become involved at the request of the council itself in 1991 after pressure by the chairman himself for the CJC to investigate the matter.

  Incidentally, only a matter of days before the local authority election and during the campaign, the CJC issued a report exonerating the chairman from any wrongdoing in relation to the quarry. During the conduct of the CJC inquiry, which dragged on over a couple of years prior to the 1994 elections, the CJC required that no information be made public by the council as to the reasons for the clerk's dismissal. The chairman, deputy chairman and other members of the council had honoured this requirement that no public statement be made regarding reasons for the clerk's dismissal and, as a result, in the nine months leading up to the election it was generally believed by the people of Whitsunday—a belief reinforced because it was uncontested—that the shire clerk had been dismissed because she was a whistleblower in relation to a CJC matter. This impression was encouraged by the Labor member for Whitsunday, Mrs Lorraine Bird who, as I will mention later, has a rather unsavoury part in this whole affair. But I return to the dismissal of the clerk.

  As I mentioned, on 12 July 1993 the council sacked the clerk but she was reinstated three days later by the Queensland government. Legal proceedings were instituted by the council and on 8 February 1994, just six weeks before the election, Mr Justice Demack of the Queensland Supreme Court handed down a judgment in which he said that the reasons for the dismissal of the clerk should be given in open court.

  The CJC immediately lodged appeals on this and a related decision which the council hoped to have heard in late February. But for whatever reason, the court postponed the hearing of the appeals until late April or May, thus denying the voters of the Whitsunday Shire the right to hear the council's reasons for the dismissal of the shire clerk before the elections. The council by resolution requested that the Queensland government defer the shire council elections until reasons could be made public. Naturally enough, being directed to a Labor government, the request was not acceded to.

  The reasons for the clerk's sacking had nothing to do with the CJC inquiry but solely regarded her incompetency and unsuitability for the job. The Labor member for Whitsunday, Mrs Lorraine Bird, had used parliamentary privilege and her position on the Queensland Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee to dishonestly defame and implicate the former chairman of the Whitsunday Shire Council.

  In fact, on 20 April 1994 the Courier-Mail reported that Mrs Bird had abused her position of trust on the parliamentary committee overseeing the CJC. Mrs Bird is reported as having used her position to obtain information from an officer of the CJC for personal use in a court case in which she was involved. Having improperly sought to obtain information from the officer, according to the Courier-Mail report, Mrs Bird then—

Senator Faulkner —Mr President, I rise on a point of order. Standing order 193(3) states:

A Senator shall not use offensive words against either House of Parliament or of a House of a State or Territory Parliament, or any member of such House, or against a judicial officer, and all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on those Houses, members or officers shall be considered highly disorderly.

Mr President, on that basis I ask you to rule on whether Senator Macdonald is out of order. It seems to me that he is casting a reflection on a member of another parliament.

Senator Panizza —Mr President, on the point of order, I raised a similar matter with you the other day and you told me that in broad ranging debate these things can come up. I do not believe that in this case Senator Macdonald is out of order.

The PRESIDENT —I do not think that there is any similarity between the case you raised with me and the case that has been raised now. The point of order must be upheld. Senators are not allowed to reflect on members of this parliament or on members of other houses of parliament, and I ask you to refrain from doing that in any future comments.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Mr President, according to the Courier-Mail report, Mrs Bird reported the officer to the parliamentary committee, causing the CJC chairman to demand a formal apology from the officer. The officer is quoted as saying that she would `rather go to Sarajevo' than apologise to Mrs Bird. The officer's position then became untenable and she resigned. Some might say that Mrs Bird took advantage of her position on the CJC and was involved in the dismissal of that particular person because—

Senator Faulkner —I raise a point of order. Mr President, I ask you to rule on whether Senator Macdonald is imputing improper motives and making a personal reflection on a member of another parliament. I ask for your guidance in this matter.

The PRESIDENT —I have made the point that I think he is now drawing a very fine line in trying to avoid compounding the felony, if you like. Senator Macdonald, I ask you to leave names out. You may have to restructure your speech to do that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I will not argue because time is short and Senator Faulkner has obviously taken these points of order—

The PRESIDENT —I have upheld Senator Faulkner's points of order.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I accept your ruling. Senator Faulkner has obviously taken these points to prevent me doing this because it involves a Labor member of parliament. But I think it is of regret to note that in Queensland things do not seem to change. After the intensive investigations by Mr Fitzgerald QC into improper actions of the previous Queensland government and in spite of all of the recommendations made by Mr Fitzgerald, it would seem that the current Queensland government is up to the same old tricks, allowing its members to use their positions in improper ways. It is unfortunate that the manipulation of the CJC inquiries and Supreme Court cases and appeals in the lead-up to the local authority election has resulted in what many would consider to be a travesty of justice and democracy in Queensland.