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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6751

Senator LUDWIG (4:35 PM) —In my contribution in the second reading debate last night, I highlighted that the model proposed by the government in the Australian Crime Commission Establishment Bill raised fundamental points of principle for the Labor Party. Labor is serious about fighting crime, but Labor is also serious about upholding the important principles of responsibility and accountability within our parliamentary system of government. That is why we are seeking amendments to this bill that are designed to support important principles that inform the establishment and operation of the NCA in the first place.

Labor supports the additional three recommendations made by the majority of the Labor members of the parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, which relate to the system for approving the exercise of coercive powers. A defining feature of the NCA is that it holds coercive powers similar to those of a royal commission. These are powers to obtain documents and other evidence and to summons a person to appear at a hearing to give evidence under oath. As it now stands, these coercive powers can be used only in very defined circumstances and with ultimate accountability lying with the intergovernmental committee, which is made up of the various ministers. At the time that the NCA was set up, there was extensive debate about the nature of these coercive powers and a recognition of the fact that no government would allow them to be solely in the hands of the police forces, bureaucrats or politicians. That is why the architect of the NCA devised the references system whereby the ministerial level intergovernmental committee refers matters to the NCA for investigation.

Under the proposed new model for the Australian Crime Commission, the board— and remember that it is made up of police commissioners and bureaucrats—will not only determine priorities for the organisation but also have the power to press the green button on the use of coercive powers. The board can also approve the use of the powers for the purpose of intelligence gathering—a move away from the investigative focus of the National Crime Authority. Overall, the new model is a major departure from the current regime, where special powers may be exercised only after a matter has been referred to the NCA by the intergovernmental committee.

The shadow minister for justice and customs told the House last week that he understood the government would introduce amendments to address the additional three recommendations of the Labor members of the PJC. The government has today tabled those amendments. In essence, Labor's objective in seeking amendments was to ensure ministerial accountability under our system of responsible government. In fact, the three recommendations of the majority of the Labor members of the parliamentary joint committee were designed to do exactly that. The government amendments go some distance towards achieving that objective by effectively giving the ministerial level intergovernmental committee the power of veto over a decision of the board to authorise the use of special or coercive powers of the new Australian Crime Commission. In a sense, the amendments approach the issue of ministerial accountability via the route of a power of veto rather than via a power of approval.

This is certainly a significant improvement on the original model, which would have given the board an unfettered power to approve the use of coercive powers. Indeed, the original model even allowed a subcommittee of the board to authorise the use of coercive powers—a situation that was reversed last week with the introduction of a suite of amendments in the House by the government. Under these amendments the ministerial level IGC must be given a copy of the board's determination to authorise the use of the coercive powers. The intergovernmental committee can then request further information about the board's determination. Armed with that information, the ministers have 30 days in which to make a decision whether to overturn the board's determination. An absolute majority of the members of the IGC, including the Commonwealth Minister for Justice and Customs, is needed to overturn the board's decision.

The overall effect of these amendments is to reinstate the important principle of ministerial accountability into the process for the authorisation of the special powers that will be held by the new Australian Crime Commission. On the basis that these amendments achieve Labor's stated objective of ensuring an appropriate level of ministerial accountability and responsibility, Labor is prepared to support the bill with these amendments. I might also add that, in a letter from the Hon. Chris Ellison, those principles put forward by Mr Melham were agreed to, and we are now actually in a position of being able to say that the process of coming to that agreement was well worth it to ensure that there was ministerial accountability and to ensure that the Australian Crime Commission will have the powers that it requires to fight crime. In that process, Mr Melham joined the government in ensuring that the Australian Crime Commission is a body that will be able to effectively fight crime. We think the amendments assist in that process. Labor is in a position to support the four amendments as circulated today by the minister, along with the supplementary explanatory memorandum.