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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 195

Senator VANSTONE (12.06 p.m.) —I understand that the government has further amendments to 26A. I wonder whether Senator Spindler might like to consider, on the run, adding to 28A(1)(a), after `the general operations performance and effectiveness of the national witness protection program', either these words or words to this effect: `and in particular the exercise of the commissioner's powers under clause 26A', which, of course, would mean that the commissioner would have to report to the minister on the exercise of the powers under 26A.

  These are the powers, as Senator Spindler is probably aware, that enable the commissioner to decide the circumstances under which he will make known to a court and to defence counsel information on the record of a protected witness giving evidence in a subsequent and further matter. I will not rehash the debate completely, but this matter has very serious consequences for an innocent citizen, if we are talking only about criminal matters, and for all citizens if we are talking about civil matters where the reliability of the witness concerned might be crucial to the conviction of a party or crucial to the success or loss of a civil claim with a financial consequence.

  The reliability of the witness might be crucial. It is all very well for us to sit here and say, `That would not happen very often, so that would be fine.' All I am suggesting is that the commissioner would have to report to the minister. Senator Spindler's proposed new subclause 28A(2) would mean that, in consultation with the commissioner, the minister would have to give some indication to parliament as to what had happened.

  I suspect that we will all find that the reports would indicate that nothing much happened, for quite a few years. It is quite a rare circumstance that we are talking about whereby someone who has been a protected witness in some criminal proceedings later becomes a non-protected witness under that person's new identity in other proceedings.

  It is short shrift to say to someone involved in those later proceedings, `Bad luck, you didn't get to test the veracity of a witness; that has cost you something because years ago we decided to have this witness protection program.' I do not think it will happen very often. Therefore, the reporting would hardly be onerous. It would probably be once every five or six years that the commissioner will have to make this decision. But I, for one, think the parliament ought to be interested when he or she does make that decision in later days and have an opportunity to see whether that power has been appropriately exercised.