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Thursday, 13 May 2004
Page: 23246

Senator GREIG (12:45 PM) —The Law and Justice Legislation Amendment Bill 2004 is an essentially non-controversial bill which makes minor amendments to some 22 different pieces of legislation. The Democrats do not oppose these amendments. However, there is one amendment which I would like to comment briefly on this afternoon, and that is the proposed amendment to the Evidence Act. The Evidence Act currently provides that evidence may be given outside of Australia by an Australian diplomatic officer. The bill extends this to include locally engaged consular officers. While this amendment is not contentious in itself, it reminds me of a recent issue involving an Australian citizen who is currently imprisoned in the United States, namely Mr Kirk Pinner. I have spoken about this case previously in this place. In fact, in the course of a debate on a previous bill, I asked the Minister for Justice and Customs a series of questions about that particular case. Although he undertook to provide answers to my questions, the minister has not yet responded.

Mr Pinner's case involved an issue about Australian consular personnel providing evidence regarding Australian citizens. Mr Pinner was charged with a criminal offence, a charge which he denied. He remained in the United States on bail for a considerable time after being charged. Mr Pinner claims he was subsequently advised by Australian consular personnel that he would not receive a fair trial within the US justice system and that he should return to Australia. That allegation is denied by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. However, an Australian consular office in the US did issue a new passport to Mr Pinner and he returned home to Tasmania, breaching his bail. The minister for justice subsequently authorised Mr Pinner's extradition to the US to face trial. The Attorney-General's Department informs me that more Australians are extradited to the United States each year than to any other nation in the world. In the lead-up to Mr Pinner's case, the prosecution indicated that it wished to subpoena a consular officer, Mr Brian Brook, to testify against Mr Pinner during the trial. The Democrats expressed our concern that this would be contrary to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which protects consular officers from being compelled to provide evidence.

Quite apart from the legalities of the issue, the Democrats' primary concern relates to the interests of Australians travelling abroad. The whole purpose of Australian consular offices in other countries is to provide assistance and to protect the interests of Australian citizens. If Australian consular officers are permitted to provide evidence against Australian citizens, how can that purpose be properly fulfilled? How can Australian citizens have any confidence that, when they seek assistance from an Australian consular office, their interests will not subsequently be compromised by the very people who are supposed to assist them? We Democrats believe this is an issue of some serious concern and one that needs to be clarified and, if necessary, addressed for the benefit of all Australians who travel overseas.

I note that Mr Pinner, following his recent trial in the US, has been convicted and sentenced to a period of imprisonment. We Democrats understand that there is some uncertainty as to whether Mr Pinner will be transferred back to Australia to serve out that prison sentence here and, indeed, whether his sentence of imprisonment will take into account the time he spent in custody in Tasmania prior to his extradition to the United States. I take this opportunity on behalf of the Democrats to call on the government to ensure that Mr Pinner is brought home to Australia to serve out his sentence close to his family—including his parents; his partner, Tracey; and his son—in Tasmania.