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Thursday, 17 February 2000
Page: 13771

Mr KERR (1:33 PM) —I thank the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Administration for his remarks and preface what I am going to say by indicating that I might ask the indulgence and assistance of the parliamentary secretary, given the way in which the business of the House is proceeding. There is other legislation which is not suitable to come before this place before question time, so I will speak more extensively in relation to these matters than I might otherwise. If I could ask my friend the parliamentary secretary on occasion to stand and respond to the remarks I make, it may make that process even more simple for both of us.

The parliamentary secretary has indicated that the government had two principal objectives in introducing the bills: to provide more flexibility in the Australian Federal Police employment regime, consistent with the Australian Federal Police reform program; and to recast and clarify the commissioner's powers of command. The bill alters the statutory employment framework so there can be greater reliance on industrial agreements and the removal of fixed term statutory appointments.

Of course, in the lead-up to this legislation, the government and the Australian Federal Police themselves, through their association and their membership, were engaged in discussions regarding the establishment of a workplace agreement and that, of course, has now been settled. So this legislation, in a sense, provides a legislative basis upon which that can operate, consistently with a regime which does not apply out of harmony with the approach that the government has taken generally with respect to the arrangements that it is seeking to put in place.

The opposition supports in principle the reform of the Australian Federal Police legislation, and particularly the government's intention that it sharpen the AFP's capacity to address the criminal environment which exists today. It was the Australian Labor Party in government which started the reform process within the Australian Federal Police and we are therefore strongly supportive of its ongoing implementation. However, we are very anxious that in this process, which also involves restructuring of the commissioner's powers of command and discipline, the legitimate industrial interests of those who serve within the Australian Federal Police are not ignored or left in an ambiguous situation, as some of the provisions in the bill appeared to the opposition and to some who gave evidence before the Senate committee which examined this legislation.

So, in the course of our first response to this legislation and later as a result of that report from the Senate committee, the opposition proposed a number of amendments, some of which, after discussion, were agreed to by the government. I think the amendments improve the structure of the legislation and give to those within the Australian Federal Police confidence that the legislation will provide a better system to ensure that some of the key issues that concern them in relation to their employment and their advancement within the service will be dealt with on a proper and impartial basis.

I turn to those particular matters which the parliamentary secretary has identified and I address them one by one. The first of the issues that we were concerned about and which the Senate reported upon was the mandatory dismissal provisions. The mandatory dismissal provisions were not raised by the opposition with any view that there should be any leniency with respect to serious misconduct within the Australian Federal Police. As the parliamentary secretary has correctly noted, there are extensive and enhanced powers of the commissioner to deal with allegations of misconduct. (Extension of time granted) So there are very extensive powers to discipline already existing within the legislation. What concerned the Senate committee in looking at this is that there can be situations where, despite the technical commission of an offence which carries the possible sentence of 12 months or greater, the actual conduct may be, on examination, quite trivial. We may find circumstances whereby a better response, rather than dismissal in those cases, may be counselling; it may be a series of processes that go to internal management issues rather than the necessity of removal by statute of that officer from the service. The possibility of laws which have general application having unjust particular application is no better exampled than by the instance of the mandatory sentencing arrangements which we are currently concerned about as they apply in the Northern Territory.

It is a provision the Northern Territory administration said will apply because of concern in the community regarding the commission of property crimes and a desire to enhance protection of victims. It has had what I would hope is an unintended consequence. That is, a 15-year-old boy finds himself in prison for 28 days without a circumstance any of us as members of parliament thought at all warranted. Then there was the tragedy that emerged as that young person was taken from his home at Groote Island and transferred to Darwin in quite alien and different circumstances and in the course of his imprisonment took his own life. I mention that merely by way of example that passage of laws which are mandatory in their application and give rise to no discretion can have quite severe and, one would hope, unintended consequences. The government in this instance has been alive to that circumstance and has accepted that section 29 of its proposed legislation not be proceeded with.

What it does now mean is that, where an Australian Federal Police officer is convicted of an offence, all the circumstances in relation to that matter must be considered. The circumstance and possibility of a long-serving police officer of impeccable character being dismissed near or at the end of his career for an offence which does not draw a sentence of imprisonment, while certainly a matter of disciplinary action, is not an instance which any of us would regard as appropriate to require dismissal.

Clause 28 of the bill provides a general power of the commission to end the employment of any Australian Federal Police employee subject only to the provisions of the Workplace Relations Act. We believe, and the government has accepted, that deleting clause 29 from the bill and leaving all dismissals to be dealt with under an amended clause 28 is the correct way of dealing with the matter and, of course, schedule 1, which the Senate has returned to us, effects those changes.

The next matter which is the subject of discussion and comes back to us from the Senate relates to the storage, handling and confidentiality of financial statements. This is a good step that the government has introduced and is an improvement on that which we left to them when we left office. It provides a framework whereby declarations in relation to financial interests and probity statements of those who serve in the Australian Federal Police be provided to make transparent to the commissioner the circumstances which might give rise to any conflict of interest. (Time expired)