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Monday, 18 June 2001
Page: 27675

Mr McCLELLAND (12:40 PM) —It is disappointing and concerning that, in a flow of drama, no doubt, after this report is tabled, the integrity of our electoral system will be questioned for base political motives. The facts of matter are that we have a first-rate electoral system administered, indeed, by a first-rate organisation in the Australian Electoral Commission. Sure, as the Australian Electoral Commission indicated, it is always open to constructive criticism. Indeed, over a number of years constructive suggestions by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters have been taken on board willingly by the Australian Electoral Commission. So to sensationalise matters, as the majority report does, is really quite unfortunate. We are seeing all over the world tremendous cynicism that so many people in the electorate have, in particular young people who are out there demonstrating against the World Trade Organisation and the like because they feel disenfranchised from the political process. To slander, in many instances unjustifiably, as this report on the Australian Electoral Commission does, can only contribute to and hasten that sort of trend.

My speech was going to focus on looking at how this committee operated. One of the most satisfying things I as a member of this parliament have had to do is to participate in the committee process. Committees under government chairs that I have been on have been really first class and have really made some constructive suggestions on the development of policy and legislation. Regrettably, this was not such a committee and, quite frankly, while I appreciate the work done by the committee secretariat, I must express my sympathy for what they had to go through, and I know that we had at least one resignation along the way because of the intolerable circumstances that they confronted.

I say this in the context of what we have in this country as a cornerstone of a system of responsible government, and that is a system where the executive—that is, the ministers of the Crown—are accountable to the Australian people through the parliament. One of the instruments of that process of accountability has been the committee system. How dangerous does it become when the committee itself is used as a sword for the executive? The blatantly political terms of reference that this committee had, dismissing the former chair and bringing on a chair for a specific purpose of blatantly discrediting the Labor government in Queensland and trying to draw into controversy federal Labor members of parliament, is an example of the executive using the mechanisms and the procedures of this parliament for its own purposes. We as parliamentarians, no matter what side of the fence we sit on, should be deeply concerned about that.

The procedures adopted by this committee were really quite outrageous. They were throwing subpoenas around like confetti. The Australian public must be aware that being summoned by a committee of the parliament effectively deprives an Australian citizen of their liberty for a day. As I say, subpoenas were thrown around like confetti. In the case of one of the witnesses, Lee Bermingham, who was likely to be referred to this parliament for contempt of parliament—the parliament itself having extremely broad coercive powers—that was going to occur in circumstances where there had been no personal service of the subpoena, there had been no endeavour to ascertain the witness's availability to give evidence and there had been no conduct money, as required in all court rules, to facilitate that person's coming and give evidence and assist them to do so. That is one circumstance where an Australian citizen can be deprived of their liberty by a committee of this parliament acting at the direction of the executive. Then the next step is when they get before the committee.

We have in this country a fundamental reverence, if you like, for the concept of procedural fairness, and that is that if you are going to face allegations you should be forewarned of those allegations and be given the opportunity to rebut them. In our minority report we contrast the fundamental principles of procedural fairness with the medieval star chamber. When people were brought before the famous star chambers they were required to swear an inquisitorial oath, which effectively required them to meet charges and declare their own innocence, to prove that they were not guilty. We in fact witnessed, in this committee, a taking of the concept of the star chamber one step further. Not only did we put allegations to witnesses; we effectively said to witnesses, `Well, what are the allegations that have been made against you?' For instance, we refer in our minority report to a question by the chairman on 29 January 2001 when he said to Mr Mooney, who was himself facing serious allegations before the Shepherdson inquiry:

Therefore, what are the allegations in front of the CJC about fraudulent enrolment involving you? I defer another question to when the CJC's interim report recommends that you be referred to the DPP. So what are the allegations before the CJC regarding your role?'

So here is an Australian citizen compelled to attend before a committee of this parliament—

Mr Pyne —I thought it was important to know.

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Sturt!

Mr Pyne —Why don't you look at the report rather than playing the man?

Mr SPEAKER —The member for Sturt is in defiance of the chair.

Mr McCLELLAND —and the committee of this parliament says, `Well, you tell us the allegations that have been made against you and then prove your innocence.' That is outrageous; that is taking the concept of the star chamber even one step further. This is something the Australian public should be very concerned about. Indeed, I think in years to come scholars will look at the conduct of this committee and express their very grave concerns about what has transpired. It has fundamentally breached any concept of procedural fairness, it has been an arm, or a sword, of the executive, and it has been used for blatantly political purposes.

We should all be quite ashamed at how this committee has conducted itself. And it was all in the context where, yes, we concede that there were serious allegations being made, particularly in the state of Queensland, but there was a professional organisation, the Shepherdson inquiry, taking place with professional cross-examiners and professional advocates testing the evidence and giving people the opportunity to rebut those allegations. Indeed, I note that, because of the shemozzle of how the evidence before this committee came out, virtually no findings are made on the basis of evidence before this committee but, instead, the majority report harks back to the findings of the Shepherdson inquiry, where these issues should have been tested. A committee of this parliament should not be used to investigate criminality. That is the job of a specialist judicial inquiry and ought not to be pursued for blatantly political purposes, using the tremendous coercive powers that this parliament has.

In our minority report we address a number of concerns. We vehemently and strongly say that the Australian public are entitled to an electoral system that they can be proud of, and we are convinced that they can be. What we do not want to see, however, is for blatantly political purposes huge sectors of this society being disenfranchised, such as, in particular, the most vulnerable in our community, the indigenous populations, who do not have access to identification. Indeed, we have heard throughout the evidence how easy it is for this identification to be fabricated. The Westpac Bank found in their survey some 13 per cent of birth certificates presented to them were fabricated. So without effective means of cross-checking, which we emphasise, presenting some form of personal identification would be futile. At the same time, it would disenfranchise large sectors of the community, as indeed would shutting off the rolls so far away from the election, as this government majority report proposes. On our estimates we would lose about 80,000 young people if the recommendation is adhered to. (Time expired)