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Transcript of interview: 19 October 2011: ABC Radio, PM Program with Mark Colvin: 19 October 2011: Coalition questions independence of law firm investigating sexual abuse

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ABC Radio PM Program - Coalition questions independence of law firm investigating sexual abuse complaints

October 19, 2011

MARK COLVIN: The Federal Opposition has used a Senate estimates hearing to question the independence of the law firm investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the military.

The firm DLA Piper has received more than 1000 complaints or allegations.

But the Coalition has suggested that it isn't truly independent, because it's completed legal work worth millions of dollars for the Defence Department.

Stephen Dziedzic reports from Parliament House in Canberra.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Defence commissioned the review after a female Defence Force Academy cadet was secretly filmed having sex earlier this year.

The Government commissioned a raft of inquiries and appointed law firm DLA Piper to conduct an independent review into numerous sexual abuse allegations in the military; some from decades ago.

But the Opposition's Defence spokesman David Johnston has grilled the Department about the choice of law firm.

DAVID JOHNSTON: I think that they have received substantial payment from Defence on a number of contracts over some considerable years. So to that extent, they're not independent.

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: Defence argues that DLA Piper has the experience needed to conduct the review. And the head of the Department's legal division Mark Cunliffe has defended the firm.

MARK CUNLIFFE: It is true that DLA Piper is a firm that's on our legal panel and in that capacity yes we have paid them. I guess I would have to say in one respect there is that

inextricable issue with any funded contractor that provides an independent report, no matter how you cut the cake, you ultimately come back to the fact that by and large people won't act for nothing. So that...

DAVID JOHNSTON: But there are plenty of firms not on the panel.

MARK CUNLIFFE: Well, firms not on the panel potentially wish to be in the panel.

DAVID JOHNSTON: This area independence is very important is it not?

MARK CUNLIFFE: Well, Senator I'd have to say to you, having been involved in dealing with DLA Piper, I have no doubt about the independence of the review.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Bear in mind that all of these victims are suspicious, emotional, distrustful. Would it not have been better to have had an arm's length relationship with the law firm that is not supported financially over a long period through being a panel member to administer this particular line of inquiry?

STEPHEN DZIEDZIC: The review will cost more than $6 million and the Government's expected to pay compensation to several victims of sexual abuse.

Senator Johnston has pushed the Department and the parliamentary secretary for defence, David Feeney to say how large the final compensation bill could be.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Have we put a potential figure on the cost of all of this compensation were it to be paid?

MARK CUNLIFFE: No Senator we have not at this stage. Clearly I would flag that there is still a considerable body of work to be done. All I would say, and this is something I would say the former secretary said to me very early in the piece is that this is not a cheap exercise.

DAVID JOHNSTON: Why are we going through this exercise? It's obvious isn't it? We're going to pay some people. This is huge contingent liability. I mean you can dress it up any way you like Minister but I've got to tell you, this is an unfunded contingent liability of monumental proportions.

SENATOR FEENEY: Well I can understand why you'd be eager to characterise it in those terms and that's a matter for you Senator but that's not how the Department is describing it.