CJC reform on backburner

by Chris Griffith
Published 21 June 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


In the government propaganda war, the most brazen of strategies to bedazzle the public can come unstuck.

Last week the Education Minister, Mr Braddy, in his capacity as Leader of the House said the Goss Government had set "new benchmarks" in the number of parliamentary sitting days.

Mr Braddy quoted figures of 57 days in 1990, and 52 days in 1991. He tapped into the Queensland public's alleged penchant for parochialism by claiming we were leading NSW and Victoria in this regard.

However, there was no mention of this year's record of a poultry 19 sitting days! Once exposed, the "new benchmarks" claim looked rather ill, and Mr Braddy was forced to justify it on an overall three-year basis.

There are, of course, other ways to assess the government's respect for parliament and its processes. There is the level of funding parliament receives, the government's regard for the parliamentary committee system, and whether parliament's standing orders are fair to the opposition.

In Queensland, parliamentary committees are generally understaffed. The CJC and EARC parliamentary committees, for example, operate mostly with only one researcher officer.

According to EARC, Queensland's budget for parliamentary committees in 1990-91 represented only 2.7 percent of its total parliamentary appropriation, compared to 14.3 percent at commonwealth level, and compared poorly with other states.

However, perhaps the best indicator that something may be wrong is parliament's delay in considering some key reports before it.

One notable example is last year's hefty 400-page report that addressed the future of the state's Criminal Justice Commission (CJC).

The report, by the Parliamentary Criminal Justice Committee (PCJC), was tabled on December 3. It followed a 12-month review which included public submissions and public hearings, but so far has not been debated.

This seems strange given some Goss Government members have been champing at the bit to change the CJC's role since it delivered its stinging report on MP travel rorts.

The government knows the Fitzgerald Report recommended a Parliamentary Committee review of the CJC as the legitimate vehicle for change.

The Committee's chairman, Mr Peter Beattie, says everyone accepts the CJC Act was drafted in haste and "is not a wonderful piece of legislation".

Yet the government has instead opted to review the report at cabinet level without first considering parliament's view. It appears another case of the executive over-riding the Parliament.

So what are the 43 recommendations Mr Beattie's PCJC made that now languish in parliamentary hyperspace?

Ironically, the committee recommended parliament's standing orders be changed to compel it to debate PCJC reports, if the committee recommends. It said the government should be required to table its response to these reports within three months.

It also recommended the CJC be officially empowered to investigate organised and major crime, and police involvement in illegal drugs and in the fabrication of evidence (verballing).

It said the CJC Act should be changed to correct what is regarded as a mistake - the omission of the Corrective Services Commission from the list of institutions the CJC could investigate.

This change would make sense as it would allow the CJC not only to investigate alleged corruption, but also alleged misconduct and blatant negligence within the Corrective Services Commission.

The CJC's involvement, if successful, could end the current repeating occurrence of escapes followed by corrective services' investigations and confidential ministerial reports. It may have even been useful following the recent killing of escapee Harold McSweeny.

The report also said the CJC's misconduct tribunals should be reconstituted under separate legislation. If enacted, this may have alleviated some concern about the constitution of the inquiry into stood-aside police commissioner, Noel Newnham.

Of course, there are other PCJC report reforms that have been introduced simply because they do not require parliament's approval.

For example, the CJC is at last establishing safeguards that, hopefully, will provide justice to those named adversely at its public hearings or in reports.

Techniques such as the use of suppression orders, the sifting of evidence, and rights of reply are becoming standard practices in commissions throughout Australia.

And there are developments such as this week's appearance before the PCJC by QUT's Unit of Applied Ethics to discuss whether ethics education should be provided to existing police officers, as well as recruits.

To the government's credit, it has moved quickly to pass one PCJC recommendation; it did change the CJC Act to relieve the commission from having to investigate ALL complaints received.

And new Police Minister Nev Warburton did recently lend his support to the commission's public hearings on police powers - a welcomed change in attitude from his predecessor.

But even those who may reject some Beattie report recommendations must acknowledge the need for a deliberative debate.

Parliament's failure so far to do this is not a "benchmark" to be proud of.