November 8, 2011  |  Second Reading

Public Interest Monitor Bill 2011

I am pleased to make a contribution on the Public Interest Monitor Bill 2011. The Labor Party is not opposing the bill, but it is seeking amendments and the government’s support for those, particularly in relation to clause 20. Who watches the watchers? The accountability of governments, of ministers, of public sector officials and so on has consumed much political debating time among Victorians in the past few years.

The State Services Authority, the Office of Police Integrity (OPI), the Ombudsman and a cottage industry of commissioners to oversight everything from the sacrosanct rights of children to the operation of speed cameras are now in place. We now have before us a bill that looks particularly at telecommunications interceptions, or phone tapping, as it is known. This has led to the bill before the house with regard to the Public Interest Monitor.

I point out that in particular in the second-reading speech the minister pointed to the need to provide important checks and balances on the use of significant covert investigative and coercive powers in Victoria. There was of course the recent report of the Victorian Ombudsman on an investigation into the Office of Police Integrity’s handling of a complaint, where it was pointed out by the Ombudsman that there appeared to be a considerable gap in the oversight arrangements in relation to the use of telecommunication interception powers in Victoria.

My observations are that in their desire to meet community expectations about openness, accountability and the appropriate use of powers bestowed by the Parliament, governments — the elected representatives of the people — have not always kept pace with ensuring that the great privileges made available to these non-elected appointees are also open to scrutiny, checks and balances.

The Victorian Ombudsman is right to insist that we have a Public Interest Monitor, and I note that the Liberal-Nationals government has stuck doggedly to an opportunity to put itself ahead of the interests of Victorians. It has chosen to do that in relation to clause 20 of the bill, which sets out the process by which the minister must lay annual reports before each house of the Parliament:

(1) The Minister must cause the report to be laid before each House of the Parliament within 14 sitting days of the House after receiving the report.

That could easily blow out to two months before the report of the Public Interest Monitor is laid before this house and before the public. The government has not adequately explained why the minister requires some two months to look privately and exclusively at the annual report of the Public Interest Monitor before making that report available to other members of this house, to other members of this Parliament and to the people of Victoria. What is the motivation behind that? All we have to go on is an Australian Associated Press report of 13 October headed ‘Minister bungles on Vic phone tap watchdog’, which reads:

The Victorian government has backtracked on claims it would directly brief the new phone bugging and surveillance watchdog.

Perhaps this explains why the minister is keen in another forum to try to make sure that under clause 20 of the bill he has exclusive rights and access for as long as possible to the annual report that is meant to be tabled in this house. At the time — on 13 October — the minister told reporters that it would be the state government and probably himself who would be briefing the Public Interest Monitor. He is quoted as having said:

‘It will probably be, no doubt, the minister responsible for the establishment of the anticorruption commission or it may be the department’, he told reporters.
‘But the reality is, you know, it will be the government that will do the briefing of the person to appear on behalf of the public interest’.

The minister later backtracked in relation to this matter, but he sought through the provisions of clause 20 of the bill before the house to provide himself with every opportunity and every length of time to have exclusive access to the report of the Public Interest Monitor, which should be made available to the members of this Parliament and to the public. No reason has been given by the minister for why he needs to have unfettered and exclusive access, before other Victorians, to the findings of the annual report of the Public Interest Monitor.

One can only conclude that the original comments he made to the media and publicly in relation to who would be briefing the Public Interest Monitor and who would be directing the Public Interest Monitor — comments which he later backtracked on and later recanted — must stand.

The minister has sought to get around that by providing himself with not just 14 days, not just 10 to 15 business days, but 14 sitting days. If the report is presented in a month where there are no sitting days or in a month where there are three sitting days and there are six in the next month, it could be two to three months before the annual report of the Public Interest Monitor is delivered to the Parliament. I think that is of great concern, and it is something the Labor Party has sought to amend. We look forward to hearing from the government as to why it believes the minister needs to have unfettered, exclusive access to what is ultimately a public report. No explanation has been given.

I believe the work that the governments of both persuasions have done in relation to openness, accountability and transparency — and accountability in particular — is important to ensure that those people who are entrusted with representing public utilities and public authorities are accountable and are meeting the obligations placed upon them as unelected representatives asked to discharge public responsibilities. Often governments have not apprised themselves of the checks and balances in place in those organisations, but in an effort to try to do that through the Public Interest Monitor — —

The DEPUTY SPEAKER — Order! The time has come for me to interrupt the business of the house. The member will have the call when the bill is next before the house.

Business interrupted pursuant to sessional orders.