Trouble in SARC

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (who I advise on Charter issues) has the function of scrutinising bills and regulations. Its newest function is set out in Charter s. 30:

The Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee must consider any Bill introduced into Parliament and must report to the Parliament as to whether the Bill is incompatible with human rights.

SARC is widely thought to be an element of the much-vaunted human rights dialogue that the Charter is meant to promote. However, the Charter did not (explicitly) change either the composition of SARC nor the procedural law under which it operates. Historically, SARC, like similar committees, has operated as a bipartisan committee on the basis of consensus, a route that has been likened to a tightrope.

Hansard this week reveals that things have gotten a little rocky. On Tuesday, the usually uninteresting moment when SARC’s Alert Digest was tabled became a little more interesting:

Mr McIntoshI understand that after discussions with the Clerk it is the intention of the member for Brunswick to present an Alert Digest that does not contain the minority report that has been provided to the member for Brunswick and also, I understand, the executive officer. It has been signed by all Liberal and Nationals members of that committee and expresses grave concern about the behaviour of that committee in relation to the Police Integrity Bill, a matter of some import. This matter has been canvassed with the clerks prior to today and was provided to the member for Brunswick for inclusion in the Alert Digest. I seek some guidance from the Speaker as to whether that very important minority report that goes to the integrity of the Police Integrity Bill should be included in the Alert Digest for this week.

The SPEAKEROrder! I cannot uphold the point of order by the member for Kew. The member for Kew is asking me to comment on a document that is yet to be tabled, and of which I am uncertain of the content.

Despite opposition objections, the report was tabled, sans minority report.

On Wednesday, the debate resurfaced in the upper house, which had skipped the previous day presumably because of the budget. Two opposition SARC members spoke to the motion that the report be adopted:

Mr O’DONOHUE (Eastern Victoria)….Alert Digest No. 4 made a number of comments with regard to the Police Integrity Bill and raised a number of questions for the Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Bob Cameron, in the other place. In Alert Digest No. 5 — that is, the document presented yesterday to the Assembly and today to the Council by Mr Eideh — gives some answers to the questions that were asked by the committee. In my opinion serious issues have been raised through Alert Digest No. 4, and the responses in Alert Digest No. 5 do little to alleviate those questions. In my opinion there is real scope and real need for a greater analysis of the implications of this bill with regard to the role of the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee. In summary, it is critical that the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee be given the time and resources to discharge its functions properly, and moreover that it be able to act without interference from the executive or other external parties, so that its very important functions can be discharged adequately and properly in the interests of the Parliament and of Victorian democracy.

Mrs PEULICH (South Eastern Metropolitan) I rise to draw attention to all members that this Alert Digest, especially in relation to probably one of the more controversial pieces of legislation before this Parliament, is incomplete, because the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) initially took a unanimous view that it should hold public hearings to ensure that the range of issues, which are well documented in the report and tabled, are canvassed and that we can try to find some workable solutions to those issues to ensure that the government objectives, combined with the rights, freedoms and liberties of the population, were effectively balanced.

I was pleased to see that the committee, chaired by the member for Coburg in the other place, Carlo Carli, took that unanimous decision, which was to involve the placement of advertisements in daily newspapers. Unbeknown to non-government members, that decision was not enacted; it was clearly sabotaged, I can only assume due to some external pressure to close down that inquiry exerted by the executive government, and probably by the Attorney-General. One expects that a unanimous decision of an all-party parliamentary committee will be acted on, but it was not. I believe this chamber ought to reassert its authority, and when it later comes to debating the Police Integrity Bill it ought to send the legislation back to the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee to allow it to finish its job. Otherwise the whole process, including the charter of human rights and the role of the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee, becomes a farce, we are a laughing stock and taxpayer money wasted….

I am deeply disappointed that a long-standing committee — a committee that is respected right around the world under a government that certainly pays lip-service to protecting the rights and liberties of the population — has basically been shut down and gutted because the government may be placed in a difficult or uncomfortable situation. That is the price of democracy, and that is the price of government action. Unless Parliament protects the integrity of this committee and this process there is no future for SARC, unless of course this Parliament takes another decision — that is, to make sure future Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committees are not chaired by government members.

SARC’s Alert Digest No. 4 reported on the Police Integrity Bill 2008. Its Alert Digest No. 5 is not yet available online.

[EDIT: Oops. I posted literally a minute too soon. Alert Digest No. 5 is now online.]

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