Committees - Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee Report


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (18:35): by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the annual report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

The report of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee is tabled. I again thank the very hardworking—albeit new since the new parliament—staff of the committee secretariat for their work in producing this report, subject of course to oversight by the committee. I thank them for their efforts to date. I also thank the harmony of the committee—albeit, again, that it has only been in place for a couple of meetings. But it is good to see this relatively new committee working well together in the responsibilities the committee has.

These annual reports place a great deal of information about government departments and agencies on the public record. They are an important element in the accountability of these departments to the parliament and, through parliament, to the people of Australia. What committees looking at these annual reports of the various government departments and agencies are required to do is to report to the Senate whether the reports are 'apparently satisfactory'. In making this assessment the committee considers such aspects as compliance with relevant reporting guidelines.

The committee found all the reports submitted to be in 'apparently satisfactory condition', describing the functions, activities, performance and financial positions of the department and agencies, and I congratulate the Attorney-General's Department, the minister himself and all of the agencies in that portfolio for their work in producing annual reports that comply with the requirements and give information to the parliament and to the people of Australia on what those particular agencies are doing.

Whilst our committee considered all reports presented during the period, on this occasion it was decided to examine in detail the reports of the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology, because these agencies had not been covered by the committee in recent years. It has been the committee's practice over the years to pick one, two or three agencies—to look more closely at their reports and to report on them in detail.

Those two agencies—the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology—were considered by the committee, and the committee found that both reports were apparently satisfactory. I congratulate both agencies on getting their reports in, providing information to the parliament and doing it in the right way.

The committee also decided to look into another agency, the Australian Human Rights Commission and its report. The committee did this and found that the information provided in the annual report gives a good overview of the commission's role, functions and work throughout the reporting period. However, the committee wishes to express its disappointment—and I am quoting from our report here, 'at the commission's continued disregard for some of the reporting obligations in orders and for the advice of the committee. In particular, the committee is concerned about the repeated omissions of a mandatory compliance index as prescribed in the orders and available in the annual requirements for annual reports issued by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.'

Interestingly, these concerns have been raised in the committee's previous reports on annual reports, in August 2011, at the time of the previous Labor government, and in March 2014. The committee reiterates the mandatory nature of the compliance index and urges the commission that it be included in future reports. The committee also noted that in previous years performance information was not always evaluated against deliverables and KPIs as presented in the portfolio budget statements.

The committee considers the 2014-15 report of the Australian Human Rights Commission to be apparently satisfactory, but expresses an ongoing concern about the absence of some reporting requirements and the disregard of the committee's previous advice. The committee strongly recommends that the commission take the opportunity to review the structure and contents of its annual report in the light of new guidelines for annual reports for corporate Commonwealth entities from the 2015-16 year onwards, with particular focus on compliance with mandatory reporting requirements and improved performance reporting against deliverables.

One would expect that all government agencies would comply with the mandatory compliance index, which has been drawn to this commission's attention on two previous occasions—one, I think, when I may have been chairman, in March 2014, and one in August 2011, when I certainly was not the chairman. It distresses me that there are some agencies that seem to think they do not have to comply with the rules. I am disappointed that this is so with the Human Rights Commission, which is often very quick to give advice on the conduct and operations of Australian citizens and others, and yet this commission itself does not seem to think it is bound by those laws.

Unfortunately, there have been instances with other statutory officers who seem to think the normal rules do not to apply to them. There will be more said about that and particular instances—it has been a matter of some comment in recent days. But these officers should understand that politicians—that parliamentarians and ministers—are elected by the people of Australia and are answerable to them.

Some of these statutory officers seem to think that they hold the final view—the final opinion—on what is right, wrong, good or indifferent. But they should always remember that they are giving, in many cases, advice to people who are elected to discharge roles and who are accountable to the Australian public, whereas some of these statutory officers are not accountable to the Australian public and in some cases do not seem to be accountable to anyone at all.

It is an important principle of our governance that everyone understands their roles. Just because a paid permanent official gives advice, it does not necessarily mean that advice has to be accepted—those are not the rules. The giving of advice to an elected minister or parliamentarian is simply that—giving advice. It is well within the role of parliamentarians and ministers to seek other advice as well, as should be the case, because not all wisdom sits in one person's mind or in one person's view of the world or of a particular issue. For the whole system to work it is important that everyone understands their role and what part they play in the system of governance—remembering that in the end, in a democracy such as ours, elected politicians are there to make the decisions and they are answerable for their decisions to the Australian public. To the Australian voter that is what the system is all about. I urge all those that this might involve to understand that principle.

The Human Rights Commission is the only agency in this department where the committee has found it necessary to, for the third time, draw attention to the rules and the fact that the rules should be followed—even though in many cases they are only technical rules or rules that are there for a particular purpose. They are not the rules that will bring down the nation, but they should be followed. I would urge the relevant agencies to comply in the future.

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