CMC REFORMS 'A STEP TOO FAR'

CMC REFORMS 'A STEP TOO FAR'
REFOCUSED and revitalised.

They were the words chosen by Attorney-General and Minister for Justice Jarrod Bleijie when he put forward reforms to the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) earlier this year.

“We have consulted and listened,” he said.

But according to Maurice Blackburn principal and Australian Lawyers Alliance Queensland president Michelle James, Bleijie needs to listen a lot harder.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance has made a submission to the proposed Crime and Misconduct and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2014 (Qld) and says the Alliance was offered no prior consultation by the government.

James says the government has shown itself willing to disregard the importance of both the rule of law, and separation of powers, and to challenge the boundaries of democracy.

Her exasperation echoes that of Gerald Edward “Tony” Fitzgerald AC QC, whose highly-publicised submission to the reforms is scathing in its criticism, referring to the bill as a gross abuse of power that removes the commission’s independence and brings it completely under government control.

Fitzgerald, who presided over the Fitzgerald Inquiry into Queensland Police corruption in 1987-1989, notes Queensland as being “particularly vulnerable to political excess” with the government holding a significant parliamentary majority and the state lacking both constitutional protection for individual rights and a second house of parliament.

He acknowledges that although the commission has not always functioned smoothly, it “is a constant reminder to all public officials that misconduct risks exposure and punishment and it has, until now, acted as a reasonably effective brake on the misuse of power and curtailed criminal activities”.

Neither Premier Campbell Newman nor Bleijie, he says, have the knowledge or experience of the complexities involved in balancing personal freedom and public safety through criminal justice.

“They are unaware of, or unconcerned by, the principles and responsibilities of good governance and intolerant of dissent and decision-makers whom they can’t control,” he says.

The Callinan Aroney report, commissioned by the government in 2012 to improve efficiency within the CMC, presented a series of recommendations by former High Court Justice Ian Callinan AC and University of Queensland Professor Nicholas Aroney.

According to James, the report has been grossly misinterpreted.

“The reforms have gone a lot further than what was recommended,” she says, noting several reforms make it less likely that corruption be reported and investigated.

“The proposed requirement that any complaints be made by way of statutory declaration will obviously deter people from making complaints and is a heavy-handed way of dealing with the genuine difficulty of an under-resourced CMC receiving many frivolous complaints.

“The lack of genuinely impartial senior staff, in an under-resourced commission, will also allow potential for matters other than resourcing to impact on decision making around investigations.”

James has also criticised the absence of a requirement for bipartisan support for senior staff, saying it inevitably raises concerns of cronyism.

“Any government of the day could staff the CMC with those sympathetic to its ends,” she explains.

“This of course raises issues around the independence of a CMC where senior staff members rely on the favour of the government for their existence, and concerns that this could negatively influence decision making.”

Bleijie has responded publicly with an opinion piece in News Corp media that shows no change in his stance, despite the numerous submissions to the bill.

In it he refers to the CMC as having been misused as a political weapon and resolves to make sure the new Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC) will “fearlessly, relentlessly and effectively tackle serious crime and corruption in Queensland”.

He notes neither the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption nor the Australian Crime Commission requires bipartisan support of appointments to the position of Commissioner or CEO respectively and says the CCC chairman will rightly be able to tell anyone who tries to influence the commission, including the Premier, to take a long walk off a short pier.

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