Sunday, January 23, 2022

Qld.: Only six state government ministers say they’ve read report into CCC

The Crime and Corruption Commission is an independent body set up to combat and reduce the incidence of major crime and corruption in the public sector in Queensland but it is now part of the problem rather than part of the solution

Just six Palaszczuk government ministers have declared they have read a bombshell report into the actions of the state’s corruption watchdog ahead of cabinet discussions around its boss’s future.

The Sunday Mail asked every cabinet minister whether they had read the explosive findings of the Parliamentary Crime and Corruption Commission report delivered seven weeks ago that will determine the fate of the body and its boss, Alan MacSporran.

The PCCC found that the powerful body had operated outside the limits of its powers and failed to act independently and impartially in charging Logan councillors with fraud.

Six ministers replied that they had read the PCCC report, including Deputy Premier and Local Government Minister Steven Miles, Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman, Police Minister Mark Ryan and Tourism Minister Stirling Hinchliffe, who was the local government minister at the time of the council’s dismissal in 2019.

Children’s Minister Leanne Linard and Employment Minister Di Farmer said they had also read the report.

Six others said they had not read it yet, or had not finished reading it. Others did not respond, or were unavailable on leave, including Treasurer Cameron Dick. A government spokesman said all ministers would read the report by the time it went before cabinet.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk admitted on Friday that she had not yet read the damning report tabled in state parliament on December 2. She had initially promised to deal with it at the year’s first cabinet meeting, scheduled for Monday.

Ms Palaszczuk has repeatedly refused to say whether she still has confidence in CCC head Alan MacSporran, and Mr Hinchliffe also refused to be drawn when asked at a press conference on Saturday.

PCCC chairman Jon Krause said it was “truly disappointing” so few ministers had confirmed they had read the report which took six months to deliver. “This is a detailed assessment of the failings of one of our most important institutions,” he said.

“The PCCC made the most damning findings ever seen about the CCC – including that it failed to always act independently and impartially, and that the chairperson failed to ensure this occurred. The CCC depends on Queenslanders having confidence in it to act independently, and impartially.”

Opposition integrity spokeswoman Fiona Simpson said the responses suggested a lack of respect for integrity and accountability. “The government can’t use the pandemic for an excuse not to keep governing,” she said.

The committee made six recommendations, but rejected a submission that it recommend the removal of Mr MacSporran. One recommendation is for a Royal Commission-style review of the CCC.


Djokovic saga exposes the government’s border farce

The thing is, when Djokovic ­applied for a visa to compete at the Australian Open, apparently no one in the Morrison government thought that his visit might be ­controversial. In tennis parlance, Djokovic aced it.

Not one person in the government thought it might be a good idea to put Djokovic’s name on the Movement Alert List.

It’s the standard process that’s been used for decades to bring controversial visa applicants to the attention of senior officials in Canberra – and it would have taken about 10 seconds.

Instead, on November 18, 2021, Djokovic’s visa application sailed right on through; Scott Morrison and his ministers seemingly asleep at the wheel.

It wasn’t until 49 days later, on January 6, when one of the world’s biggest sports stars arrived at Melbourne Airport, that Australian Border Force officers finally swung into action. With the federal election encroaching as quickly as the Omicron virus, Morrison sniffed the wind, realised Australian voters wouldn’t buy his “tough on borders” rhetoric if an unvaccinated Djokovic was allowed in, and set about grand-slamming the tennis champ.

And so, possibly under ministerial pressure from above, a junior Border Force officer dutifully cancelled Djokovic’s visa.

Somewhere in the middle of all the mayhem that followed, Rafael Nadal said that the Australian Open was bigger than one tennis player. So, too, is the impending crisis at our airports.

The Djokovic case, ironically heralded by the Prime Minister as an example of his policy of being tough on borders, actually demonstrates just how vulnerable, porous and weak our borders have become under Morrison.

If someone of Djokovic’s notoriety was able to obtain a visa, just imagine how many unvaccinated others, flying under the radar, have already entered Australia or will soon touch down here.

Visitor traffic through our airports is currently at an all-time low, a mere 1 per cent of the pre-pandemic levels.

Before Covid hit, Australia received between 1½ and two million visitors a month. But last month, just 197,000 people came to ­Australia.

But it won’t stay like that for long. Within a few months, those people movements could ramp up dramatically.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows movement already picking up to its highest level since March 2020. Soon we’ll see exponential growth in visitor numbers as the borders open up further.

What happens then?

Are Australian Border Force officers seriously going to check everyone’s vaccination status, medical exemptions and vaccination predilections at the airport?

When it comes to checking paperwork at our borders, Border Force says it allocates about 30 to 40 seconds per traveller.

If that blows out to a minute (or more) as officers try to decipher vaccination documentation that has been uploaded at the last ­minute, there’s instant gridlock.

Is the Prime Minister seriously suggesting this is how we’re going to manage our borders once we start to open up?

That approach would up-end 30 years of visa management in Australia. Travellers’ paperwork has always been given a final check at the border, but the vast majority of paperwork has been submitted and checked as part of the visa ­application process.

If Morrison’s approach is the new normal, friends and family of Australian citizens, tourists and skilled workers with government-issued visas could arrive in the country, then go through being turned away because the Morrison government didn’t bother to check their vaccination status before they were issued a visa or got on a plane.

What’s that going to do to businesses that are trying to get skilled labour into Australia?

What about Australians who are trying to have their family and friends, whom they haven’t seen now for years, come to the country?

What’s it going to do to our tourism industry?

Making such extensive checks at the airport primary line is an ­entirely unworkable proposition, and one that has now been ad­vertised to the world by the Djokovic saga.

Djokovic has set off an alarm bell. The government needs to act now to prevent a chaotic mess at our airports which could damage our economy even further.


Censorship of Australia's National Archives blacks out history

The National Archives was sufficiently embarrassed by its High Court defeat over maintaining the secrecy of Sir John Kerr’s letters with the Palace that it released them in full without redacting any of them. Unfortunately, the sting of its embarrassment has been numbed by the passage of time.

When it finally cracked open its vault this month to release the correspondence between the Palace and six other governors-general, the Archives cut out whole documents or applied the black ink liberally to redact particular passages in the letters.

This would be fair enough if they revealed matters affecting Australia’s current national security or the identity of Australia’s secret agents, but this is not the case.

Mostly, the redactions seem to have occurred to protect the government or individuals from embarrassment – yet this is not a legal ground for preventing public access to these documents.

The problem with challenging redactions in documents held by the Archives is that the challenger is always arguing blindfolded. It is hard to point out how a redaction fails to satisfy the legal requirements if one doesn’t know what is in the redacted material.

Sometimes the Archives slips up, and the redacted part of one letter has not been redacted in a draft of the same letter, or in a separately released file.

On such occasions, this frequently shows that the power to redact has been used inappropriately, as the material redacted does not fall squarely within one of the listed grounds of exemption in the Act. But there is no point in anyone going to the effort to challenge the redaction if they already know what the documents says.

How do the redactions and exclusions made by the Archives to the most recent release of vice-regal correspondence stack up? Are they justified?

Here are two examples where the redactions seem to be dubious.

The first concerns a letter by then governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck to the Palace on September 1, 1972, about the grant of Honours. About half of the letter is blacked out, but what is left concerns the issue of whether Australians should be appointed to the British House of Lords as “life peers”. Hasluck describes how he counselled the prime minister Billy McMahon against this. He could not see how it was appropriate for Australians to be involved in making British laws and he thought that general public sentiment in Australia was against it. He also pointed out that the British prime minister had to recommend such honours, because they involve appointment to the British parliament.

What, then, is in the blacked out paragraphs? We can take a pretty good guess, because Hasluck wrote about exactly the same issue, using almost the same words, in a record of his discussion with the prime minister around the same date. It is in a separate file released some years ago without redactions by the National Archives. The missing parts are therefore likely to contain discussion of those who were pressuring McMahon to recommend them for life peerages. They were Sir Henry Bolte, the Victorian premier, who wanted to be “Baron Bolte”, and Sir Alick Downer, Australia’s high commissioner in London in 1972, who wanted to become a Lord.

According to Hasluck, McMahon “revealed with unusual frankness that Bolte kept on asking for a peerage” and that he dared not refuse it to him because he badly needed Bolte’s support. Failure “would make a determined enemy out of Bolte”. Hasluck also later claimed that Downer had been lobbying both the British prime minister and McMahon for a life peerage and was “very bitter” when it did not come through. McMahon had tried but “got a dusty answer” from No 10 Downing Street. McMahon then favoured a life peerage for Sir Robert Menzies, but lost office before he could pursue it further.

This material might be embarrassing, both for those who were allegedly campaigning for honours for themselves, and for governments because it shows how honours were used not only to buy political support but also to buy-off people to prevent political attacks. This, however, is not a ground for refusing access to a document that is 50 years old and concerns people who died long ago.

According to the Archives’ determination, the paragraphs could be redacted because they fell into an exception for information or matter concerning the “business or professional affairs of a person”, the disclosure of which “would, or could reasonably be expected to, unreasonably affect that person adversely in respect of his lawful business or professional affairs”.

Bolte and Downer, both now dead, could hardly be adversely affected with respect to their business or professional affairs. Is the Archives really asserting that the Queen might be adversely affected in respect of her business or professional affairs if there is a discussion in a letter of 50 years ago about whether Australians should be granted life peerages?

The Queen acts upon ministerial advice in granting life peerages – she does not have a choice. It is a long stretch to suggest that the grant of honours upon ministerial advice concerns the Queen’s “business or professional affairs”, and it is beyond comprehension that the disclosure of a discussion of honours from 50 years ago could unreasonably affect her adversely in respect of her business or professional affairs today.

Further, the material about Bolte, Downer and the lobbying for peerages is publicly available in digital documents on the Archives’ own website and is also discussed in a newspaper opinion piece published in 2014, which is still accessible on the internet. Redactions can only be applied if the material involved remains confidential. Unless there is something quite surprising in the letter, it seems unlikely that the redactions have been properly applied.

A second example concerns the calling out of the troops after the Hilton bombing in 1978. Then governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen agreed to call out the troops to protect visiting heads of state during a Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting, as they moved to Bowral for further talks after the bombing. The deployment of troops around Bowral has sometimes been called the “siege of Bowral”.

While the governor-general acted immediately, as advised in a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, he later requested legal advice from the Crown Law Officers (the attorney-general and the solicitor-general) about the legal basis for making the order and what powers and authorities could be exercised by the troops who had been called out. That advice was provided two weeks later, and the governor-general sent a copy to the Palace, after the Queen’s private secretary had expressed interest in the issue.

The Archives removed the copy of the advice in its entirety from the released files. In doing so it relied on an exemption for privileged legal documents where disclosure would be contrary to the public interest. While it is certainly a legal opinion which would have been privileged at the time it was made, is it really in the public interest to keep it secret 44 years later? The Archives claims that the information contained in the opinion “continues to be sensitive despite the passage of time and … has enduring confidentiality”. It asserts that public interest in its release is outweighed by the need to protect it due to “ongoing sensitivities”. From experience, “ongoing sensitivities” is the go-to clause for those who cannot provide a rational justification for their actions.

In this case, I already have a copy of the full opinion, so I don’t have to guess its contents when assessing the determination made by the National Archives. Is the issue still sensitive? Yes – the callout of the Australian Defence Force to support civil society during the 2019 bushfires and the 2020-22 pandemic remains legally controversial. But this 1978 opinion would have no more than historical relevance to the issue for three reasons.

First, the 1978 opinion is based on provisions of the Defence Act which have long since changed. There are now specific provisions in that Act which deal with calling out the troops to deal with internal violence within Australia. Second, the jurisprudence relied upon has also changed. The High Court has in more recent times interpreted the Commonwealth’s defence power more broadly to deal with acts of terrorism within Australia. Third, the 1978 callout was quite different to the sensitive issues of today, because it involved a response to violence rather than nonviolent crises such as bushfires and pandemics, to which different authorities apply.

The interesting part of the opinion concerned the powers of the troops when called out. Could they use their weapons and exercise force?

The Crown Law Officers admitted that there was little judicial authority on the issue. They drew on general principles from British cases to conclude that the soldiers were in no different position from others and could not use more force than is reasonably necessary in the circumstances. This is consistent with the view currently taken by the government in relation to callouts during the bushfires and the pandemic. The Minister for Defence announced in 2020 that no coercive powers had been conferred upon ADF officers who had been called out. The 1978 opinion would not undermine that position.

Sir Paul Hasluck, Governor-General of Australia 1969-1974.
Sir Paul Hasluck, Governor-General of Australia 1969-1974.
It is therefore unclear what the enduring confidentiality of the opinion could be. Its release might be a bit embarrassing, as the reasoning given in the opinion is weak in places. Indeed, the governor-general was not terribly impressed by it, as he noted in the letters. The opinion showed why legislative change was needed to give clearer powers to deal with such incidents. But such change has since occurred. The opinion is an interesting historical record – no more.

If the Archives, and the public servants in the Attorney-General’s Department who advise it on such matters, are terribly worried that the High Court might rely on such opinions, if revealed, when dealing with current controversies, then that cat escaped the bag decades ago. The 1978 opinion, along with many others, has been sitting in bound volumes in the High Court Library for a long time. There seem to be no good reasons why historians and others should be denied access to it.

In interviews upon his retirement, the outgoing head of the Archives, David Fricker, spoke about its proud record of providing open access to documents to researchers. Most of them probably, like me, choked on their muesli while reading that over breakfast.

It would be nice to believe that the Archives was staunchly standing up for open access, rejecting the weak and self-serving arguments of bureaucrats who seek enduring secrecy for embarrassing documents and blanket exclusions for categories of documents, such as legal opinions, without any genuine assessment of the public interest. I hope they do.

But the more depressing truth is likely to be that the understaffed and harried workers in the Archives bend to the will of the bureaucrats who offer up dubious grounds for secrecy so as to avoid responsibility for anything controversial seeing the light of day.

How often, one wonders, has the Archives ever rejected the public service advice it receives and released the documents regardless? Failure to do so has a heavy cost. It results in a historical record stained with the black ink of redaction that obliterates accuracy and any chance of understanding the truth.


Victorians grow desperate as COVID-19 prompts surgery delays, lack of specialist treatment

In the time since a scan revealed large cysts on both of his kidneys, Yehia Abboud has contracted and recovered from COVID-19.

He is yet to regain his sense of taste, but the father of four from Dandenong, in Melbourne's south-east, is more concerned about what the large, painful lumps he can feel under his skin might mean.

The lumps make his back ache, but for 64-year-old Yehia, it's the worries about his future and unanswered questions that dominate his mind each day.

A scan revealed multiple large cysts — centimetres in length — in September last year, and he was advised to seek urgent specialist treatment from a urologist within a few weeks.

But Yehia's wife, Randa, has not been able to make an appointment for her worried husband, and has been told the strain COVID-19 has put on the health system means more urgent cases are being prioritised.

Yehia said he understood treatment might be delayed, but he wanted to know if his condition could be life threatening. "If a specialist sees me to tell me what happened, I can live with it," he said. "You should just tell me if this one's serious or not serious, if it's dangerous or not dangerous."

Some conditions put on backburner as Omicron surges
Victoria's health system is facing what is likely to be its most serious crisis to date as the effects of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreading to hundreds of thousands of people kick in.

This week, a Code Brown alert came into effect for all metropolitan hospitals and six regional hospitals, meaning staff could be called back from leave and redeployed to areas with the most need.

What is Code Brown?

ADF personnel will be asked to drive ambulances, health care staff and resources can be redeployed to different sites and non-essential services will be postponed as the emergency setting comes into force.

Other hospitals such as the Mildura Base Public Hospital were not included in the initial announcement, but they later called a Code Brown alert as well.

In the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers, on January 5 the Victorian government put a freeze on all but the most urgent elective surgical procedures.

Treatment for IVF was included in those changes, but after a public campaign, yesterday the decision was reversed and fertility procedures were reinstated.

Premier Daniel Andrews said it was "incredibly challenging" to have to cancel health services like elective surgery.

"I'm not minimising the discomfort and the challenge and the pain that is involved for patients that can't get what they need right now," he said.

Mr Andrews said once Omicron had peaked, extra funding would be given to help health services "catch up".

"If there was another way, then of course we would do that," he said.




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