11 June 2024

Liberals warned against further attempts to probe around legal case brought against Integrity Commission

| Claire Fenwicke
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woman officiating in Parliament

Speaker Joy Burch ruled Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee’s motion, designed to inquire into certain questions around a top public servant’s decision to take the Integrity Commission to court during an active investigation, breached the rules of the Legislative Assembly. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The Canberra Liberals will need to decide whether they want to try again to force an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the unprecedented legal case brought by Education Directorate head Katy Haire against the Integrity Commission.

Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee tried during the first June sitting week to get a standing committee to inquire into whether Education Minister Yvette Berry had “misled the public” when she told media she had “no knowledge of the [court case] matter and the government has no knowledge of the matter”.

She also wanted it to look into the cost of Ms Haire’s legal fees (which are being paid by taxpayers), whether there had been a breach of the Law Officers Legal Services Directions 2023, and the impact, if any, of the Supreme Court action on the active Integrity Commission investigation.

But Speaker Joy Burch ruled the Canberra Liberals would need to amend the motion, stating one section was a contravention of standing orders as it breached the principle of sub judice between the Assembly’s powers and the Territory’s judicial system: the last point about whether the court case had had an impact on the commission’s investigation.

“[The orders state] matters awaiting adjudication in a court of law should not be brought forward to any debate, motion or questions,” Ms Burch said.

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She went on to explain other sections of the orders outlined that when sub judice arises (subject to the discretion of the chair and the right of the Assembly to legislate on or discuss any matter), the Assembly still couldn’t refer to active proceedings in the court and couldn’t be referred to in any debate, motion or question.

That is, court proceedings (including civil) cannot be referred to a committee or referred to in Assembly procedures until a judgment or discontinuance of the case has been made by the court.

“I note that a trial date has been set for [Ms Haire’s] matter in the Supreme Court,” Ms Burch said.

“Accordingly, I believe the motion is in breach of the resolution, and I’m ruling that the notice is out of order and shall be removed from the notice paper.”

This means Ms Lee and the Canberra Liberals would need to lodge an amendment motion without reference to the active court case and give notice of its existence if they want this issue to be debated by the Assembly.

Ms Lee had moved dissent in Ms Burch’s ruling, stating she had not gone to the issues before the court in her motion.

“What we’re talking about is a matter of serious public importance … I drafted this [motion] incredibly carefully,” she said.

“[My questions in the motion] do not go to the substance of the matters and questions that are being sought for determination by either the Supreme Court action brought by Ms Haire against the Integrity Commissioner, or before the Integrity Commission’s investigation.”

Ms Lee also pointed out that the standing orders allowed for references to court proceedings in Assembly in instances where a “ministerial decision” is in question or a case contains issues of “national importance”.

“There is clearly an allowance under the standing orders … about this very circumstance.”

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Chief Minister Andrew Barr argued in favour of Ms Burch’s ruling, stating Ms Lee had been “skirting the grounds of quite defamatory comments” during the debate on this issue.

“Were she to repeat [her remarks] outside of this chamber, [they] would find her subject of considerable legal action,” he said.

He pointed to what he described as a “wilful misrepresentation” of Education Minister Yvette Berry’s involvement in the Integrity Commission’s investigation, as she has been called as a hearing witness rather than someone who is under investigation.

“All the Leader of the Opposition needs to do is re-lodge her motion without transgressing into the area [where] perhaps she is most keen to smear the reputation of individuals, whether they are public servants or ministers,” he said.

“[The standing orders are clear] on when matters are before the Integrity Commission or … before a court, they should not be subject to political debate in the way that the Leader of the Opposition has been pursuing this week.”

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury also took the chance to clarify that while Ms Haire’s legal fees were being covered by the Territory, the government reserved the right to recover those costs if it was found action had been launched in bad faith or that it covered matters that had occurred outside of a public servant’s role.

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I would be fascinated to know why the ACT government, through its agent, thinks that the Integrity Commission should not be allowed to do its job.

I would also be fascinated to know Martin Dunn how valued our city’s public servants are feeling after listening to Liberal leader Elizabeth Lee and her party’s shameful abuse of parliamentary privilege to name, and shame government employees. In possibly the most disgraceful display of parliamentary proceedings I have ever seen, Ms Lee reveals her unsuitability to be chief minister and how far she is prepared to stoop to win government.

Elizabeth Lee and her party went to great lengths in last week’s assembly sittings to misrepresent and undermine the current Integrity Commission investigation into procurement processes, by using parliamentary privilege to name and vilify public servants and ministers called on give evidence to the inquiry. The party’s questioning of the government has been offensive in the extreme, by disregarding standing orders not to debate matters which are currently subject to inquiry or court proceedings. The questioning also aimed to undermine the ACT Solicitor-General’s advice given to the Attorney General to grant legal representation to a public servant called on by the Commission to give evidence. There have been no adverse findings ever being found against any individuals who have been named and defamed by Ms Lee and her party during their questioning.

Ms Lee should take the Attorney-General’s advice to her during proceedings that she reflect on her conduct in this matter!

Now there’s a surprise, Jack D (Chief Apologist and Champion of all things ACT Labor) rather than addressing the question posed by Martin Dunn, rushes headlong into his usual diatribe against the Libs.

Martin Dunn asks very reasonably: “why the ACT government, through its agent, thinks that the Integrity Commission should not be allowed to do its job”.

@Jack D – perhaps you’d like a second go and actually address that question.

Taxpayers have the right to transparency on how their money is spent. I think I’ve seen this one already: a senescent government putting its own survival above the rights of the people. Well, those are the optics, aren’t they?

This is so dodgy. Release the report before the election!

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