13/12/2005 - 21:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Adminstration the first failing

13/12/2005 - 21:00

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Last week’s in-camera parliamentary privileges committee hearings on Liberal leader Matt Birney’s financial interests statements raised a host of questions that will hopefully be addressed before Christmas.

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Adminstration the first failing

Last week’s in-camera parliamentary privileges committee hearings on Liberal leader Matt Birney’s financial interests statements raised a host of questions that will hopefully be addressed before Christmas.

Although it is premature to comment on the committee’s activities, several other pertinent matters can already be considered.

One relates to a complex series of issues surrounding the way our 91 state MPs and parliament’s presiding officers – the clerks and deputy clerks of both chambers – have been administering those statements.

We already know that Mr Birney simply went into an easily accessible location and inserted extra details into his original financial interest statement that’s held in a register.

No-one saw him doing this because of the easy or open access, and perhaps others could and have done likewise.

What a way to house and administer such statutorily required and crucially important documents.

But that’s just the beginning, since matters in this quarter are, in fact, far more serious.

It has also been disclosed in parliament that former Labor minister Bob Kucera’s financial interests statement has been tampered with.

In his case, however, at least one document was removed altogether. Who did the removing and why?

But what we do know is that the clerk of the Legislative Assembly, Peter McHugh, who is the custodian of the register of statements, has exonerated Mr Kucera from this removal.

How do we know this? Simple.

Go to Hansard of December 1, which reports the debate on Mr Birney’s statement of financial interests that convened the committee’s investigation, and you’ll find Mr Kucera obtained a letter from Mr McHugh, which among other things, said: “I acknowledge absolutely that you are not in a position to know that the original schedule was missing or that the re-typed schedule from the copy for tabling had been substituted.”

This sentence, to the uninitiated, simply means that MPs submit a statement outlining their financial interests and the clerk’s office later vets it and has it retyped for tabling in parliament.

In other words there appear to be two versions of some MPs’ statements; one presumably signed by each MP and the other – which may or may not be identical to the signed one since the original has been vetted and re-typed – that is tabled in the Legislative Assembly.

Mr McHugh has told Mr Kucera by letter that he (Mr Kucera) was “not in a position to know that the [Mr Kucera’s] original statement was missing. . .”

Without pointing the finger at anyone, State Scene will be interested to learn, hopefully soon, how Mr McHugh came to provide this letter.

Let’s hope the committee last week quizzed Mr McHugh and his deputy, John Mandy, on the fate of the missing Kucera statement and obtained the name of the person responsible for its removal.

And let’s hope that that person was called upon to give the privileges committee an explanation for their action.

If this did not happen Mr Birney, whose very political future hinges on the committee’s findings, will certainly have legitimate grounds to publicly complain, since he is being effectively tried for having not simply removed information but rather for having added information to his statement.

Which of these – removal or addition of information – is the more heinous act?

Whichever, it is difficult not to conclude that the administration of the MPs’ financial interests statements has been treated in too cavalier a manner since they became a requirement in 1993.

Readers of last week’s State Scene will recall that it was claimed Mr Kucera may well retire from parliament in the very near future.

This claim was backed, in particular, by what he had said during a speech delivered in parliament on November 24.

“I want to talk about three issues that relate to my electorate,” Mr Kucera said.

“I also want to address my previous ministerial portfolios, because I understand the premier will be making an announcement on ministerial portfolios, and other matters, this week, so this may be my last opportunity to speak on these issues in this house.”

With the festive season beginning to unfold we’ll soon learn if this interpretation is valid.

That said, what of Mr Birney’s likely fate?

There are several possibilities, with the first being that the privileges committee may conclude that the administration, management and written requirements in relation to MPs’ financial interests statements were so vague, imprecise and wanting that Mr Birney can only be exonerated.

Here it must be added that Mr Birney had already indicated that he sees such an outcome as unlikely.

Which brings us to another possible outcome – the committee ruling against him.

If that happens it could take various forms.

The committee could, for instance, accept that the administration, management and written requirements in relation to MPs’ statements were so unsatisfactory that Mr Birney should simply be slapped on the wrist with a feather duster for not having been more circumspect and candid in the updating of his statement.

In other words, because the administration of those statements is effectively in disarray it would be unfair and quite unjust to have expected him to have behaved differently when inserting additionl information into his statement.

Such a judgement would effectively be saying:  ‘Look Mr Birney, you did was wrong but we can understand that things were not clear-cut. Don’t do it again.’

But there’s a third possible outcome.

The third leg of the motion that led to the convening of the privileges committee reads: “Advise the house as to whether the leader of the opposition’s statement and actions involving his efforts to change the Register of Members’ Financial Interests could be judged as ‘misconduct; by the Corruption and Crime Commission Act 2003 and/or amounts to a breach of parliamentary privilege.”

This is really potent stuff.

And it’s also important to note that Attorney-General Jim McGinty, who is related to the toppled Mr Kucera and had a hand in drafting the privileges committee’s motions, has included another requirement that compels Mr McHugh and Mr Mandy to tell the committee all about any private conversations they had with Mr Birney.

That leg of the motion tells the committee to: “Direct the clerk and deputy clerk to appear before the committee to assist in establishing the fact even to the extent of disclosure of matters which the clerk and deputy clerk would hold as confidential in their service to all members of the Legislative Assembly.”

Now, if Mr Birney ends up on the wrong side of the privileges committee, he may well find himself in the same boat as former Labor MP and later ministerial adviser Graham Burkett, and the former second in charge of the Corruption and Crimes Commission, Moira Rayner.

Could he, under such circumstances, remain Liberal leader?

Certainly not.

Could he remain in parliament?

Good question.

Not only are Yokine voters therefore possibly in line for a by-election early in the New Year, but those living in distant Kalgoorlie may well also find themselves in the same boat.

The privileges committee is expected to hand down its findings shortly before Christmas, meaning Mr Birney certainly has an anxious fortnight or so ahead of him.

He’ll either get his most welcomed ever Christmas gift or else be presented with something that will completely overturn and shatter his once bright career prospects.

We can only wait and see.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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