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Watchdog needs focus, transparency - and fewer lawyers, says Laurie

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The Clerk of the Queensland Parliament, Neil Laurie, says recent scandals have been unnecessarily complicated by the Crime and Corruption Commission.

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Laurie this morning appeared before the CCC’s oversight body, the Parliamentary Crime and Corruption Committee, which is required to complete a routine review of the CCC by the end of June. Laurie believes Queensland needs a better-functioning CCC.

As revealed by InQueensland on Monday, Laurie was allowed to make a belated submission to the committee, in which he warned that “some of the wider safeguards that existed prior to and immediately after the Fitzgerald inquiry and report have now been fatally weakened”.

Laurie said he started writing his submission in August but did not decide to complete it until he had read a CCC letter, tabled in parliament last month, mischaracterising aspects of how an investigation could be handled and the Ministerial Code of Conduct.

He said the parliament should also be seeing more public reports about the outcomes of investigations, rather than the CCC simply releasing press releases and holding media conferences. Laurie said that would be fairer to all concerned, including the target of the investigations, and help inform Queenslanders on such matters. It would also keep the CCC accountable.

He gave as an example the probe into Transport Minister Mark Bailey’s use of private emails to discuss government business, which was concluded in 2017 but still being raised in parliament and the committee this year.

“That matter should have been dead a long time ago and it could have been dead had the CCC actually tabled a comprehensive report,” Laurie said.

Laurie wants even greater transparency over the CCC’s activities, including that it be required to open its star chamber hearings to the public. He said it “disturbed” him how many hearings were done in secret and believed anyone who sought a free and democratic society should also be concerned.

Asked by the deputy committee chair, Labor’s Jimmy Sullivan, how that would even be possible, Laurie told the first-term MP there was precedent.

“We had this thing called the Fitzgerald Inquiry that had extraordinary powers and took evidence from a whole lot of people,” Laurie said.

“And, you know what? There were a whole lot of people prosecuted afterwards, and there were a whole lot of people that weren’t prosecuted afterwards. But it was all pretty well done in public, I think there was very few parts of it done in private.”

Laurie said the CCC should make better use of the Director of Public Prosecutions in deciding whether to pursue charges in certain matters. While he did not know the evidence behind the recent Logan City Council prosecution, that was ultimately dropped, he noted the CCC had laid charges before the brief was sent to the DPP.

“That was a contentious and complex case and … once again as a matter of policy that should have gone to the DPP,” Laurie said, adding that “investigators should not be prosecutors”.

Internally, the CCC needed to draw from a broader talent pool and not only rely on lawyers who, Laurie argued, were more likely to defer to a few senior members due to the hierarchical nature of the profession. He would like to see more commissioners with government or civil liberties experience.

“They may not always win an argument, but gee it would be good if they had the argument there,” Laurie said.

While Laurie did not expand on his submission’s criticism of the media and stakeholder groups, he said another reason Queensland needed a strong CCC was because it did not have an upper house of parliament.

He used his submission to argue that the reform of committees had helped improve accountability but would always be heavily influenced by the government of the day.

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