Queensland's corruption watchdog boss says he is reluctant to limit free speech during election campaigns, arguing voters can draw their own conclusions about politicians who publicise complaints against their opponents.
Crime and Misconduct Commission chairman Ross Martin, SC, said he had met with Deputy Premier Jeff Seeney, who had raised concerns the CMC was used as a political tool during the recent state election campaign.
Mr Martin yesterday spoke to media about long-standing worries over politicians publicising potential investigations into their opponents, balanced against the difficulties of restricting free speech during election campaigns.
But he dismissed concerns over CMC investigators being allowed to be members of political parties, saying the issue was one of disclosure.
Premier Campbell Newman was scathing of then-premier Anna Bligh's state election campaign tactics, which included a heavy focus on claims about “dodgy deals” and the CMC's assessment of numerous allegations said to involve the former Brisbane lord mayor.
A CMC announcement clearing of Mr Newman of several claims a week before the election took the wind out of the Labor campaign, with the LNP going on to win in a landslide on March 24.
However, Mr Seeney questioned the CMC's role and flagged possible changes to the body's involvement during election campaigns in the future, while The Courier-Mail reported concerns that a senior CMC official was the spouse of a Labor party figure involved in a campaign advisory firm.
At a media briefing yesterday, Mr Martin said he had met with Mr Seeney to discuss his concerns about the role of the CMC during election campaigns.
“This is a matter that has been wrestled with for nearly 20 years now; there have been considerations and debate about that for a very long time,” he said.
“Since Mr Seeney's election, I have spoken with him and endeavoured to explain to him ... the history of what happened at that time that seems to have prompted those comments.”
Mr Martin said he had also explained to Mr Seeney the difficulty that emerged regarding the issue of what happened around election time.
The CMC could take a number of different approaches but each of them had “profound problems”.
“For my part I take the view that we welcome complaints that are genuine,” Mr Martin said.
“We discourage making those complaints public because that typically interferes with the process of investigation and assessment.
“While we have some powers to deal with inappropriate publicisation of complaints, we are reluctant to impede free speech during election times and you can understand there's good reasons for that.”
Mr Martin said the CMC tried to resolve election-sensitive complaints as quickly as possible.
“But we also rely upon the fact that voters are clever people and that when a complaint is made to us that is then the subject of publicity by the complainant – without wishing to prejudge the value of any particular complaint that might be brought – voters can nevertheless form their own view about whether or not there might be other motives,” he said.
Mr Martin said he did not believe Mr Seeney was looking at any major changes to the CMC except what occurred around election time.
“I detect no immediate agenda to undertake any particularly radical process but that's not a matter for me to determine,” he said.
Mr Martin also said the question of whether CMC investigators were members of political parties was one of disclosure.
“There is provision in Commonwealth legislation that people are not to be discriminated against because of political party membership and so forth, and so, I'm speaking very generally now and not about any specific case, those things are best dealt with as matters of disclosure,” he said.
Mr Martin said the CMC had internal structures “that prevent any one agenda from gaining dominance in any particular investigation”.
Asked whether this posed perception problems given misconduct investigations often had political implications, Mr Martin said: “It's a complicated issue because of the questions of rights I mentioned before.”
Mr Martin, a crown prosecutor who led the case against disgraced former Labor minister Gordon Nuttall and former Bundaberg surgeon Jayant Patel, was appointed to the CMC role in February.
His appointment was backed by the bipartisan Parliamentary Crime and Misconduct Committee.