The ACT Assembly has ordered a parliamentary committee to keep some evidence confidential during its upcoming inquiry into violence in Canberra schools, in what the opposition has described as a dangerous overreach.
Education Minister Yvette Berry put forward the directive on Thursday while referring the management of violence in schools, both public and private, to a joint standing committee for investigation. She stressed the move was not about shying away from scrutiny but said vulnerable people, including children, could be identified without their consent or publicly shamed if the usual process of making evidence public was followed.
Under the binding directive, the committee will be compelled to keep all documents and evidence presented during the inquiry private where a school or an individual involved in bullying or violence could be identified.
The opposition has slammed the move as an unprecedented attack on both the autonomy of the committee and the parliamentary process.
Canberra Liberal Vicki Dunne said committees already had the necessary powers to protect confidentiality, including hearing evidence privately "in camera", but it was up to members to decide if, when and how they were used, not a minister.
She acknowledged concerns about privacy, agreeing the situation was somewhat unusual, but warned directing a committee about the evidence it could publicly report was setting a dangerous precedent.
"Even this week [a committee] agreed to redact certain information so as not to [identify] a submitter or a person mentioned," Ms Dunne said.
"It is possible do that and still publish information."
She noted the role of a standing committee was to provide the public access to information, with express instruction not to keep evidence confidential or hear from witnesses privately in camera except in exceptional circumstances. Committees had long balanced this need for transparency alongside privacy concerns without incident, she said.
While the Assembly had the power to order the publication of evidence heard in camera, Ms Dunne said it did not appear to have any explicit authority to order a committee to seal evidence.
In her years on committees, she said she had only heard evidence recorded privately on three occasions, one of which was to discuss operational security at Canberra's jail.
She questioned why the government did not just trust the committee's chair and Labor MLA Michael Pettersson to do his job and protect witnesses.
But Mr Pettersson said he supported the condition, noting some evidence would still likely be heard and published publicly.
"Unfortunately there have been instances of violence in Canberra schools, this is unacceptable," he said.
"The committee should hear from these people but we have a responsibility not to name and shame."
Greens leader and former education minister Shane Rattenbury said he had wrestled with the issue for the past few days but decided to back the directive after hearing advice from the ACT's Children and Young People's Commissioner Jodie Griffiths-Cook.
The commissioner told The Canberra Times she was not familiar with the intricate details of committees but noted young people were entitled to additional privacy protections.
Closed in-camera evidence was not dissimilar to the processes used during the recent royal commission into child sexual abuse, Ms Griffiths-Cook said.
"The focus of the inquiry needs to be on obtaining the necessary information to inform systems change that better ensures the safety of everyone in the school community," she said.
The Australian Education Union has also warned against the naming of schools. But families have stressed their push for an inquiry "is not a witch hunt", but rather a last resort to ensure accountability.
In recent months, the minister has faced down repeated calls for an independent expert-led review into school violence, following revelations that complaints at some schools stretched back more than a year yet incidents appeared to be escalating.
After voting down a push for a inquiry in February, Ms Berry instead established her own expert ministerial advisory panel to examine existing policies rather than investigate specific cases.
But she said it was clear the community also wanted an avenue outside of government.
On Thursday, she once again defended her record on what was often a very complex issue, saying she began work on occupational violence reforms alongside the union shortly after taking up the job as minister.
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