Watch Matt's speech here
When I came into this place and delivered my first speech, I spoke of the fact that justice delayed is justice denied, but also that justice that is inaccessible is no justice at all. These are two issues that arise in the debate here about this referral this evening.
I want to focus, firstly, on the issue of justice delayed. On the Labor side of politics, we were calling for three years or more for a royal commission into our banking and financial services sector. The government voted against that many, many times—26 times, in fact. The Attorney-General came in here and placed this referral motion to look into this issue of class actions and related litigation funding. Since that time, we have debated not just the referral but the amendment moved by Labor that, instead of that issue, we should have an inquiry as to why we have not yet proceeded with the recommendations from the royal commission, and how we can proceed with the recommendations from the royal commission. For an hour we've been debating that, and not one government member has come into this chamber to in any way defend the position of the government or explain to us why dealing with these royal commission recommendations is not more important when, clearly, to people all across the nation, they are fundamentally important. These are very serious issues and they go to the ordinary people of Australia's capacity to get access to justice—justice in the way in which they have been dealt with and will continue to be dealt with by their banks and financial services providers. Not one government member, in over an hour of debate, has bothered to come in here and explain to us why the amendment moved by Labor is wrong. Clearly, it is the right way forward.
Let's also look at the issue that the government has decided to refer to the Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services, a matter that has been dealt with time and time again by law reform commissions. I point out it's not just the Australian Law Reform Commission, which has covered this extensively in its more than 330-page report with many, many recommendations for government that the government's decided to completely ignore. This is an issue that has been dealt with by the WA Law Reform Commission and the Law Council of Australia. It's been looked into by the Bar Association and the Law Society of Western Australia, of which I'm a former president. It is an issue that has been looked at by many access-to-justice bodies around the nation as well.
I will admit that at first blush, as an early lawyer, class actions had a bit of a whiff to me. But one of the things I have come to learn through my practice in the legal profession—when I was a board member of a community legal centre; when I was the chair of Law Access, our pro bono referral service within Western Australia; in my time on the Law Society; and in my time as a director of the Law Council of Australia—is this: many, many Australians' capacity to access justice is completely denied to them because they cannot afford to access justice. The capacity for small, mum-and-dad, ordinary working Australians to access justice against those that have done the wrong thing to them, especially when it's not just to them as an individual but to them as part of a broader group, is enabled by the opportunity of representative proceedings. It is enabled by the opportunity of a class action, and it is enabled by access to litigation funding to permit that action to go forward. We can find countless examples of ordinary mum-and-dad shareholders who have been able to get access to at least some justice because they have been able to bring a class action against a company that has done the wrong thing by them, against directors who have done the wrong thing by the company that they invested in, or against a business that has done the wrong thing by them, not financially but by causing harm through pollution, poisoning or other matters that have occurred. There are so many different examples.
As the member for Paterson has already gone through, it is not just being able to bring the action but also being able to mediate that action and find a just solution for those people who, on their own, would never be able to bring that sort of action to find justice. I'm not saying that these systems are perfect in the way they operate in the Federal Court of Australia or in the Supreme Court of Western Australia—and they are different everywhere and there are different requirements around litigation funding—but the point is: this has all been inquired into. There are already numerous reports and, in particular, there is the Australian Law Reform Commission report that goes directly to these issues. The government should not be referring another matter off to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Corporations and Financial Services. What it should be doing is getting on with implementing those recommendations. It should be getting on with making sure that we have fair and equitable access to justice for everyone in this nation through class actions as well as through other means.
I do commend the Attorney-General for providing additional funding to community legal services as a result of this COVID-19 crisis that we are facing now. That is a very good thing. But it stands out as a diamond in the rough of the history of this government when it comes to funding legal assistance services, community legal centres and other access-to-justice mechanisms. It's like they have never seen an access-to-justice mechanism that they don't hate and want to make sure is strangled and not given the funding that it needs. Government will be at the other end of these pieces of litigation. It will be the case that individual citizens in this country will come together to take actions—for example, robodebt actions—against governments when they get it wrong. It should not be from governments strangling those opportunities down that those people who have been oppressed by government, who have been ripped off by government, are denied access to justice against their own government.
This government should be getting on with the task of implementing those recommendations, not holding another inquiry. I was a member of the Corporations and Financial Services Committee during the last parliament. We had a multi-partisan, unanimous report on whistleblower reforms that should be implemented by this parliament—agreed to by Labor members, Liberal members, Green members and Xenophon party members. Has the government gone forward with implementing any of those recommendations of a unanimous report? No, it hasn't done that. So why would I have any confidence about what would now go through this committee inquiry process, when this committee's own reports are now banking up for the government to get on with implementing? This is just a way of deferring and getting away from actually doing the work of government in this area and doing the things that it should otherwise be doing.
As I mentioned before, it is worthwhile remembering again, as we come to the end of our considerations on this issue, that Labor has put forward a very clear and deserved amendment about instead focusing the attentions of this committee on the things that need to be dealt with coming out of the banking royal commission. We have now been discussing that for over an hour and not one government member has come in here to justify why they think the class action inquiry should take priority. More importantly, not one government member has come in here to tell us why the recommendations coming out of the banking royal commission should not take priority. And that's because there is no reason. That's because the government members—those in the chamber and those not in the chamber—know that Labor is right about this. They know ordinary Australians are sitting at home and looking at what government is doing and what government has said it would do. The government tried to avoid having this royal commission for so long, and now it's tried to hug itself closely to take ownership of the great work that the royal commission did. If the government is so proud of that, why doesn't it pull its finger out and actually get on with seeing those recommendations implemented?
We tried to work with the government in the first half of the calendar year, before we even got to the last election, to prioritise those changes and recommendations being legislated. But, no, the government didn't want to do that. We tried to work with the government at the end of last year to try to get them legislated. No, the government didn't want to do that. We have been the most accommodating opposition on this issue that you could ever find. We have tried to prioritise the things that the government said it wanted to prioritise and then wouldn't prioritise. And now you can't even justify your position. No-one has even come in here and bothered to try to explain why you think that these matters should now not be prioritised, and that silence speaks absolute volumes. It tells us everything we need to know about this government.