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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 2998


Mr CLEELAND —Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek leave to make a short statement in respect of this matter.

Leave granted.


Mr CLEELAND —I am a member of the Committee of Privileges and I have put down a dissenting report which honourable members can read in due course at their leisure. One thing that concerns me in this whole area is something that I have heard reiterated yet again. Both the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Tickner) and the honourable member for Wide Bay (Mr Millar) have spoken about privileges. The reality is that historically privilege and contempt are two separate items. They are two separate heads of power which the House of Commons had prior to 1901 and prior to the enactment of section 49 of the Constitution.

The mere fact that even today we have members of this House standing here and talking about privilege when in reality we are talking about the contempt power of the House of Representatives indicates-it should indicate to all members of this House-just how misguided we all are when we start talking about this very issue, because really what we are talking about is the power of the House to command the attendance of people before it and before its committees. That is the power. It becomes very confusing. We hear-and the majority of members take this view, and I respect it-that because of the operation of section 49 of the Constitution, this House in 1901 inherited not just a power of contempt but all the rules and the precedents that existed within the House of Commons prior to 1901; that in some magical way 1901 was the cut-off point when all this activity ceased and that this Parliament must remain forever moribund in looking back beyond 1901 to determine in each and every circumstance what should constitute contempt. I totally reject that view. I do not believe that the power granted under section 49 covers all the bits and pieces which constitute contempt but that it pertains simply to the power of contempt. That is the fundamental difference between my view and that of the majority of members of the Committee. Powers are granted throughout the Constitution. For example, it grants the head of power for this Parliament to operate under. It does not give the sub-rules relating to the bits and pieces involved-that is for the Parliament to decide after having determined that it has the power.

The majority of members of the Committee, in their wisdom, have said that in order to find what is contempt one must consider precedent, that one must go back and look at what the House of Commons did prior to 1901 and that if one can find some head prior to 1901 where, by precedent, the House of Commons says that it is contempt then, per se, an action will be considered in contempt of this Parliament in 1987. I cannot accept that. That is a myth and I think that that view is not founded on a proper interpretation of constitutional law or on a proper reading of the Constitution. It is for that reason that I find myself dissenting from the view held by the majority of members of the Committee, and I find that in the principal circumstances outlined there has not been a contempt of this Parliament.

It is fair to say that I do find that a contempt has occurred-but not in relation to the publication or the printing of the material outlined. I do not accept that journalists more than any other citizen in this country have a peculiar or individual right to refuse to give evidence to a committee of this Parliament. If that is to be the case, then any group of Australian citizens could determine that as part of their ethical responsibilities they can decide that they have the right to refuse to give evidence to a committee of this Parliament. That is the logical extension of what the Journalists Association is saying. I reject that. Journalists operate in this place as a privilege. They are Australian citizens with no more or less rights than any other Australian citizen. The fact that this Parliament allows them the right to live in this building with us does not give them any greater right than any other Australian citizen. The fact that they work in this building creates enormous problems.

Politicians and staff sit in various places in this building and talk and communicate with each other. For example, evidence was given that a staff member of the Committee can sit in the cafeteria of this building with journalists, and we are expected to believe that in those circumstances there is no possibility of a leak. One has only to go into the snake pit, as it is popularly called, and see the journalists and members of this House enjoying each other's company to appreciate the close relationship that exists between journalists and staff and members of this place. The Parliament is making a joke of itself if it honestly believes that in the hot-house of this building it will prevent leaks. This is the aspect that concerns me in relation to this whole matter of contempt. The situation to which I have referred happens every day in this building. Since the inquiry was established I have read two reports in newspapers concerning leaks of information from Senate committees, which leaks constitute, if the majority of members of the Committee are right, contempt of the Senate, and yet the Senate has decided not to take any action. In fact, the matter has not even been raised in the Senate.

What seems to occur in this area is that each House, whenever it feels aggrieved enough about a particular item, will then get its committee out and go through the process of an inquiry and will drag journalists and other people before it, knowing full well that probably every member of this place has at some time leaked information to a journalist. I find that hypocritical. I find it sad, because it is obvious that a member of this Parliament has provided information to the journalists. I think that is very obvious, and yet the majority on this Committee are prepared to condemn the journalist-and, to their credit, they condemn the unknown member. However, the majority are prepared to say that they will consider punishing the journalist. It seems to me that if members in this chamber are prepared to provide journalists with information as they see fit to suit their own self-interest, their own Party functions or their own ambitions, and if members of this place cannot have the integrity, both collectively and as individuals, not to do that, then why should we condemn the journalists for doing it. They are being paid to to it. They are here to ferret out information, and they know which one in this place will talk; they know from where they can get the information that they require-let us not kid ourselves.

I find that the whole thing is somewhat akin to a Gilbert and Sullivan farce-and it worries me. The whole power as it operates worries me. I agree with the honourable member for Hughes (Mr Tickner) and the honourable member for Wide Bay (Mr Millar) that it is about time that Parliament took the bit between its teeth and put together a collective approach, specifying what we mean by privileges and what we mean by contempt, specifying the rules and guidelines of contempt, so that any person coming into this building, any Australian citizen, can pick up a book and read exactly what we mean. At this stage we do not know what we mean. None of us can stand up here and say with any authority that a certain act will constitute contempt. If the Parliament is not prepared to go through the exercise and to put the integrity of its own viewpoints into an Act of this Parliament and to codify the law so that every Australian citizen knows what we are talking about, then we do not deserve to have the power that we now have. It is about time that we took that bit between our teeth. I thank the House for the indulgence granted.