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Monday, 30 May 1994
Page: 834

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! By letter dated 12 May 1994 Senator Crane has raised with me a matter of privilege pursuant to standing order 81. The essence of the matter raised by Senator Crane is that a witness may have been penalised on account of his evidence to a Senate committee in that he was deprived of an appointment which he was otherwise to receive. The evidence for this allegation is a press report which suggests that the witness was told that his evidence to the committee was a barrier to his appointment, and this is claimed to have been in the nature of a punishment.

  Under the standing orders I am required to determine whether a motion to refer the matter to the privileges committee should have precedence over other business, having regard to the following criteria:

  (a)the principle that the Senate's power to adjudge and deal with contempts should be used only where it is necessary to provide reasonable protection for the Senate and its committees and for senators against improper acts tending substantially to obstruct them in the performance of their functions, and should not be used in respect of matters which appear to be of a trivial nature or unworthy of the attention of the Senate; and

  (b)the existence of any remedy other than that power for any act which may be held to be a contempt.

Past presidential rulings have indicated that a matter will be given precedence if it is capable of being held by the Senate to meet criterion (a), and if there is no other readily available remedy. Past rulings of the President, past reports by the privileges committee and action taken by the Senate in relation to those reports indicate that any suggestion that witnesses have been penalised on account of their evidence is taken very seriously.

  In its 42nd report, which was endorsed by the Senate, the privileges committee stated that `any possibility of interference with or molestation of a witness must be examined and determined'. Resolution 1 of the Senate's privilege resolutions requires committees to conduct investigations where there is any reason to believe that a person has been improperly influenced in respect of evidence which may be given before the committee, or has been subjected to or threatened with any penalty or injury in respect of any evidence given.

  Senator Crane indicates that the committee concerned, the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, declined to investigate the matter. Past decisions by the Senate, however, have made it clear that any possibility of punishment of a witness because of any evidence must be investigated. Resolution 6 of the privilege resolutions also makes it clear that punishment of a witness includes depriving witnesses of any benefit on account of his or her evidence.

  It may be that the press report, on investigation, will be found to be erroneous, or the alleged conversation will turn out to be entirely free of the implications claimed in the article. Those are the kinds of matters which the privileges committee is best equipped to ascertain. The matter therefore clearly meets criterion (a). Past rulings of the President have indicated that in these cases there is no other readily available remedy. I therefore determine that a motion to refer the matter to the privileges committee may have precedence in accordance with standing order 81. I table a letter and attachments from Senator Crane.

Senator Gareth Evans —I seek a point of clarification, if I may. Mr Deputy President, are you making that statement in your own right as the Deputy President or is it in effect coming from the actual President, President Beahan?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I made the statement on behalf of the President.

Senator Gareth Evans —Is it his statement in effect that you happen to be reading, or do you have the carriage of this matter? I just want clarification from the point of view of the standing orders.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The President has blessed my approving of what he has written, and I have read the statement for him.