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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 801


The PRESIDENT —After question time yesterday I undertook, in response to a point of order raised by Senator Vanstone, to make a detailed statement on a ruling which I made in response to points of order raised during an answer to a question by the Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (Senator Bolkus). I have examined the Hansard transcript of question time yesterday and also considered precedents contained in past Presidents' rulings.

  The points of order raised during the minister's answer were to the effect that the minister was adversely reflecting on a member of the House of Representatives by making an allegation that the member had addressed a meeting of an organisation which was characterised as an extremist organisation. Standing order 193(3) prohibits offensive words, imputations of improper motives and personal reflections on members of either house of parliament.

  An examination of the minister's answer prior to my ruling indicates that he did not at that stage go beyond alleging that the member had knowingly addressed a meeting of the organisation concerned. My ruling was to the effect that the minister was making an allegation as to a matter of fact, namely, that the member had knowingly addressed a meeting of the organisation; that the points of order, in effect, were challenging the truth of that allegation; that while inferences could be drawn from the alleged matter of fact, it was not for the chair to judge the truth of the allegation; and that there were other avenues by which the truth of the allegation could be challenged.

  The ruling indicated that this was not a case of offensive words being used against a member of either house or of imputations of improper motives or personal reflections, but a case of an allegation of a matter of fact, the truth of which could be challenged by other senators. This distinction between an allegation of a matter of fact as to a member's activities and an adverse reflection on a member—for example, by attributing to a member particular views—has been consistently drawn by past Presidents, at least since a ruling made in 1917.

  The precedents of rulings of Presidents under standing order 193(3) and its predecessor standing order indicate that in no case has a President ruled out of order a mere allegation of a matter of fact such as the one under consideration here. Presidents have consistently ruled that it is not for the chair to judge the truth of senators' statements.

  Senator Vanstone asked whether the ruling meant that it is acceptable to draw inferences from statements about matters of fact. If an inference is drawn from a statement of a matter of fact, it is for the chair to judge whether the inference contravenes standing order 193. The ruling indicated that the possibility of inferences being drawn from an allegation of a matter of fact is not a sufficient basis for the chair to find a contravention of standing order 193(3).

  After the ruling was given, certain remarks were made about a member of the House of Representatives which may have been ruled out of order under standing order 193, in accordance with precedents, had a point of order been taken, but in view of the general disorder in the chamber it was not an occasion for the chair to intervene in the absence of a point of order.