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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 802

Senator VANSTONE (3.07 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the statement.

Mr President, I despair at what you have just said—absolutely despair. I am sorry that I do not have the Hansard here of what was said yesterday, but it is not my recollection at all, and I will take the opportunity to check and come back—

  Senator Murphy interjecting

Senator Ian Macdonald —Just be quiet and listen.

Senator Murphy —You bunch of snifflers.

Senator VANSTONE —Do not blame me because I have a cold. It is not my recollection at all that the point of order that was being taken simply related to the allegation of fact as to what Mr Downer had attended. Rather, the point of order and the subsequent speakers in favour, if you like, on this side with respect to that point of order were arguing that inferences were being drawn from the allegation of fact whether it was true or not—that is, inferences were being drawn on that side with respect to Mr Downer. If you could not see that, I am frankly at a loss to find the simple words to explain it to you. Perhaps that is a matter better taken up at another time.

  The point I put to you simply was that I believed inferences were being drawn, and I thought it was unacceptable for you to say that you were not in a position to judge. As I understand from what you said a few moments ago, you indicated to me that what you either said or were trying to say—whichever the case may be—was simply that you could not judge the truth or otherwise of the allegation as to what type of meeting Mr Downer had attended. I would agree with that. How could you possibly make an assessment as to the truth of that allegation?

  But what you could make an assessment of was this: what was happening on the other side was a not very tastefully prepared plan to use smear by association. I see Senator McMullan laughing in his usual condescending way, amused at the prospect of that allegation—simply using smear by association—being made about those on his side. I look forward to every opportunity, when this happens to those people opposite, to say, `Well, you asked for it; you got it back.'

  In conclusion in response to you, Mr President, all I have to say is that, if you are not prepared to protect people from inferences being drawn, from smear by association—that is the inference that was being clearly drawn: a smear by association that Mr Downer's views were the same as those of the League of Rights and that he supported those views—this place is going to run downhill badly while you are in the chair.

The PRESIDENT —I do not want to take up the time of the chamber for too long on this, but it is not a question of not being prepared to protect anybody. I have been at pains in the answer to draw a distinction between making an allegation of fact about a senator or member, an allegation which I cannot check from the chair—for example, whether he or she attended a particular meeting—and attributing to that senator or member reprehensible views. There is a clear distinction between that. If Senator Vanstone does not understand that, I suggest we have a discussion about it later.

  Senators in the past have made such accusations—for example, that a senator or member attended a meeting of the Communist Party. It is a regular thing in precedent to accuse people of attending Communist Party meetings. These have been regarded as allegations, the truth of which cannot be ascertained at the time but which are the subjects of refutation or explanation in debate at another appropriate time. Such comments have been regarded as quite distinct from imputations and personal reflections on a senator or a member—for example, stating that he or she is a communist or a fellow traveller.

  I made that distinction yesterday and I believe that it was the correct distinction to make, although I did make the point that, had a point of order been raised just a little while later, it would have been a valid point of order. It is a fine line but one that has been clearly drawn by precedent, and I stand by it.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.