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Monday, 19 September 1994
Page: 884

The PRESIDENT —Pursuant to standing order 81, Senator Vanstone has raised with me a matter of privilege. The matter raised by Senator Vanstone relates to the Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority, of which she is the deputy chair. Senator Vanstone states that on two occasions there have been significant unauthorised disclosures of private deliberations of the committee and false and misleading accounts of the committee's decisions. She indicates that these unauthorised disclosures and false and misleading accounts were extremely damaging to the committee's work.

  Unauthorised disclosures of committee proceedings and false and misleading accounts of such proceedings are declared by the privilege resolutions of the Senate to be contempts, and as such they are taken very seriously. There is no doubt that supported allegations of such offences meet the criteria which I am required to consider under standing order 81, and therefore a motion to refer such a matter to the Privileges Committee would normally be given precedence.

  There is, however, a difficulty with the matter raised by Senator Vanstone. Although she asks that the Privileges Committee be required to consider whether contempts have been committed `by anyone', it is clear that it is the chairman of the committee, Mr Cleeland, who stands accused of making the unauthorised disclosures of committee deliberations and of giving the false and misleading accounts of the committee's proceedings. The press reports obtaining the alleged unauthorised disclosures and false and misleading statements explicitly cite Mr Cleeland as their source. While it is theoretically possible that the journalist concerned falsely claimed Mr Cleeland as his source, Senator Vanstone's letter makes it clear that this is not the case. An inquiry by the Privileges Committee, therefore, would inevitably be an inquiry into the conduct of Mr Cleeland.

  A very similar case was raised in May 1988 when a senator who was the deputy chair of a joint committee, the Joint Select Committee on Video Materials, raised as a matter of privilege alleged false and misleading accounts of the committee's proceedings by the chair of the committee, who was a member of the House of Representatives. President Sibraa declined to give a motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee precedence, on the basis that the Senate has no power to inquire into or to treat as a contempt the conduct of a member of the House of Representatives, and only that House can inquire into the conduct of one of its members or deal with one of its members for contempt. President Sibraa based his ruling on this principle by referring to paragraph (b) of the criteria required to be considered under standing order 81. Paragraph (b) requires the President to have regard to the availability of another remedy, and President Sibraa ruled that action by the House of Representatives was the only remedy.

  I therefore determine that a motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee may not have precedence under standing order 81. In accordance with the normal practice, I table the letter from Senator Vanstone in which she raises the matter.