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Friday, 28 June 1946


Mr SPENDER (Warringah) . - I do not oppose change - in fact, I welcome this innovation. It is good that Parliament should be brought closer to the people. Technically, it is not possible to have a continuous broadcast of the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. It is important that we should consider the extent to which privilege shall continue to apply when defamatory or scandalous statements' are made and broadcast. In ancient days, the principle was established that a member of Parliament should have the right to say what he liked, because it was assumed that the placing of any impediment upon his utterance might militate against his ability to do his duty. For instance, in the case of some scandal, the- member might wish to repeat- information conveyed to him. He might believe it to be his duty to bring the matter before the House and, if restrictions were placed upon his right to do so, it might affect the value of Parliament as a deliberative assembly. However, it seems that, in these days, the right of a man to say what he likes in Parliament must be limited in some way. I agree that public interest demands that we should. have the right to make, without fear, such statements as we think necessary in the performance of our duty; but there are instances, I believe, in which the privilege should be restricted. I" am anxious that the bill should not be pushed through the House quickly on a Friday afternoon, because it contains matter which is deserving of the most careful consideration by honorable members and the Government. Clause 14 confers. special immunities in regard to matter broadcast from Parliament. There is vested in the Speaker of the House the right to prevent scandalous and defamatory statements made in the House from being republished.


Mr Beazley - Who is to decide the issue ?


Mr SPENDER - The power- is inherent in the Speaker. It is true that such power is never now exercised, but in other days, and in other parliaments, it was exercised - certainly in the House of Commons. We must consider the damage that might be ' done to persons other than members by . statements made in Parliament. Members have an opportunity to reply in Parliament to charges made against them, but no such opportunity is enjoyed by citizens ou:side


Mr Beazley - Citizens are often criticized in the press, too. There is no difference between that and criticism in Parliament.


Mr SPENDER - In the press, a charge made in Parliament against some -person may receive publicity because it has sensational value; but because the refutation has not the same sort of value, it is either not published at all or the item appears in an obscure place and in a manner which is not a sufficient refutation. 1 am directing my attention to the need to protect, persons outside Parliament from the effects of statements made inside Parliament, unless those statements are made by a member in the performance of h-is duty. Clause 14 provides -

No action or proceeding, civil or criminal, shall lie against any person for broadcasting or, by an amendment foreshadowed by the Government, re-broadcasting - a.nj' portion of the proceedings of either House nf Parliament.

Under that clause any portion of a speech -may be broadcast at any time by any person. Words can be taken out of their context, and defamatory matter can be rebroadcast with absolute immunity by any person. Is it proper that such matter should be protected? If I do not correctly state the position, I shall be glad if honorable members opposite will controvert my statements. It was surely notcontemplated by the Government that such absolute immunity should be conferred. I mention that aspect only for the purpose of suggesting that the Government should not be hasty in seeking to place the bill on the statute-book. I suggest that the deferment of the bill until next week would not cause undue delay or inconvenience to the Government. I do not desire to place any unnecessary impediments in the way of the Government achieving the purpose for which this bill is designed ; but I point out that it would be unwise to confer absolute immunity to persons who may select undesirable portions of a speech to suit their personal or political purposes.


Mr Calwell - No one could do that. The Australian Broadcasting Act forbids that. And further, proposed new clause 13 (a) provides that power to determine the conditions under which a rebroadcast may be made shall vest in the committee.


Mr GUY (WILMOT, TASMANIA) - But who will control the committee ?


Mr Calwell - The Government.


Mr SPENDER - The broadcasting of objectionable items is covered by section 91 of the Australian Broadcasting Act; but I do not know how it will be possible to enforce the provisions of that section in respect. of obscene or indecent statements made in the Parliament. I regret to say that, in my short experience', I have heard indecent and obscene statements made in this chamber on more than one occasion.


Mr Calwell - Read section 93.


Mr SPENDER - Section 93 of the :i et provides -

A person shall not, without the consent of ihe owner or licensee of the station and the approval of the Minister, publish, in any manner whatsoever, any portion of the text of an item transmitted . by a broadcasting station, whether situated in Australia or elsewhere. -

That does not cover the point I am making. Not only during the life-time of this Government, but also during the terms of office of earlier governments, Ministers have exercised influence on the Australian Broadcasting Commission to obtain publicity for their own views.


Mr Calwell - The honorable member for Wentworth (Mr. Harrison) was the worst offender in that regard.


Mr Harrison - That is completely untrue.


Mr SPENDER - I am not concerned with personalities; I merely say that that has happened. It might be well to observe at this stage that we have an ex traordinary set-up in connexion with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, under which its executive can be subjected to public criticism by any of its employees. It must be obvious to any one here that the commission has now been placed in a position in which it is subject to political domination one way or the other. In these circumstances it does not satisfy me merely to point out that the committee must give its approval to the broadcast or re-broadcast of any particular speech or portion of a speech. Immunity should not be extended to that degree. Even apart from that, it seems to me that occasions arise in this House when the principle of immunity should not be extended even to a member of the Parliament. In order to give the Government an opportunity to demonstrate its sincerity in this matter I foreshadow an amendment to clause 14. I shall propose that clause 14 be .subdivided into two parts, the first part to read as at present printed but omitting the words ". any person " and substituting in lieu thereof the words " the Australian Broadcasting Commission ". There should be no objection to that. Paragraph (a) of the clause would then read -

No action or proceeding, civil or criminal, shall lie against the Australian Broadcasting Commission for broadcasting any portion of the proceedings of either House of the Parliament.


Mr Calwell - The actual manual work of broadcasting or re-broadcasting is carried out by employees of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.


Mr SPENDER - But the commission, like all corporations and public companies, has neither a body to be kicked nor a soul to be damned; it is made up of individuals and, in law, would be deemed to include all of its employees.


Mr Calwell - Would it?


Mr SPENDER - If the Minister wants to be more precise let us add in my proposed amendment after the words " Australian Broadcasting Commission " the words - " its servants, agents or employees ".


Mr Calwell - That would be merely another way of saying what is provided in the clause as it stands at present.


Mr SPENDER - Let us not enter into unnecessary debate on the point. I should have thought that what I have said would be obvious even to one with the moat limited intellect. I suggest that my, amendment should be accepted because if immunity is to be conferred it is surely not intended that 3u6h immunity be extended to anybody but the Australian Broadcasting Commission" and its servants, agents, and employees while engaged in the performance of their duties. If it is intended to go further than that, it seems that there is an undisclosed purpose behind this clause.


Mr Calwell - That assertion is merely based on suspicion.


Mr SPENDER - I am not suspicious ; I am either right or wrong in saying that immunity is surely intended to extend only to the Australian Broadcasting Commission and its servants, agents and employees.


Mr Calwell - It is intended to extend tq any person engaged in the broadcasting or re-broadcasting of parliamentary debates. That person must necessarily bc an employee of the commission. The bill provides that the commission shall broadcast the proceedings of the Parliament and the commission will employ on that work only one of its own employees.


Mr SPENDER - May I postulate a particular case to illustrate the point I make? Let us assume that under proposed new clause 13 (a) a re-broadcast is authorized by a majority of the committee, and the Government will have a majority of representatives ou the committee-


Mr Calwell - It may be authorized as the committee as a whole. Why introduce the party aspect?


Mr SPENDER - Well, assume that the committee, acting either unanimously or by a majority decision, authorizes, during election time, a re-broadcast of a portion of a debate that has taken place in the Parliament. If a person selects a speech or a portion of a speech which suits his particular purpose and arranges for it to be re- broad cast, am I not correct in saying that, as the clause stands at present, immunity is extended to such a person? If my proposed amendment is not acceptable, then there must be some intention in the mind of the Government to protect others against actions arising from the broadcasting or re-broadcasting of a speech or a portion of a speech. Only two classes of people should be protected, first the Australian Broadcasting Commission and its servants, agents And employees. I agree that whatever may bo said here, the commission and its servants. ' agents and employees have no association with the matter re-broadcast. The only other people who should be protected are those who make the statements which are broadcast, and it is in respect of them that I propose a further amendment.


Mr Calwell - The privileges of the press are not affected by clause 14.


Mr SPENDER - I' agree; but the Government, by arranging for the broadcast of parliamentary debates, is now placing beyond recall, once they have issued from this Parliament out into the world, the words spoken by honorable members. You cannot recover a broadcast defamatory statement.


Mr Calwell - That is the position to-day in respect of anything reported by the newspapers.


Mr SPENDER -- 1 have been at great pains to point -out that there is an inherent power vested in the Parliament to prevent the publication or dissemination of defamatory matter arising during the course of debate. I have for a long time been convinced that quite apart from the aspect of broadcasting, there is a need For the establishment of a committee of privileges, consisting of Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Government and the Leader of the Opposition, which, upon an honorable member rising in his place and claiming that parliamentary privilege had been abused, should have the - duty to investigate and the power to discipline the offending member, and, in extreme cases, to impose" penalties even as drastic as suspension from Hie service of this House for a long period. 1 see no reason why the privilege extended to honorable members- in this. House should be unlimited.'


Mr Falstein - This is not the only place where absolute privilege is given. In certain circumstances it exists in our courts.


Mr SPENDER - I am aware of that, hut what is said in this House is in a vastly different category from what is said in a court. Indeed, in my view, the rules of absolute privilege might well be reviewed. The additional amendment which I propose to move seeks to add to clause 14, a. new sub-clause b, providing that nc action or proceeding, civil or criminal, shall lie against any member of either House of the Parliament for any defamatory matter spoken by him or broadcast or re-broadcast in accordance with this act, unless such matter bc untrue in fact, in which event the immunity hereby conferred shall not. apply if the matter were spoken by such member maliciously or with knowledge that it was false. If matter raised in debate is untrue in fact, then in certain circumstances I see no reason why protection should be given to the honorable member who introduces it.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2.15 p.m.


Mr SPENDER - I appreciate that, that amendment, if carried, would cut down the absolute privilege .applying to debates in this chamber, but I submit it because, by the introduction of this bill, which permits the debates to be broadcast, the likelihood of damage being caused to people by speeches is infinitely greater than when something is said inside this chamber and is not broadcast. It is unusual for scandalous or highly de-, f amatory statements made in this House to be published in reputable newspapers, which exercise their own censorship when offences are committed against decency. The danger of people outside this Parliament being defamed by an honorable member forgetful of his obligations is something that we are bound to take into consideration. The absolute privilege which applies in this House springs from ancient times. It springs from the necessity that men charged with legislating for the country shall be entitled to speak without fear or favour, and I can understand that. However, as I said earlier to the honorable member for Watson (Mr. Falstein), I believe that absolute privilege does require remodelling in the light of present-day circumstances. Although anything said in this chamber by an honorable member is absolutely privileged, he could not claim privilege if he reprinted his statements outside this chamber and distributed copies to bis constituents or any one else. That would be actionable if the statements were libellous. I sec no difference between that position and the position that we shall soon have when our proceedings are broadcast. Then, everything said in ' this chamber will be listened to outside this chamber. Once uttered,, the word? can never be arrested. An honorable member could at will attack any one . without fear, and he would know that his attack would be heard by thousands of people outside. If a member of Parliament causes malicious matter to be printed in a newspaper and published to the world, no privilege attaches to that matter. I think a member of this Parliament who causes such matter to be broadcast ought to be in the same" position.


Mr Falstein - There are other defences.


Mr SPENDER - Yes ; but T see no great hardship in a man being placed in that position. We should do wrong if , we permitted this bill to go through without taking steps to .ensure that other people, particularly people outside this chamber, shall" npt be scandalized or defamed by an honorable member who, deliberately, uses an occasion in this House, not to perform a public duty or to ventilate a matter of public interest, but to defame another person. My amendment prescribes conditions that must be present before the broadcast words of a member of Parliament shall be actionable. First, they must be untrue. Ashonorable gentlemen are probably aware, unprivileged true statements are none the less actionable if they are libellous or slanderous. Secondly, they must be proved malicious. Alternatively, it must be proved that the speaker knew that his statements were false. I cannot imagine any one justifying protection being given to any honorable member who uses thebroadcasting system about to be set up in this chamber for the purpose of making statements that he knows to be false. If he knows that his statements are false, he is not discharging a public duty, but is using his position and the occasion to vent personal" spleen against some one else. I think my amendment provides for a proper departure from the rules of absolute privilege to meet modern circumstances.

Clause 15 provides -

Section ninety of the Australian Broadcasting Act shall not apply to the broadcasting of any proceedings, of either House of the Parliament. lt is proposed to amend that clause by. providing that that section shall also not apply to the re-broadcasting of any of the proceedings: The Government should indicate clearly whether it contemplates that at some subsequent time not contemperaneous with or closely allied to the time at which the proceedings are broadcast they shall be re-broadcast. Section 90 of the Australian Broadcasting Act provides -

The Commission, in the case of a national broadcasting station, or the licensee, in the case of a commercial broadcasting station, shall cause to be announced the true name of every speaker who is, either in person or through the agency of a sound recording device, to deliver an address or make a statement relating to a political subject or current affairs for broadcasting from the station. If the address is to be delivered or the statement is to be made on behalf of a political party, the name of the party shall be included in the announcement.

It purposes, therefore, that speeches and announcements made in a political campaign shall be subject to control. Why is that control being excluded from operation in respect of the re-broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings? I can quite understand that it may be necessary for a certain time to elapse between the original broadcasting of the proceedings and the re-broadcasting through remote stations to which recordings of the debate would have to be sent in the event of landlines being unavailable. That would entail a limited delay, but this legislation will permit the untrammelled and absolutely privileged re-broadcasting at any time of proceedings in the Parliament.

I am not impressed with the adequacy of the provision for the establishment of a joint committee on the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings as a safeguard against abuses of clause 15, as it is proposed to bie amended. What distinction is there between the person who re-broadcasts parliamentary proceedings" and the person who re-publishes a speech made in this House and ren- den himself actionable for having done so. In the circumstances, my amend- ment ought to be accepted by the Government. I would be, ready to compromise if the Government would set up a special committee on privilege, as 1 have suggested ' previously, consisting of the Speaker, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, .whose duty would be to consider charges of breaches of privilege made by honorable members against other honorable members, and to determine the facts and impose whatever penalties it considered that the gravity of proved offences warranted. My purpose is to protect people,, particularly people outside this Parliament. We have had more than one occasion when the forms and privileges of this House have been so abused by honorable members as to cause unnecessary defamation of and haron to people outside, without serving any public purpose at all. I. hope that the Government will not be in a hurry to have this measure passed this afternoon and that it will use the time between now and when we meet again next we*ek to consider the points that I raised, because they involve principles of the greatest importance to this chamber and the people we serve.







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