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Wednesday, 8 December 1971
Page: 4345

Mr DRURY (Ryan) - I have listened with interest to both the Leader of the House (Mr Swartz) and to the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Allan Fraser). I do not wish to cross swords with my friend, the honourable member for Eden-Monaro. This, I understand, is a matter on which there is to be a free vote, and as a member of the Privileges Committee he is entitled to express his own views in his own way and to vote accordingly. All I say is that I do not agree with some of the terms and expressions mat be has used. I believe, for example, that there is no accused before a privileges committee. It is not a star chamber, nor are the methods adopted in any way comparable to those of a star chamber. It is not even a court of law. It does not pretend to function as a court of law. It is nothing more or less than a committee of this House appointed to do a particular job - in other words, to carry out an inquiry upon a matter referred to it by the House as part of the ordinary procedure of this place.

This is an unusual report and it arose from very unusual circumstances. The Committee carefully and thoroughly investigated the matter complained of, and to assist the House it was decided that cue whole of the evidence should bc attached to the report. This has not been clone before in this Parliament. The evidence is, as honourable members will have observed, shown as appendix III and is quite voluminous. There is no doubt in my mind that the writer of the article, Mr Alan Reid, believed his statement that 'a group of ALP parliamentarians walked out of the chamber when the quorum was called' to be correct. Not all information contained in newspaper articles is obtained first hand. This would just not be practicable. Mr Reid relied, as probably many other journalists do, on what he had heard.

In his evidence before the Committee he indicated the sources of his information, but he could not give the names of the 2 journalists who had been in the Press Gallery and who told him that a group of members had walked out. The important fact, of course, is that a journalist has a responsibility with regard to the accuracy of what he writes concerning the proceedings of Parliament. Mr Reid is a very senior and experienced journalist of considerable standing. His Editor-in-Chief, Mr McNicoll, had no hesitation whatever in accepting as true and accurate what Mr Reid wrote in his article. Nor did Mr McNicoll have any hesitation in accepting responsibility for its publication. However, the evidence given before the Committee by a number of very responsible witnesses does not support the allegations contained in Mr Reid's article.

In my view, the ultimate finding was the correct one on the evidence. At page 140 to 144 of Erskine May's 'Parliamentary Practice', Eighteenth Edition, 'constructive contempts' are set out clearly and explicitly. On the evidence given there is no doubt in my mind that the writing and publication of the article fall into this category. There are 2 particular aspects of this inquiry which are extremely unusual and on which I should comment. The first which, as the report indicates, was viewed very seriously by the Committee, was the premature disclosure of part of the proceedings. May deals on pages 142 and 143 with 'premature publication or disclosure of a committee's proceedings or evidence', and says that this in itself constitutes a breach of privilege or a contempt of the Parliament. In my experience, this has never happened before in a House of Representatives privilege inquiry, and nobody regrets more than I do that it happened on this occasion.

The Committee also viewed seriously Mr McNicoll's refusal to disclose the 3 sources from which he had heard that there had been a finding favourable to Mr Reid but that the finding had later been reversed. What Mr McNicoll heard was, of course, correct. So there was clearly a premature disclosure. This brings me to the other unusual aspect of the case, that is, the recommittal and subsequent reversal of the original finding. The report draws attention to the fact that on each of the main votes the decisions were arrived at by an extremely narrow majority. This is one reason why the committee decided to append the evidence in full, so that the House could see clearly for itself what the position was. As the Chairman of the Committee 1 endeavoured always to fix meeting times to suit most, if not all, of the members of the Committee. But when the time came, there were occasions when some members found unexpectedly that they were unable to attend.

It has been suggested by my friend the. honourable member for Eden-Monaro, and one or 2 others whom I have heard, that having made the original finding, the Committee's work should have finished there. I for one do not accept that. 1 believe that the Committee's job ends when the Chairman's draft report is approved down to the last detail. On this occasion, al the request of the Committee, 1 prepared a second draft report. Only when this was finally approved by the Committee for presentation to the House was the Committee's task completed. The Committee of Privileges does not, of course, observe any judicial forms, but as Chairman I have always endeavoured to preserve an atmosphere of calmness and objectivity throughout the whole proceedings and to exclude political considerations.

The Committee was greatly helped by the Acting Clerk of the House, Mr Pettifer, and his paper dated 13th September 1971 is attached as Appendix II. I draw the attention of the House to pages 3 and 4 of Mr Pettifer's paper setting out particular references in relation to the matter before the Committee, and also to page 5 and subsequent pages listing matters for determination by the Committee. I also bring to the notice of the House the synopsis of some recent cases of privilege, set out as an appendix at the end of Mr Pettifer's paper. Having regard to the unusual aspects of this case and to the fact that the ultimate finding was made only on the casting vote of the Chairman - that is myself - 1 feel personally that the motion moved tonight by the Leader of the House is reasonable and, in all the circumstances, would best serve the dignity of the House. After all, it is the dignity of the House and the rights of members with which the law of privilege is very largely concerned. As this is to be a free vote I intend to support the motion that has been moved by the Leader of the House.

Finally, may I say that I am glad the Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) regards it as 'proper and timely' that the Australian Parliament should establish its own privileges and that he has asked the AttorneyGeneral (Senator Greenwood) to prepare a paper as a basis for discussion. A review of the whole question of parliamentary privilege is, I believe, overdue. I for one welcome the Prime Minister's move in this direction. Speaking in the House on 23rd August last the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr N. H. Bowen), representing the Attorney-General in this House, said that the legal matters involved would need to be looked at in some depth. I look forward to taking part in a discussion on these matters in due course when they come before the House, as I have some very definite views on them myself.

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