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Wednesday, 8 December 1971
Page: 4370


Mr BERINSON (Perth) When I was reading the report of the Privileges Committee one phrase caught my eye. It occurs on page 9 of the report and deals with proceedings of the House of Commons in 1953. After finding that a certain set of circumstances did constitute a breach of privilege of the Parliament, the Committee of that House went on to say:

But ... it is not every such breach of privilege which is worthy of occupying the time of the House.

In my view that sentiment is appropriate here and should be adopted in order to maintain a reasonable perspective. According to the record, we had 9 grown men attending umpteen meetings and spending hundreds of man-hours of labour producing a report 1 inch thick and 205 pages long. And what about? It was about a statement by a journalist that a number of Australian Labor Party members walked out during a quorum when the accepted fact is that they did not. We have spent time enough on this both in the Committee and in the Parliament and. we would be taking action enough if we were to take the action suggested to us by the Leader of . the House (Mr Swartz). I say that with the. greatest respect to those . of . my colleagues who think otherwise.

I take into account the views of the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) who asked why, if that is so, we agreed in the first place to refer this 'matter to the Committee. I would have thought that the answer to that is simply that the matter was raised, that prima facie it did indicate a misrepresentation of facts and that it was reasonable in those circumstances to have some investigation made to. see what action, if any, should be taken. The whole colour .of the situation could have been changed, for example, had it been demonstrated that there was some element of deliberateness. or malice. . So far as I am aware the Committee, including those in favour of its full recommendation, has not been prepared to make any statement indicating that either element existed, lt .is agreed that the Press report was wrong or mistaken or false, depending .on .how much malice one wants to attribute to it. But where do we go from there? At one point in the report the following passage appears:

The Presiding Officer or the members have been held up M hatred, ridicule and contempt. The Presiding Officer or the member* have been disparaged and (he institution has been damaged.

Again 1 say with the greatest respect to the author of that statement that, I am sorry but I do not accept it. If any damage was done to the institution by the incident in question the damage was done by the collapse of the House and not by the statement that honourable members deliberately walked out to cause it. Neither do I have evidence to show that individual members have been prejudiced by the report.

One of our problems in this House is that we tend to take our own procedures too seriously in the sense that we believe that the eyes of the world are glued upon us and that people are ascribing the same significance to our individual acts that we sometimes tend to ascribe to them ourselves. Divisions are just one example of that attitude. We go through periods when we feel that a great number of divisions will impress people with the seriousness of our attitude to some proposal whereas in fact people who are listening on the radio are simply irked by the silence and those who are reading Hansard simply flip over the pages. Again, we know that we should in theory in divisions have a margin of 7. We sometimes tend to believe that if we can only reduce that to 6 we will have gained a victory and that if we relax it to 8 or 9 people will say we have slipped. I think that most of that is unrealistic and is to be attributed to the fact that this place tends to divorce us from reality too much.

If the public understood our proceedings at all,I believe that at worst it would think that even had we gone out - there is no question about the fact that we did not - we were not after the collapse of the House, as the Minister for Social Services (Mr Wentworth) has been trying to suggest, but that we were after some added inconvenience to members on the Government side, and Ministers in particular. Given the scarce resources at the disposal of the Opposition to harass the Government when harassment seems in order, I would even go so far as to say that harassment of Ministers in this way, depending on other circumstances, wouldnot be unreasonable or something of which we might be ashamed.

To summarise what seems to have occurred, in the first place an incident was said to have taken place which did not take place. Secondly, I accept that, as the Committee suggests, the statement made in the newspaper did constitute a breach of the privilege of the Parliament. I do not even qualify that by extending reference to the fact that to establish that we have to go back to some reference of the House of Commons of 1699. Finally, having agreed with those 2 facts, one has to come to some judgment of the seriousness of the position. In spite of the tirade of the Minister for Social Services, who all but talked me out of my resolve, I have to come to the conclusion on my own judgment that the matter was simply not so serious as to merit being laboured by both the Committee and this House to the extent that it has, and no more serious than would have been amply met by the motion moved by the Leader of the House.







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