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Tuesday, 5 May 1987
Page: 2638

Mr GEAR(9.47) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Parliamentary Privileges Bill. At the outset I should make it clear that whilst I am Chairman of the Standing Committee on Privileges, I am not speaking on behalf of the Committee in this debate. My remarks are entirely my own.

The Bill has two principal purposes: First, to implement those recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege which need to be implemented by legislation and, secondly, to restore and enshrine the traditional interpretation of Article 9 of the Bill of Rights and override the interpretation given to article 9 in the cases involving the late Mr Justice Murphy in the New South Wales Supreme Court, where it was held that witnesses before parliamentary committees could be cross-examined in court on the evidence that they had given to those committees. These interpretations were regarded by those concerned with the position of Parliament as a serious departure from traditional interpretations of Article 9.

Madam Speaker is to be congratulated for joining with the then Senator Douglas McClelland, the former President of the Senate, in sponsoring this Bill and bringing it forward for consideration. Parliamentary privilege is indeed a vital matter, going as it does to the very basis of the Parliament's authority and operations, and so it is entirely appropriate that a major Bill in this area should be sponsored by the Presiding Officers. This action symbolises the importance of the matter to the institution and, whilst differing views may be held about particular details, I am sure we would all hope that this Bill could be considered in a bipartisan and constructive manner, as called for by the honourable member for North Sydney (Mr Spender).

As I indicated, the Bill seeks to implement those recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, chaired by the honourable member for North Sydney, which require legislation for their implementation. However, it is important for it to be understood as part of a wider package, as recommended by the Joint Select Committee. The Committee made many other recommendations, some of which would require changes to the Standing Orders and others of which need resolutions of the Houses to implement them. I therefore urge honourable members to consider the Bill in this wider context.

The law of privilege and contempt is very much one of the foundations which are necessary for the operations of the Houses, their committees and members. In the ordinary course, Parliament operates without particular reference to these fundamental matters. However, it has been clear at various times over the years that the law which applies by virtue of section 49 of the Constitution-that is, the law applying to the House of Commons, its committees and members in 1901-is not fully adequate for the needs of the Houses and their committees and members in modern times. The honourable member for North Sydney pointed out some of the more ridiculous aspects of that. A prime example is the serious doubt that exists as to the powers of the Houses to impose fines. There is no doubt that each House has the power to commit persons found guilty of contempt to prison and certain other penalties are available, including admonition. However, the probable absence of fines, or at best the serious doubts concerning the ability to impose them, is a problem. The Bill, if passed, would remedy this and enable fines to be imposed on individuals and corporations in appropriate circumstances.

Important matters not covered in the Bill, but to be dealt with by complementary measures, include the procedures for the raising of complaints of breach of privilege or contempt, where the Joint Select Committee recommended the adoption of a procedure whereby complaints are raised in writing to the Speaker and under which the publicity which can often accompany the raising of a matter publicly is avoided and under which the honourable member involved has an opportunity for more considered reflection and is able to discuss and seek advice and where the Speaker is similarly able to consider it in a more appropriate way than is possible under the present arrangements. Such procedures work successfully in the House of Commons, the New Zealand House of Representatives and the Legislative Assembly in Victoria.

Perhaps the most important general recommendation of the Joint Select Committee concerned the adoption by the Houses of a general policy in this area. The Committee recommended that the Houses should resolve that their contempt powers should be exercised sparingly and only when they were satisfied that the use of the powers was necessary to protect themselves, their committees or members from actions or threats of actions which were considered to constitute, or threaten, substantial interference with the performance of their functions. This general policy was adopted in the United Kingdom House of Commons in 1978 and, as we understand it, it has served well to guide members individually, the Speaker, the Committee of Privileges and the House itself in the exercise of these great powers.

In conclusion, I again congratulate the Speaker and the former President for bringing the matter forward. I also want to congratulate the honourable member for North Sydney and his colleagues on the Joint Select Committee who conducted such a thorough and useful review of the whole area of privilege and contempt. I urge honourable members to support the thrust of the Bill, but to consider it as one very important part of a wider package of changes, which seek to retain the most important elements of the traditional law and practice but which make them more relevant to the modern parliament and which seek to strike an appropriate balance between the rights and responsibilities of members and the reasonable rights and expectations of others in the community. I hope that the complementary measures can be considered as soon as possible.