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Thursday, 24 October 1974
Page: 2005

Senator GREENWOOD (Victoria) - I rise on an issue which I think is of vital importance to this Senate and of vital importance to freedom of speech in this country. Freedom of speech is the right of all Australians. It is the fundamental liberty of any citizen who claims the rights of a free people. Politicians as well as other citizens have a right to speak their minds. It is a freedom which is subject, of course, to some regulation, but it is a regulation measured in terms of the consequences which can be adjudicated upon in the courts and not imposed by a censoship dictated by an executive. Individuals are free to speak. It is up to them to assess the consequences of what they say before they speak. It is a freedom which acknowledges that if a citizen is defamed he has a right to restore his reputation by court action. He can reestablish his good name by claiming damages and by an injunction to prevent people saying wrongful things about him. If he succeeds, the damages he recovers are a measure of community opinion as to the harm he has suffered.

In Parliament the freedom to speak one's mind ought to be absolute. There should be few, if any, restraints. Absolute privilege attaches to words spoken by members of Parliament. If my recollection of the law is correct, qualified privilege attaches to all reports of what is said in Parliament. That means that if one reports honestly what is said one is immune from action. There are always instances which can be demonstrated to establish that rights and freedoms can be misused to achieve objectives opposite to the objectives for which these rights and freedoms are maintained. A classic example is the way in which throughout the world over many years communists have used freedom of speech, freedom of association and all the democratic traditions under which they can work to undermine democracy and liberty and to establish their own dictatorship. Many countries show this. I hope that we are vigilant in this country.

There is one other way in which freedom of speech can be prevented and that is by the use of the procedures of the court to stop freedom of speech, which although it is the truth is hurting. The procedure is the issue of a writ of defamation to stop free speech by those who may be too timid or too apprehensive to continue to say what they are entitled to say because they are intimidated by a writ of defamation. A writ of defamation can be a ruse of those who know that they have no answer to what is being said and who resort to the procedures of the court, in effect, to intimidate those who are the subject of court procedures. It is a well-known tactic of which those who wish to engage in it are well aware. In my State of Victoria just over 20 years ago the issue of a writ by an individual succeeded in stopping a royal commission into corruption. What is a stop writ of defamation? It is a writ which is issued and is not further proceeded with. It may be that it is not intended to be proceeded with.

Senator Wheeldon - We all know this.

Senator GREENWOOD - I am interested to hear Senator Wheeldon say 'We all know this' and trust therefore that he will agree with the general propositions which I am asserting. After a writ has been issued and before it is discontinued or determined there is a constant plea of sub judice which is able to be used to prevent or limit the freedom of speech of those who want to discuss matters of public interest. It can inhibit discussion in Parliament, in the Press, on television or on radio. It can be a denial of freedom of discussion. This is a matter of complexity and a matter of some delicacy. The right of citizens to protect their reputation is a right of the utmost importance. It is a right which I hope will never be diminished. The defamation writ is a recourse of this character. The ability of a citizen to have upheld his claim that he has been subjected to hatred, ridicule or contempt ought to be upheld by all citizens. I certainly uphold it. But equally important is the ability to have freedom of discussion about matters of public interest.

Tomorrow and on Saturday in the city of Launceston there will be a massive public demonstration to indicate this Government's disinterest about the affairs and the people of Tasmania. In this Parliament in recent weeks there have been concerted efforts by members of this Opposition to bring home to the Government that it has a responsibility to the State of Tasmania which cannot be disowned simply because it holds all the House of Representatives seats in that State and simply because it feels that, as it holds those seats, nothing further has to be done. I recall that in this chamber on 16 October a motion was moved by Senator Rae in the form of an amendment to a motion for the second reading of a Bill in which it was suggested that Tasmania ought to receive more moneys. That resolution was in these terms: . . The Senate is of the opinion that the proposed provision of grants to the State of Tasmania is inadequate and that the Government should forthwith make provision for further funds to enable Tasmanian people and commercial undertakings to enjoy a shipping transport cost no greater per ton mile than the rail freight rate applying in the other States of Australia.

That proposition was defeated. All the Government senators in this chamber voted against it, and that included every one of the Tasmanian senators representing the Australian Labor Party in this place. In support of the resolution all the senators from Tasmania not acting on behalf of the Labor Party voted in favour of it. That was a decision which ignored the realities of what was happening in the State of Tasmania. I should have adverted to the fact that the only reason why that motion was defeated was that the Tasmanian senators had the support of the solitary independent senator in this place. But the decision ignored the realities of what is happening in Tasmania.

At the present time we have in Tasmania a situation of unparalleled peril which I feel the people of Tasmania themselves do not really appreciate is threatening them. Tasmania is hardest hit by the economic problems confronting this country of any State in the Commonwealth. Unemployment in Tasmania is reaching unprecedented levels. In the textile companies of northern Tasmania there has been a threat to the jobs of thousands of people and already there has been a loss of employment for over 1,000 people. If Repco Auto Parts (Tas) Pty Ltd bearing company should have to close down thousands more people will be out of work. There is a threat to Tasmania which is caused by the present economic conditions, about which this Government seems completely unconcerned.

When one considers that there is not only growing unemployment but also growing inflation, and this Government is doing virtually nothing except making some half-hearted, belated effort to help the subsidising of the cost of freight on the northward route, but not otherwise, one has some appreciation of why Tasmanian people are concerned.

I do not believe that there needs to be a stressing in this chamber of what was very clearly pointed out in the debate on 16 October to which I referred. The meeting which will take place in Launceston on Friday and Saturday will be a demonstration to the people of Tasmania that one of the major parties in this country does care about what is happening to the people of Tasmania.

Senator McLaren - You did not care when you were in Government.

Senator GREENWOOD -We certainly cared when we were in Government. But for the deception and misrepresentation which is engaged in by members of this present Government they would realise that for an 1 1-year period the costs of freight for Tasmania were almost half what they were in 1958 and were kept that way for approximately 1 1 years. That is a far different proposition from what this Government is doing when before it secures office it makes promises that it will put the Tasmanian freight position on an equality with that which operates between the mainland cities of Australia, and in fact does nothing to aid the position. Indeed, as I recall, on 17 September the Minister for Transport (Mr Charles Jones) said that he was not prepared to lift a finger to subsidise the transport situation in Tasmania. Only a matter of some 12 or 13 days later, when the Deputy Prime Minister (Dr J. F. Cairns) went to Tasmania and was faced with the need to make some face saving gesture, he said: 'We will subsidise the northbound freights'. That is the type of action which the present Government is taking with regard to Tasmania.

Why have I introduced this matter in the context of freedom of speech? Last night a curious statement was made in this chamber by Senator Everett. He said that he took exception to a newspaper advertisement and that he proposed to issue a writ of defamation. I endeavoured to ascertain whether that writ had been issued. As Hobart is having a public holiday today, I imagine that it has not been issued. It is for Senator Everett and the other Tasmanian senators to decide whether they will issue a writ of defamation. I have my views as to whether there is any basis to that proposed writ of defamation. I do not think it is proper- notwithstanding the strength with which I hold those views- to express them in this chamber. But I do say, and this is the point of it, that there are 5 senators from Tasmania who obviously feel affronted by events which took place in this chamber, and I, for my part, believe that a writ should not be used, under the plea of sub judice, as a means of preventing discussion either in this chamber or out of this chamber about this Government's inadequacies in its treatment of Tasmania.

I raise this point because, if any issue is attempted to be raised in the future when we seek to talk about what this Government is failing to do in Tasmania and someone says that we cannot talk about it because a writ has been issued, I regard that viewpoint as fundamental to the rights and liberties of honourable senators to speak their minds in this place. It ought to be regarded as fundamental that people outside this chamber can speak about Tasmanian Labor senators as they please. If they speak about Tasmanian Labor senators in terms which warrant those senators taking them to court, then that is a right which those senators have. But I do not believe that any tactic of a stop writ ought to be used to inhibit discussion in this Parliament. Accordingly, I have raised this as a matter of public debate.

Senator Button - Mr President,I raise a point of order. It is simply this: Senator Greenwood, by alleging that this is a stop writ, is simply casting a reflection which almost amounts to dishonesty on honourable senators in this chamber. He might have all sorts of theories about what a stop writ involves, but the fact of the matter is that it was announced in this chamber last night by an honourable senator that he intended to issue a writ claiming damages for defamation. It is nothing more than an insult and a slur on the integrity of such an honourable senator for Senator Greenwood then to get up tonight and say that that is a stop writ. Of course, that is an assumption in which Senator Greenwood is entitled to indulge but not to pronounce in this chamber in the way in which he has.

The PRESIDENT - Senator Greenwood,do you wish to speak to the point of order?

Senator Greenwood - In response to the point of order I only say that if I said that this was a stop writ then I certainly would be making an assumption and Senator Button might reasonably take offence at my statement. But I certainly say that if it is a stop writ and if it is used for the purpose of stifling or attempting to stifle discussion, in those circumstances it is a matter of the fundamental rights of every honourable senator in this place to ensure that freedom of discussion takes priority. That was the point which I desired to make. I thank the Senate for its indulgence.

Senator BROWN (VICTORIA) - Mr President,in support of the point of order which has been raised by my colleague Senator Button, I invite you to direct your attention to standing order 418 which states:

No Senator shall use offensive words against either House of Parliament or any Member of such House, or of any House of a State Parliament, or against any Statute, unless for the purpose of moving for its repeal, and all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on Members shall be considered highly disorderly.

With great respect to the attempts by Senator Greenwood to proffer some explanation following the point of order taken by Senator Button, I say that having listened to Senator Greenwood I am convinced in my mind that he has, in fact, by implication, impugned the integrity of honourable senators on this side of the chamber who represent Tasmania. I ask you to rule accordingly.

Senator Cavanagh - I take up the point of order. I take it from a different angle. I will not pursue it if Senator Greenwood has finished and we do not have to put up with this tirade any more. The point of order I raise is: In the tradition of the Senate, when is a matter sub judice? An honourable senator got up and said that he had given instructions to have a writ issued. In the process of law a court will consider the writ. I was impressed by Senator Rae the other day when he came to the defence of Senator Bonner. I maintained that Senator Bonnor should not talk on a matter which was before a court. 1 was impressed by the statement that legal action should not stifle frank statements and justice and that therefore we had a right of discussion. But on this occasion we find that that is not a matter which impinges on this question.

We had a great preamble. We had a lesson from a law textbook, which led to a description of all the dastardly things that could happen if a person used his prerogative and took action to clear his name. It is only at the last minute that we find that this is a matter not of ventilating justice but of using a matter which we are notified is now before the court for the sole purpose of further repeating slander against an honourable senator in this chamber. To all intents and purposes, I think we have notification that this is a matter which is now before the court. It is not right that an honourable senator, under the privilege of this chamber, should try to judge the motives of someone who thinks that he has an action in law to justify what has been said. Mr President, I ask you whether there is validity in the point which has been raised. I also ask you to consider the question whether this matter is sub judice at the present time and should not be mentioned.

Senator Rae - Mr President,I wish to speak to the point of whether this matter is sub judice. By no stretch of the imagination could it conceivably be sub judice unless a writ has been issued.

Senator Murphy - That is not correct.

Senator Rae - Where there has simply been a statement of intention then it is a matter in which perhaps one could say that caution should be exercised. But it certainly cannot be categorised as having become sub judice. I do not wish to pursue that aspect any further, but I wish to reiterate that it is my understanding that Senator Greenwood, as he has said, having explained what the principles were which he believed should apply, was referring to the fact that, if it were intended to prevent debate and to place some sort of blanket upon public discussion of the problems of the particular area, then it was a matter which could come within the definition of a stop writ. I did not understand him to be making a positive accusation; I understood him to be raising a problem. I understood that that was the basis on which he raised the matter. If that is so, then the arguments that have been raised are not relevant.

The PRESIDENT - I uphold the point of order raised by Senator Button. Standing order 418 provides: . . all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on Members shall be considered highly disorderly.

We must not have honourable senators disparaging the motives of other honourable senators. The writ has been described as a stop writ. There is very grave doubt as to whether the writ has been issued at all. I would like Senator Greenwood to take the necessary action to withdraw the imputation of improper motives.

Senator Greenwood - If any imputation of improper motives was made- I regret, Sir, that as one of the plaintiffs in this writ you should have made that ruling- I would certainly withdraw it. I say that I never made any such imputations.

The PRESIDENT - I ask Senator Greenwood to withdraw that remark against me personally. I insist on it.

Senator Greenwood - I have no desire to offend you, Mr President, and I certainly would withdraw any suggestion of offence, but I do not hesitate to say that 5 persons were referred to in the advertisement to which Senator Everett drew attention last night. You, Mr President, along with Senator Everett and the other Tasmanian Labor senators were mentioned. I feel that this is one of the areas in which I am concerned to uphold the right of free speech, which is the right of every senator in this place. The downfall of democracy -

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - Mr President,I take a point of order. You asked Senator Greenwood to withdraw an imputation against you. He is canvassing your ruling and is mentioning the fact that you are one of the plaintiffs in this writ, whether or not it has been issued. By imputation he is suggesting that there is something improper in your ruling on a matter in which your are involved. I suggest that he is not withdrawing the imputation against the Chair. He should be asked again unequivocally to withdraw his imputation against you.

Senator Murphy - I support the point of order that has been taken. I hope that on reflection Senator Greenwood would accept it. Apart from the issue which he has raised, he did suggest, by his statement following the President's request that he withdraw, that the President was making his ruling in some partial manner because the President himself was involved in the issue. All of us know that in these matters the President acts on the advice of the Clerk. I think it is grossly unfair to suggest that the President has acted in any way partially. It is quite improper for any senator to suggest that. The only way in which that ought to be done is by a substantive motion. I ask Senator Greenwood to withdraw at once and without equivocation any imputation that the President was partial in his ruling a few moments ago.

Senator Rae - There seems to be a determination on the part of some people speaking from the Government side to make an issue of something which did not exist. Senator Greenwood has stated that the matter to which exception was taken was not what he said. It becomes an issue of fact as to whether he said it. He has not disputed -

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - I take a point of order. If Senator Rae, as an expert on the issuing of writs designed to stop comment, wishes to enter this debate he should at least address himself to the argument.

The PRESIDENT - The honourable senator cannot follow that line.

Senator Greenwood - If anyone is suggesting that imputations have been made, Senator James McClelland 's comment that Senator Rae is an expert in issuing writs to stop people from talking, must be the clearest and most unequivocal imputation of a wrongful motive. I submit that he should be called upon to withdraw.

The PRESIDENT - The first order of business as far as I am concerned is that I want withdrawn the imputation that was made against my impartiality.

Senator Greenwood - I have said before, and I say again, that I made no such imputation. Mr President, if you view anything I said as an imputation I would certainly withdraw any intention to make such imputation. I have said that. But I made no such imputation.

The PRESIDENT - I have ruled on the point of order raised by Senator Button that you made disparaging remarks imputing that honourable senators had improper motives. I would like you to withdraw that also

Senator Greenwood - Mr President,I made no such disparaging statements. The Hansard record will reveal this. I have no desire at this stage of the night to engage in a disputation with you.

Senator Cavanagh - I take a point of order, Mr President. I suggest, Mr President, that you asked for a withdrawal. You interpreted certain words as a disparaging remark, and now Senator Greenwood is canvassing your ruling. This is the deadliest of sins against the Chair.

The PRESIDENT -I have asked Senator Greenwood for a withdrawal.

Senator Greenwood - I was explaining the position.

The PRESIDENT -You are not to canvass my ruling.

Senator Greenwood - I made no disparaging statement. As I said, I am not engaging tonight in a disputation, Sir, with you or with the Senate. Therefore, I am prepared to withdraw. But I certainly reserve my rights to refer to the Hansard record and to raise this matter again. I desire to continue my remarks.

The PRESIDENT - I call Senator Greenwood.

Senator McAuliffe-I raise a point of order. Senator Webster is interjecting while he is not sitting in his right place. He might not know that he is not sitting in his right place, but he is interjecting.

The PRESIDENT - Senator Websterwill either cease interjecting or return to his place.

Senator GREENWOOD - I desire to continue my remarks, but I also desire to remind you, Mr President, that Senator James McClelland made the clearest imputation and he has not been called upon to withdraw. I ask you, Sir, if he is to be called upon to withdraw.

Senator Murphy - Nobody took a point of order.

Senator GREENWOOD - I took the point of order.

The PRESIDENT - What are the remarks that you objected to?

Senator GREENWOOD - I repeated them before, and I repeat them again. Senator James McClelland accused Senator Rae of being an expert in issuing writs to stop people talking. I submit that is a statement which is clearly a wrongful imputation.

Senator James McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) - In the interest of order, which does not seem to be an interest which is shared by many senators opposite, I withdraw.

Senator GREENWOOD - I feel that the developments of the last few minutes highlight the point that I desire to stress to the Senate. 1 believe that a study of democracy in those countries where it has disappeared will reveal that the sort of intimidation and tactics which have been engaged in by Government senators tonight have been reproduced in the actions of those who have contributed to the downfall of democracy in other countries. Firstly, they decide that they object to what the President says and then they take action which has the effect of stifling and preventing other people from speaking.

Senator Button - Mr Speaker,that again is an imputation on the integrity of senators because what Senator Greenwood is saying now is that people who take points of order which are upheld by the President of the Senate, as my point of order was, are the sort of people who have brought about the defeat of democracy in other countries. If it can be said that people who take points of order which you, Mr President, uphold are embarking upon a course of conduct which every member of this Parliament is sworn to oppose, that is an imputation on senators, particularly those senators who have taken points of order tonight.

The PRESIDENT - I do not intend to force this into an issue. I ask all honourable senators to observe the Standing Orders.

Senator GREENWOOD -Since I embarked upon this subject I have been subjected to a barrage of interjection, accusation and noise from the Government side. I believe that this is part and parcel of the authoritarian process of shutting up points of view with which one disagrees. We have seen it in this chamber previously. I do not doubt that what we are seeing tonight we will see in the future. In those circumstances I think it is salutary to refer to the matters to which I have adverted in this adjournment debate. I believe that if steps are taken in this chamber or outside this chamber by lawful process or by unlawful process to prevent people from saying what they wish to say, this is something with which the Senate ought to concern itself. I for my part will refer to what the Hansard record shows, and we may be pursuing this matter at some future time. But I certainly feel that it is about time that someone told the Labor Party in this country that it cannot shut up people with whom it disagrees.

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