Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 8 December 1971
Page: 4343

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Monaro) - I do not agree with the motion moved by the Minister for National Development (Mr Swartz) that the Committee of Privileges is correct in finding that there has been a breach of privilege. I do agree that the House would best consult its own dignity by taking no further action. If these 2 propositions are to be put as one, I shall find myself in a difficult position. But 1 shall not proceed to push the matter any further than to state my view to you, M> Speaker, and to the House.

After this report was tabled, some of my colleagues said to me very kindly that they noted I did not vote on the Labor side. I want to make it clear that in matters affecting privilege 1 do not see any side - Labor or anti Labor - on the Committee of Privileges or in the House. During the Committee proceedings a colleague remarked to me when 1 advanced one argument: 'How cringing can you become? How servile in the interests of the Consolidated Press can you become?' My concern is that the necessary privileges of this House and of its members should be upheld, that the accused should be treated justly and thai the decision whether privilege has been breached should be reached impartially.

In this case, a verdict of guilty brought by the Committee against Messrs Reid and McNicholl is accompanied by recommendations for penalties which are very mild. They consist of a correction and apology by Mr McNicholl displayed prominently on the front page of the 'Daily Telegraph' and a written apology to the House by Mr Reid. But this does not detract from the seriousness of the procedure or of the weight that the House should attach to recommendations which come through this procedure. A colleague on the Committee proposed that Mr Reid should bc committed to Goulburn Gaol or, better still, to Kenmore Mental Hospital. That was not pressed to the vote.

Perhaps every man should declare his interest. I must say that it is true that in the past I have worked for Sir Frank Packer. 1 worked on the staff of the 'Daily Telegraph'. I was a sub-editor there. After I had been 3 months in the position, Sir Frank. - then Mr Packer - personally sacked me. He did not agree with my subediting. I took a stand in this House similar to the stand that I am taking on this case on another case many years ago. The accused then were Browne and Fitzpatrick, not Reid and McNicoll, and the 'Daily Telegraph' at that time scathingly attacked my attitude in a special editorial. 1 mention these things simply because 1 object to the intimidation practised on members of this Committee who attempted to advance an honest view by colleagues alleging that their view must be coloured by servility and a cringi ng attitude towards Australian Consolidated Press Ltd.

In evaluating the recommendations of the Committee, the House must take into account the limitations under which it worked. Therefore, it is pertinent to remember that the accused had no right to legal representation, no right to hear evidence, no right to question witnesses, no right to call witnesses, indeed none of the rights of an accused in any British court of justice.

Something so utterly extraordinary occurred in this Committee, something so horrifying, to me anyway, that it alone would justify casting the Committee's report right out of the window. At the end of the Committee's inquiry, after due deliberation, it reached a verdict of not guilty. It decided that there was no breach of privilege and no contempt of Parliament. The report for presentation to the Parliament was then drafted and brought to its final stages on that basis - that the accused were not guilty. Tt was decided that there had been no breach of privilege. Then when the report was being finally approved, as records now in the possession of the House show, the verdict of not guilty was struck out and the verdict of guilty was substituted so that the report to this Parliament had to be redrafted.

The verdict of not guilty was carried by one vote and, with a larger attendance, the verdict of guilty was later carried by one vote. As the House knows from the report of the Committee, later still, with a full attendance of members for the first time, the verdict of guilty which had substituted the verdict of not guilty was recommitted, again by a majority of one vote and was finally upheld by the casting vote of the Chairman.

What seemed incredible to rae was that these recommittals, these reversals of decisions, were permitted and occurred without any suggestion that the earlier verdicts had not been properly reached, or that the matter had not been fully or honestly considered, or that any false evidence had been given, or that any new evidence was available or that anything whatever improper had occurred in the consideration of the verdict. So this was not justice by any standard; it was the numbers game.

We are members of the high court of Parliament. We are required to act justly and I therefore say deliberately, as a member of the Committee and having participated in its proceedings, that it was a travesty of justice to allow a verdict duly reached to be reversed without any reason in law or in justice which would in any court in the world be accepted as a reason to reopen a case. Of course, the Privileges Committee is not a court and what happened in the Committee could not happen in any court except a kangaroo court. This Committee is not a chamber, but what was done in this Committee could not happen in any chamber except a star chamber. I think it merits the scorn of everyone who has respect for the law. It will be an everlasting reproach to this House if such a procedure is ever permitted to operate again. It should be promptly flung out like something the cat dragged in.

The Prime Minister (Mr McMahon) has indicated his abhorrence of the present procedure and bis intention to give this House an early opportunity to decide and declare its own privileges. I applaud that. Today, however, this House must - I hope it will be for the last time - make a decision on the report that is before us with all its inadequacies. The Minister for National Development has put forward a proposal for the Government but he does not suggest that that should commit the House. It is for each member of the House to vote as he chooses on the matter.

This House is at least fortunate that it has available all the evidence given to the Committee, something which 1 do not remember ever happening previously. On the evidence, and 1 studied it very carefully, I do not think that members walked out of the chamber while the quorum bells were ringing.

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - That is a nice concession.

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - I do not understand the meaning of the interjection, but no doubt the honourable member will speak for himself in a few moments. I do not think that members walked out of the chamber while the quorum bells were ringing. I cannot say with certainty whether they walked out nor, seemingly, can anyone. The most that could be said before the Committee was that it was extremely unlikely. There could be no positive statement one way or the other by anyone who gave evidence to the Committee. While I think that Mr Reid's report was incorrect, I do not think it was a false report, and in fact the Committee deliberately struck the word 'false' out of its findings. There is no ground for saying that Mr Reid knew that his report was untrue. The evidence shows that he had grounds of substance for believing, wrongly in my view, that members did walk out. I cannot support the motion of the Minister for National Development that the finding is correct because inaccuracy of itself is no ground whatever for finding contempt of the Parliament. Inaccuracies occur every day in Press reports of the proceedings of this House, they occur in the published reports of Party meetings and they even occur in the reports of the whisperings of well informed observers in the lobbies. I have even known members themselves to make inaccurate statements. It is a human failing, and if inaccuracy of itself were to be regarded as a contempt of the Parliament then we must have the whole Press gallery at the Bar of this House at least once a week.

But does Mr Reid's further statement that members deliberately breached Standing Orders constitute a reflection on the House? That. 1 think, is the real point. Does it constitute an imputation of discreditable behaviour? 1 do not think so for a moment. Sometimes an Opposition will deliberately embark on disobedience to Standing Orders as an ultimate means of registering its objection to the Government's conduct of business. Breach of Standing Orders is a commonplace. You, Mr Speaker, are constantly rebuking and reproaching members for it. Sometimes members are even removed from the chamber. It has happened to me and it happened to Sir Robert Menzies, among many others. It is not regarded as a discreditable happening.

So it is well known and respected that Opposition members do not answer the bells for a quorum, lt is recognised that it is the responsibility of the Government to maintain a quorum and it is the responsibility of the Opposition to catch the Government napping if it can. If Opposition members come to the door of the chamber and find that the call is for a quorum, they walk away. When the Opposition abstained from the quorum call on 26th August, and the counting out of the House was caused, the Prime Minister was the first to acknowledge that no responsibility rested on the Opposition; that it rested entirely on the Government.

If Mr Reid had said that Labor members walked away from the chamber instead of saying they walked out of the chamber - just the difference of one word - to achieve the count out the statement, instead of being a possible reflection on members, would have been a tribute to the Opposition, that being its duty in the matter. So I ask: What has all the fuss been about? The House will be over-sensitive indeed if it gets all het up about this as the Privileges Committee did. As to forced apologies, apologies not genuinely felt but made only in compliance with authority, 1 have never put much store on them. However, if such an apology were required by the Parliament, whether I agreed that it was due or not, I would see nothing discreditable in the making of such an apology in deference to the Parliament. In the minute left to me, Mr Speaker, I repeat that I hope we will never again receive a report from a privileges committee constituted such as this one is, but that as a result of the Prime Minister's initiative a tribunal will be set up, with judicial powers and exercising all the ordinary rules of justice, to report to the Parliament on the case against the accused and to allow the Parliament then, as is its duty and its right, to make the final judgment.

Suggest corrections