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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7312


The PRESIDENT (15:34): Since late June, I have received correspondence from senators on two occasions raising matters of privilege under standing order 81. Both of them relate to unauthorised disclosure of draft committee reports.

As all senators are aware, the unauthorised disclosure of committee proceedings may be dealt with by the Senate as a contempt and, as such, is a very serious matter. The Privileges Committee has inquired into numerous instances of possible unauthorised disclosure. As a result of the committee’s work the Senate agreed to resolutions in both 1996 and 2007. These resolutions were to provide committees with a process to follow in inquiring into unauthorised disclosures and, secondly, to ensure that the Senate’s contempt jurisdiction was exercised only in relation to those matters where it was necessary to provide reasonable protection for the Senate and its committees and for senators against improper acts tending substantially to obstruct them in the performance of their functions.

The first matter raised with me was raised by Senators McKenzie, Peris and Siewert. That related to the unauthorised disclosure of the draft final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as revealed by an article by Sarah Martin, published in The Australian newspaper on the day the report was tabled. As the committee ceased to exist on tabling of the final report, it was not possible for the committee to undertake the preliminary investigations required by the resolutions that I have mentioned with a view to establishing whether the unauthorised disclosure was of a type that should have been raised as a matter of privilege following consultations with the Privileges Committee. Nor was it possible for me to conclude at that stage that precedence should or should not be granted to a motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee.

In view of the apparent gap in the resolutions and the observations made by the Privileges Committee in its 152nd report involving the unauthorised disclosure of the draft final report of the Select Committee on Electricity Prices, I considered that the spirit of the resolutions could be best adhered to if I asked the Privileges Committee whether it would agree to undertake the preliminary investigations envisaged by those resolutions and form a conclusion about whether the matter was one that warranted being raised as a matter of privilege.

After making the request, I received correspondence from the editor of The Australiannewspaper, Mr Clive Mathieson, acknowledging that an error had been made by Ms Martin, apologising for any inconvenience and distress caused to the reconciliation committee and assuring me that there was no intention to undermine or obstruct its work. I thanked Mr Mathieson for his assurances and forwarded the correspondence to the Privileges Committee.

I have now received a response from the Chair of the Privileges Committee, Senator Collins, in which the committee outlines the steps it took to inquire into the matter and the reasoning by which it arrived at the conclusion that the unauthorised disclosure of the draft final report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples was not one that it would assess as warranting further investigation in accordance with the principles set out in the relevant Senate resolutions. The committee also made some pertinent observations about the operation of the 2007 resolution and recommended that I draw the 1996 and 2007 resolutions to the attention of all senators and committees.

I am happy to accept this recommendation and will be writing to all committees shortly. I will also ask the Deputy President to raise this matter at the next chairs’ committee meeting. In the meantime, I draw the attention of all senators to the resolutions and to the report of the Privileges Committee and related correspondence, which I now table.

In particular, I draw senators' attention to the following comments by the Privileges Committee:

It is important to note that any unauthorised disclosure is contrary to the standing orders of the Senate and poses a risk of interference with the work of committees. The Privileges Committee has always been highly critical of breaches of confidentiality in committee processes, and of the betrayal of trust among committee members this often involves. Whatever effect an unauthorised disclosure has on the work of a particular committee, it also has the potential to inflict broader damage on the integrity of committee processes and the authority and credibility of committees more generally. An assessment that a particular disclosure does not warrant further investigation as a contempt does not absolve senators, members and media representatives from observing the confidentiality requirements attaching to the work of parliamentary committees.

Finally, I did refer to a second matter in my opening remarks. The second matter was raised by Senator Edwards and concerned the unauthorised disclosure of the draft interim report of the Economics References Committee on corporate tax avoidance. As the Economics References Committee had not yet undertaken the preliminary inquiries required by the resolutions, I have indicated to Senator Edwards that I could not at this stage grant precedence to a motion to refer it to the Privileges Committee. I thank senators.