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Monday, 12 October 2015
Page: 7314

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (Victoria) (15:40): by leave—As Chair of the Senate Privileges Committee, I thank you for reminding senators and others about the Senate's resolutions on unauthorised disclosure. Under those resolutions, the question whether an unauthorised disclosure should be investigated as a possible contempt turns on an assessment of the harm which might flow from it. They seek primarily to reserve the Senate's contempt powers for matters involving substantial obstruction to Senate and committee processes.

Regardless of whether this threshold is met, however—as you have stressed—unauthorised disclosures are contrary to standing orders. They undermine the authority and integrity of the Senate committee system, which have traditionally been amongst its strengths. An assessment that a particular disclosure does not warrant further investigation does not absolve senators, members and media representatives from observing the confidentiality requirements attached to the work of parliamentary committees.

The harm that can flow from leaking confidential material will not always be apparent to those who publish it. The consequences may seem trivial in some instances, involving embarrassment or frustration among committee members, but they can also be severe. This is particularly the case where committees have decided to take evidence in camera for the protection of witnesses or others, or where disclosure would be harmful to the national interest. If the Senate cannot protect its sources in such circumstances, there is no doubt this will also have a chilling effect on the work of its committees. The Privileges Committee examined these matters in detail in its 122nd report.

Turning to the matter on which you sought the committee's views, the committee acknowledges the frustrations of members of the former joint select committee and their disappointment that the apparent disclosure undercut the consensus that they had achieved. However, their assessment of the harm occasioned by the apparent unauthorised disclosure does not approach the threshold of substantial interference provided in the 2007 resolution. The committee also notes the apology provided by the journalist concerned and by her editor. In those circumstances, for the reasons set out in the document you have just tabled, the committee concluded that the matter did not warrant further investigation.

But I draw senators' attention to the discussion in that document about the Senate's current approach to unauthorised disclosure. It is for individual committees in the first instance to investigate their concerns and, where necessary, to instil discipline upon their members. Those committees are invariably best placed to assess the circumstances of, and the harm occasioned by, such disclosures. Moreover, it is for individual senators to ensure and account for the integrity of their own actions. To that end, I encourage all senators to familiarise themselves with the requirements and rationale of the relevant Senate resolutions.

The PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Collins. Thank you for your assistance in relation to that matter. I do commend your remarks to all senators and trust they will read the Hansard recording of that.