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Wednesday, 9 November 1983
Page: 2460

Mr SPEAKER —Yesterday the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) referred to a reported statement on national radio earlier in the day and asked me to consider whether members had been wrongfully intimidated in the course of their duties. The specific statement the honourable member mentioned was one attributed to Mr Dolan, President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, to the effect that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) put pressure on all sorts of people in relation to the Government Caucus consideration of the uranium issue. The honourable member later lodged documents with the Clerk and subsequently wrote to me on the matter, enclosing copies of Press reports from the Sydney Morning Herald of 5 November and the Age of 5 November referring to the Government Party's consideration of the uranium issue.

I have given most careful consideration to these matters. The Standing Orders provide that precedence over other business shall not be given if, in the opinion of the Speaker, a prima facie case of breach of privilege has not been made out or the matter has not been raised at the earliest opportunity. The question of whether or not the matters referred to can be taken to establish a prima facie case of breach of privilege or contempt is a difficult matter necessarily involving a personal judgment on my part on the basis of the material submitted, and in light of the law and precedents that are available to me.

House of Representatives Practice, at page 655, states:

To attempt by any means to influence a Member in his conduct as a Member is a breach of privilege. So too is any conduct having a tendency to impair a Member' s independence in the future performance of his duty.

Reference is then made to a matter raised in 1935 involving an alleged threat to a member by the then Chairman of the Sydney Stock Exchange, to a 1947 House of Commons case and to the Bankstown Observer case of 1955.

In its report on the case involving Mr Brown, MP, in 1947 the Commons Committee of Privileges stated:

Your Committee think that the true nature of the privilege involved in the present case can be stated as follows:

It is a breach of privilege to take or threaten action which is not merely calculated to affect the Member's course of action in Parliament, but is of a kind against which it is absolutely necessary that Members should be protected if they are to discharge their duties as such independently and without fear of punishment or hope of reward.

The relevant extracts from May's Parliamentary Practice are:

. . . any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any Member . . . of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.

That is stated on page 143 of the twentieth edition. More specifically, it is stated on page 157:

To attempt to influence Members in their conduct by threats is also a breach of privilege.

And at page 158 it is stated:

Conduct not amounting to a direct attempt to influence a Member in the discharge of his duties, but having a tendency to impair his independence in the future performance of his duty, will also be treated as a breach of privilege.

I make particular comment on three aspects: First, there does not appear to have been a case where the Committee of Privileges, either of the House of Commons, or of this House, has reported in connection with disputations in respect of parliamentary party processes. There have therefore, to the best of my knowledge , been no decisions by either House on these specific matters. All honourable members will be aware that the realities of modern parliamentary life mean that members, and for that matter many others, involved in various ways in the political processes, are involved in elements of conflict and disputation.

In the House of Commons significant issues involving party matters occurred both in respect of the Suez crisis and the consideration of Britain's entry into the Common Market. In connection with the Suez issue, and following suggestions by the Opposition that pressures had been applied to ensure that Government members supported the Government, the then Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker Morrison, I understand, expressed the view that the activities of Whips and 'the usual channels' had never been regarded as a breach of the privileges of the whole House.

In 1975, with reference to Cabinet guidelines concerning the conduct of Ministers in the House during the course of the Common Market referendum campaign-which guidelines related directly to parliamentary proceedings-Speaker Selwyn Lloyd stated:

In general, I think that arrangements made within political parties in this House, would be unlikely to raise questions of contempt or privilege.

He declined to accord precedence to a motion on this matter. Secondly, it is to be noted that, although the media reports referred to by the honourable member for Denison do refer to a reported statement by the Minister for Defence Support (Mr Howe), no honourable member has raised in the House a claim that he considered himself to have been intimidated or obstructed in the discharge of his duty.

Finally, I draw the attention of the House to the opinion of the House of Commons Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its 1967 report and, in particular, its recommendation that the House should follow the general rule that its powers in respect of privilege and contempt should be exercised (a) in any event as sparingly as possible and (b) only when the House is satisfied that to exercise it is essential in order to provide reasonable protection for the House, its members and its officers, from such improper obstruction or attempt at or threat of obstruction as is causing, or is likely to cause, substantial interference with the performance of their respective functions. This is sound advice indeed, and in 1978 was adopted by the House of Commons and is now a principle guiding that House, its Speaker and its Committee of Privileges in these matters. It is a principle which should in my view be observed when we consider all matters of privilege and contempt, whether or not involving possible breaches by honourable members or other persons.

I conclude that although the subject raised by the honourable member for Denison raises matters of real significance, on the basis of the material submitted by the honourable member I cannot see that it has been established that a prima facie case of breach of privilege or contempt has been made out. This means that I am not prepared to give precedence to a motion in respect of the matter.

Mr Hodgman-Mr Speaker, I seek leave to make a short statement.

Leave not granted.