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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 6045


The PRESIDENT (9:31 AM) —The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee has raised a matter of privilege under standing order 81. The matter is set out in a report by the committee to the Senate, which recommends that the matter be referred to the Privileges Committee.

The issue relates to the treatment of a witness before the committee in the course of its inquiry into access to justice. After she gave her evidence, the witness received a written warning of disciplinary action from her employer. The committee pointed out to the employer that threatening a witness with action as a result of the witness’s evidence constitutes interference with a witness and a possible contempt of the Senate. The employer subsequently withdrew the warning, but in correspondence with the committee appeared to reserve the right to discipline its employees in respect of evidence given to a Senate committee. The witness resigned from her employment and there is the possibility that she suffered loss of employment as a result of her evidence to the committee.

The Senate’s privilege resolution No. 6, in paragraphs (10) and (11), declares that any interference with a witness, and any imposition of a penalty on a witness, in consequence of the witness’s evidence, and any threat or attempt of such actions against a witness, may constitute a contempt of the Senate. Such treatment of a witness may also be a criminal offence under section 12 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.

The Senate Privileges Committee has declared in its past reports that interference with and penalisation of witnesses are the most serious of all contempts, and the committee and the Senate have always regarded such actions as requiring rigorous investigation and firm remedial action. The committee has pointed out that actions which are otherwise lawful, such as the dismissal of an employee, may constitute contempts when taken against a witness in consequence of the witness’s evidence.

The matter raised by the committee clearly meets the criteria I am required to consider. I therefore give precedence to a motion to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee.

I table the letter from the committee. Other relevant documents are included in the committee’s report.

A notice of motion may now be given.