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Tuesday, 20 November 1973
Page: 3486

Mr SNEDDEN (Bruce) (Leader of the Opposition) - I move:

That this House censures the Prime Minister for his contempt of the Parliament and his personal abuse of its procedures and its members to protect himself.

Last week the Prime Minister (Mr Whitlam) made statements which were reprehensible and contemptible. They had no basis in fact. They were the outpourings of a man whose mind knows no boundaries. His big head is not big enough to contain it. At every opportunity vindictiveness and hate pour out of him. I ask honourable members to look at him. He knows, even though he gives no service to it, that this Parliament is the pinnacle of the protection of the citizens of Australia in every constitutional form. This Parliament must act responsibly because it bears full responsibility for the protection of the Australian people. In order to do its job the Parliament must be conducted properly, with due regard to the development, over the centuries, of the Westminster proceedings in Parliament. The Prime Minister knows the proceedings. He has read of them but does he give proper appreciation to them? He knows that this Parliament should not be a place to which honourable members come and are able to assassinate the character of any other member in it without any basis for the assassination, without any truth in the allegation, and without any opportunity for that member to protect himself against the public scandal that would arise as a result of those statements.

The Prime Minister knows that. He also knows that the Westminster parliamentary system which we have adopted in Australia has deliberately designed itself to protect members of the Parliament, from whatever side they may come. The Speakers of parliament have constantly been alert to ensure that these sorts of allegations cannot be made. They know that if a man or a woman comes into this Parliament and is subject to character assassination, that person does not have the courage and the freedom at all times to pursue the issues that he or she feels ought to be pursued in the way that they ought to be pursued. That is the privilege of this Parliament, and that is what is meant by privilege. What the Government, led by the Prime Minister, seeks to do is to silence the Liberal and Country Party members and prevent them from properly exposing the bad effects of Government against the possibility of being accused in the way that the honourable member for Barker (Dr Forbes) was accused.

An error was made the other night, Mr Speaker. You must listen to this because you may think that I am criticising you, but it is my honest belief - and it is the honest belief of honourable members on this side of the House - that a serious error was made in the procedures of this Parliament in relation to a constitutional Bill. What we sought to do then, by point of order, was to establish that error and, as I made clear on a couple of occasions that night, we said we would do whatever was necessary to co-operate in the correction of that error because we regarded it as an error and we believed that we should not take advantage of the error in order to subvert the particular piece of legislation. That was what the Opposition Parties sought to do. With respect, Mr Speaker, it was not understood by you and by your advisers, and it certainly was not understood by the Government. The Government became bellicose and aggressive and tried to silence Opposition members by stating that we in globo were affected by the Prime Minister's hospitality. It happened that it was not his hospitality; it was the hospitality of the people of Australia as shown through him. We were supposed to be cowed down and not to pursue that point. Hansard and the record of proceedings will show that an error was made. We were supposed to be cowed down. Then the Government got the idea that it should make it clear, through its propaganda machine, that our actions were not right, correct and proper actions but were actions stimulated by an excess of alcohol. That was the clear imputation which was being put. It was not true. I know of no member on this side of the House who was affected at all.

Mr Enderby - You were not here half the time.

Mr SNEDDEN - That sort of outburst illustrates that it is a deliberate policy on the part of the Government to defend its own faults and errors by making allegations against members on this side of the House which are aimed at detracting from our character as men. A deliberate course of action was taken to denigrate us on that ground. Who was chosen as the vehicle for the denigration? The honourable member for Barker. This is not a place to speak to the record of a man, and I do not. But those of us who have served in the Parliament for, I think it is, about 16 or 17 years with Jim Forbes, the member for Barker, know him to be a man of immense personal standing and of very great personal characteristics and courage. If he had something to be criticised or condemned for, nobody would sooner stand up and take it than Jim Forbes would. But when he has been wrongly traduced, when he has been chosen as the vehicle to attack all honourable members on this side, and when, unwittingly, recklessly and uncaringly the Government is prepared to pull down this great institution of parliament at the same time, then this Parliament has come to a sad position. That is the basis.

The Prime Minister to protect himself from outrageous statements has prevailed upon his Party. There are members on the Government side of the House for whom I have great respect. There may be some of whom I have not enough personal knowledge to have a personal liking for them, but I have a great respect for many of them. I am ashamed that they allowed themselves to be manoeuvred into a political position of being prepared to abandon the parliamentary institution in order to protect a leader who acted so reprehensibly in their interests last week and again on Sunday of this week. How any man could, on the Thursday, do what he did is difficult to understand, but in relation to the Thursday I am prepared to say that the Prime Minister was in some way activated and lost control of himself and therefore said words that he would not otherwise have used. But when, 48 hours later, the Prime Minister deliberately and carefully chooses his words to do as much harm as he possibly can, there can be no excuse for him. The fact that he is the Prime Minister makes the offence worse. We know that if a judge has before him somebody who has a responsibility for law enforcement, such as a policeman or a lawyer, who has broken the law, the penalty imposed is severer because that person should know better and should give good example. We were given a horrid example by the words which, I regret, I must read out again so that their full implication can be understood.

The carefully chosen words of the Prime Minister which are designed to cause as much harm as possible can be described only as a wonderful collection of spite. The question which was put to him was:

How many drinks do you think Dr Forbes did have and how red were his eyes really the next day?

The Prime Minister, sitting at the table, looking at the eyes of the honourable member for Barker, sitting in his place, is able to say that they were red. Does anybody believe that? The Prime Minister replied:

I don't know what his resistance is. I don't know whether his resistance is low or his intake is large. 1 have watched him for many years at night and, like everybody who has had that joyful experience, I have no doubt as to the cause of it. But I don't mind drunks as long as they don't disrupt procedures. Some of my best friends get drunk at night-

I suppose that is an allusion to religious or racial groups - particularly after free drink. After free drink I have seen some things happen in this place but I do not intend to speak about them today. Is there anybody in this House who thinks that it will help the character of this Parliament by restating what he had seen after some function in this place? If there is, then let him get up and say so. Let him pick the persons whose character he is going to assassinate, because that is what the Prime Minister did and he did it without the slightest warrant on which to base the assassination. It so happens that the honourable member for Barker spent most of the latter part of the evening with the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Bonnett) and the honourable member for Balaclava (Mr Whittorn) watching the Royal wedding. If the Privileges Committee had been allowed to investigate this matter, there could have been sworn evidence which would have been much more preferable to unsubstantiated, vicious allegations such as those that were made.

The basis of the rule of the protection of members does not have anything to do with the fact that members are in some sort of privileged class. That is not the way in which the word 'privilege' is used. Privilege is extended in order to enable every member to come in here fearlessly - without any fear of threat and without any hope of favour - and to conduct the affairs of this nation and its electors as they ought to be conducted. That is the original privilege and it has lasted for centuries. One of the simplest ways of character assassination is to allege that a man is drunk. Let me make quite clear that if an honourable member gets up in this House and makes such an allegation every newspaper, every radio and every television station can publish or broadcast that allegation without the slightest fear of having to answer for the consequences in damages. So that when an allegation is made, whether it is true or false, it can be printed without any recourse through the law for the man traduced.

I want to make it clear that when the Press, radio and television report the proceedings they do so properly because it is an event that has occurred in this House and as such it ought to be reported. It is a matter of public notoriety. So I do not criticise any members of the media for reporting it. What I do is criticise the man who triggers it off and causes it to be reported and who deprives an honourable member of his right to correct the allegation. If, because of the use of the numbers in this House, an honourable member cannot even bring it up in debate in order to justify himself, what is he left with? Absolutely nothing. I ought to point out that in this House protection from the law is given to the publishers of anything that is said in this House against anybody, whether the person is a member of this House or not. When it involves a person other than a member of this House we all know how contemptuous it is to name in this House somebody who has no right to defend himself and who must live with the damage that has been done to his character. That is why the rule is so clear. The rule is that a member should not traduce other members of this House. If he does traduce another member he is in contempt of this House. If he is in contempt of this House it is a breach of privilege and it ought to go to the Privileges Committee, which Committee will report back to this House.

Are we in this chamber to be reduced to a position where we cannot argue issues, to a position of personal innuendo going backwards and forwards? The people of Australia will not benefit if we reach that stage. What they want is the argument on the issues and the principles so that they know which policy they support. They want to hear honourable members on this side of the House say why we oppose and they want to hear Government supporters argue their case. But as a result of what has happened this morning this Parliament has said that if anybody in this chamber gets up and throws personal abuse and engages in character assassination of another member he can do it with impunity.

Mr Speaker,that ruling by this House cannot survive. If we act according to that ruling we will no longer be a Parliament, we will be a rabble. So long as that ruling continues no member of this House is safe from personal abuse. It can range across the whole of the moral crimes and criminal crimes and nobody will have the right to protect his reputation. Mr Speaker, the Parliament today has sunk to a level the like of which no other Parliament in the world which treasures democracy has done. We have pushed aside the Privileges

Committee cavalierly by the force of numbers. The reason that the Privileges Committee has been set aside cavalierly is to protect one man, and that one man is the Prime Minister. He is being protected from paying the penalty for deliberate words used in Hobart in relation to the honourable member for Barker.

Mr Speaker,it is a sad day for the Parliament. I introduced this matter of privilege and tried to do it as dispassionately as possible and within the context of the way in which matters of privilege have been traditionally raised over the centuries, and certainly have been raised in my time in this Parliament since 1955. The normal way is for the person raising the issue of privilege to get up, raise it and state what is the matter complained about. The Speaker then takes counsel as to whether there is a prima facie case, and if there is it goes to the Privileges Committee. If there is not a prima facie case, that is the end of the matter - and the person who raised it, and all parties, accept the ruling of the Speaker on the matter. It must be done that way because the Privileges Committee has tremendous power and it must not be used improperly. We have all taken the rulings of the Speaker, knowing that he has taken proper advice and counsel. That procedure today was abandoned. That procedure today was abandoned, and I must say it, only for one clear reason - that is, to protect the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister should give example to this Parliament, not call upon the Parliament to protect him from his own sins. Mr Speaker, I am bound to say that during the years I have been here the Prime Minister has set up a pattern of uncontrolled tongue and uncontrolled action and has consistently got away with it. Most times it has been ignored because we did not want to make an issue of it but today, because of the action of his own Party in protecting him in this manner, I am bound to say that I have never seen in this Parliament a man so willing to abandon for his own self-protection all the forms of the House. Many of us here will remember the night he threw water on the present Governor-General. Many members here will remember the night that he accused my colleague, a former Prime Minister- he was not Prime Minister at the time - of a matter against which the honourable gentleman could not adequately protect himself. It was untrue but he could not protect himself against constant innuendo. Nobody will forget the occasion on which he accused my friend and colleague, the right honourable member for Higgins (Mr Gorton) - I quote his words as I remember them - and said: 'You're not slurring so early today'. Nobody will forget the occasion that the then Secretary of the Department of the Navy was sitting in the officials box and he turned and said: 'That creature'. (Extension of time granted.) I thank the House. I have only 2 sentences to add. There have been many other occurrences and they have culminated in this event. I am not proud of the performance of the Parliament today in using numbers to prevent this matter going to the Privileges Committee.

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