Thursday, 11 February 2010
On 9 February 2010 the member for Chifley made a statement on behalf of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works and tabled the committee’s report relating to the unauthorised disclosure of the committee’s proceedings and evidence. The report follows the appearance of an article in the Townsville Bulletin on 5 February 2010 that appears to disclose the content of a confidential briefing given to the Public Works Committee on 4 February 2010.
In considering the issue of unauthorised disclosure of committee evidence and proceedings, the Standing Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests has suggested that two matters be established: (1) whether there is sufficient evidence that will enable the source of the disclosure to be ascertained; and (2) whether the circumstances of the case are such that the issues of the protection of the committee system, or the protection of committee sources or witnesses, would warrant further investigation.
I have examined carefully the report of the Public Works Committee and conclude the following. Firstly, in relation to the source of the alleged disclosure, I note that the member for Herbert, in a letter to the Public Works Committee dated 8 February 2010, has admitted that he was the source of the disclosure of committee information. It is unusual for the source of a disclosure to be so clear and, having been identified, for the person immediately to apologise and give undertakings not to disclose information in the future. Secondly, the Public Works Committee has expressed the view that the alleged disclosure may result in substantial interference with its future work, particularly affecting its relationship with key witnesses. It note that the consequences of this event will only become apparent as its work proceeds.
I regard the unauthorised disclosure of private information given to committees very seriously. I agree with comments made previously by the Standing Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests that such disclosures ‘display an offensive disregard for the committee itself and others associated with it, and ultimately a disregard for the rules and conventions of the houses’. In this case I note particularly the effect on the proceedings of the Public Works Committee, which, as the committee notes in its report, relies on relationships of trust built up with organisations, the Department of Defence in particular. I would be very concerned if there were a continuing effect on these relationships. However, the circumstances of this matter should give assurance to witnesses that the House and its committees regard these matters very seriously and will take action to protect the confidentiality of committee proceedings.
In relation to the member for Herbert, his actions not only raise matters for the Public Works Committee but create an adverse impression about the behaviour of all members and potentially adversely impact the work of all committees. It is not only a matter of privilege but also an action that relates to the ethical behaviour of a member, and this is yet another case where a members’ code of conduct might have been of some assistance.
The report from the Public Works Committee makes it clear that there is no disagreement as to the key facts in this case, and the member for Herbert has acknowledged and apologised for the breach of privilege. In these respects the committee in its report has dealt with matters that would ordinarily be covered by the Standing Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests, and little would be achieved by further inquiry. It is my hope that the member for Herbert, and indeed all members, have learnt a valuable lesson from this very regrettable episode. I thank the committee for having thoroughly and expeditiously dealt with this matter.