Thursday, 3 June 2010
On Monday the Leader of the House raised a matter of privilege relating to reports that the member for Ryan had complained to police authorities that he had been subject to undue pressure and to intimidation ‘to resign from parliament’. The Leader of the House suggested that the alleged actions could constitute a contempt as an improper interference with the free performance by the member of his duties as a member. The Leader of the House presented copies of two newspaper articles to which he had referred. Yesterday the honourable member for Ryan informed the House of his support for the consideration of the issue as a matter of privilege and provided some detail of the actions that had been of concern to him.
I have considered the comments by the Leader of the House and the member for Ryan and I have had regard to relevant precedents. House of Representatives Practice states that an attempt to influence a member in his or her conduct as a member by threats is a contempt, as is any conduct having a tendency to impair a member’s independence in the future. To be an offence against the House, conduct has to be found to amount to, or to be intended or likely to amount to, an improper interference. Complaints of breach of privilege relating to matters arising within political parties have been raised in the House before, although no cases have been referred to the Committee of Privileges.
In responding to these complaints former Speakers have noted, using precedents from the United Kingdom, that arrangements made within political parties were unlikely to give rise to matters of privilege or contempt. It has been noted that the raising of the complaint by a third party may not be a good foundation for action to be taken in this area. The view has been expressed, however, that if any member sought the protection of the House in such matters the House ought to seek the advice of the Committee of Privileges as to the proper course.
Although no reference of such matters has been made by the House, the Senate Committee of Privileges has reported on a case involving party processes. In this case, involving Senator Tambling, who had been disendorsed by his party, the committee found that a penalty had been imposed on him on account of his vote on a certain matter and that, although the actions of the party were ‘reckless and ill judged’, on balance, and in light of certain developments, a contempt could not be found.
It is worth referring briefly to a case in New Zealand in 1993. In this case the High Court considered a matter involving the disendorsement of a member of parliament from the political party of which he had been a longstanding member. The court noted there must be no question of discipline or coercion which could in some way influence the manner in which a member of parliament goes about his or her business. However, the judgment went on to note that this had nothing to do with choosing candidates to promote for election, and so did not involve matters of privilege.
While the matters I have referred to are not directly comparable, they illustrate that questions relating to the operation of political parties can present particular issues in relation to privilege. There seems to be a recognised role for political parties in dealing with matters of internal discipline and the endorsement of candidates. Such actions may at times be quite robust without being improper. However, it is the case that action taken within a political party could potentially amount to an improper interference with the free performance by a member of his or her duties.
The question of whether such action would be found to amount to a contempt would be dependent on the particular circumstances. The following points are relevant to my consideration of this matter:
- intimidating a member with a view to influencing the behaviour of a member in relation to his or her duties is a very serious matter;
- the member concerned in this case has supported the initial complaint and provided some detail;
- the matters complained of are focused on activities within a political party and are related to questions of the endorsement of a member as a candidate for a political party; and
- the member has confirmed that he has referred his concerns to the police.
The allegations raised are serious and go to the ability of a member to be able to perform his duties freely and without improper interference. The fact that they have occurred within the context of a political party does not make them immune from considerations of possible improper interference.
These are areas in which the House does not have precedents of its own to guide it. This matter is distinguished from earlier cases in the House because the member concerned has spoken in support of the complaint and has provided details of his concerns that he has been subjected to intimidation.
Whilst I note that the matter has been referred to the police, my role is to consider the matter in terms of parliamentary law and practice. Having regard to the material before me, I am willing to allow precedence to a motion. This complaint may allow the House to receive advice in an area in which it has not had the benefit of informed consideration.
That the following matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests: having regard to the matters raised in the House on 31 May by the Leader of the House and referred to in the House on 2 June by the Member for Ryan, whether the Member for Ryan has been subject to improper interference, or attempted improper interference, with the free performance of his duties as a Member, and, if so, whether a contempt has been committed.
Mr Speaker, I move this motion in accordance with your granting of precedence for it. It would not be appropriate for me to comment in great detail except to refer to the member for Ryan’s statement to the parliament yesterday, which I think raised some grave matters—some matters are the business of this House; clearly other matters are the appropriate business of the Australian Federal Police. The fact that this is alleged to go to such senior levels, including the allegations about the President of the Liberal National Party in Queensland but also the Federal Director of the Liberal Party, I think should be of real concern to all members of the House. I commend the motion to the House.
Question agreed to.