Senate debates

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Statement by the President

Parliamentary Behaviour

9:30 am

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | Hansard source

Good morning, senators. Given matters that arose yesterday regarding language used earlier this week in debate and in question time yesterday, I'd like to take this opportunity to again speak to senators about appropriate language in the chamber.

Freedom of speech within this chamber is a core principle, but it is not unrestrained. The position is summarised by Sir William Anson in his The Law and Custom of the Constitution as follows:

Speech and action in Parliament may thus be said to be unquestioned and free. But this freedom from external influence or interference does not involve any unrestrained licence of speech within the walls of the House.

In other words, freedom of speech in parliament is subject to the rules, forms and practices of the relevant house. In the Senate one constraint is the prohibition against use of offensive words outlined in standing order 193 and applied through many rulings of presidents. A further constraint is inherent in the duty of the chair to maintain order. In carrying out this duty, chairs exercise discretion about what is appropriate language for the chamber in any given situation.

Many senators in their time will have been asked by the chair to withdraw inappropriate language, even when it is not necessarily directed against a protected person or institution as outlined in standing order 193. Here the point raised by Senator Whish-Wilson yesterday is relevant. The chair considers the language used in its context, and rules accordingly. Senators should withdraw inappropriate language when asked to do so by the chair. As President, I am responsible for the proper conduct of the business of the Senate, for interpreting the standing orders and their application and for regulating the procedure of the Senate. In the absence of a standing order, presidents may provide rulings on questions not yet provided for. Rulings which have not been dissented from are equivalent to resolutions of the Senate and must be complied with. But the standing orders do not and cannot provide a complete code for the operation of the Senate. Searches for particular words will produce many examples of their use, including the ones used yesterday in question time. Comparable terms will not be found in early Hansards because either the Hansard reporters would not have taken the words down unless directed to or presidents would have instructed the Principal Parliamentary Reporter to expunge them. There are numerous injunctions from chairs to withdraw or to not use particular language, including President Givens's ruling that it is not in order to swear or President Kingsmill's ruling that it is not in order to use slang and coarse expressions.

In practice, the term 'unparliamentary language' covers the spectrum of language that is unacceptable, either because it is contrary to the various prohibitions in standing order 193 or because it is regarded by the chair as unacceptable in debate. It is a longstanding practice dating back to at least 1903 in the Senate and observed in other parliaments that quoting another source does not allow a senator to bypass the normal rules in relation to unparliamentary language. A particular incident in 1979 led to both the Privileges Committee and Standing Orders Committee, now the Procedure Committee, examining and confirming that principle. The Standing Orders Committee observed that the rule against the quotation of unparliamentary language is 'a fundamentally sound one, and to abandon it would be to allow speeches to be made deliberately circumventing the prohibition'. The committee continued:

The fact that certain language is used outside the Senate with impunity does not mean that such language should be acceptable in the Senate. The committee therefore considers that no change should be made to the existing practice and that the President should continue to apply the rule with discretion and with due regard for the right of senators to referring to bow to matters of public interest.

If offensive language is used in relation to a protected person it is completely out of order and will be required to be withdrawn. When no protected person is involved, however, and where a senator quoting such language maintains that it is strictly necessary to make the point, it makes it very difficult for the chair to prevent a senator from quoting such language or to require its withdrawal. This is the burden of President Parry's ruling of February 2016. If senators choose to enter this territory, they do so at their own responsibility.

I remind senators that a point can be made and a particular word can be alluded to without actually using it. Furthermore people are listening and watching, and we regularly have large numbers of school children watching question time here. I urge senators to keep this in mind.

Secondly, there was a matter in this chamber on Monday when Senator Steele-John directed a phrase in an accusatory manner at other senators, albeit not at a senator specifically. This has become a matter of some public note and commentary, and I have received numerous complaints from senators. The Deputy President was in the chair at the time, and her ruling was correct. It did not constitute unparliamentary language or a breach of the standing orders. There was no direct reflection on a protected person or institution under standing order 193.

However, as I've outlined previously, the use of epithets and the like does nothing to elevate debate. A point can be made that policies lead to certain outcomes without accusing senators of being motivated by such a purpose. Consequences can be attributed to policies or views without ascribing a particular motivation to those with opposing views or priorities. I again ask all senators to reflect on how they refer to and describe others, especially when there are tense debates and particularly when there are moments of national import. The way we all behave reflects on this chamber and all of us individually. Not all attention is good.

Finally, I remind colleagues that the standing orders are the outer and absolute limit of what is within order. They should not be seen as a guide to what is always appropriate. Self-restraint on the part of senators will ensure this problem does not arise. I thank senators.

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