Senate debates

Monday, 13 August 2018

Statement by the President

Parliamentary Language

10:01 am

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

On Thursday, 28 June an exchange between two senators occurred in the chamber and became the subject of substantial public debate and commentary. I believe it is appropriate to address this now, as the Senate resumes for its current session. The facts are these. An exchange occurred between Senators Hanson-Young and Leyonhjelm. I did not hear any of the comments made, nor were they drawn to the attention of the chamber at the time. Technically they did not form part of the Senate proceedings. The issue was raised with me later that day by Senator Di Natale, and I pursued a resolution to the matter privately. It was then subsequently brought to the attention of the chamber. No specific action was sought from the chair at that time, and it is now a matter of public record.

In my view, had the exchange occurred as reported as part of the proceedings of the Senate, there is no doubt that the chair would have required certain comments to be withdrawn. I have no authority as President to force an apology or apply a sanction to any senator. Such actions are matters for the Senate. Since these events, I have considered the application of standing orders and custom and practice to events that occur in the chamber but that do not form part of formal proceedings. The relevant standing orders regarding the conduct of senators are, firstly, No. 193(3), Rules of debate:

A senator shall not use offensive words against either House of Parliament … or any member of such House … and all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections … shall be considered highly disorderly.

This provision specifically applies to the formal proceedings, to debate in this chamber. However, standing order 203 is broader and is entitled 'Infringement of order'. Specifically, part (1) of that outlines:

If a senator:

(b) is guilty of disorderly conduct;

(c) uses objectionable words, and refuses to withdraw such words;

the President may report to the Senate that the senator has committed an offence.

Standing order 197 provides that a senator may at any time raise a point of order 'arising in the proceedings then before the Senate', meaning it must be raised at the time of the incident. It has been the practice in this chamber to allow senators to raise a point of order about language used in exchanges that is not recorded in Hansard as part of the formal proceedings of the Senate. When outside the hearing of the chair, this has been followed by a request to withdraw inappropriate language if the language was used. Importantly, the practice of allowing this to be addressed immediately ensures those present are in the chamber when the matter is addressed. If a statement is not recorded in Hansard and was outside the hearing of the chair, the chair and chamber are reliant upon the honesty of senators involved, with the understanding that it is always possible for statements to be misheard or misattributed.

Therefore, in my view, it is the established practice of this chamber that the standing orders do not apply simply or strictly to formal proceedings or records in the chamber but to other interactions as well. Any senator, not just those subject to them or involved in any exchange, has the capacity to draw comments to the attention of the chair and the chamber. I intend to write to the Deputy President, as Chair of the Procedure Committee, and ask the committee to give consideration to handling matters that occur in the chamber but that are not part of the formal proceedings and are not raised in the Senate at that time.

More generally, I ask senators to consider the following. This chamber is the prime deliberative chamber of the parliament. It is far better that positive attention is attracted by our words and contributions to debate. On several occasions in recent times, this has not been the case. The standing orders and rules of this place are limits, not guides. Just because something can be said or done does not mean it should be. Common decency cannot be codified. It depends on all of us considering the impact of our behaviour on others. While this workplace isn't like a normal one, it is still a place where we all must work together, even across issues of profound disagreement.

We also work with officials and staff, and we should consider the impact of our behaviour on them. This is rightly a place of vigorous debate, but personal abuse has no place in this chamber, particularly if it targets personal attributes, such as race or gender—nor does the use of abusive epithets or labels. The use of such language does nothing to facilitate the operation of a chamber and free debate within it, and we are all capable of vigorously arguing our case without resort to it. I intend to take a strict line on the use of such language, to uphold the dignity of the chamber and to ensure it is a place where all senators representing the people of their states and territories are able to freely contribute to debate and deliberations.

Finally, it is sometimes said that parliament is at its best when dealing with issues of conscience and all senators speak freely and personally on such issues. Throughout this week we will have the opportunity to again demonstrate that.

10:06 am

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr President, I seek leave to make a short statement.

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As elected representatives of the Australian community it is our duty as senators to behave in a manner that sets a standard for respectful behaviour and decency in this country. The behaviour we witnessed from Senator Leyonhjelm towards his colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young during the last sitting week was disgraceful. It was designed to humiliate and to intimidate a fellow senator. The men who use sexism to belittle or intimidate women should never be tolerated in a decent society, let alone in this parliament. Yet in the parliament it seems that anything goes.

Last year we witnessed the spectacle of Senator Pauline Hanson entering the chamber wearing a burqa. It was done with the deliberate intent of humiliating an entire religious community. And for what reason? For base political motives—to exploit racism for her own personal gain. These two examples—the example of Senator Leyonhjelm and, indeed, the example of Senator Hanson—represent some of the lowest points that we have experienced in this place. It isn't just our fellow senators who are the collateral damage when the debate turns nasty; members of the Australian community are also victims of this vicious behaviour. Our actions send a very clear message about what is acceptable behaviour.

We will be putting forward a censure motion to condemn Senator Leyonhjelm's actions in the strongest possible terms, condemning his behaviour towards Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. He needs to be held to account for his actions. This parliament needs to send a very clear message about what is expected of political leaders in this place. And, of course, more than that, we need to ensure that this type of behaviour is not tolerated in the future. We have long advocated for a code of conduct in the Senate because our parliament should—and must—do better. We should set the standard. We should not be the example of what not to do. If senators cannot be trusted to act with decency and integrity in this chamber, then it's about time we all agreed on what is decent behaviour and held each other to account to that standard.

10:09 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—Mr President, I seek leave to make a short statement.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the Senate. First, Mr President, I congratulate you on your statement. I think it sets out very clearly not only the procedural issues but also the ethical issues that go to the heart of what we are dealing with here. So I indicate our support for not only the process you outlined but the principles which you asserted in that statement. In particular, that we recognise that, whilst this is a place of vigorous debate, as it should be—there are matters of contest here and matters we all care about, and we have different views—reference to race or gender has no place in that vigorous debate. I endorse your view that we are capable of debate without resorting to the sorts of labels and comments that we have witnessed and that you reference.

In terms of how we in the Labor Party have sought to approach this, our approach has been, primarily, to think about how it is that we make this chamber a better place for all women and how we make this a better place for diversity. That is why I take the view that the President's statements contribute to that end. We certainly don't want to get into individual and partisan politics when dealing with these matters. I'm sure all of us, at times, can behave better, but our focus will always be on how we make this a better place for women to be involved in and for people from diverse backgrounds to be involved in. That is how we will continue to approach this matter.

I note that Senator Di Natale has flagged a range of processes. We'll consider them. I do indicate, given the tone of the way in which the President has dealt with this, it would have been a sensible thing to give people notice of that before indicating it.

10:11 am

Photo of Derryn HinchDerryn Hinch (Victoria, Derryn Hinch's Justice Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to make a short statement

Leave granted.

I support the comments made by Senator Di Natale and Senator Wong, and your own comments, Mr President. I noticed that as Senator Leyonhjelm walked out he joked to Senator Bernardi: 'I'm walking out very proudly.' He has learned nothing. His comments earlier in the session were disgusting, and he compounded them all by going on Sky News and gloating about what he'd said and why he would not apologise. He took some pride in the fact that he will not apologise for his comments. I noticed Senator Hanson-Young in her workplace—and it is a workplace—in tears down here that very morning, and I thought, 'What the hell is happening here?' I think Senator Leyonhjelm should hang his head in shame, and I'll support any censure motion that Senator Di Natale puts forward.