Friday, October 13, 2006

The problem of Privilege

A recent story about famous 70's drag-queen Carmen being honoured at Parliament contained an odd historical snippet which highlighted a serious problem with Parliamentary Privilege in this country:

Carmen's last visit to Parliament was when she was hauled before the Privileges Committee in 1975 for publicly naming a number of gay MPs.

This apparently "brought Parliament into disrepute", and so Carmen was forced to apologise. It was an outrageous abuse of power, akin to a prosecution for lese majeste - and the scary thing is that there is absolutely nothing stopping it from happening again. While calling the House into disrepute is no longer listed in the "Examples of Contempts" section of the Standing Orders (though "reflecting on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in the member's capacity as a member of the House" still is), there's nothing stopping them from putting it back in. And while such a provision would be contrary to the affirmation of freedom of expression in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, Parliamentary Privilege means Parliament is accountable only to itself, and so no court could enforce the BORA against it. The upshot is that Parliament could force people to apologise merely for insulting or laughing at them (or indeed, telling unwelcome truths about them) - which is surely exactly the sort of speech the BORA is supposed to protect.

Parliament needs certain privileges in order to operate effectively - for example, absolute protection for what is said in the House - but the "right" to police public opinion of politicians is neither necessary or desirable. While the era of such abuses seems to have passed (OTOH, they forced TV3 to apologise for showing footage of the Minister of Forty Winks), the power should be removed permanently, just to be on the safe side.


"Parliamentary Privilege means Parliament is accountable only to itself, and so no court could enforce the BORA against it."

No. Parliament is accountable to us.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 10/13/2006 09:03:00 AM

An act to reform the electoral system:
The Parliament of New Zealand enacts as follows:
1. Short title and commencement
This act may be referred to as the "Electoral Amendment Act 2006", and enters force on the day after it receives the Royal Assent.
2. Act to bind the Crown
This act is to bind the Crown.
3. Acts Amended
(a) Section 268 of the Electoral Act 1993 is hereby repealed in full.
(b) Section 17(1) of the Constitution Act 1986 is amended by deleting all words after "shall", and adding: "be at Her Majesty's Pleasure".

Not any more they aren't.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/13/2006 10:36:00 AM

Graeme: unfortunately, that's not enough to prevent this sort of abuse. If we want to be safe from parliament, we have to emasculate it.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/13/2006 01:39:00 PM

This might be of interest:

I think the argument is that parliamentary privilege is not a trump card but has to be looked at alongside the ECHR. Of course the UK has the advantage of a supra-national arbiter of last resort.

Posted by Rich : 10/13/2006 09:02:00 PM