Wednesday, November 15, 2006



An abuse of privilege

Former MP Matt Robson has been referred to the Privileges Committee over a comment he made in his "Robson on Politics" newsletter that

The liquor industry’s support for Peter Dunne, as with that of the tobacco, has always meant that he has faithfully delivered his vote for their interests.

The comment was made in the November 1st issue; the reason it is not there now is because Robson apparently had it deleted the same day he posted it. That however was not enough for Peter Dunne, who laid a complaint that it had breached Parliamentary Privilege, claiming that it had breached Standing Order 400(N) which gives as an example of contempt of Parliament

reflecting on the character or conduct of the House or of a member in a member's capacity as a member of the House

According to the Speaker, this exists "to protect members going about the business of the House from unfounded, scurrilous allegations of serious impropriety or corruption". She has therefore referred the matter to the Privileges Committee.

This is an abuse of Parliamentary Privilege which threatens our democracy. Robust criticism and oversight of our representatives is a vital part of democratic government, and not something we should allow to be undermined by self-interested politicians. If a politician feels that their character has been impugned by "unfounded, scurrilous allegations" from a political commentator, they already have a perfectly good remedy available: they can sue for defamation. What they should not be allowed to do is convene a private kangaroo court and hold a show trial for what is effectively lese majeste. Absolute monarchs did that, and its one of the reasons we emasculated them. If Parliament wants to stay in the same business, then maybe its time we emasculated them too.

Note that I am not questioning the right of Parliament to conduct its own affairs and regulate what is said in the House - I am questioning their right to regulate what members of the public say about them, and to do so privately rather than under the same laws the rest of us operate under. This power has been abused in the past, and it is being abused now. It is long past time we ended it.

9 comments:

The existence of the rule may be abhorrent, but it is certainly not the Speaker's job to overrule it.

That said, the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act applies to Parliament and to the Privileges Committee and in working out where the border between free speech and the right of a member to a reputation lie, they will have to have regard to the competing rights, perhaps as elecudiated by the Court of Appeal in Lange v Atkinson.

Your suggestion the Parliament ought not be responsible for enforcing its own rules does seem to strike at the heart of the separation of powers, however - I know the judiciary would get rather antsy if the power to publish for contempt of court were removed from them...

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 11/15/2006 04:47:00 PM

Graeme: this isn't about Parliament "enforcing its own rules" - it's about them imposing those rules on the public to prevent public criticism and scrutiny. And that is not just wrong - it is downright dangerous.

Parliament can regulate its own affairs. if they want to regulate ours, they should do it properly and pass a law - not use a kangaroo court and private justice.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/15/2006 05:00:00 PM

And Prissy hid behind the throne
His only weapon a wounded tone

Posted by kiwi_donkey : 11/15/2006 05:13:00 PM

When the matter was raised at the beginning of Question Time, the camera cut to Peter Dunne. He looked very grumpy. I guess I'll look around for a screenshot...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 11/15/2006 05:17:00 PM

Matt has nothing to worry about. As you say, the rule is "to protect members going about the business of the House from unfounded, scurrilous allegations of serious impropriety or corruption".

There is nothing unfounded about his allegation. Dunne is a pawn of these two industries.

Posted by Anonymous : 11/15/2006 05:19:00 PM

Well I look forward to Robson heading in front of the committee and reciting every trip Peter has taken on the ticket of big tobacco. If I was him I'd do a spot of digging and see just where he has been on whose ticket over his time in Parliament. Finding out what Peter’s dunne could be very interesting…

Posted by Peter Dunne-hill : 11/15/2006 09:06:00 PM

"if they want to regulate ours, they should do it properly and pass a law"

I'm pretty sure they did - I suspect you're looking for section 242 of the Legislature Act 1908.

I'll remind you that part of the case against Nick Smith for contempt of court was for something analagous - underming public confidence in a court decision - when did Parliament make that illegal? Perhaps the courts just made it up without public scrutiny?

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 11/15/2006 10:28:00 PM

I don't see how the Robson situation is analogous to the Smith case, as Robson is not an MP. Unless Jim Anderton died while I wasn't paying attention, and Robson won the Wigam byelection...

Posted by Span : 11/16/2006 10:18:00 AM

Robson is being called to account by the privileges committee for an alleged contempt of Parliament in that something he said that:

"[reflected] on the character or conduct of the House of of a member in a member's capacity as a member of the House"

He is being tried before Parliament for something he did outside Parliament (but that is considered an affront to Parliament) using rules that Parliament itself made (without public scrutiny or input), but that are not "laws" in the strictest sense of the word.

Nick Smith was called to account before the courts for a contempt of court, in that (among other things) he said things that the court found were:

"intemperate, derogatory and unfair remarks ... [that] assault the authority and integrity of the Family Court and the fairness and legitimacy of its decision."

He was tried before Court for things he did outside Court (but that were considered an affront to the Court) using rules that the Courts themselves made (without public scrutiny or input), but that are not "laws" in the strictest sense of the word.

Robson, who technically faces up to life in prison, isn't entitled to a jury trial etc. Smith, who technically faced up to life in prison, wasn't entitled to a jury trial.

The "closed shops" that are contempt of Parliament and contempt of Court are highly analagous.

If criticising MPs, or Parliament in an unfair way is acceptable free speech in a liberal democracy then criticising judges, or courts in an unfair way should also be acceptable.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 11/16/2006 10:47:00 AM