SLAP them, slam them and smash them. Parliamentary privilege provides unfettered freedom of speech by our elected members. It is not uncommon in heated debates for members of the ACT Legislative Assembly and other parliaments to verbally thump each other in one way or another.
There are occasions where a vicious attack is launched on someone outside the Assembly. For these people there is no immediate comeback with similar protection. It can be really unfair, embarrassing and debilitating as it was for former “CityNews” reporter, Jorian Gardner.
Conduct during debates is covered in the rules of the proceedings. For example, Standing Order 55 states: “All imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on Members shall be considered highly disorderly.” This allows the Speaker to intervene.
Although there is some protection for the judiciary under the Standing Orders, ordinary citizens can be targeted by members without fear of being sued.
Gardner was dragged into the fray during a debate of no-confidence in a Minister. Such debates are invariably heated affairs with the opposition doing their best to highlight ministerial incompetence.
As director of Canberra’s Fringe Festival, Jorian was caught up in a frenzied debate over a no-confidence motion in Joy Burch as Minister for the Arts.
Sometimes this protection from being sued is needed in the interests of the community as whole. For example, when an elected member believes that actions of government are being undermined by corrupt actions, or that an individual or corporation are having undue or inappropriate influence. This is a powerful privilege and, like all power, it can be misused.
In May 1995 the Legislative Assembly adopted a process of “Citizen’s Right of Reply”. This tool, which has only been used twice since that time, was used by Mr Gardner to correct the record as he claimed he had “been the subject of clear, direct and personal attack and criticism and that my privacy has been unreasonably invaded by references made” and he directed his comments at Liberals Jeremy Hanson, Giulia Jones and Brendan Smyth.
Opposition Leader Hanson had launched the attack on Burch in the first sitting week this year when he described her as a “minister [who] has been responsible for a long list of actions that have successively caused embarrassment, have caused offence and have been damaging to this government but, more importantly, have been damaging to the people she is charged with the responsibility of caring for in our community”.
He went on to drag Jorian in, saying: “She cannot seemingly comprehend how someone dressing up as a Nazi and then stripping in the middle of the National Multicultural Festival might be insensitive, insulting and offensive to a great many people”.
Jones and Smyth followed suit. Ironically, these three are from the same party as Federal Attorney General George Brandis who at the time was trying to remove racial vilification from Commonwealth legislation.
The attacks cut much deeper, delving into Gardner’s personal life and work history. A reading by a fair-minded person of Mr Gardner’s response would illustrate just how appallingly he had been treated. But this was not enough.
Even after the report on the issue by the Administration and Procedures Committee was tabled with Gardner’s response, perhaps because he had not yet read the report, Hanson would not back off.
On June 5 he postured: “I will state it again: I stand by my comments. I stand by those made by Mr Smyth and Mrs Jones, who have been named. I see this as an exercise in grandstanding. We know that the individual concerned seeks notoriety.”
It is time for the MLAs to calm down, to read the report of the Standing Committee on Administration and Procedures, and then to apply some Christian philosophy, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and to reflect on the proper use of parliamentary privilege.
Jorian Gardner’s reponse is an appendix to the report of the Standing Committee on Administration and Procedures at